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view to the south

view to the west

panorama of bishqem/pajove

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First – a big thank you for all the wonderful letters! I received several amazing postcards and letters on Friday – many of which had been sent before I arrived and sat in Tirana in the Peace Corps mailbox for a few weeks…but I was very glad to receive them all the same!

When I get to Lezhe I will let you know my address there and then I’ll be able to receive both packages and letters….but, the Peace Corps address will work for letters the whole two years I’m here if you want to stick to that.

We’ve also been hearing a lot about the iceland volcano on the news lately….a lot has happened in the general vicinity of eastern europe since we arrived…

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Over the past few weeks I have been continually exposed to Albanian “culture” – whether through performances set up by the peace corps staff, daily language classes where we often discuss potential work or homestay issues, presentations on hub days or my own experience living with a host family. Yesterday we had a whole day of culture stations and performances arranged for us. The program was full of dancing and singing of traditional and popular Albanian music by some Elbasan school kids – including an unexpected cross-cultural performance of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” in English that was, quite simply, amazing. Some highlights of the Albanian way of life I’ve already discussed on this blog – weddings, circle dancing, the omnipresent Albanian music videos featuring clarinet and drums and scantily clad female singers, the bland and oily food (Albanians put salt and oil on everything….and nothing else). But there’s another feature of life on the Ionian coast that I encounter daily that is worth mentioning here – coffee.

As we have heard so many times during training it’s become almost a joke, Albania is a “coffee culture.” Most of the social interaction in the country centers in some way around coffee. For example, when you visit someone’s house in the evening, they make you Turkish coffee. When we all leave and go to our jobs, we have been warned that we will be asked for “coffee” by our co-workers and others in the community sometimes 3-6 times a day in the beginning. When I was working in Kathmandu, the Nepalis have tea twice or three times a day like clockwork – here that holds true for going out to a bar and having a coffee. Most work in Albania is accomplished over coffee, which is indicative of the value of relationships in Albania. In order to get to know my community and get started working, I will have to build bridges over coffee first, then talk about projects later.

Most of the time the “coffee” I’m talking about is a 30 or 50 leke espresso from one of the numerous coffee bars or lokals in every city and village. You would think that the espresso would be actually pretty good considering we are close to Italy, but, like many things, the knowledge of how to pull a shot without making it taste horrendous seems to have stopped at the border. And so far, from what I’ve encountered, it appears drip coffee does not exist in Albania.

Unlike espresso, Turkish coffee is a phenomenon mostly found in the home and is a holdover from the ottoman period here in Albania. To make Turkish coffee, you use very finely ground coffee. Over a small gas stove (similar to a camping stove) you simultaneously heat a small amount of water and stir in heaps of coffee grounds and sugar. Then, without any straining process, you pour the mixture into tiny espresso cups. The first time I was given this concoction, I made the mistake of taking a sip right away. I got a mouthful of grounds that tasted like stale Nescafe. Gross. Now that I’ve been here a while, it seems the trick to drinking Turkish coffee is to wait a while, let the conversation flow and the grit settle to the bottom of your cup. Have patience, then take a sip.

Making Turkish Coffee

Since the first experience with the drink, I’ve actually come to like Turkish coffee quite a lot…definitely more than the bitter espresso in the lokals. In a way, the art of drinking Turkish coffee is also a bit metaphorical of how my experience in Albania has been so far and how it may progress in the coming months. I am one month into my 27 month commitment, and though the weeks went by slowly at first, now they are flying by (though each day is individually long). While I am finding the pace of life here relaxing and loving the fact that my days are full of new experiences and that I am forced to not make any expectations for what tomorrow may hold, it’s hard to keep the part of me that is a planner and a thinker in check and be patient, let things settle down, and take it one day at a time.

What’s been most frustrating during the craziness of training is the fact that I have very little time to myself and yet I don’t feel very connected to anyone that I do spend time with. I can’t yet communicate with my host family beyond talking about basic needs and the occasional news story, neighborhood gossip or cooking recipe. And, I love my training class and have enjoyed getting to know everybody a little, but it’s actually pretty hard to get past the small talk when you are always in training events Monday through Saturday or we’re all in a big group over lunch or beers. And, there is the looming fact that we will be all pretty far apart from each other starting at the end of May. I know that sometime down the road I will probably be very close with some of my fellow trainees – we have a fantastic and high-energy group. However, it’s slow going making friends when you don’t have the freedom to dedicate time to it that you might in the US. And, on a day to day basis, it’s amazing how little your past life matters here. I am now, after a month of this, definitely feeling the absence of my friends and family back home who know me well, get my humor, and know what interests me without having to ask. It’s definitely true that while living and working in a foreign culture (or even a new city in the US) there’s a constant underlying guardedness that you feel that adds what one PC staff member described as an “underlying low hum of stress” to your life. It’s exhausting to be on guard all the time, even if I didn’t realize until now that I had been.

So, while all this rambling might not make sense to anyone back home, it’s something I’ve been thinking about quite a lot lately. I am having a good time, but have definitely started to feel the emotional exhaustion that comes from being out of my comfort zone, so to speak. As I knew it would be, the peace corps and it’s social support network will be another exercise in patience – of not trying to expect too much too fast, of realizing that eventually Albania will be my “home” but that I will have to work to make it such.

What to say? The past week has been packed full, and I know the remaining weeks of training will just get more and more busy as we hurtle towards June and moving to our permanent sites.

View of Mt. Tomori and Gramsch from the PCV's apartment

The trip to Gramsh last weekend was a great break from the stress of language class and host family life. Susan and I stayed with two TEFL and health volunteers who are both from group 11 (done with their 2 years in May/June). We cooked some good food and learned a lot about what life can and will be like after training, which seems pretty good to me. I had no idea what to expect from Gramsh, but it’s great. Though it’s a small city of about 8,000, it’s clean and beautiful and has lots going on. The whole city overlooks a river under the shadow of Mt. Tomori. Because Gramsh represents the small end of where I could be placed for my permanent site, the whole visit reassured my thought that I could really be happy anywhere in Albania. It is such a beautiful country and nothing is very far from anything else (though the roads are terrible so it just takes a long time to get from place to place). Highlights of the weekend include playing with Kevin’s (TEFL) dog, learning about Salep (amazing chai like drink made from orchid root and cinnamon), meeting a few other local ex-pats working on a dam project over beers, and just feeling at ease about life as a PCV. At our hub day yesterday it was nice to compare notes with everyone else about the weekend’s visits. I think most of us are now inspired to work hard on language now so that we can hit the ground running when June rolls around and we move to our sites.

Xhiro (promenade) in downtown Gramsch - very Clean. Pashket = Easter

However, what the visit to Gramsh also highlighted was the extent of corruption in Albanian culture and the lack of work ethic here. We have heard about this in so many training sessions, but its interesting to see PCVs dealing with it in the workplace. We all will deal with this every day, and as a COD volunteer working with local government it will be a daily struggle to get anything done. As I meet more and more current volunteers here and discuss their lives in Albania, it is striking how individual each PC experience truly is. It all just seems like a group study abroad trip right now.

Last night I had a great time with my two host sisters (one is home visiting for the week) making chocolate chip cookies in the outside kitchen. I wanted to make something “American” and all went well, though we had to use the round small oven usually used for byrek. After three long weeks I really feel comfortable here, and I enjoy spending time with my host sisters and mother – we can actually carry on conversations now and we laugh a lot, play a lot of uno and dominos and cook together. Two current volunteers who lived here last spring were back visiting their host families in Bishqem last night and stopped for a coffee with us current trainees after our classes. Besides being impressed with their amazing Shqip skills, I liked the fact that they both seem to stay in great touch with their host families a year later. I hope I’ll be able to maintain ties to Bishqem in the years to come.

Yesterday the five of us in Bishqem nailed down our idea for our community project during training. Because Bishqem is basically a bedroom community for nearby Pajove, we are hoping to have a poster making contest one afternoon at the Bishqem school focused on the theme of community identity – what do you like about where you live? Details to come, but this will probably happen sometime in the next few weeks.

Today is a “hub day” in Elbasan, and we have our first meet and greet with the Ambassador, John Withers. Lately a big group of us have been staying in Elbasan after training for an hour or so to relax and catch happy hour (if such a thing exists here – beer is regularly served to the male trainees for breakfast at their host families) at a small bar called Gramelis that brews its own 60 lek beer. It’s the only time all week that we aren’t with our host families or teachers or training staff and are together as a group, so it’s a fun release and something to look forward to after sitting inside all day in trainings.

So, all in all, though it is a pretty stressful time with language and job training, I am having a lot of fun here. And, after seeing a bit of the natural beauty the country has to offer, I highly encourage any and all of you to come visit if you can!

In my life I have lived in a red house, a grey house, a white house and a light blue house….but never a bright green (think chartreuse inside and out) house. Now I call such a place home. The PC homestay coordinator must have known that is my favorite color.

Last Saturday four other dazed and tired volunteers and myself were spirited away from the comforts of the Hotel Univers in Elbasan for the adventure of life with a host family in the village of Bishqem. We were dropped off at our respective homes knowing about 10 words of Shqip (albanian) and knowing nothing beforehand about the environment in which we will live for the next 10 weeks other than the names of our hosts. Jeff (spelled Xheff in albania), Libby, and I are all staying with families that are neighbors and I am pretty sure half the town is related. Bishqem is a town of about 1600, and we all stick out like crazy walking to and from the school each morning for language classes. Each week we’ll have about 20 hours of language instruction in bishqem and 15 or so of technical training and sessions with other volunteers about safety and albanian culture in Elbasan. Topics include how not to get diahreah and what to do when there’s an earthquake. Tomorrow all the COD (community and organizational development) volunteers will meet the mayor of Elbasan.

All other time is spent studying, sleeping or hanging out with my host family – Rasie (mama), Jerina and Antonini (16 year old twins), one cow and many many chickens.. Baba is working in Greece, and there are four older siblings who are all married or living abroad. I enjoy spending time with them and in just a few days my Shqip has progressed beyond charades and pictionary to actually forming some sentences and talking about my family and home in the states. They love the book I brought about Virginia and think it is shume bukur (beautiful) and a very very snowy place. Last night we celebrated the muslim holiday of Novruz by baking byrek with a coin hidden inside and eating a young chicken.

Some observations after a few days in Bishqem:

-Albania is truly a place of extremes. Libby’s host family lives in a small village on a dirt road, yet they drive a mercedes.
-Women lead restricted lives – us female volunteers are frequently the only women in the cafe where we eat our lunch. I went for a run yesterday and got lots of stares.
-Albanians (at least those in Bishqem) do not use any spices besides salt….and we eat mounds of rice and noodles at every meal.
– There does not appear to be any public trash disposal system at all. anywhere.

Right now my head is too full of a murky soup of vocabulary, so these are my initial observations. Hopefully some photos and other, more coherent thoughts will come later….