Last weekend on my way down to Korçe I stopped for a night at my host family’s house. I showed up at around 4:30 in the afternoon and my youngest host sister, Jerina, came to greet me. I asked where everyone else was (I knew my host dad was still in town – he works in Greece most of the time) and she answered that they were all at the hospital in Elbasan because my other host sister, 22-year old Manjola, had her baby that morning.
I was really excited to hear the news, but hadn’t expected the baby to be born for another two weeks. At first I felt odd being there on such a day – was I in the way? What American family would be so welcoming to a house guest on the night of a family member’s birth? Pretty soon my host mom and dad returned from the hospital and they were full of life and very glad to see me. All my American worrying was completely swept aside and I think I have never felt more like part of the family as we sat around and caught up over a festive and casual dinner together.
I left the next morning feeling more relaxed and refreshed than I have for a while. It’s amazing how comfortable I feel in my host family’s home now and how comfortable they are with me, even though we don’t see each other but once in a while. I guess part of it is that they are some of the few Shqiptars who knew me when I didn’t know anything about Albania – they have seen how far I have come and we can laugh about all the mistakes I make.
As it so happens, Martina, the new addition to the family, was born on the third anniversary of the independence of Kosovo. All we saw on TV that night at my host family’s house were Shqiponjes flying in the streets of Prishtina and video clips of cute Kosovar school children circle dancing in their classrooms to Albanian music. It’s amazing how similar the two countries are, and after my service (when I will be allowed to go to Kosovo), I’d love to visit Kosovo.
Another date of significance passed this week as PCVs in Group 10 who arrived in Albania in 2009 finished their Close of Service (COS) conference. Their COS was part of the reason I had to go down to Korçe in the first place – I had a meeting corresponded with the conference and it gave us all a good excuse to check out the ski area nearby. While it was great to see all the G12ers in one place, it was difficult to think about these good friends of mine taking off for other jobs and lives in the States and elsewhere in just a few weeks/months. Also, Group 14 will arrive in Albania on the 16th of March, which means that we will be the “big kids” for a while. Thinking about all of these changes got me thinking a little about what I want to do after Peace Corps…which right now I am just not ready to think about.
It’s hard to believe that I have been here for almost a year. In this time one of the things I’ve had ample opportunity to learn that most things that may seem “normal” or “non-extreme” elsewhere definitely classify as “adventure” in Albania.
A few days ago I tested this theory at Albania’s only ski area in Dardhe (near Korçe). Alan, a third-year volunteer in Korçe, organized a trip for 12 of us to go and ski for the day. What this means in Peace Corps speak is that Alan called his friend who happens to be the owner/manager/chef/ski-tow-rope-operator/ski-fitter and general do-it-all at his mom and pop ski area and arranged for him to carry us all in the back of his van along with the day’s supplies when he went with his family to open the mountain in the morning. We piled in early and made our way up a hill devoid of snow, only to quickly discover at the top that yes, indeed there was snow to ski on and yes, it was blocking our way forward in the van. But, the ever-smiling manager also happened to be very good with a shovel and, with the help of some strong friends pushing the back of the van we were across an ice patch and on our way.
At the top we were in the clouds, which meant that the ski area seemed both mysterious and larger than it actually is. The first thing that Mr. manager did was to set the mood by turning on outdoor speakers blaring Albanian traditional music for us to enjoy while skiing. Then, we walked into the one-room “lodge” and found amazing neon polyester ski gear circa 1985 lying out on all the chairs around the wood stoves. YES! Good thing I left my ski pants in the US – I got to ski all day in a hot pink onesie donated by some ski area in Switzerland along with all the haphazard pairs of boots and skis we used.
After getting my skis on, the tow ropes (yes, ropes – with no hand holds) weren’t on yet so I set out into the fog walking up one of the two runs to see where it led. Unfortunately, if it hadn’t been foggy, I would have realized that the run was approximately 50 yards long. But, for some reason this wasn’t disappointing at all and suddenly we were 12 American kids in a snow wonderland playground just skiing around falling all over the place and laughing and getting used to the slushy snow and the fact that most of us haven’t touched skis in at least a year.
Pretty soon the tow ropes on both the 50 yard flat run and the adjoining 100 yard steeper run turned on and we realized that the fact that they had been off was a blessing in disguise. For the rest of the day they would be the bane of our existence. When have you been skiing and your arms are the sorest part of you at the end of the day? We held on (you just hold on to the rope and basically lift yourself up the hill) with determination and watched each other eat it halfway up time after time. I think the best part of the day was watching everyone else attempt the rope pull. After a while some Albanians joined us up on the slopes and they were even more entertaining to watch. Some even tried to take photographs of their friends while skiing and while on the rope tow: shouting, “Për Facebook!!”
All in all, after a few good runs, some exploration in the surrounding woods, some excellent snowball fight mayhem with good friends and a great mug of mulled wine around a wood stove it proved to be a wonderful day. We were even served our lunch by the owner’s son – balancing soup bowls on a tray while still wearing his ski boots. It was great to see so many Albanians there enjoying themselves, as I feel it’s something that they don’t have the opportunity to do….and active activities haven’t really caught on in full force here like they have in the US.
It’s a relatively new enterprise and a great little mountain with a lot of potential – for gear, for lifts, for expansion. I almost wish I lived in Korçe and had better relations with a ski mountain back in the states to facilitate a partnership of sorts. Definitely a place to recommend to future volunteers….not those looking for good quality skiing, but those seeking an exhausting and exhilarating day full of adventure and “Albaniana.”
Crazy photos to come…!
A belated “Gezuar Dita e Shen Valentinit!” What follows is a slide show of the edible love I’ve given and received over the past week. Amazingly, all of my Valentines seemed to consist of food. I know it’s late, but I’m wishing you all a happy Valentine’s day and middle-of-winter back in the States (or wherever you are)!
The last couple of weeks since I’ve written have been pretty full. There was another round of protests on Friday the 4th of February, including one in Lezhe. But, all was peaceful (thank God). On that same day I received my Peace Corps bike, and was able to take it out that Saturday to enjoy the gorgeous weather and check out the Kuna/Vain/Tale national park on the coast, a place that I can see from my house but that’s not really accessible to me otherwise.
In general, the Socialist Party is continuing to have protests each Friday, at least in Tirana. After the first one that turned violent on January 20th, they have all been peaceful so far. I think that everyone is a bit freaked out by the possibility of another 1997 (when government ponzey schemes collapsed the banking system and the country erupted in violent riots) that they are making sure things don’t get out of control. Basically the SP is trying to encourage the Democratic Party to hold elections earlier than scheduled. The prime minister’s term goes until 2013. Except for the protest two weeks ago in Lezhe and Peace Corps restricting our travel through Tirana during the demonstrations, life has continued on pretty much as normal here.
Groundhog day is an odd holiday that I still don’t quite understand. If the groundhog sees his shadow, we have more winter. Or is it the other way around? I don’t think I have ever paid enough attention to not be confused.
Essentially isn’t groundhog day just about our anticipation for the future and relief from the monotony of the present (winter)? In general our hoping for spring brings to mind all the ifs, buts, yets and maybes in our lives. We crave certainty and want some sign to tell us things will get better, or to know for sure that they won’t for a while.
Yesterday I had a day that demonstrates just how up and down and “groundhog day” – like life in Albania can be. It started out bleak – two meetings I had been planning on for weeks were cancelled at the last minute (which here means that no one shows up and you are left wondering if anyone even remembered if it was supposed to happen) due to a surprise holiday from school. Oops. But, on the flip side …. after feeling like I spent most of the day wasting effort, at the end of the day I found out two things that made me smile.
Exciting thing #1: I found out I received funding for the schoolyard renovation grant I applied for in January…aaaand….
Exciting thing #2: Peace Corps has agreed to give me a bicycle!! After almost (cough) a year of not riding I will finally have a huffy to tinker with (provided the protests stop sometime soon and I can actually get to Tirana and pick it up!).
Two things I’ve been thinking about for a while realized in one day – definitely breaks up the winter monotony.
Recently an Albanian living outside Albania made a comment on my sitemate Jen’s video blog, asking “why did you choose Albania, it’s so ghetto?” She told me this and I laughed out loud.
While it might sometimes seem like everything here is going well, it sometimes also feels like life is crashing down around me and that no matter what happens and no matter what project I try to start or work with someone on all my efforts are thwarted….And then the power goes out and there’s a national political crisis and it does really start to feel like the ghetto.
But, the most important thing to remember is that while I didn’t choose to come to Albania (no one seems to get this about the Peace Corps), I did choose to be here. And it’s really not the ghetto. In fact, most of the time it’s quite nice. Sometimes it’s hard to help Albanians themselves to see the opportunities here, but when you do find the ones who want to work with you it’s pretty rewarding.
In general life in the ghetto continues to be busy and cold and exhausting… hopefully I’ll have some better stories soon.