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This past weekend I explored the Sheher neighborhood on the city’s periphery. The neighborhood of mostly stone homes and small farms sits on a small saddle behind the castle, up above the road out of town to Kallmet. The view of the surrounding landscape is a startling green and blue in the late Spring sun, and the surrounding pastoral fields made me feel far from the bustle of downtown below.

While exploring, I discovered an abandoned Ottoman era home in the midst of the winding paths of Lagja Sheher. As far as I know, it’s the only house of its age and quality in Lezhe and would have been the home for the large family of a pasha or other dignitary during the 18th and 19th centuries. While it is unfortunate that it is falling in today, the entropic state of the house has a mysterious charm, recalling scenes from the Secret Garden and inspiring the series of photos that follows.

Today my six-month USAID Small Projects Assistance grant project came to an end with a grand celebration of reading, books, and community.

After purchasing needed books back in December with grant funds, I worked with Yllka and the library staff to implement the second phase of our project, a month-long book drive that ended today. All in all, we collected over 1,000 new and used books for the library, an outpouring that is amazing for the first book drive ever in the Lezhe community. Each book donated was given a stamp, specific to the project, with a place for the donator to sign their name.

Today, at the celebratory event, we had all the books on display. The library staff prepared a small program including a poem recitation, a musical interlude, the first showing of a brief documentary about the library’s programs (produced by the Bashkia), and a presentation by myself and my country director who came out from Tirana for the day. It was wonderful to see almost everyone I know in Lezhe in one room – Bashkia staff, school directors, students, friends – gathered together in support of this project that my counterpart and I have worked so hard on for so long. And, the soft-spoken yet eloquent Gjergj Shyti (library director) specifically made mention in his remarks of the fact that I was leaving soon and wished me luck with all future endeavors….and then everyone clapped. It was a memorable, fun and heartwarming end to one of my most successful projects during my time as a PCV.

Lori, one of my Outdoor Ambassadors students who also recited a poem at the event, came up to me afterwards and said “you know Laura, a lot of people will miss you when you leave.” I’ve been so fortunate to be part of such a vibrant community here in Lezhe…and I’m going to miss these people a lot, too.

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!

Here in Albania (well, at least in Lezhe) it finally feels like Spring. I’m sure there are cold snaps to come and much of the country is still melting out from the snow of three weeks ago, but, for me, life is comfortable again and I’m enjoying the change in the weather.

This photo is from the first real warm day, Feb. 28th, on a small beach north of Shengjin spending the day on the sand with friends. Thanks to Adam for passing it along!

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!

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!

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

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.

About two weeks ago my counterpart Yllka and I learned that a grant proposal we submitted in early October for a project benefiting the local library was selected for funding. This is our second Small Projects Assistance (SPA) project funded through USAID/Peace Corps and its implementation should carry me through until my close of service in May. Yllka and I along with the library staff are all amazed at the number of people involved and committed to making this project a reality.

We designed the project both to encourage community involvement in the library and to support their purchase of books in Albanian that are in line with the curriculum and summer reading lists of the high school. The budget of the library is poor, and even though they have a nice building, they have been unable to purchase books for almost two years. Most of what exists in the collection remains from before the fall of communism and is in bad repair.

After the initial book purchase to supplement the library’s collection, the second phase of our project will kick in – a book drive in the Lezhe community for one month prior to April 23rd, 2012, World Book Day. Book drives are a relatively new thing for Albania, and, in general, Albanians own very few books. However, I’m optimistic that this project will be successful (with the right amount of promotion) in Lezhe. At the very least, it will be an opportunity to both promote the idea of giving back to your library and to increase volunteerism in the community – all while benefiting the public library and readership in Lezhe the city and the region. We have already identified several willing community partners to help organize the drive, and our hope is that the overall participants will include the general public as well as local schools, NGOs and churches.

Working to design this project with the library staff has been one of the more enjoyable work experiences I’ve had so far in country. They’re all fun to be around, and it’s refreshing to see people so dedicated to making their work environment a better place, even with such limited resources. Even outside the library, when Yllka and I went around town to speak with other NGOs and the schools about the project when we were applying, it was like going around and having coffees with all of my friends – I already had worked with most of the people involved. The small town-ness of Lezhe and my place within it is really coming out in all aspects of my life.

On my first day back at work last week, Yllka and I went to tell the Library staff that we had won the money. It was such a festive occasion – I’ve never seen a group of people more appreciative and eager to begin working on something….I just hope that all of our energy can hold through April!