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Monthly Archives: June 2011

This past week I traveled to Erseke in southern Albania with 5 students from Lezhe to take part in Outdoor Ambassadors’ summer camp 2011. We as the OA committee (I serve as the secretary) worked for several months to plan and organize the 5-day camp that included 60 students from OA clubs in 13 cities across Albania. Libby, the camp coordinator, did an amazing job at figuring out a schedule and getting everything together at the last minute. In my other OA role as a club leader in Lezhe, I spent an inordinate amount of time talking with students and their parents making sure that they would trust me to take their kids 9 hours away from home for a week. The idea of summer camp is relatively new here in Albania, which meant that just getting the students to be able to come was almost more work than the camp itself!

When we finally arrived, the camp was an refreshing break from work in Lezhe. Most of the students spoke great English so I felt spoiled by not having to work at speaking Albanian all week. I led nature hikes and a project design session where students shared ideas and started planning for environmental community projects at their home sites. But, I also got to join in the fun and play frisbee, watch the recyled materials fashion show, tie dye, make paper, do the high ropes course, spend time with some of my best PCV friends here and generally enjoy being outside in beautiful Erseke.

The most rewarding/exhausting activities happened on the last two days of camp. First, on Thursday night, I was assigned to help out with the second overnight hike. We took half the students to a beautiful spot about an hour away from camp and hung out for the afternoon and evening. We explored nearby bunkers, played American football with a stuffsack stuffed with a t-shirt and the students all sang Albanian songs and danced and told jokes around the campfire. The stars were unbelievable and the weather clear and cool. Most of the students had never camped out before, and it was great to see them setting up tents, learning about camping ettiquete and having a wonderful time together outside. That is, until they wouldn’t go to sleep and kept singing and shouting well into the morning hours.

The next morning, bleary eyed and needing coffee, I helped the whole camp complete a community project within the city of Erseke. We spent two hours painting four dumpsters in teams and it was incredible. The only requirement for each team was that their dumpster had to include an environmental message of some sort. At first the students had no idea what to paint and were really worried about getting it “right.” But then, once they started, the ideas kept flowing and they really got into it. As people passed on the street they asked us questions about what we were doing, who we were, why we cared so much about their city, etc. It was fantastic. At the end of the painting process the mayor of Erseke and a representative from PC staff came around to “judge” the competition. It was wonderful to see the students be really proud about what they had accomplished in such a short time. And, all our planning and lobbying for this activity with the city as PCVs paid off in a big way. Afterwards almost all the students were excitedly talking about doing something similar in their hometowns of Pogradec, in Kukes, Burrel, etc.

I came away from the community project and the whole week feeling like I had helped make something meaningful here, which doesn’t happen very often. I think it’s the idealist in me, but inspiring students to take ownership and responsibility for their home environment is something I really enjoy. I felt it when I was teaching architecture at Explo, and it’s definitely a big part of my work with OA in Albania. Feeling their energy and desire to make a change was a nice break from being at the Bashkia with the grown ups….where most people still don’t know what I am doing here.

More photos on the photo page!

Inside one of the many outdated New Yorkers in my house (thanks, Mom!) is an article about the Eurovision Song Contest called “Only Mr. God Knows Why.” I highly recommend it as entertaining reading and an eye-opening look into the culture surrounding Eastern European pop music today.

The Eurovision Song Contest bills itself as Europe’s favorite TV show. And, after being continuously on the air since 1954, it’s true that it has gathered quite the audience of followers. At it’s heart it is an international singing competition, though most of the songs are now sung in English despite the singer’s native language. Before coming to Albania, I had never heard of this euro-pop music phenomenon. I guess like any American all I knew was “American Idol,” though I’ve admittedly only ever seen one episode of that “phenomenon” as well.

I’m not going to try and explain something I can’t and go on about Eurovision here. You can investigate on your own : ). However, what I will say is that the New Yorker article and knowing about the culture and predominance of English at Eurovision have helped me make some sense of the constant soundtrack of Romanian, Estonian, Albanian, Italian and other European hits that come through all the speakers at every coffee bar and on every furgon. After more than a year in Albania I have come to terms with the fact that singing in English does not mean you can speak or understand English. But this fact definitely keeps life interesting.

Mid-coffee conversation with one of my Albanian friends I’ll find myself hopelessly distracted by the music in the background and the fact that their lover is “shume nice” (“very nice” in shqip-lish) and all of a sudden I am laughing out loud at the comedy of the situation. When I try and explain why the song is funny to me, whoever I am with usually doesn’t get it. I think some people actually think I am crazy.

However, the other day I got caught by something I’ll call “The Eurovision Effect.” Since I have been in Albania for over a year, I am not only used to the music trends here, but also seriously un-plugged from almost all pop-culture in America. Plus, the Glee season just ended so all connection I had to current American cheesy pop music is on pause for the summer. At the beach last week with a few friends we heard a song talking about how “shawty is my eenie-meenie-meiney-mo lover” coming from a nearby coffee bar and commented on the bizzare but catchy lyrics. I immediately assumed the song must be sung by some Eastern European pop star. I mean, what English speaker talks about eenie meenie meiney mo like that in a song? Turns out I was punked by Eurovision dulling my perception of what is authentically American. Come to find out yesterday that the song is put out by none other than homegrown Justin Bieber. And the video on youtube has close to 50 million views.

Yikes.

Last weekend I traveled with a few other PCVs to explore a double waterfall south of Gramsh in central Albania. It is incredible what amazing natural features are just waiting to be discovered here in the seeming middle of nowhere. In all the trip was a great release and escape to a beautiful spot. The hike was short but the water was cool and refreshing. We ate cherries off the trees and enjoyed a fire and each other’s company.


A few Albanian friends of the volunteers in Gramsh came along and opened my eyes to what “camping” means in Albanian. They brought with them a large stereo system, computer and generator with which to run them both up the mountain on donkeys. It was ridiculous and made the whole experience very unlike any camping trip I’ve ever been on before. At first thought I dreaded the accompaniment of Albanian pop music on one of the few true escapes I get from its pervasive presence, but then when we started circle dancing in the firelight it fit so well with the mood and festivity of the evening. As I saw at the Bektashi festival last summer, pop music and a coffee are, even on the tops of mountains, never far away when Albanians are involved. The whole experience struck me as a normal part of what my life here has become. Something that may have surprised or even bothered me a year ago is now something I just shake my head at, laugh at and join in.

This next week I’m headed to Erseka in the south to help with the Outdoor Ambassadors summer camp. It’s been a long few months of planning as an OA committee member and recruiting and making sure that kids can come as a local club leader. We have 5 great students from Lezhe going and there will be 50 students from OA clubs all over the country. There’ll be everything from canoeing to community projects to a recycled clothing fashion show. And yes, we will take them all camping. While there won’t be a stereo system or cell phones allowed, I’m sure it’ll be an interesting experience as we share Albanian and American versions of what it means to “camp,” to escape into nature. For most of the students I think it will be their first time in a tent. I’ll have a great update when I return.

School’s out and it’s officially summer in Lezhe. This means a return of the heat, fresh peaches, weddings keeping the beats going all night long and two fashion statements I had almost forgotten about – the clear bra strap (seriously, why? just wear a strapless) and the mis-spelled/mis-written/altogether mis-understood English t-shirt.

Young Albanians’ obsession with t-shirts written in broken and misspelled English is hard to ignore. Last summer I wanted to make a photo album of all the great shirts I saw walking around, but I felt creepy taking pictures of strangers so didn’t follow through.

I don’t know where these shirts come from, but Albanian’s definitely don’t know what they mean most of the time. “See you to making world now” or “too hard look touch here” scream out in hot neon block letters from the chests of teens and young Albanians everywhere. Most of the time it’s pretty innocently entertaining, but sometimes the context of who is wearing the shirt can be outright disturbing. Every once in a while I want to take the wearer by the shoulders and explain just what it is they are wearing.

The two examples here were sighted at a recent traditional music festival. The MC, a high school student, is obviously unaware of what her shirt implies/tries to imply (above). And this kid’s (below) mother must not understand English at all….or else she has a sick sense of being proud and supportive.

It’s been a wild ride of a last two weeks.

And I know I always say that. But, for various reasons that I won’t get into in detail here, the last two weeks have been some of the hardest mentally for me since I’ve been in Albania.

Through a variety of recent events, both unfortunate and wonderful, I have come to truly realize the individual nature of the Peace Corps journey. I have so many amazing friends here and feel a part of Lezhe in a way that has become comfortable over time. But, in the world of Peace Corps, you can’t ever share your life that well with someone else. It is an inherently singular experience. And, as an added challenge, small incidents magnified by living in a world that is unfamiliar quickly become big changes. Things come at you fast and you might not be prepared to take them on like you are used to.

Over the past two weeks or so life as I know it, as I have become used to here, has indeed changed a lot. Projects are ending, friends and colleagues have moved on as they finish their service and one of the people closest to me here has had to suddenly return to the States for medical attention for the foreseeable future.

As far as work and life in Lezhe go, I’m ironically feeling productive and comfortable as I’ve never felt before. I guess my mood is just a little bit of a mid-service slump if you will….and I feel it passing just as quickly as it came on. I’m thankful I’ve been given the time to reflect on my time here thus far, and what I want to do with the remaining months… and I promise I’ll have something more interesting to report when you hear from me next : )

I had a great time with my family in Munich a few weeks ago. It was a much needed escape to a land of time tables and clean streets. It’s incredible just how much you can relax when you don’t have to constantly worry about what might happen next. Turns out I’ve forgotten most of my German, but I did get a chance to speak Albanian to the Kosovar woman working at our hotel. Can’t escape Shqiperia entirely! Highlights of the trip included the Indian and Thai food we sampled as well as biking around the many parks in town. Munich is like biking heaven – very limited stress because of the well maintained paths everywhere.

In the English Garden (bigger than Central Park) I kept seeing people walking around with surf boards in wet suits and wondered what was up. Turns out they have a fake wave set up in one of the canals – and the water coming out from downtown Munich is clean enough for people to swim and surf in it. One of the coolest things I’ve seen in a long time. Click on the image below to see a video of the action.

From Germany with the fam

See the rest of my photos here.

After almost two weeks with my family, this week has been crazy busy with work and getting back into the routine of things here in Lezhe. Between helping with a grant application for Outdoor Ambassadors, planning a beach cleanup with the Red Cross, nailing down details for the upcoming Outdoor Ambassadors summer camp, beginning reporting for my SPA grant at the school and actually reconnecting with life and work and friends in the Bashkia, it’s been a bit overwhelming.

I’m finally finding the time to catch up on all things internet and can begin to answer the question – “what exactly did you do with your fam?!.” Well – we traveled a LOT around Albania – to many places I’ve been to and written about before, and many that I haven’t. We met many of my friends here as well as many new faces, but everyone was so impressed that my family came to visit me here (me too!). Family is a big deal to Albanians, and I am happy I could share mine with Albania and Albania with them.

What follows are some of the highlights of our time together.

1. Dinner with the Host Family

The second day my parents and sister were here was my dad’s birthday. It also happens to be my host sister and brother’s birthday – the twins, Jerina and Antonini. Way back in the Fall, when my parents decided when they were coming to Albania, I realized they would be in country for this triple birthday and suggested that we come to dinner with my host family that night to celebrate together. I had no idea what taking my real family to my host family’s house would be like, let alone when there is another volunteer living there for training right now and there is a significant language barrier between the two families. So, given the fact that I thought it would be a little awkward and that I would have to do all the translating, I wasn’t really looking forward to it so much. But, in actuality, the whole evening was amazing. I didn’t even notice the translating I was doing – sometimes I forget how much can come across in body language 🙂

I didn’t know this would happen, but my host dad actually stayed back from returning to work in Greece so that he could be there for the fest. My older host sister and her new baby who I had never met were also there as well as Melia, the new volunteer. A full house! It was a bit exhausting, sure, but my family and host family hit it off so well. My host dad showed my parents around the farm and the house and I struggled to translate all the vegetables and fruits they have planted. My mom loved seeing the baby and the outdoor kitchen where my host sisters cook right next to the baby turkeys. It’s weird to think about the fact that I remember the previous generation hatching last year. And, after a wonderful dinner and many “gezuars!”, my host dad produced a large cake he had ordered with the words “Tom, Jerina dhe Antonini – Edhe 100 Vite” – a slightly incorrect version of the standard birthday wish for “100 more years.” As we all dug into the cake with our spoons Shqiptar style, my American family hesitated and then reached out to join in.

I know I’ve never had such an amazing night with my host family and I feel very blessed to be part of two families that are so loving and accepting and curious about each other.

2. Church in Labove

On our third day of traveling around together, we hit four sites in southern Albania. There are so many advantages to having a rental car! Getting around a small country is much easier with your own wheels. As we drove towards Gjirokaster in the early evening after a long day, we debated trying to see a fifth site – a church I had only heard about and didn’t really know how to find. After about an hour, a lot of dirt road, asking directions in a town one letter different from the village where the church is located (and very close in proximity), we found St. Mary’s in Labove at around 6 pm.

Labove is tucked up on a hill in this gorgeous and unreal crack inbetween two ridges on the west-facing slope of the valley that Gjirokaster calls home. That whole area is eerily beautiful – especially in the evening. The drive itself was worth it in my mind, but then we saw the church. During communism Albania became a secular state, so all the churches and mosques were closed and most of the decorations/icons/murals were destroyed. Over time they’ve gradually reopened, but they’ve lost much of their previous grandeur. The church in Labove, unlocked by a wonderful woman who was a bit difficult to understand, is an outstanding gem for Albania. Not only was it built in the year 554 (predates Hagia Sofia), but it still has its wooden gilded frieze from the 16th century and many original murals. For something in none of the guidebooks about Albania that I had only learned about it two weeks before, it is one of the most amazing things I’ve seen in over a year of travel here – just another way this country never ceases to surprise me.

3. Socialist Road Block and the road from Permet to Korce

The next evening, after spending a wonderful day in Gjirokaster with two other volunteers seeing the sites, we headed out for nearby Permet. It was supposed to be about an hour’s drive, but an unexpected road block put on by the disgruntled socialist party in the wake of controversial elections in Tirana made things a little more interesting. Though this was annoying for sure, it was great to be able to show my family the unexpectedness of life in Albania. Plus, it happened to take place on one of the most beautiful stretches of the entire Albanian highway system. My sister and I went for a short hike to check out the extent of the protest and talk to the police while my mom made friends with an English-speaking Albanian businessman stranded on his way home. Everyone was out of their cars talking about the annoyance and how long it might last. We were, after all, on the major north/south national highway. Some rumors began to surface about an alternate road, and we saw people driving on a dirt road on the other side of the valley. We decided to chance it and took off to test the capabilities of a passat wagon on the worst road we’d been on yet.

It was quite the adventure, but we made it around the protest and on to Permet without any issues. The next day, not at all discouraged by the potential for more roadblocks, we decided to take the long way home and travel the beautiful road around the south of Albania from Permet to Korçe – something I’ve never had the chance to do before. It was breathtaking, but made the day a long driving day for dad and we didn’t get back to Lezhe until after dark.

4. A Day in Kallmet

One of the things that I have been wanting to do around Lezhe for a while now is check out the neighboring village of Kallmet. One of the few wineries in Albania is there as well as a historic church and a great restaurant I keep hearing about. Unfortunately, it’s hard to get there for someone without a car. I took advantage of my family’s visit to go explore “me makine” (by car) together…and the visit more than exceeded my expectations.

We started out looking for the church. I had heard it was up a hill, but we didn’t know that we would have to hike for about an hour in the heat. So, we made it halfway up a dirt road/trail in our sandals not sure if we were going the right way and then called it a day – the church will have to be for another visit. The rest of the day more than made up for this slight disappointment.

At the winery, I had no idea what to expect. I had called the number of the owner and he met us there. Turns out he speaks perfect English, used to be mayor of the village and also knew a few PCVs who lived in Lezhe a few years ago. He gave us a great tour and was so excited we had come that he threw in four bottles of wine for free. We came away with a box full of wine and olive oil – all locally produced. The vintner directed us to the restaurant that I had heard about just down the road.

When we pulled up, it was to a beautiful restored stone building in the middle of a farm that could have been in Charlottesville, VA. The owner came to meet us at our table and suggested we get a selection of their Albanian specialties. His whole philosophy for this relatively new restaurant is based on principles of slow food and local sourcing –two things I did not expect to find anywhere in Albania. Talking to him was amazing – he’s so unlike other Albanian entrepreneurs I know. At the restaurant he serves Albanian food in the traditional sense, using recipes that are specific to the region and have often been forgotten recently as the demand for more Italian/Greek food merges with what people think of as Albanian food. The owner even designed the furniture for his restaurant, has planted all native species of trees in the garden seating area and hopes to eventually source all the food for the restaurant from the surrounding farm!

As we were eating we noticed a few colorful handmade vases for sale. The owner told us they came from a pottery workshop in a nearby village and insisted that he would take us there himself after we ate. The generosity and enthusiasm of people in Albania is astounding sometimes. We visited with the potter and I was really interested to talk to him about his struggles to sell in tourist shops in the Lezhe area based on the demand from the shop owners. for made-in-china products that are less expensive instead of local handicrafts. After returning to Lezhe, I was exhausted and overwhelmed by all the resources my backyard holds that I had never known existed. It turned out to be not only a wonderful adventure with the family, but a great day for networking as well.

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After 8 days in Albania, the Hammetts traveled to Munich for a few days of R&R (and great food!). I’ll get into that trip in another post. For now, check out the photos from our trip ne Shqiperi!