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Today is my first day of work as a PCV. When I look back and imagine what I thought my life would be like before getting on the plane in New York, I could not have imagined anything like this…

The last two weeks have been a wonderful blur full of fun and frenzy. I returned from site visits and was in a bit of an unexplainable funk for a few days. I think it was that I both got a glimpse of the freedom that will come after leaving my host family, but the reality of post-training isolation and the extreme individual nature of each person’s PC experience also really hit me. This feeling ebbed as I got back into the groove of training and spent more time with my fellow trainees celebrating the good weather, last language classes (my language proficiency exam went well, by the way!), last hikes in the mountains around Bishqem, last meals with our host families, last training sessions, last days all together as a group and first moments as official peace corps volunteers (no longer trainees!). I feel so lucky to be with the talented and fun training class I am in and I already miss those friends who are far away.

The last days with the host family were emotional and exhausting. Razie (mama) and Jerina (motra ime/my sister) were a bit teary whenever we talked about how I was leaving right after the swearing in ceremony in Elbasan on Thursday. I packed up my stuff and left my room with a view and the farm for good, though not after witnessing a chicken be killed for my going away dinner (had escaped this until now) or having presents such as home made olive oil and millions of fresh-from-the-tree apricots (kajsi in shqip) given to me to take with me. I politely refused the oil as, after ten weeks of very greasy food, I plan to use as little oil as possible in all future cooking adventures.

All the volunteers in Pajove/Bishqem hosted a small gathering at a lokal owned by Brittany’s host family on the last night…and it naturally included some good Albanian fun – circle dancing (this is a phenomenon that happens anytime there is a “fest” of any kind in Albania – weddings, parties, anything…). It was a fun last week, but now I am reeling from and reveling in the freedom of being able to choose what I eat and when I sleep and where I go for the first time in 10 weeks.

Bishqemers....with a few extras in the background

On Thursday morning the 50 of us trainees gathered at the skampa theater in downtown Elbasan with all the Peace Corps staff, the ambassador, current PCVs, host families and local dignitaries for our swearing in ceremony. Many of us including myself brought all our heavy bags (which now have the additional weight of water filters and language books) with us to the theater so we could catch buses to our sites afterwards. After about an hour, we took the oath and swore our allegiance to all things peace corps. This was followed by pictures and a long afternoon (actually, all afternoon and evening) at our local hangout/bar – gramellis. I spent the night in Elbasan with six fellow G13ers at a friend’s apartment before heading out early Friday to go camping in Dhermi with a bunch of PCVs – new and old(er). In all it was a fun and celebratory day – very fitting for the end of our training. We’ve had a wild ride during PST with a few injuries and people having to move host families around, so it’s good news that we all made it to the volunteer stage in one piece…apparently this does not happen often in other PC countries? I also only found out where I was going to move to in Lezhe on Thursday after swearing in, so that was an additional relief worth celebrating.

With Jerina and Razie post-swearing in

I think the Dhermi trip deserves its own post, so I will fill you in on that later. But, meanwhile – I am now in Lezhë and am starting to get a handle on what I will be doing here. I’ll have a LOT more time to email, skype, etc. in the coming weeks….if you want to get in touch face to face let me know. Also – my address that I sent out in an email officially works (thanks mom for the package!) so – send away if you want!

Thanks to all of you who helped me make the decision and prepare to come to Albania. I am so thankful I have the opportunity to be here!

My site visit to Lezhe last week was wonderful. I traveled up with my counterpart, Yllka, and my sitemate, Jen (a health volunteer). I had a lot of fun with Jen and feel very fortunate to have Yllka as a counterpart. Being my “counterpart” means that she will be my main colleague and contact for all the projects I accomplish in Albania, whether in the Bashkia (local govt office) or secondary projects outside of the office.

Bashkia e Lezhes - my future office

While in Lezhe I met almost all the people who work in the Bashkia as well as representatives from the local World Vision and Red Cross offices and a few other local NPOs. There is a lot going on in the city, and it seems like a very progressive town (the first recycling program I have seen!) with a culture that is noticeably more Italian-influenced than Elbasan.

Some highlights: We were able to spend a half day at the beach, hike up to the castle above town, and visit the local library (very nice) and Skanderbeg memorial as well as drink many many cups of coffee at the bars down by the river. I had a great time and can’t wait to go back in a few short weeks! I got to see my potential apartment and it’s a great place for a visit….hint hint….

Jen and I above Lezhe. Taken at the castle.

the beach nearby....would be incredible if there were no trash

the less glamorous side of town - view from the entrance of my potential future apartment building

As the end of training approaches, so does our language proficiency interview. This spoken interview is required of all PC trainees worldwide, and here in Albania we are all preparing. We’ve covered most of the grammar we are going to get to and now need to review tenses, cases and practice speaking about the Peace Corps, our daily routines, what we do for work, etc.

It’s odd that once you learn the more complex parts of Albanian grammar (they have these personal pronoun abbreviations called clitics that are wicked confusing) the more dumb I feel. It’s supposed to make more sense as we go along, right? Wrong. Though I know I am making great progress, I think I have more of a knowledge of what I have been doing wrong all along and that stresses me out a little.

Thinking back to the few weeks before I left for Albania (now seems like so long ago!), I know many of you asked me about the language. At the time I didn’t have any real answers because I had no idea what I was getting myself into. Yes – Albanian is its own strain of the indo-european language group. No – I don’t know anything else about it. No – I probably won’t use it after the peace corps because only about 5million people in Kosovo, Albania, Greece and the US speak it.

In the spirit of sharing what we are all going through, I’d like to point out a few of the oddities of learning Shqip (or “languages shqip” as my host sister calls it) as an English speaker:

1. Many words are the same but mean different things.

  • For example: pullë (postage stamp), pulë (hen), and pyll (forest) are all pronounced exactly the same. An ë on the end of a word is usually silent.
  • Djath= both cheese and left
  • Qep = to sew and onion
  • Vesh = to get dressed and ear
  • Qai (to cry) and çai (tea) are pronounced exactly the same
  • Pres= both to cut and to wait
  • The word for foot and leg are the same, the words for fingers and toes are the same, the word for niece/nephew and grandchild are the same. On the other hand, Shqip has two words for Aunt and two words for Uncle – distinguishing between the mothers and the fathers side.

2. There are many many short words in Albanian. You can form entire sentences with two letter words. These don’t make any sense, but just for example: Unë do të ha me ty dhe do të lë me të. (I am going to eat with you and leave with him). Ai ka një dhi të re që ka një sy të zi. (he has a new goat with one black eye). If you haven’t already noticed, the word të can be a personal pronoun, an article for an adjective (depending on the case), an article for possession, and is part of any future tense or subjunctive tense verb. These can all occur in the same sentence.

3. Cases. Clitics. Cases. Albanian has five cases. This means nouns can potentially have 10 different endings. Clitics are these short forms of accusative and dative pronouns that are really unique but very annoying. For example: “e di” means “I know it.” It is the short form of “Unë e di atë.” The little “e” is a short form of “atë” and must go before the verb – it’s a clitic! Surprise, you can say the pronoun twice at once, but don’t need to except sometimes….if you are confused, so am I.

4. Plurals are so confusing….when I am listening to people speak it is very difficult to pick out what is plural and what isn’t. Most of the time it seems like words are made plural by adding an “ë” to the end. To review: when ë is added to the end of a word it is silent. Sweet.

5. Some favorite words:

bubullimë = thunder
xizëlloj = lightning bug
udhëkryq = crossroads
byrzylyk = bracelet
buzëkuqi = lipstick
shkëlqyeshem = great!
shumëngjureshë = mulitcolored
kikirik = peanut

On the up side, I met my Albanian counterpart yesterday and we were able to communicate almost entirely in Shqip for about an hour about work and life. I think we exhausted my vocabulary in that time, but at least we understood each other okay. I am off to Lezhe for a 3 day visit today to meet people and check out the city before I move for real in about 2.5 weeks.

Tuesday was our community project in Bishqem. All the training groups are supposed to do a community project in their site, but because the TEFL and health volunteers do a lot of additional practice teaching and workshops in their sites for us COD volunteers there’s a bit more weight placed on our project design and management process. We worked with the whole 8th and 9th grade in the Bishqem school (about 150 kids) and, with the help of a few Peace Corps staff, two of our host sisters, and a few of the teachers at the school we were able to pull off a successful poster competition. Our theme was “Ne Jemi Bishqemi” (we are Bishqem) and we asked the kids to reflect on what they like about where they live. We wanted to encourage a bit of community self-reflection because Bishqem is a town that most people who live here leave and does not currently have a lot of opportunities for development. We actually ended up with some great posters, and afterwards we had prizes and played a bit of volleyball and football with the kids outside. While it’s hard to know what the sustainable outcome of the project will be, it was a lot of fun.

Last weekend a group of us from Bishqem and a few of the other small training sites west of Elbasan in the foothills traveled to the one training site east of the city in the mountains, Librazhd. The trainees in Librazhd are a little spoiled in my opinion. First of all, unlike rural Bishqem, Librazhd is actually a city of about 12,000 people. There are actual stores and banks in this town. Secondly, the mountains surrounding on all sides are gorgeous.

A group of five of us hiked up along a few ridges up over the town for the better part of the day. We climbed a good ways up above the city and could almost glimpse a peak in nearby Macedonia. This is such a small country! And, because we were close to the border, there were tons of bunkers left over from the communist era. Supposedly enough bunkers were built during the 1960s and 70s so that the entire population of Albania could be inside them. All that preparation for an invasion that never came. These bunkers are everything from a small cement shelter to a tunnel built into the mountain to store tanks. Though they are pretty ugly, on a hike in the hills they are open and ready for exploring. In the usa they would be blocked up and off limits in no time, while here they are almost like public shelters – often full of sheep poo from farmers who bring their animals up the hills. The large ones near Bishqem are closer into town and now function as barns, garages and storage facilities.

Librazhd from above

Something I hope to get more involved with here is the mapping of trails in Albania. A few other pcvs have started a website called bunkertrails.com and are starting to upload good hiking trails via GPS. Tourism development is one of Albania’s huge opportunity areas and one that I will most likely be working in quite a bit.

Adam, Me, Matthew, Libby

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…

_______________

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.

Yesterday was one of the most exciting days so far here in Albania. In a process not dissimilar from med school match day or greek bid days (and with an equal amount of anticipation and hype), all us trainees were ceremoniously handed envelopes that we opened to reveal our hometowns for the next two years. Most of us had zero clue where – mountains, beach, city, village, etc. – we would end up. I will be moving to Lezhe and working with the Bashkia (local government office) there. Lezhe is in the north on the coast, about halfway between Tirane and Montenegro. It’s a city of about 29,00, and everything I’ve heard is positive so far. The volunteers who live there now and will be leaving soon seem to love it and do a lot of great progects. Other points of interest about Lezhe:

-Beach is 8km away (totally bikeable), but the mountains of the north are very close as well

-there is a lot going on in the city for a COD volunteer to get involved with right away….also USAID, UNDP and World Vision have pretty strong presences there in the city

-I will most likely be helping the current COD volunteer out with some summer camps with Roma kids when I first get there

– burial place of Skanderbeg, who defended albania against the turks in the 1400s. the current flag of albania is modeled after his flag.

– there’s a castle

I am excited. AND – though it means we have to split up and all go to our sites in May, I am glad to know where everyone is going so that I can plan visits!

More about Lezhe here

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!

On the bus, at home, in the furgon (minibus taxi-ish public transport), in restaurants, even in language class, it’s as if the techno heart of all that is flashy and culturally insane about American pop music and Italian dance tunes thumps out a rythym to daily life. Techno is everywhere. In the last two weeks I have watched and absorbed more music videos and heard more bizarre remixes of American songs simply through osmosis from my daily routine.

My host sister likes to dance while she does housework (which she does for many hours each day…the house is spotless). She will come into the kitchen in the afternoons while I am studying at the table and turn on the TV to the “Folk Plus” channel – all Albanian music videos all the time – and then promptly grab my hand and we’ll laugh and do three rounds of the Albanian wedding circle dance around the room. This is a dance the language teachers taught us the last night we stayed in the hotel during orientation, and it appears to be the one dance all Albanians know how to do.

Let me back up and just say that weddings here are a BIG deal. This is evident by the fact that at least 80% of the music videos on TV that are Albanian are set at a wedding but also in the fact that my host family talks about their older children’s recent weddings all the time (recent as in 4 years ago). I have watched the 1.5 hour wedding video of their son Bairam and have been asked multiple times why, at age 22, I am not married. Apparently the traditional Albanian wedding is a multiple day event that takes place in both the hometown of the groom and the bride. In Elbasan there are more wedding stores than seems appropriate for a city of around 100,000, and it’s doubtful that many can afford what is inside. In addition, Susan’s host sister here in Bishqem is 16 and engaged, so we get a lot of local wedding gossip in the village as well. So far, I am all weddinged out.

So – learning the wedding dance and spinning around the room with Jerina is fun, but in a way that underlines the differences between her expectations for the future and mine. Instead of focusing on the wedding itself, I would rather talk with her about the life that comes after the wedding (or before), and the way she wants to lead her life in or outside Albania in the future.