Monthly Archives: October 2010

Yesterday was the international day for mammography. Here in Lezhë, my sitemate Jen organized a breast cancer awareness walk and seminar. The planning and organizing phase was a frustrating time, and in true Albanian fashion the event didn’t really come together until the very last minute. But it was a huge success and there were about 60 women and teenagers at the event – and the talk was complete with a fake breast that they all could touch to practice doing self exams.


In talking with Jen last night about how it all went, I decided that my favorite part of the whole thing was how much it showed how known we are and how much we have come to know our community. People we know were waving to us on the street as we walked past, and after the walk Jen got a hug from a shopkeeper (where we are regulars) who finally realized that we work here and aren’t just visiting. The support from Albanian friends was overwhelming (though we might not have felt it at the beginning of the planning process).

Tomorrow I leave for a few days in Macedonia for vacation. It will be my first real trip out of Albania in 7 months….except for a meeting in Ulqinj in Montenegro last week. After crossing the border into Montenegro it’s like the trash and the naked rebar disappear….so I am curious to see how yet another Balkan neighbor (and a PC country at that) gets along. Plus it should be fun to let loose a bit and be truly anonymous for the first time in a while.

I’ll then be in Elbasan for our language refresher conference. It will be the first time all 50 (well, now we are 48) of us group 13ers have been together since training.

Yesterday was a national holiday here in Albania – Mother Teresa day. Even though she was born and raised in Macedonia, the Albanians claim her as their own because she was ethnically Albanian. In a region of such small countries with a great overlap of culture yet extreme ethnic diversity, this cross-border “claiming” happens fairly often in the Balkans. Lately a few examples of this have sprung up around the visual symbol of the Albanian flag during the recent turmoil in neighboring Kosovo.


For some state-department mandated reason, PCVs in Albania are generally not allowed to travel to neighboring Kosovo while we are here (with the exception of those volunteers who live on or really close to the border). Even with the political unrest there, I’m not quite sure why this policy remains, as I have heard that it is actually better/cleaner/safer there than here in Albania. AND it is the only other country in the world where I could use my Albanian language skills, as most of the country is ethnically Albanian. Plus, Kosovars (and I have met many since I live in the northern part of Albania) LOVE Americans.

Recently Hillary Clinton visited Serbia to speak about the merits of putting aside ethnic and political disputes and actually recognize their neighbor Kosovo as a country. While she was in the country, Serbian nationals burned an Albanian flag at a football match against Italy to protest the very existence of Kosovo – the flag being “borrowed” for it’s symbolic representation of the largely Albanian Kosovo. Then, when Hillary was in Prishtina, the US Embassy strongly suggested that the numerous Albanian flags around town in the Kosovar capital be taken down for her visit. This I find a little funny and ironic, but mainly for the fact that it upset the people in my office here. Even though it may be full of Albanians, Kosovo isn’t Albania, just like Albania isn’t Kosovo (though it seemed like the Serbian hooligans at the football match got that a bit confused).

I wrote most of this post before the recent collapse of the Kosovar government that occurred on Monday. This event, and Kosovo’s short and turbulent history, are things I don’t really understand completely. However, I find it interesting the way the very symbol of Albania as a country (their flag) is being thrown around as an international symbol of something different entirely (Albanian ethicity). This all just shows how easy it is to confuse such symbols and how suddenly something that wasn’t politically charged before can become that way. And, just like burning a Koran in a public way doesn’t affect only you, you can never tell who will be upset by what you are doing when you mess with such a symbol.

I don’t remember where I read it, but the word Balkan means “mountain” in some ancient language or other. And it’s true – this is definitely an area defined by its mountains. In general this fact is something I love about Albania. I have grown up around mountains, and they feel like home to me more than any other geographic feature. Recently the cooler fall weather has allowed me the opportunity to explore some of the peaks with friends without feeling like I will die from heat exhaustion.

Hiking in Albania is wonderful for many reasons besides the sweeping views from Balkan peaks. For one, the lack of property laws and “ownership” mean that you can literally point at a spot in the distance anywhere and walk there if you want to. Deforestation and a massive network of goat trails that extend every which way make it easier still to just get out and go. One of the other wonderful reasons I love hiking in this country is that the people you meet when you are hiking are often some of the kindest, most interesting and most generous Albanians out there. The concept of day hiking or camping is very foreign to Albanians and there aren’t a lot of foreigners who hike here, so most of the time when your out in all your hiking gear the Albanians you are likely to meet have never seen anyone like you before.

Last weekend I traveled south again to Gjirokaster and met up with four fellow PCVs to hike from Gjirokaster to Permet. This is a hike that three of the crowd had attempted last year in November, only to run into sleet and freezing rain a few hours in and have to abandon ship and hitch a ride to a nearby town to seek food/shelter. Jen and I, the newbies, heard a lot about “last year” along the way. One of the reasons they had such trouble last year (besides attempting the hike in November….uhhhm…) was that the elevation change throughout the hike is pretty severe. We climbed from 200 meters in Gjirokaster up to 2100 meters on the ridge above town and then back down to about 700 meters the first day, then camped just outside the village of Sheper only to wake up the next morning and climb back up to around 1700 meters and then descend to Permet at around 400 m. See the route we took below (south to north/bottom to top along the orange line).

Day one of the hike, it took us about 4.5 hours of quick climbing to reach the summit. After making such good time we thought the descent was going to be a breeze. WRONG. Not only does going down on gravel paths with a pack on your back put more stress on your legs, but it is made infinitely more difficult by such added joys as rain and losing the trail….At one point we turned off the goat trail we were following to search for another more major trail (that did not exist) only to end up on a part of the mountain full of steep and slippery-when-wet rocks that acted like slides…then dead ended in the thickest thicket underbrush that I have ever seen here. Instead of “trails” we were following patches of lightly tamped grass that may or may not have been a path for a goad. once. For about an hour we were literally pushing our way through branches down the side of the mountain…always knowing that the village we were aiming for was below us – somewhere.

When we finally reached the fushe (flat), we had been hiking for 11 hours or more and it was almost dark. This led our tired selves to take a “short cut” to the village instead of the road….which involved walking across a field, fording a stream and climbing up a dirt embankment full of trash only to pop up on the other side covered in rain and dirt and burrs to see two Albanians staring at us outside thier home/fish hatchery. Civilization! Instead of thinking we were strange or grabbing their shotguns, they of course invited us in for turkish coffee and homemade reçel and raki.

After camping outside sleepy Sheper, we explored the town in the morning. Stone roofs, an old orthodox church full of icons, and a home that once served as the regional headquarters of the partisans who fought against the Nazis in WWII along the Greece/Albania border all with a view down a narrow valley that faces Greece in the distance. An interesting place with lovely people who all pointed the way to Permet….another “3 hours” away…yea right. Though they may be generous, Albanians have little concept of the time it takes to hike places.

6 hours later we arrived in Permet. This hike was, if possible, more beautiful than the day before. Up a gradual grade through a high valley with only sheep and a few dogs and eagles visible. Then we came over a small hill and looked down down down on Permet….we had no idea how high up we had climbed. The view over Permet and the surrounding area is the most amazing view I have seen in all of my time here, and it wasn’t even one I was expecting. From up above town on the ridge you can see most of southern Albania stretched out in layer after layer of mountain range, with Greek peaks rising up to your right close by. By now I have traveled to many of the cities in the south-central area of the country, and I could easily recognize the peaks that rise above each place. It was an incredible experience, and sadly one I couldn’t get on camera (though I don’t think that would have done it justice).

The walk straight DOWN to Permet hurt like hell, but when we finally got off the mountain (finally) and arrived, one of the Permet volunteers had cooked us homemade fried chicken and mashed potatoes…and in my exhaustion and sunburned sore state sitting at her table in the communist block apartment she calls home with 5 other volunteers beside me, the Peace Corps had never felt more like family, and Albania had never felt more like home. It sounds cheesy but it’s true.

One of my favorite painted buildings in Tirana, located at Zogu i Zi next to the northern bus/furgon area. I’m not sure why the phrase is in English or what exactly they are fighting for…but it’s symbolic in a way nonetheless.

A few weeks ago I finished reading the book The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. At one point, the narrator describes the bustling carribbean city of Santo Domingo in a way that resonates with me here:

…and the general ruination of so many of the buildings as if Santo Domingo was the place that crippled concrete shells came to die…but also it seemed in many places like a whole new country was appearing atop the ruins of the old one. (273)

Sometimes I feel as if the post-communist construction zone of Shqiperia is just that – a place that crippled concrete shells come to die… and, through their death, support the creation of something new…something not-quite democracy yet, but getting closer over time. Living in Lezhe, as apartment buildings rise around me in the quick slapped together expansion of a growing town in an agro-industrial area of Albania, I am used to the dust, to the re-bar, to the new-ness and quick-ness and overall urgency of all the construction around me. It’s as if if the roads are all re-paved quickly enough, Albania will somehow be closer to gaining EU status…something that few Albanians will admit remains, for the moment, a far off pipe dream.

Regardless of this abundant energy that comes with a new democracy, the reminders of the recent shedding of a communist exoskeleton are evident in everything from the physical remains of upended or dynamited bunkers to the straggling mentality of those above the age of 40 in any position of power. Perhaps this is what makes it a place of such drastic juxtaposition and irony….of the unemployed owning the latest beamer SUVs, of modest traditional costumed grandmothers holding the hands of tight pleather scantily clad high heeled girls, and of the lack of planning of any kind in a place that yearns for the future.

While Albania on the surface may appear to be European, be culturally similar to the “west” in a way…this is a misconception that is an easy false reality to be lulled into as an American PCV here. It’s important for me to remember that the scars of communism are not only physical but mental. Part of my adjustment to my workplace and life here has been the occasional post-assumption slap in the face – the “what?/why?/how come?” questions that don’t have answers that make sense to me….but that come up just when I tend to assume that people will react in a way familiar to me. Then the post-ottomman, post-kingdom, post-communist realities of this place rear their heads and I am resigned back to square one. Most of the time I no longer ask “why.”

Somebody recently asked me in an email about where I see Albania in the next 5-10 years and why….and why Americans or those outside the country in general know nothing about what makes Albania “function or what holds it back.” After almost 7 months here in Albania, I still feel as confused about this as the day I arrived. However, a few facts that are easy to forget in the day to day are important to remember when thinking about Albania’s future – and they all have to do with Albania’s past.

1. Albania is a racially and ethnically pure and proud state, with a unique language and culture similar to the countries around it, but yet very distinct (does not have a Slavic language). They pride themselves on their Illyrian heritage.
2. Albania as it exists now only became a country with the fall of the Ottoman empire…this did not occur until the beginning of WWI
3. Albania was completely isolated from the outside world for 45 years – the better part of the 20th century (until 1990)
4. In 1997, after only a few years of democratic economic growth, government initiated ponzey schemes caused complete collapse of the banking system in Albania and most people lost all their savings…and thus had to start all over. The man who was president during that time is currently the prime minister of Albania.

It’s easy for me to forget that the past here is intimately linked to where Albania will be in the future.

I came across an illustrative example of the ironic and inefficient messy way Albanians are working to push forward on a recent trip to Ksamil to visit a friend. Throughout the small town, the government has been systematically demolishing buildings that are “illegal” or un-registered (a high percentage of the homes). The problem is that the way these buildings are demolished is very politicized AND they are not torn down all the way, but are rather left to stand askew – to a visitor it appears as if there were an earthquake. Instead of, say 5 years ago, making sure that all the building regulations were upheld BEFORE buildings were constructed, this is the response. Laws exist here, but they are upheld sporadically and interpreted at the whim of those in power.

So, to summarize this scattered collections of thoughts, I don’t know where Albania is headed….and feel like I have barely scratched the surface of where they have been. I do know that progress here depends on connecting the dots, on communication and accountability and planning….and theoretically that is why I am here. But that makes my time here seem all the more like a very small drop in a pretty big bucket.