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Monthly Archives: December 2011

This past weekend nine of us PCVs celebrated the holidays here at my house in Lezhe. After two days without power, the lights came back on on Christmas Eve and we were able to cook good food and make merry. The weather was wonderful, and we played football one day and then hiked to the Castle above my house.

It’s interesting to be in a country for the holidays that celebrates New Years more than Christmas. The entire city of Lezhe is decked out in festive lights of bright colors and there is a big tree downtown, but people decorate with trees for New Years instead of Christmas, so there was no real attention to the tree/lights this weekend. Meanwhile, kids everywhere are preparing for New Year’s by blowing up M80s constantly on the street corners. Fireworks are cheap and abundant this time of year, and we bought some ourselves and shot them off infront of my house in the wee hours of Christmas Day.

This is what a Peace Corps Christmas looks like

I hope all of your holidays were just as jolly as ours here in Albania! I’m thinking of everyone back home a lot these days and sending lots of love from afar.

Gezuar Krishtlindje dhe vitin e ri!  Qoftë një vit i mbarë dhe i suksesshëm!

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Many of my favorite experiences from living in and traveling around Albania are those random, wonderful cultural exchanges that teach me more about the nuances of where I am. Albanian culture itself lends itself to these types of experiences – overwhelmingly Albanians are willing to invite you as a complete stranger into their home or tell you their entire life story when they meet you on the road. On hikes through tiny villages I’ve been invited in for coffee, and on the road I’ve been given rides from a series of Albanians.

Starting out on a journey to a friend’s house across the country, I often just want to put my headphones in and sleep my way there on the bus. But sometimes, when the weather’s good and I’m up for a bit more of an adventure (and talking in Albanian the whole way), hitchhiking can be a wonderful alternative.

Since I’ve been in Albania, I’ve had the chance to hitchhike around the country quite a bit. And, for the most part, I always end the day getting where I’m going more quickly…. with a great story. Hitchhiking is something uncommon for Albanians, so it sets me apart as a “huaj” / foreigner. But when they realize I can speak Shqip, the conversations begin. I feel more comfortable with the situation being able to communicate with my ride, and a little less like a free-loader because we usually talk for the entire ride.

I have ridden with police inspectors in fancy SUVs going to a friend’s wedding, families leaving for vacation, Albanians returning to Greece for work, father and son returning home after a funeral and many more. All of the my hosts has their own view of Albanian and American politics, and I’ve learned much about different areas of the country, practiced my Shqip skills and, in some cases, made great contacts for future travel and work. I’ve even ridden with people who know what Peace Corps is and have worked with a former volunteer (this is such a small country). Sometimes we stop for coffee or a meal at a place I would never have been able to try otherwise, and once I was even taken to and invited into a ride’s home (this would be concerning in the US, but is normal here). Most people are genuinely worried about me and want to help me out the best that they can.

My infrequent hitchhiking adventures have given me a new perspective on the lessons learned from traveling. It’s wonderful to be able to communicate with a cross-section of the population, and I think it is most enjoyable because I know the language. Sometimes you get in with someone who has a bit of an agenda they want to push with an “American,” but most of the time we both learn more about each other’s culture and home while getting where we want to go. While I don’t plan on picking up hitchhikers in the US, I hope I can return the hospitality I’ve been shown on the roads of Albania in some form one day.

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****Just for the record: Peace Corps Albania does not condone hitch-hiking as a mode of transportation and, in general, I do not hitchhike alone.

Just want to offer a big “Thank You” to all who contributed to the Outdoor Ambassadors Peace Corps Partnership grant on the Peace Corps website. We reached our goal this weekend, and are in the process of planning the training for early February.

In the meantime, I’m getting ready to have a small gathering at my house for Christmas and am trying to accomplish a few tourism-related projects before everyone in the office scatters over the holidays.

I hope you are all enjoying the season, wherever you may be!

A few photos from the neighborhood, all shot yesterday (December 6th):

After a morning storm - Gjyli and Onyx

Downtown market - empty in December

Stumbling upon the city's Christmas light storage area

The persimmon tree at sunset

Happy International Volunteer Day, everyone!

This post is a bit overdue, but I thought I’d give an update on what Thanksgiving was like for me here in Albania.

A day of great weather and football and cooking plus 16ish PCVs all contributing dishes = a whole lot of great food and merriment. Made-from-scratch green bean casserole (complete with homemade deep fried onions) and a bacon blue cheese apple pie were hits along with all the normal Turkey day trimmings. Finding enough glasses/jars for us all to drink out of was the biggest problem.

I have loved my two Thanksgivings in Albania. They’ve been so different from holidays at home, but just as wonderful. The pot luck style really reminds me of the 100-mile Thanksgivings I used to celebrate with the urban planning department at UVA. I think that as Americans living abroad, we try extra hard at Thanksgiving and the Fourth. One of the things I enjoy about Turkey Day here is that everyone is American, but has a different tradition to share/recreate the best they can. And the result is overwhelming. It really goes to show that the holidays can be merry wherever you are as long as you’re with the people you love. And, because we celebrated Thanksgiving on Saturday and Albanians had that Monday and Tuesday off for national holidays (Independence Day and the day celebrating their release from Nazi power), the holiday was stretched over 6 days….which made it all even better.

Whenever I’ve traveled in a “developing” country, it seems that there are even more levels of retail and service specialization than in the United States. For example, there are plenty of shopkeepers in Kathmandu who make their living solely by fixing radios, sewing patches in ripped bags, repairing beepers and taking apart things that I don’t even remember what they were/are. Everything that can be fixed seems to have it’s own niche market for specialized handy men and women.

In Albania, I haven’t noticed the same degree of specialization, but it’s still there lurking under the surface. At first glance, there aren’t the same number of electronics repair outfits, and it seems that (to their detriment) every corner store or “dyqan” sells the exact 50 things that the one on the next corner sells. However, there are the guys that sit on street corners in Tirana waiting to fill up your bic disposable lighter with a fresh dose of lighter fluid. And, after yesterday I have a new outlook on the existence of specialized Mr.-fix-its in Albania.

Just to preface the story – my walk to work is the entire length of the main boulevard in Lezhe. On my first day back at work after the holiday yesterday, I spiffed up a little (read: wore a skirt) and put on a nice pair of leather boots I recently scored at the gabi, or used clothing market. I was very proud of this purchase (only 4 dollars for beautiful leather riding boots that had only been worn maybe once and fit me well), but came to regret it quickly. My road is undergoing some reconstruction and currently is a mud slick. When I got down to the main boulevard, I stomped my feet to get the mud off and was surprised when 75% of the sole of one boot came completely detached from the shoe! That’s what I get for a 4 dollar pair of shoes, I guess. Instead of hobbling home to change, I hobbled down the boulevard looking like a fool until I got to the park by the Bashkia….because I remembered about the shoe men.

The shoe men, as I call them, are two guys who hang out in the park in all kinds of weather with an umbrella and an assortment of scary-looking tools and odd-colored potions in plastic bottles. They support themselves by repairing and shining people’s shoes. I walk by them so often that I often forget they’re there, but yesterday I ran straight into their arms.

In ten minutes of sitting outside in my stocking feet, one of the guys had fixed my shoes, lectured me on why I should pay him more to put more plastic on the soles and wrapped my feet in newspaper to protect from the cold (the cold is a deathly enemy to most Albanians and they talk about it all the time). We laughed and I put my “new” shoes back on and went on my way, problem free. After another 3 dollars spent supporting the local shoe guy economy, I’m feeling even better about my now-fortified shoes. They are still a steal, and now they could be considered steel-toe as well, what with all the nails he put into them.

Just another example of an exciting event in the life of a PCV in Albania. It’s the little things about this country that  keep me going.