Monthly Archives: November 2010

I remember when I first came to Lezhe for my sitevisit back in May, Peter Hoge, a previous Lezhjane and Group 11 volunteer, told me about the “box.” Everyone has their box. You know, the things that make them who they are, that influence their decisions….past experiences, family members, how you were raised, for example. The constraining factors that limit their decision making. Remembering that everyone has their specific box is hard to do when working in the field of community development, but definitely necessary in Albania. Going into a meeting you have to try your best to present your ideas, but have absolutely no expectations about what the other person will say about working with you. It’s a frustrating environment, for sure, but keeping the idea of the box in mind helps soothe my consequential “what the f do I do now?” feelings after they say “no, no, no.” Well, it helps a little.

An example “box”:

This past weekend Jen and I got a good dose of the box to the face. On the end of a busy busy week, we were both traveling down to Elbasan to help run a youth environmental leadership training for Outdoor Ambassadors (OA). We are both taking over positions on the 7-member national OA Committee that plans trainings like this, so we felt we needed to be there. In addition, we are trying really hard to get a new OA club started up here in Lezhë, and a few of the girls from our English class seem interested. We suggested that they come to the leadership training – so three girls applied and were accepted. Unfortunately, for a myriad of reasons, they didn’t end up coming and Jen was stuck waiting for them by the bus to Tirana for several hours without being able to contact them – mixed up phone numbers, fathers not allowing people to come at the last minute, etc. all came into play… other words, THE BOX.

Jen and I both ended up still going to the training, and there were about 40 kids there from all over Albania. It was an inspiring 3-day event for me as well as the kids – full of sessions on problem solving, community project design and outdoor leave-no-trace skills. There were guest speakers from a few large national organizations (Vodaphone Foundation and REC) as well as Peace Corps, and we even managed to squeeze in a hike between the rain and all the other activities. The sessions that the kids had about thinking up community projects and brainstorming the problems in their own cities were really amazing. These highschoolers know a lot about environmental issues and how multifaceted they are. And I have a feeling they didn’t get this knowledge in school here.

For example, we were having debates about what problems exist with trash collection here in Albania. A big thing that came up was the fact that after the trash is collected (even if it’s separated for recycling like it is in Lezhë), it all gets burned most places. I don’t think most high schoolers in the US know what happens to their trash after its collected, much less their recycling. Granted, the systems are much better developed in the US, but we often don’t know if things are ACTUALLY recycled when they say they are (here they most definitely are not).

I was so impressed by the students’ energy, attentiveness and questions throughout the long days of the training (us PCVs have shorter attention spans most of the time), and I found myself thinking back to the “box” idea again. Here I am, with 4 years of sustainable environmental planning education under my belt and a lifetime of living in an environmentally “aware” household, while these kids have none of that. Yet, they are still asking more poignant and focused questions about their home environments with a passion for action than I think I ever have. They may not know about international environmental legislation or green building techniques or alternative energies, but they definitely are more attuned to the problems existing in their own backyards. AND all of this knowledge about the environment they have gained by venturing outside their own boxes, by joining and sticking with groups like OA, by doing research on their own time, by standing up and saying “I care.”

We are already preparing for the arrival of Group 14 in March…it’s odd to think that I won’t be the new kid on the block anymore after a few months! What follows is a letter I wrote to be included in the invitation packet the new volunteers will receive.


When I accepted my invitation to come to Albania, I never expected to have the ability to explore the country and its mountains and beaches so freely in my time off, I never expected to live in such a beautiful place full of history, and I never expected to be as social or as busy as I am. It is so hard to describe all the things that have made my experience thus far wonderful and trying at the same time, but I can try and shed a little light on what I wish I knew before coming to Albania. Hopefully you’ll find it helpful!


Albania is a place caught in the midst of great changes. Because of this, you as a PCV have potential to make a great impact in your community, but it also means that Albania is an extremely ironic place. For example, people drive fancy cars, yet don’t have jobs. Also, I live in a beautiful spot with a view of a castle, the ocean and the mountains, yet my site is a poor city that struggles to represent its potential to any foreign tourists. One of the things I found is that it can be difficult to acclimate to these polarities when you get to Albania. At first it may seem like things are really different from the US…or not different at all. For many, this isn’t the “peace corps experience” that they expected because we are in Europe. I have a washing machine and electricity most of the time. But though the problems and frustrations you will face here may be more systemic and less infrastructure based than elsewhere (corruption, gender roles, lack of work ethic and resources), it is definitely hard. Every day. You will have to be your own cheerleader!


As for what to bring with you, I would say to definitely not forget a large external hard drive, a sleeping bag, a backpack for trips around the country, a flashlight/headlamp, and a gift for your host family that shows where you are from. Other than that, bring spices if you like to cook and the little things that make you happy – like a frisbee – that are not available in Albania. In general, don’t stress about packing, there’s a lot available here. Bring the clothes you are most comfortable in – what you would wear in the US – and quality shoes that are good for walking. Albanians do tend to dress up, but they are going to stare at you and comment on your clothes no matter what you wear, so it might as well be what makes you feel comfortable. Also – I thought I might not be able to exercise that much while I was here, but I have been glad to have my running shoes. Regardless of what the Peace Corps might tell you, don’t assume that you will have to drastically change your daily habits just because you live in Albania!


During training, take it one day at a time. Don’t let the little stuff get to you – you’ll be moving soon enough. It will be hard in the beginning, but remember that everyone is just as freaked as you are (including your host family), and everyone deals with stress differently. Make sure to spend quality time with your host family, it’s going to be harder to visit them later on. Also, spend time with your fellow volunteers and the Peace Corps staff and get to know them. You’ll all be spread out around the country and will need each other’s strengths and skills and laughs. Also – don’t be intimidated by the language. It will come if you need it to once you get to site.


In general Albanians are happy and generous people. I feel fortunate to live here and would not trade this experience for anything. I have had countless good times and really believe that in no other job would I have the flexibility to choose to pursue what I am interested in with such support as I can here. I’m excited to meet the new group coming in March, and hope that you will enjoy your experience as much as I have so far!

Mirë ardhshi edhe paçi fat!

Laura M. Hammett



Today I am sitting at my desk in the Bashkia waiting for a colleague, Hekuran, to return so I can ask him questions about this Bashkia “fair” we are attending in Tirana on Wednesday. I think it will be kindof like a job fair with multiple booths set up to represent all the different municipalities. I’m looking forward to presenting our new bulletin and seeing what kind of publicity materials other cities in Albania have. In addition to the new bulletin, we (Hekuran and I) are working on several brochures and a touristic guide for the Lezha region. There is so much potential here for tourism, but the infrastructure and information dissemination just don’t exist. I like working with Hekuran because he has a lot of ideas, but it can be frustrating because he does things (like get a brochure with terrible, unedited English printed) on very short notice…right now I am trying to get us to step back and make a plan for our communications materials creation.

In my “other” office within the Bashkia – social services – my counterpart Yllka and I are slowly reading through an English book together (I’m helping her learn) and are also working on a brochure explaining all the legal options for women suffering from domestic violence (international day against domestic violence is Nov. 25). In addition, we are planning a breast cancer awareness presentation for Roma women this week and getting ready for a Peace Corps run project design and management conference in early December where we will work on our grant application for a schoolyard cleanup project, due in January.

I am also working on two projects with Jen, my sitemate. In the coming months we will work together with World Vision to create and implement a project design workshop with students at the professional high school in town. With our help, the kids will come up with proposals for projects to “permiresoj” (improve) their school. We also have a great group of high school students, mostly girls, who we have a English conversation group with on Tuesdays. It’s a lot of fun, and I look forward to it each week as a break from the norm and the frustration of working with adults. Last week we had a grammar scavenger hunt, with clues hidden all over the square outside the Bashkia. They had never done anything quite like that before, and it was fun to watch.

This coming weekend I will head to Elbasan again to help with a youth leadership training for Outdoor Ambassadors, a series of outdoor education clubs country-wide. Hopefully we will have 3 girls attend the training from Lezhe. I’m going to take over as secretary for the Outdoor Ambassadors committee next year, so I will help create a year-end newsletter for the organization in the next few months.

So – for all of you wondering what it’s like to be a PC volunteer…and what kind of “work” I do, the answer is: it’s varied and it changes every day. Two weeks ago I was only doing about half of what I just described above. And now, all of a sudden, I’m the busiest I have been since I arrived. I know that life will go back to being slow, but I just wanted to give you an idea of the kind of things I am working on….what I do, or try to do, on a day to day basis.

In general, Albania is a very spiky place. Because of rampant deforestation and overgrazing, just about the only plants left on the hillsides are those that don’t lend themselves to being munched on. As I’ve said many times before, this by no means means that the hills are not great places for a jaunt or two – in fact the lack of large plants (trees), lack of property rights and prevalence of sheep/shepherd paths means that, for the most part, you can pick a point on the horizon and walk there. Also – in between the spikes there are generally plenty of sagebrush, wild thyme and oregano that make wandering on the hillsides a fairly fragrant experience.

So – it’s been a while since I went for a good hike. And lately I’ve really been feeling the advent of rain and lack of daylight in that I usually don’t have time for the usual afternoon run…and I’m busier than I have yet been with work and feel like I need that run/outside time to feel sane. I also am a bit susceptible to SAD – seasonal affective disorder.

This weekend I had a little too much time to myself, which usually leads to a bit of the murky mix of homesickness/frustration/loneliness floating to the surface of my brain. I woke up this morning feeling a little out of sorts, especially since I lately have been having weird dreams about my bicycle…which I think means that I need to either break down and buy a bike OR get outside more. The day today was gorgeous, the first beautiful sun in a while, so I plugged in my headphones and set off for the hill behind my house to soak up some rays and read outside for a bit. I sometimes forget how fast I can be up with the sheep with a view of the city and the ocean, above the rebar and the staring çuns and the trash fires…above the honking and flooding and all of the noise.

After a few hours and a nap on a rock I felt a little less spiky….and am so thankful to live in the place that I do. I just have to make sure I take advantage of the sun when its around…and keep looking for that (re)fresh[-ing] perspective.

A short visual update of life in Lezhë:

The November view from my kitchen window complete with persimmons and falling grape leaves.


My growing wall of postcards and photographs.


The Bashkia bulletin I worked on this summer! It was finally printed after much inter-office  and printer political BS. Because of that it is a little out of date, BUT is mostly my design work and is much preferable to the previous version which looked like a book and was very inaccessible to the general public. Includes a calendar of events (new to the Bashkia) and lots of photographs. Mirë!

As I approach my 6-months-in-site mark (1/4 of the way through my service!) I have received more feedback and views on this blog than I ever thought I would. It’s great to hear from you and to have this support….and to see how it’s continued and developed over time. I’m having fun with this, and I’m glad you’re enjoying it, too! Thanks!

Signs like this have started appearing around Tirana

Yesterday Albanians (along with Bosnians) received a long-awaited visa liberalization agreement with the EU. Now Albanians can, with minimal paperwork, travel for up to 90 days in any EU country and England without a visa. In most places around the country this news was greeted with celebration, mayoral speeches, parties and, in some cases, fireworks. If the wind and rain and lightning hadn’t been blowing/striking in Lezhe and the power hadn’t been out, we probably would have been partying, too.

Many Albanians see this visa liberalization as a big step forward towards EU membership. However, they still have a long long long way to go and must realize that this is just a baby step. In some ways, though, it makes talking about and comparing Albania’s situation to that of nearby countries a bit easier for me because my colleagues and friends here can actually travel to those places for short visits and conferences without visa headaches. It will be interesting to see how the trickle down effect of easier access to the Germanys and Englands of the world manifests itself here. In the world of sustainable development work, cross-border comparison of best-practices is a common thing that can be helped by travel and trainings abroad. The “example” of many EU countries is so close for Albanians, but yet, even after this visa liberalization, remains so far. In the future, abuse of the new travel system is certainly a possibility and the fact remains that most Albanians cannot afford to travel outside the country. Also, there’s a strong homebody mentality here that keeps people close to family and friends (I have seen more of Albania than most Albanians I know).

On a lighter note, it is now possible for Albanians to travel to Greece and Italy to visit their family and friends – a privilege that I’m sure will be used frequently and will only add to the strong ties Albanians have with both countries. It’s an exciting energy here, and I am eager to see how this all plays out over the rest of my time in country.

New York Times coverage of the change


It is officially “winter” in Albania. The time change last weekend means that it is dark by 4:30 and suddenly everything closes by 6. The wind has picked up in Lezhe, and my firewood was delivered earlier this week…now the weather just needs to catch on and get cold (actually, the frigid air can take its sweet time).

Here in Lezhë, the browning trees are full of shega – pomegranates. We have so many growing wild in the hills around town and in the gardens and farms nearby that the area has become famous for the fruit. There was even a song written in their honor…and it’s played around town at every opportunity. Today there’s a small festival in the square by the Bashkia to celebrate shega lezhjane.

To me a shega is something indicative of Albania and how different my life is now – in the last months I have eaten pomegranates, persimmons, figs, grapes and quince all right off the tree/plant…and previously I didn’t even really know what kind of plants these grew on.

So, as winter approaches and work and life settles into a kindof routine, I am pigging out on pomegranates and watching the leaves and rain fall. Tani po bie shi (dhe po bie shega!)