Monthly Archives: January 2011


Let me just preface this story with the fact that I have never bought propane, filled up a propane tank or really had anything to do with gas in general before this winter. Now I am the proud owner (well, borrower) of a Peace Corps issue gas space heater. It has a 10 kilo tank of gas behind it that, even when empty, weighs a ton.

Back in December when it was -10 degrees Celsius outside, I quickly realized that what I thought would be my main source of heat, my fireplace, was actually pretty worthless at heating anything except the space one foot infront of the fire itself. And, it was actually pretty great at filling up my kitchen/living room with acrid smoke. So, after a week or so of sitting huddled by the fire with my feet barely warmed by basically sticking them into the fire, I turned to my space heater that was sitting unused in the corner (I am now a pretty miserly person and embrace any attempt to save resources and save utilities money…thus I thought I was being pretty clever by not using my gas heater). I thought I knew how to work it, but no matter what trick I tried it would not light. I even risked losing my arm and held a match up to the contraption. Not smart. And, I felt sure that the tank was full of gas, because why would Peace Corps give it to me empty? Plus, it was soooo heavy. Anyway, I solicited a guy friend from the group ahead of me to take a look when he was visiting, and turns out I am an idiot and yes, the gas tank was empty. Gabim #1.*

So now I had to fill up the gas tank. Thankfully my friend helped me find the special sized wrench that would detach the tank from the heater. He also told me that he only used a little gas each winter, and that I would probably only need to fill it up about halfway (saving money, ka-ching ka-ching). He told me to talk to my landlord because he had a car and could probably help me out with filling it up. Soo…. I talked to my landlady (all in Shqip) – How much does gas cost? Where should I take it to fill it up?, etc. etc. Is it possible to only fill my tank up halfway?

She was very confused as to why I would only want half a tank. Then I explained that I was trying to cut costs. But she was still confused when she quoted me what a tank of gas usually costs: “only 16 thousand lekë!”

WHAT? I balked. Just to give you some context, the conversion right now is about 104 lekë to the dollar, so this works out to more than my monthly rent for 10 kilos of gas. I quickly explained that I could in no way afford this, and asked if my landlord could drive me and the tank down the hill to the gas station to fill it up with only a kilo or two. She confusedly agreed – he’d come get me later on.

So, that night I took the tank and we went down the hill….my landlord still didn’t understand why I only wanted a kilo or two, and he even offered to pay for me to fill up the whole tank and I could pay them back gradually over time. No, no, I said…it’s okay….

Then I remembered….

Here in Albania there is old lekë and new lekë….Sometime in the last 20 years someone fighting inflation took a zero off the end of everything, but the country’s psyche has yet to catch up. When you arrive in Albania they warn you about this – and I am really used to seeing the price of sugar in one dyqan be 120 lekë while in another it’s quoted as 1200 lekë when they actually mean only 120 lekë. People speak in terms of both old and new lekë interchangeably all the time, and after 10 months here I am pretty used to dividing everything by ten before paying. Or so I thought. Like I said, I had never bought propane gas before.

In the car with my landlord I quickly realized that my two days of fear about going into debt because I filled up my gas tank were totally silly and that I had been confused all along about the price (thinking it was ten times what it actually is – 1600 lekë). Gabim #2. My landlord and I had a good laugh about it on the way back home. Just another reason for him to think I am the silly American. And now I have a wonderful alternate heat source….at least until I have to fill up the tank again.


*Gabim = mistake (one of my favorite Shqip words)

Yesterday violent protests in opposition of the current prime minister rocked Tirana. The Peace Corps staff were great about warning us about them in advance and asking us to steer clear of the city.

In the morning yesterday I noticed a big group of Lezhean men leaving via bus for Tirana and in the afternoon I caught a fair amount of the live video coverage of the protest turning violent when I was out for coffees in town. However, I have not seen any other evidence of the protests in my site. Life continues on as “normal” here.

The coverage that’s accumulating online paints a pretty interesting story, though. I’m not going to comment on it here (and my work with local government is very much disconnected from the national sphere), but these protests sheds some contextual light onto just how difficult it can be do accomplish anything here and just how deep seeded the corruption in this country actually is. Plus, it’s a bit concerning to see places I frequent as the backdrop for such events and see my PC host country compared to Tunisia in the headlines.

Last Friday I submitted my first real grant proposal. The Bashkia and I hope to help improve the schoolyard infrastructure at a local school this spring while incorporating some clean up days and a recycling education event. I’ve been reluctant to talk about the project until after it’s a go (i.e. receives funding) because I think it’s a pretty legitimate, community-driven idea and I really hope it can come to fruition. Plus, it’s something my counterpart and the local school have been thinking about and working on since the summer, so it feels like a part of my life already. At times this project feels like a really small thing on the scale of international development or even peace corps. But, for me, the proposal was a lot of work and a learning experience and the turning in of it all was a bit of a milestone. Let’s hope it works out.

I was in the urban development office at the Bashkia scanning documents for the grant proposal on Friday and a friend and colleague who speaks very good English (one of the newer urban planners/architects in the office) asked me what the name of my hometown was. I spelled out Blacksburg, VA and he typed the name into google earth. From sattelite view he admired the grid layout of the downtown and commented on the number of trees. We then went on to talk about other things. After a while, when I had kindof forgotten he was looking at Blacksburg, he turns to me and says “there must not be any black people there.”


“There must not be any black people there, it’s too clean,” he clarified.

This comment completely threw me. All the hours of class talking about social justice and city planning seemed to suddenly seal up into some vice in my brain and I tried to [uneloquently] explain that no, that did not necessarily mean that that was why Blacksburg appeared clean. There are many complex historical, legal and geographical factors that all come into play in the racial demographic makeup of cities in the US (and that might be very hard for a member of an almost completely homogenous Albanian society to understand). Plus, what can you tell from a sattelite photo, anyway? He was not convinced.

My floundering for proof and lack of ability to impart any of my claimed knowledge of American social politics and city development made me frustrated and embarrassed for myself. Why couldn’t I get it together and show this very well educated (by Albanian standards) young professional in my same field that his view of American cities might be a bit narrow? To add insult to injury, he looked up the demographic breakdown of Blacksburg from the last census and found that it is over 80% white, thus confirming his theory in his mind.

So, on the heels of my personal success of getting a grant proposal in on time, the inherent cultural differences of Albania came up and hit me in the face. It’s definitely a rollercoaster of success and failure for me here everyday. My whole conversation about Blacksburg is just another example of a time when I feel both completely hopeless and stupidly idealistic, which actually happens quite a lot.

I’ve been meaning to write a food post for a while. After the delicious sucess of the Mexican food the five of us made in Rory’s kitchen in Budapest, I figure now is as good a time as any.

Living in Albania I have learned to make many things from scratch without conventional kitchen utensils. Turn off all that food network/ stuff – here we DO NOT HAVE things like baking powder, dried fruit, brown sugar, self-rising flour, pam, pyrex, ethnic food and spices, etc. etc. etc. The list goes on and on.

Most of what forces me out of my normal routine of stir-fried vegetables and rice or potatoes (and sometimes chicken) is a craving. And most of those cravings are for things not available in Albania – usually ethnic foods of some kind. I’ve been able to make passable chicken tikka masala and lemon chicken (Chinese style) from scratch, but what my PC friends and I make most often, and I find I’ve come to have a new appreciation for is the tortilla.

By now, I’ve had enough practice making Mexican food from scratch (usually burritos) with PC friends that it’s like we can set up an assembly line when we’re together and just git’er done – homemade tortillas, pico de gallo, beans and rice, fried peppers and onions, sometimes chicken, sometimes guacamole when we’ve managed to find an avacado in Tirana. It’s not Chipotle, but it’s delicious and makes us all think of home.

Somehow in the midst of months of making food from scratch, I’ve ended up becoming the tortilla maker. It’s a good upper arm workout, especially if you use a glass bottle when you don’t have a rolling pin. I just experimented with flour and water the first time I made them, and they kindof turned out okay so now that’s all I do – I’ve never looked at a recipe. Just one of those auxilary skills I never thought I’d have but now do thanks to Peace Corps.



One of the things that’s wonderful about getting out of Albania and traveling to another European country is that suddenly the staring and extra attention I live with every day is lifted. It’s like a vacation back to normal life. For example, in Italy it’s okay to be a tourist and carry a big camera and a map. In Budapest it’s okay to hold hands with your boyfriend in public and be out late at night as a woman. I can get away with not speaking the language, holding a beer in my hand and wearing my normal clothing without questions and looks. In other words, it’s okay to shed the chameleon skin of cultural sensitivity and be obviously American, obviously foreign. There’s a certain comfort that comes with accepting you are tourist instead of living in the ill defined liminality of “ex-pat.”

I think this is what makes it hard as a Peace Corps Volunteer, especially in Eastern Europe, to come back from vacation – I notice all the staring and hassling and little cultural things I thought I was used to even more when I cross the border back home because there is such a contrast from the surrounding countries. Suddenly the way I react again reflects on how I am perceived in my community, and affects my ability to do my job. The staring and the trash on the ground are immediately apparent, but even things like getting harassed about a taxi are more frustrating than they usually are. No, I don’t want a taxi. I LIVE here, dammit. Though I may wear different clothing than you and speak slowly with an accent, I really don’t need a taxi, thankyouverymuch. Plus, I can’t begin to pay for a taxi, so please please please leave me alone.

After two weeks, five airplanes, several busses and two looong trains across Hungary and Serbia and Montenegro, I am back in Lezhe. I’m so happy to be home, and it was definitely natural getting back into my work routine (I have a work deadline tomorrow that I’ll get into in another post). Everyone is happy and has that post-holiday giddiness after New Years. The normal greeting these days is “Gezuar!” which means “happy!” as in Happy New Year, and I have been given several helpings of friends’ homemade baklava – a traditional New Years’ dish that is sweetly, syruply addicting. Yum. It’s still really cold inside my house, but it is great to be there nonetheless.

On the KLM flight to Budapest from Amsterdam I found a short article by Pico Iyer, a travel author, about how the notion of home is altered by travel. It’s a resource I really wish I’d had when I was teaching kids at Explo about architecture and tried to discuss the differences between the idea of “house” and “home.” In the article Iyer talks about the importance of travel because it challenges and changes our sense of home. What is important is how the experiences we have abroad shape our perception of the familiar, how we “go somewhere strange and see how much it resembles the strangeness we know.” He goes on to talk about how in the 20th century (and certainly moreso now), when it is now possible to have a more globally nomadic lifestyle, the idea of home is becoming more of a transient and portable thing rather than an actual physical place for most people. But it is that idea of travel acting like a mirror to wherever you are going back to, your current home, that really resonated with me and my situation now. While traveling over the past few weeks I constantly found myself comparing things to Albania and to other places I’ve been. Especially in Italy – Albanians love to think they are Italian, and I picked up on a lot of fashion and cultural tidbits that I see here as well.

I could share here all the things I did or saw in Italy or Budapest, but I don’t want to make this into a journal or itinerary. And plus, what really stood out for me from my travels wasn’t any one thing I experienced. It was the fact that the things I appreciated were different. I think Peace Corps has given me a new frame of reference for my travels – past and present and future. Instead of the sights or other attractions, I was happy to focus on the company I was with, the good food, the freedom to go out and be anonymous and the opportunity to experience local culture. I think those are things I have always valued about travel, but when on vacation from my two year “travel experience,” I noticed how much more important they became. I am happy to have spent some time with great friends, happy to have had the opportunity to hear the Palermo opera’s version of “White Christmas” (very weird sounding) and happy to have been able to ring in the new year in a Hungarian’s apartment while dancing to European remixes of American music. It’s seeing and living in the mix and the mingling of all these cultural differences and being able to let loose that acts like a reset button for me here in Albania – makes me appreciate what I am doing here and gives me a bit of an energy boost to get through the rest of the winter.