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Monthly Archives: January 2012

Today at work my colleague actually lit her scarf on fire. It was in flames and we had to stomp on it to put out the blaze. A scary thing in an office full of paper.

Though it’s shocking (and a little bit funny/ironic that this happened ), the fire is not surprising seeing as the Bashkia offices all use propane gas heaters with open flames that sit at ankle level on rickety wire tripods. They’re like the photo below only with the gas tank attachment sitting on the floor facing upwards without the guard screen. Yikes.

I knew that someday I would see something go up in flames due to one of these frightening contraptions. I’m just happy that when I did the story ended well!

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This past weekend I traveled to the village of Vevčani in Macedonia to experience their annual new year’s celebration and carneval. The festival takes place on the 13th – 14th of January each year, and it is supposedly a tradition that stretches back 1300 years or more.

Fellow PCV Chris and I arrived in Vevčani on the evening of the 13th after the first parade with few expectations. We hadn’t been able to discover too much about the events, but we had heard rumors of the festival’s greatness. We were instantly thrown into the mix of festivities and had an amazing time. The weekend was by far one of the most personal, memorable and fun travel experiences I have had since arriving in the Balkans.

The night of the 13th, the entire city gathered in a frenzy of multi-generational traditional music and circle dancing in the square from 10pm on. Beer tents kept everyone warm and if you looked out over the dancing crowd, swords and tridents and masks and stilts peeked up in time with the music, silhouetted against the stage lights. Chris and I found the circle dancing much the same as in Albania, if not more frenetic because of the energy of the holiday. The whole event was surreal – I was splashed with mud and we counted down to a “new year” as the fireworks went off at midnight just as it began to rain.

In the morning, Chris and I discovered that the rain had apparently turned to snow during the night. A foot of fresh powder greeted us as we ventured out to explore the town in daylight. While peeking into a pen full of sheep the homeowner on the front steps of the house next door called her daughter out to talk to us. Turns out she knew a little English, and they invited us inside for coffee.

In the house, the family’s twenty-something son and his four friends/cousins were all well into the rakia and were in the process of putting on their costumes and cheersing/dancing away the morning. The mother poured us a glass (they serve raki hot and sweetened here) and turned up the volume on the traditional music TV channel and started singing and dancing around the table. Everyone else joined in….and then the mother smashed a glass against the wall during a fit of impassioned dancing.

It was fantastic. Another unbelievable example of the unhesitating generosity I’ve encountered in the Balkans.

One thing that struck me in this home was that our visit was so natural. Unlike many Albanian hosts I’ve had, they didn’t go to any extra fuss for us or force anything on us. Even when the boys left to go visit the homes of their friends and family around the village and they invited us to come along, it was completely comfortable and sincere. No pressure. We looked at each other and said okay and headed out after them into the snow.

For the rest of the morning and well into the afternoon we were with these boys/men in four different houses. Each one was set up to receive us and other costumed revelers with food and lots of warm raki. We learned a little Macedonian, and, as the day progressed, we encountered just about all the men in town – all dressed up and in various states of sobriety. At around 2 we ended up back in the center of town and a chaotic “parade” of sorts ensued with all the costumed villagers and kids making merry around a bonfire. Many of the costumes are burned as part of the festivities. The guys we were with took good “care” of us and definitely made sure we had a good time.

Among the costumes we encountered throughout the day were Obama, Angela Merkel, cowboys, a series of trees and lots of devilish/ghoulish creatures. I gathered that the villagers are very proud of their costumes and work on making them all year long. Many are of a traditional type – the guys we were with had older costumes that represented membership in a “krewe” of some sort – but many are also metaphorical or satirical and have to do with current events or political issues, most of which I didn’t understand.

Chris and Obama

After taking a break from the revelry, Chris and I walked past the bonfire again, only to meet up with two of the guys we had been with all day….still drinking and hanging out with a few stragglers. They immediately said “Chris, Laura – you are coming with us,” and took us to their upstairs family home in the center of town for dinner with their family. The food was fantastic and everyone had that tired post-holiday dazed look on their faces so it was okay to sit at the table and just be silent and tired and take it all in.

I couldn’t stop smiling.

Photos are up on the photos page…and check out this video for an idea of what it all looked like.

Also – this article quotes the festival as ” always [being] held on St. Vasilij’s day – the beginning of the New Year according to the Julian calendar.” One of the houses we visited was the house of a man named Vasili. I now understand why they made a big deal about his name and the day.

Yes, I have lived in Albania for almost two years. While I feel “at home” here, everyday I am reminded that I am, most definitely, a foreigner.

Even though they remain strange or foreign to me, there are a few things that no longer surprise me after so much time in Albania. I almost don’t notice when my coworkers paint their nails in the office or try and learn the lyrics and dance to Beyonce’s single ladies during work hours. I definitely don’t think twice when each morning and afternoon I interrupt the Bashkia cleaning lady mopping the carpets on the stairs as I walk to and from the office. I automatically factor in about a half hour of extra “go to all the coffee bars and try and find the person” time for each meeting I attempt to have. And, I certainly don’t find it wierd that my landlady’s answer to my house’s lack of electricity during Christmas was to get her husband to go up on a ladder with a screwdriver and split the electric line coming into their home so I could have (albeit weak) light to celebrate by until the electric company fixed it.

While all of these random events might be the day-to-day “normal” of my life these days, one normality that I am certainly not used to is the fact that the thermometer inside my house currently reads around 40 degrees Fahrenheit. It doesn’t surprise me, but it does not make me laugh out loud like most of the other facts of life në Shqiperi.

Thanks, Mom, for having the foresight to bring me my grandmother’s retired down dressing robe! I am “fashionably” sporting it more and more these days.

jeto ne paqe = live in peace

I’ve discussed my New Year’s celebration in Ohrid, Macedonia….but if you checked out my photos from the newest album you may have noticed that I also went to Kosovo recently.

After spending time in Macedonia, I headed up to Prizren and Prishtina in Kosovë for a whirlwind two day tour. As volunteers we weren’t allowed to go to Kosovo until this past June – it was off limits because it was still on some “list” that meant Peace Corps didn’t want to be responsible for our travel there.

"I vote, you vote, they vote, we vote, you vote....they win" Eulex is the EU interim government.

Now that travel to the rest of “Shqiperia e madhe” is officially allowed, it’s surprising I haven’t made it up there until now. In fact, the best road in the whole country connects Lezhe with the border and I could be there in under 3 hours (speedy by Albanian transit standards). Kosovo is also the only other country in the world whose majority population speaks Albanian, yet the ethnically Albanian population (like those Albanians in Macedonia and Montenegro as well) was cut off from Albania itself for 50 years during the 20th century. I’ve been eager to test my language skills in another country and to see just what makes Kosovo different/the same for some time now.

Anti Serbian graffiti mixed in with pro-Albanian: Blej Shqip = Buy Albanian

While I didn’t come away after such a short visit with any great insight, a few things did really strike me as different from Albania while I was there. The most impressive of which was the diversity – of cultural heritage, of language, of religious traditions- that I found in Kosove.

In Prizren I learned that the city has a large Turkish minority. That, in addition to a significant Serbian population means that at any time one of about five languages could be being spoken around town. And all of this just across the border from Kukes in Albania – a comparatively homogenous region. So much for being able to use my language skills! I understood Kosovar Albanians less than I understood Macedonian Albanians, as it turned out.

"What meaning does independence hold when serbia returns to Prizren?"

Unfortunately, in recent history this diversity in Kosovo has been a source of tension in the wake of the conflict surrounding the country’s independence. Evidence of the past war is everywhere. Under interim EU governments, Kosovo and its citizens are still working out what it means to be Kosovo. Throughout Prizren and Prishtina the walls are covered in political grafitti. I came away from the short visit with a camera full of slogans of just how difficult the struggles for identity in this new country have been.

No caption necessary...

view from the apartment of the port in Ohrid

To ring in 2012 I traveled to Ohrid, Macedonia with a few friends. I was there in October, 2010 briefly, but this time I had a chance to explore a bit more. We had a great time eating lots of delicious grilled meat, setting off firecrackers in questionable locations and dancing to Serbian music at a bar/club on the water on NYE. Here are a few photos from the experience. To see the full album, click here.

FOUND - the church that Adam and I searched for last year but could not find!

Ohrid is full of many generations of old Yugos, mostly yellow for some reason

Sun setting on 2011....and Albania across the lake

And another year begins….

I’m home this first weekend in January. Un-decorating. Being alone. Soaking up my house by myself and catching up on all the things I didn’t do over the last few weeks between Christmas and New Years. Or avoiding them all the same by finding new distractions.

It’s hard to believe the passing of 2011 marks the first full calendar year of my life spent entirely outside the US of A. It was a whirlwind and went by faster than expected, but was a wonderful year full of memorable projects, successes and failures, relationship building and travels around the Balkans with friends.

I spent a few days in Ohrid, Macedonia to celebrate the arrival of the new year with a few close friends. It was a wonderful trip, one of the shortest but best I’ve had since being in Albania. I think it was so nice because it was not only a chance to spend time with people I love and am completely comfortable with in a beautiful place, but also to have a great time dancing and being slightly ridiculous to celebrate the new year in style.

However comfortable and steady I may feel with my life and work and friends here now, the passing of 2011 brings into full light the new year – one that will be so full of unknowns and changes for all of us PCVs in my group as our service comes to a close. Over our Ohrid trip and throughout the past few months I’ve been a part of a lot of conversations about time and the future, it seems.

My Peace Corps experience, with its high highs and low lows and all the time inbetween where I’m just curled up at home by myself doing an inordinate amount of knitting brings to mind a quote from Steinbeck’s East of Eden. The following was once shown to me by a friend at another point in my life that felt equally as transitional, and I’ve enjoyed sharing these words with friends now:

“Time interval is a strange and contradictory matter in the mind. It would be reasonable to suppose that a routine time or an eventless time would seem interminable. It should be so, but it is not. It is the dull eventless times that have no duration whatever. A time splashed with interest, wounded with tragedy, crevassed with joy – that’s the time that seems long in the memory. And this is right when you think about it. Eventlessness has no posts to drape duration on. From nothing to nothing is no time at all.”

And it’s true. It’s getting taken out to lunch to celebrate a grant proposal on a whim and making a total mess with firecrackers by the port in Ohrid on New Years Day and sweating up the hill to Lura and boating around to beaches by Himare and laughing at my students comedy performances and finally getting my own desk after 18 months that I will and do remember most. Not the weeks and cold nights by myself in between. They seem long at the time, but actually fly by.

Best wishes for a happy and memorable new year!

See y’all sooner than you may think. I hope!