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Out here in northeastern Turkey, life has a different pace. On the high plains surrounding remote Lake Çıldır on the border wıth Georgia near the city of Kars, June days cater to the cycle of the livestock’s needs, wıth time for a few çay in between.

Adam is patiently teaching me to drive our manual rental car, but I’m still learning the art of idling in first without stalling – a feat which almost failed me while working our way around the lake and stopping for the many herds of cattle that crossed our path. While spluttering through the hamlet of Çanaksu in the early evening, we stopped to observe almost the entire village out in the road herding and slapping the cows in every which way between the drying piles of peat and earthen-roofed homes. Definitely a team sport – even the toddlers were involved.

While we were stopped, one of the locals came up to our window, gesturing that he wanted to invite us into his earthen home for çay, or tea – the Turkish equivalent of the omnipresent Albanian coffee. We pulled over and sat for a while in his sittıng room as his wife prepared tea and even a fried egg or two. Knowing about ten words of Turkish combined, Adam and I weren’t able to communicate much, but enjoyed the conversation nonetheless and, in a moment highly reminiscent of Albania, were shown all the family wedding photos by beaming hosts.

After a while (and when the cows were finally under control, I’m sure), a few curious neighbors came over to try their hand at communicating with us….and, before long we looked up and two French long-distance bikers en route from France to Nepal had also been invited in to tea. With their skills at both English and Turkish, we were finally able to talk a bit with our hosts in a roundabout way….but still managed to miscommunicate the fact that no, we did not need two liters of milk freshly milked for us, but yes, we’d love to watch you milk the cows. We came away from the experience a bit more caffienated from all the tea, with way more fresh milk than we knew what to do with, and with wonderful memories of a boundless hospitality and the unique mix of cultures that can come if you take the time to stall out behind a herd of cattle.

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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.

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!

A few weeks ago I went on a long day hike with Kim and Jeff near Gramsh to a help Jeff photograph a local tourist site for a website he’s been working on. Our destination: a rickety bridge across the entrance of one of Albania’s beautiful canyons. Too bad the water was cold and conditions were snowy, or we could have swum into and explored the canyon within.

Kim was brave enough to make it across first – step by step. Not as rickety as it looks, but the wood does creak ominously.

What none of us could figure out was – where does this bridge go to? It seems to be in the middle of nowhere, and not convenient to anyone as the river is easily fordable (well…we did get a little wet) just downstream. Also – one side is a basic dead end into a forbidding uphill slope. A man we encountered on our hike back to the road claimed his village was up that hill….but it seems that no one uses the bridge to get there anymore. Seems like it would be great to jump off of for a summer swim….

Just another day in the life of helping develop tourism resources in Albania.

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:

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.

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