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There’s a tradition in Albania surrounding eggs at Easter. After dyeing them, you give them to your friends and family. Then they hold onto them for a year and throw them in the river for good luck.

Yesterday I ceremoniously threw my two from last year in the river. Oddly they were very light, having lost all moisture sitting in my living room since last April. They floated away quickly – two red dots on the full and fast-flowing Drini.

Then, today, I was given six newly dyed eggs. Maybe this means my luck’s multiplying?

Despite it’s proud ancient history, Lezhe sometimes has the feel of being a new city.

This new-ness is largely due to the fact that the entire old city was destroyed in an earthquake in the 1970s. Since that time, several waves of new development have brought a hurried and varied selection of architectural styles to town, creating an eclectic mix of haphazard design. Somehow, it all works together.

Given this new development, Lezha has it all – from communist-block apartment buildings to Illyrian castles to 1970s cement sculptured façades to coffee bars with soccer ball themed entrances. In this first of a series of posts, I’ll give you a glimpse at my favorites from the architectural mix that I call home.

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Brian’s Bar // This football-themed bar takes the sport and Brian (a soccer star) seriously. It has a soccer-ball entrance and peace-sign hand chairs inside, wallpaper that says “Brian’s” in every font and color imaginable, larger than life photos of Brian in action and even a trophy case displaying his shoes.

Shtëpia e Mlikajve // This Ottoman era home is the only remaining one in a neighborhood where they used to be common. It survived the earthquake and was briefly the city museum. Now it lies empty.

The Public Library (Biblioteka e Qytetit të Lezhës) // My home for my current SPA project, this 70s-era building is bright bright pink and has some wonderful geometric features. I used the line patterns around the windows on the second floor in the logo I designed for them (bottom right of this poster).

More to come!

Albania as a country takes their holidays seriously. I know I’ll never have as many days off as I have here in a country that observes Muslim, Catholic and Orthodox holidays as well as other state and international celebrations.

However, even for Albanians March is a holiday-heavy month. This year I had the advantage of knowing what to expect when, the day before women’s day, my counterpart said “Laura, you need to wear a dress tomorrow – we’re going to dance.” And, I had the opportunity to spend the days off with some of my favorite people here in Albania, enjoying the early spring weather.

Dita e Grave // International Women’s Day – March 8th  //  Celebrated with the women I work with at the Bashkia with a day dancing at a lokal by the beach and with a dinner with the women from the American School in Lezhe.

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Dita e Veres  //  Summer Day – March 14th  //  Dita e Veres is a distinctly Albanian holiday, involving traditions of making sugar cookies and tying friendship bracelets around your friends’ wrists (why, I don’t know). It’s usually done up most in Elbasan, but I celebrated with some pals from work, again at the beach.

St. Patrick’s Day – March 17th  //  Ok. Not Albanian at all. But we Americans celebrated with a night out in Tirana and green dye for our brews

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…and for this week’s Novruz – March 22nd, I will be at my counterpart Yllka’s house teaching her how to make brownies and eating lunch together.

All examples of cultural exchange at it’s best!

Tomorrow is International Women’s Day, which in Albania means an excuse for all the women in my office to get real dressed up, get their hair done, go out to lunch at a place by the beach and DANCE!

Naturally, I’m excited.

Last year I loved this opportunity to bond with the women I work with and celebrate our lives together, but this time around I see it more as the first (of many, I hope!) farewell fests for me in Albania. AND, this year I get to double dip, as I’ve been invited to an evening soiree at the new American School in town. They will be two very different parties, but both part of a tradition I love here that I hope to bring back and share with my friends and family at home.

So – gezuar dita e grave to all the lovely ladies in my life! I wish I could be with all of you tomorrow!

During the communist period in Albania, the government regularly published Pionieri, a magazine for all the “young pioneers” of Shqiperi. I had heard about this publication and it’s entertaining and enlightening view into what life during Zoti Enver’s reign was like for youngsters from other volunteers, but recently had a chance to get my hands on some copies from the 70s from the Lezhe library’s extensive archives.

So far, I’ve enjoyed looking at the articles and exploring what was deemed important to show/teach/tell the country’s youth during such a closed-off time. I like to think of Pionieri as a sort of communist version of Highlights. Most of the articles seem to be about national heroes, sports, school and ways to help out in your community. But, each issue has a feature on another foreign country and a decent selection of fiction and poetry in Shqip.

While I’ve enjoyed reading around, I think the best part for me….the most “translatable” per se….are the graphics. I love the style and the bright colors of the printed borders and backgrounds interspersed with the greys of the black and white photos….and I appreciate them all the more because they all pre-date computer layout programs by about 30 years.

Take a look:

I also was struck by the prominence of girls in the photos and contributions in this publication:

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!

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.

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.

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.

Raki, similar to grappa or moonshine, is the Albanian social drink. In the morning it’s served with a Kafe Turke and, whenever you visit someone’s home, their version of the drink is poured in a glass for you as a sign of respect. Of course, all of this applies only to men, as it’s rarely consumed by women. In general, raki is a high-proof, clear liquor that can get you into trouble…but if you follow the custom and sip, don’t shoot, it can be an enjoyable drink (some think). I still haven’t gotten used to it.

Raki can be made from just about any fruit, but in Lezhe it’s mostly made with grapes. Most families make a small amount using the grapes from their arbors at home. Since the grapes were harvested here in early September and have had a while to ferment, right about now is prime raki-making season. My landlord Selim is in the process of running his still every afternoon after work, and I’ve been able to get a sense for the delicate nature of the raki making process.

Selim's still

Selim uses a copper still of traditional design. Inside the copper device the fermented grape mash boils over heat from the fire. The alcohol then evaporates and is forced into a tube running through a cooling pan of water, where it condenses and falls into the receiving glass container. The fire underneath the still can’t be too hot, though or the mash will boil too quickly and either explode the still or produce a product so hot that all the alcohol evaporates. In all it takes about 2 hours to go through one fillup of the still.

The end product

After trying so many kinds of raki over the past year and a half, I’m glad to see how it all works, finally – and, I’ve been able to taste the real thing coming fresh from the still.

Gezuar!//Cheers!