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Monthly Archives: March 2011

The idea of running for fun or exercise in Albania is very new. For women, it’s virtually unheard of. Here in Lezhe Jen and I both regularly run for exercise on a loop through a neighboring village, and we both are always the only ones running on the road. We encounter all kinds of stares and shouts and the occasional more serious incident of harassment, but it’s something that keeps me healthy and sane and is a routine I enjoy so I stick with it. I also like to think of it as a cultural exchange. I’m setting an example for women here that may not know how or why to exercise. If anyone ever asks me what I am doing, I stop and talk to them for a while.

This past Saturday I had a chance to participate in a more formal running experience here in Albania. The fourth annual Folk Games took place in the castle of Shkoder, the large city to our north. These games are sponsored by The Door, a Norwegian NGO and partner for several PC projects. One of these Peace Corps projects was the first ever “Race to the Castle,” a 3k run organized by a few friends who live in Shkoder to correspond with the day of the Folk Games. They put a ton of work into the event and even got t-shirts donated and bib-numbers sent from the states.

The registration table

 

As it turns out, despite the lack in running culture, the Shkoder volunteers had more than 100 people register for their “Race to the Castle,” mostly youth from the local schools. Some PCVs and even our country director and security coordinator came from other cities around the country to run. I headed up for the day to help out with the logistics and was stationed at the finish line.

At the line I had a time sheet and my friend Michele held the stopwatch. The idea was that we would write down times while another volunteer would collect bib numbers in the order that the runners crossed the finish line. This meant that we could easily associate bib number with time in order of when the number was collected. If only it were this easy.

The finish line was located on the road (the only road) to the castle. Because of the games starting about an hour after the race inside the castle, there were crowds of people and dancers and cars trying to get up the road and our police road block had fallen through. As the runners began to approach the finish line, cars still honked and passed each other right where we were standing and it was mass chaos to say the least. At one point Michele and I stood in front of a honking car to prevent it from passing as a policeman pestered us to move and we tried to explain in shqip that we could not leave as we were the time keepers and that this was all very dangerous and please could he tell the cars to not pass….All while the TV station cameras were up in our face and runners kept coming past and asking us their times while we were trying to take the times of the people passing…I wish I had the whole experience on video. At times like this, there’s nothing you can do but laugh. My life here is hilarious if I think about it too much.

Needless to say our time keeping/bib number collecting system completely failed. This was largely due to very few of the runners actually submitting their bib number in the midst of the craziness. Then, when everyone had finished, some girls who hadn’t given their numbers at all came up to us claiming to have placed first and second (not likely). This all meant that we ended up not declaring any winner at all. And, for a competitive culture this was disappointing to many.

Despite the fray I had a great time and most of the participants seemed to really enjoy themselves. One or two of the people who came up from Tirana said that the was better organized than marathons and half marathons they’ve participated in in the Balkans. At the very least we came away with a lot of suggestions of what to do next year….and had fun promoting running for health in one of the largest cities in Albania.

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Imagine a covered market only for used clothing with stalls for all manner of wear – from shoes, t-shirts, sweaters, pants, hats and bags to workout gear from the 80s to underwear that is super-sketchy to whole sections devoted to tights and leather jackets. This is the Albanian phenomenon called the Gabi. It’s kindof like a farmer’s market, only for clothes. And everything on offer is pretty ripe.

In general the gabi contains a mish mash of western European cast-offs that range from the hideous to the designer. But to me it sometimes seems like someone took all the vintage and used clothing gold out of all the Goodwills and Salvation Army’s of the world and somehow it ended up in Albania. It’s amazing what you can find, but you really have to dig.

Most cities of any size in Albania have a gabi of some sort. In bigger cities they are expansive and are usually next to the outdoor veggie market called the treg. While all gabis have different items to offer, one thing that seems to be a common denominator is the prevalence of the neon 80s windbreaker tracksuit. Back in the states these would be college themed frat party costume GOLD. Here people actually wear them for real…(see my ski suit in previous post).

Before various parties and gatherings or whenever a costume is necessary, it’s common for us PCVs to take trip to the local gabi to see what kind of haggling we can do. It seems this kind of trip happens often on a Saturday morning, at least among my friends here. Sometimes it’s just fun to go see what necessary (or unnecessary and peer pressured) addition to your wardrobe you can find. You never know what kind of treasure you’ll uncover. Plus, when everything runs about $2-$3, the gabi is well worth it whether for silly or practical purchases.

Over the last year I’ve accumulated many prize pieces from various gabis – from Levi jeans I wear every day to a pair of lightly used Frye boots I found for 700 Leke (Jen made me buy them they were such a good deal – 700 leke is around $6.80) to the sweater I wore to Kyle’s birthday party (see above) to a leather purse to a great vintage Montana sweatshirt.

While the Gabi is one of my favorite parts about Albania in an “I am American and I enjoy shopping for unique, vintage, inexpensive clothing” type of way, it’s existence is somewhat perplexing to me. In many ways the gabi is an indicator of the level of poverty here as the extent of a majority of the population’s shopping happens there. But what about the people I work with who are the better-off Albanians? Where do they shop? How are these large gabis possibly supported? These are things that I can’t quite figure out. I’m in a country that is so focused on appearances and dressing up and having “new” clothes (Albanian’s are pretty materialistic in general), but where do people actually shop? This focus on appearances also carries over to a worry about never being seen doing things that are shameful (or “turp” in Shqip). This leads to the question of the Gabi as “turp.” Is it acceptable for people of a certain social standing (for example, the people I work with at the Bashkia) to shop at the Gabi? I’m not really sure if it is….I know my counterpart shops at the Gabi sometimes for used Jeans and boots, but would she admit this at the office around other well-dressed government employees? And, I’m also really confused about where the piles and piles of clothes that sit at all the gabis of Albania actually come from or how they get here….

I guess the gabi is like so many things in Albania that are the way they are just because they are….I can’t ask “why” or “how come” too much here or I get overwhelmed by all the “I don’t know”s or “just because”s in response. In general these days I sometimes I feel that living my life in Albania is like approaching a search through a pile of gabi t-shirts: you have to try and try and try again…but it just makes the small accomplishments (or finds) that much more worth it.

 

Today the new group (G14) arrives in Tirana! It’s hard to believe that tomorrow marks my one-year in country anniversary….in one short year so much has happened.

In preparing for a presentation I’ll give at the pre-service training for the new group, I’ve gotten a bit nostalgic about our own training…which simultaneously seems like yesterday and a looooong time ago. I think of all the things I was worried about or didn’t know then, and I am excited to be able to share my new home and knowledge with those coming for the first time.

Mirëseerdhët, grupi 14 edhe paç fat!

Happy Mardi Gras and International Women’s Day! I am headed out for a fancy ladies lunch with the women from the Bashkia today. Yesterday one of my friends in the Development Office was preparing the playlist for the event, so I think there will be a good deal of circle dancing involved.


This past weekend after a successful Outdoor Ambassadors fundraiser in Tirana (we had about 100 people come out on a Wednesday night, which was great!) I headed up to Shkoder to celebrate Karneval. Shkoder is one of two cities in Albania that has festivities along the lines of Venice or other cities in Europe around Mardi Gras time. On Saturday we made king cake and beignets and had a lot of great food then watched the Albanian celebrations on Sunday morning. Click on the photo above for more pictures.

In order to better understand the clash between the traditional and the technological/”modern” here in Albania, I give you “Katunari Gangsta” (translates as hick/village gangsta), a current music video that is wildly popular and pretty entertaining…in a somewhat disturbing sense.

I think I’ve mentioned that I serve as the secretary of our national Peace Corps Outdoor Ambassadors committee. We have been very busy lately – in addition to running and supporting local youth environmental clubs, we’re currently working at the national level to establish the organization as an NGO AND have a big fundraiser tomorrow night in Tirana (which I’m very excited about!). Personally, I’ve been working on putting together our first annual year-in-review newsletter. My Cav Daily production skills coming back to haunt me again…It was an interesting challenge designing a document in both English and Shqip, but I enjoyed the work.

Check out the entire PDF here:

oa newsletter3

 

What follows is another recent making-food-from scratch triumph too good not to share here.

On a lazy Saturday night this past weekend we decided to tackle making homemade “overnight” cinnamon rolls. These refer to the kind that you make the night before in order to throw them in the oven in the morning. They were amazing.

Rarely have I made something from scratch here in Albania that actually turned out better than any version of that food I have had in the US. Even though the recipe involved using yeast (something that, to be honest, intimidated me a little bitbefore coming here) and staying up way past my too-early hibernation mode bed time to wait for the dough to rise, it was all worth it when these lovely buns came out of the oven.

 

I highly recommend trying this at home. We used Alton Brown’s recipe, which can be found here. It’s easier than it looks!