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.
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!