More photos! check 'em out at:

Friday, December 5, 2008

Turkey Day and Lentil Loaf (thanks Tauschia)

Thanksgiving has come and gone, the first of two we will celebrate during our service. My burri and I had a great time up in the capitol city, sharing an elaborate meal with some other PCVs at Jan’s house (our program manager) and two Albanian staff members.

I actually took the bus to Tiranё a few days early, unfortunately skipping out on one of the HIV/AIDS lessons we’ve been doing in the schools. Although the Albanians I’m working with are fully capable of doing the lessons on their own, (and thankfully improving each time) I still felt bad for breaking the promise to be there like so many Albanians have done to me. But I had a good reason! Actually, on Sunday morning I went for a run out toward the villages, just like I had done every other day for several months before the marathon, however on this day there was a pack of angry stray dogs out in the fields. As I passed the first village (too small to have a name) five of these dogs came barreling out, bearing their teeth, and went straight after me. I had no time to do anything but scream; two of them didn’t hesitate to grab me, one by the leg and another by the thumb. I’m pretty lucky they didn’t do more damage. Fortunately either my screaming scared them or the people emerging from their houses scared them, but they finally backed off a little, subsiding to only barking fiercely. I literally limped away, broke into a sob, and was immediately taken into the nearest family’s home to drink coffee and be nursed. My shqip skills were at a complete loss, I felt terrible for inconveniencing them, embarrassed for crying in public, and in a fair amount of pain.

Luckily, as a health volunteer I happen to have the best contacts for such a situation. I called Chris and quickly asked that he call my counterpart (also a surgeon), who swiftly picked me up and took me to the hospital. He cleaned and bandaged me, then gave me two shots in the butt. I’m only pointing out that location because everyone has been asking if I got them in the stomach, which I certainly did not. I later called the PC doctor who asked me to come to Tiranё asap so he could look at the wounds and make sure I had the proper meds—thus I ended up going a few days early. ;)

The next morning I did attend our scheduled HIV lesson before catching an early afternoon bus heading north. Gjirokastёr is a good 6.5 hours from the capitol, assuming they don’t stop for any extended breaks, so I arrived well after the sun disappeared (not too hard this time of year). After meeting with the doctor, who took one look at me and assured me that I would live, I stayed the night with one of the staff members and her husband, two RPCVs who served together in Macedonia. They are both vegetarians, so we ate delicious veggie chili with home-baked cornbread muffins. Ahh does it get rougher than that? (!)

I killed a day wandering around the city and the office, then a bunch of other PCVs flooded in for dinner and a career fair at the embassy. Peace Corps arranged for us to meet with various people from the State department, NGOs, and various international organizations, during which they described their jobs, how they got there, and let us play 20 questions with them. I learned a bit more about options for my future, but mostly took away with me those that I absolutely do not want and don’t even have to worry about, which is surprisingly satisfying.

Finally Thanksgiving! A whole crew of us camped out at Jan’s house the night before, eating pizza and staying awake well into the morning engrossed in a Grey’s Anatomy marathon. Everyone contributed to the meal, cooking their own family’s traditional fare to compliment our American-grown turkey (+ stuffing+ canned cranberry). That turkey really did get shipped from America—somehow our country director got roped into driving to Macedonia to pick up a shipment of like 86 frozen turkeys that were supplied to all federal workers. Can you imagine?! Albania’s streets are flooded with those ugly birds and yet the expats still import them from the US. Maybe they don’t know how to cook them without the complimentary thermometer that *pops*!
The next day Chris and I were going to accompany a bunch of friends going north, to Pukё, in order to celebrate Monica’s birthday. Unfortunately, we missed the bus and weren’t able to go, so instead we spent the night out with other volunteers at an amusement park (imagine those fairs that appear in grocery store parking lots)

followed by blue-light bowling. Actually, it turned out to be a pretty good night. I learned that I am in fact a terrible bowler.

The next day Chris and I made the journey south to Thanё, to celebrate our host-sister’s 21st birthday. We stayed two nights, reminiscing about village life, and having two large dinner parties with our extended family. We made brownies from a box—something that amazed and delighted our sister, who absolutely loves the brownies and home baked cookies we introduced her to. You know, because we put actual sugar in them, a new concept. There is a big difference between a chewy oatmeal raisin cookie and a packaged, hard, cardboard-like biscuit.

(chris and our gjyshja, with serxhio in back)

Eventually we made it back home. It was much warmer up north, a nice break, and now we’re back in the cold, rainy south. Its not so bad-- kind of miserably funny. Every day we have rain storms—sometimes I feel like I’m in the Truman Show, where someone beyond my world is flicking a switch and turning the storms on and off at will… For dinner one night we shared a box of TJ’s Indian food, wearing gloves and laughing at our foggy breath between bites.

Our HIV/AIDS project seems to be falling apart this week. My counterparts made no progress during the week I was gone, and the directors of the schools previously failed to mention that the students are busy this Friday, when our contest was panned for. So… we’ll see what happens. It will likely get pushed back to January. But that’s better than never!

This week the kids from our high school group put on some plays in the old theater (in general every Albanian city has an old theater, but they are virtually never used). The students were all divided by language class and performed fairy tales in various languages, including Greek, French, and English. The English students did Rumpelstiltskin, with sort of a poetic edge. Chris, Greg, Allan, and I sat through the entire dress rehearsal on Wednesday-- yet another peek into the cultural differences between Albanian and American schools.
For one, the director never lowered his voice below a thundering shout, though its very hard to tell if he was actually mad because Albanians typically speak to each other by screaming. But also the students are notoriously rowdy. No matter what the teachers does or how loud they yell the students really do rule the school; its very much an Eastern European version of Dangerous Minds. Albanian boys are hilariously homogeneous, every single one of them dresses in the same fighter jacket, gels their hair the same, and emulates a James Dean demeanor as best they can. Girls express a little more variation; though the typical female is currently wearing the uniform of tight jeans tucked into high boots with a fur-lined jacket, some of the girls in our group actually have knock-off Converse and slightly alternative black eyeshadow. I see a revolution coming.

Anyway, successful week, busy yet I'm not. Made it to the youth center and did math activities with the kids; police English lesson; English medical terminology lesson with the nurses; co-translated/edited a grant for an orphan center in Tepelena; went to Delvine to attend Alexi's HIV/AIDS contest-- what a production! Next week: Elbasan for Inter Service and Language Training. At least a nice break from the cold. ;)

Wednesday, November 12, 2008


Here's a panoramic view from the Acropolis!

On Sunday I completed the Original Marathon in Athens, Greece! It took a grueling 4.5 hours and turned out to be the most challenging, painful, exhausting, exhilarating, I’m-actually-going-to-die experience of my life, but I survived! Thanks to everyone who followed along and wished me well, and thanks for reading, too!

Last week Chris, Bethany (our PCV friend who lives in the north of Albania), and I took an overnight bus to Athens, arriving in the crowded capitol around 7 a.m. Greek-time, and began exploring the city via metro. A metro, really! After 8 months in Albania it was a surreal experience to be thrown forward in time to modern transport… ;) We arranged to meet a couchsurfer host whose floor we could crash on; he is a university exchange student from Lithuania, and a metal-head. The first day and night we went to the National Archaeology Museum, full of the oldest pottery, metalwork, and statues from Greece and its many islands (except the Cycladic, which is another culture and museum altogether), wandered around the touristy but beautiful Plaka district (which is full of expensive restaurants and endless shops of kitsch), and even dined on sushi!

Despite Athens’ urban sprawl and inner-city feeling, I fell in love right away upon noticing that on every single street corner sits a giant green recycle bin for paper/aluminum/plastic/glass, in addition to several larger machines that pay back for household waste and even batteries!! Oh if only Albania will look to Greece for inspiration…. ;)

The following morning Greg, Monica, and Amanda arrived on the bus and after settling them into another couchsurfer’s home (two volunteers from Budapest, very nice slightly Bohemian girls) we set off for the Acropolis and general wandering of the city. Sitting on the top of the hill we took in a 360° view of Athens, which stretched out far beyond our eyes could see; an unavoidable yet frightening display of rampant urban-sprawl. Virtually every square foot has been overrun by development, mostly in the form of enormous concrete apartment blocks squeezed together, giving the appearance of modern Los Angeles blended with Cairo’s density. The few areas of green space left now are the ruins surrounding the Acropolis, the Church on the Hill (opposite), and the National Gardens.

After wandering through the beautifully lush National Gardens, which is deceptively moderate in size, but seems much larger because of the many twisting pathways encircling numerous fountains, gazebos, an outdoor zoo, a café, etc., we found our way to the Byzantine Museum. We decided not to go into the museum because no one wanted to pay full price for the entrance fee (yeah! Peace Crops Albania!), but instead toured the “special exhibit” housed across the courtyard. It was a total bust—titled “Un-Built” but really just an excuse as to why the building was under construction. The pieces of “art” downstairs were disappointing to say the least, sa keq.

Otherwise, we hung out mostly around Syntagma Square, a central and lively open space at the foot of the Greek parliament building and at the head of the shopping district. Surrounding the square is a large, fancy hotel (where we sought haven and toilets, and conveniently found a secluded downstairs lobby with plush couches to play cards on), a McDonald’s (I won’t name names but there were McFlurries afoot), and an awesome 4-story electronic/music/book store called Public. We took several mental-health breaks to sit and browse the literature and art books (oh I miss Borders/ Barnes and Noble).

One of the best things about Greece is the food! Granted, Greek food is pretty similar to Albanian food in terms of suflaçё/suflaki, byrek/spanikopita, and salad, but at least here in the capitol there are zillions of bakeries with fresh pastries, sweets, breads, and best of all: baklava! We do have baklava in Gjirokastёr, but it’s only considered a Christmastime treat so you have to buy it from a package in the grocery store. In Athens it sits proudly displayed in the shop windows; crispy layers smothered in thick honey and nuts, and formed in at least a dozen shapes and sizes. My mouth waters every time I pass by a display, but for the week before the marathon I restricted all sweets so I could only vicariously enjoy them through Chris and Bethany. [Though they promised they would have a post-run baklava party with me too! ] Another fabulous food here is the fresh sesame pretzel ring, sold by street vendors on every other block. While pretty much just a cheap ring of bread, during my pre-run carbo-loading phase they really hit the spot. 

And now for the marathon run:

We had moved to a different couchsurfer’s home-- a young, female DJ studying to be a sound technician at the university, also into an alternative music scene and our first Greek friend. Chris and Bethany went out for dinner and drinks with Touf (our hostess) while I went to bed early; I woke at 5:30 to double check my belongings, cram down a bowl of cereal, and run out to the metro in order to meet Monica and Greg at Syntagma. Along with thousands of other eager runners we boarded the shuttle bus taking us to the starting line, 42 km away in Marathonas. Our nervousness grew as we realized how steep the hills were that we would have to climb. Gathering at the start were thousands of people, some in normal clothing but most in chic athletic wear, brightly colored running shoes, Powerade belts… Several teams wore matching shirts and jackets, one man wore a blue spandex/ red cape “Marathon Man” outfit, one woman wore a toga with a tiara of olive branches…

At 9 we were off! All runners were issued a chip for our shoes to record our times as we stepped across the floor markers. It took me 2 minutes just to get to the starting line. Monica, Greg, and I pinned bright red and black Albanian flags on our backs, proudly showing our support for Shqipariё. We started out really slow, being carried by the thick crowd, and were aided by water stations every 2 km. Every other station doled out Powerade, which I tried hard not to guzzle but desperately needed the caloric help to keep my legs going. [Our trio split up right away and I wouldn’t see the others again until well after the finish line.] The route seemed much longer than anything I prepared for, which I chalk up to the fact that I did not train for hills and there were many steep inclines we had to crawl over. There was one very sheer downhill drop that I put all my concentration into not tripping and quickly flew down, whizzing by a few hundred runners and giving me an adrenalin rush. The day was pretty hot—I usually run at 6 am, but the afternoon heat was bearing down here—so I kept my hat on most of the time (thanks Cam and Donna!).

For the first hour or two I was listening to a fast music mix. Sometimes Brandon’s band (The Munchausens) would come up and I would think of him and all the people who I knew would be so proud of me. Eventually I switched it to Democracy Now! and Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me! podcasts, catching up on the post-election news and thankfully distracting attention away from my exhaustion.

At km 30, which didn’t come fast enough, Chris, Bethany, and Amanda were waiting on the sidelines to cheer us along. I stopped briefly to say hi and throw some bars and gels into their hands, treats I had gathered from the water stations but couldn’t eat without fear of throwing them up right away. [I’ll try to post the short video of our rendez-vous on youtube] There were bystanders in clumps along the entire route, clapping and cheering for everyone, but it was so uplifting to finally have my own team there-- though by that point I was so delirious I could hardly think.

From km 30-38 my entire body went numb; I could hardly feel the pain, just concentrate on climbing each progressively larger hill. At this point we were back in the city, running up the highway. Unfortunately, during this period a man directly in front of me fell face forward and I witnessed him suffer a heart attack. A group of us stopped to try and help him, but we couldn’t do anything except get the paramedics to him as soon as possible (medics were stationed every quarter mile or so)—scary!!

The last 4 km were the absolute worst. I felt so sick and tired I couldn’t think straight. Just one foot and then another. I think I was almost in tears because I wanted it all to end so badly. But eventually the crowds and buildings became denser and I saw signs pointing toward the stadium. I steadily carried on, pushing through the barricaded path up into the arena, crossing the finish line at exactly 4 hours, 29 minutes, and 16 seconds. Every runner was awarded a medal, a gold emergency blanket (I thought this was a decorative congratulations cape! Ha!), and a recovery bag with Powerade and bars.

Monica and Greg came in a few minutes after me--- I don’t know when I passed them but I was just as thrilled to greet them at the finish line. I had been ok after the run-- stretched for a bit and caught my breath, but as soon as we sat down I became nauseas and couldn’t stand up or eat/ drink anything. In retrospect, I probably should have forced a few bites of something during the run, because for the next 3 days my stomach retched in pain and I couldn’t eat all those tasty sinful foods (like baklava) that I had been excited for. I’ll have to check up on marathon sites to seek advice on how to prevent this if I ever run again…

So there we were! Our trio completed the run in less than 5 hours, and spent the rest of the day recouping. Chris, Bethany, and I went out for a late night dinner with Touf at The Food Company, enjoying some of the most delicious food we’ve had since leaving America. On Monday we took the metro to the sea side—the port of Piraeus where dozens of cruise ships dock. It was dirty and kind of bland, so we came back and hung out at Touf’s for awhile before rushing off to the bus station.
And then we flew back in time. Literally. Albania is one hour behind Greece, so we gained a little more sleep before another day as a PCV. But we also, once again, said goodbye to advanced technology, international trade and ideology, racial diversity, and generally a more global and open mentality. We had a really good vacation, and are a little more inspired to help bring Albania closer to its neighbor.

Hope you all had a great weekend! I posted photos from the trip on my web album:

** These were ripped right from the website:

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Oh the leaves are turning....!

This was a drawing Chris made during PST

Life in Gjirokaster is changing with the season--- officially we've said our goodbyes to the long, hot summer days and we're adjusting to life bundled up indoors in the cold. Although we're actually having a warmer and drier week, a thick layer of intimidating fog usually hovers across the city and blanketing the valley (where I run the the mornings, creating a bizarre and alt. reality) until mid-day...

Even more so, social life has shifted now that one of our sitemates ETed and was swiftly replaced by a PCV from Georgia, one of 8 who was evacuated a few weeks ago. His name is Allan, he's from Brooklyn, and he works with an NGO in the Old Town. Now Chris, Greg,and Allan work closely together, coordinating development projects, playing ambassadors between their offices who simply refuse to communicate (despite their similar goals), and generally brainstorming ways to improve tourism in the city. In the evenings they've come with me down to the new Red Cross Community Center to help paint pretty pictures on the walls, transforming the former disco into a place for disadvantaged youth and elders to congregate. They recently installed a few computers and couches, and when they open (tentatively scheduled for the end of October) I'm going to begin life skills and computer courses, and Greg may chip in some english classes.

I also completed the longest run yet--- 24 miles! I did it Saturday morning/afternoon (it took me 4.5 hours) and now I feel totally prepared for the big day in Athens... We were going to go hiking over the mountains to Delvine the next day, but (fortunately for me) the weather was cloudy and we didn't venture on the 16 mile jaunt uphill...! My legs were happy to rest. :)

We did celebrate a going-away party at Kujtim's, a veggie-option restaurant in the Old Town, in honor of our Austrian friend and long-time Gjirokaster resident who is moving up to Shkoder. Now both OSCE staff members are gone (Carla left last month), though he did get a replacement with whom we will hopefully bond. Its just unfortunate because these two people have worked here for quite awhile and were still in the process of introducing us to influential people and friends, now we're on our own.

On Monday we had an official pushim [holiday] so after I went running I hopped on a furgon to Delvine (closer to the coast, about 1.15 hours) to hang out and stay the night with Monica and Alexi. We made the traditional visit to their friend's house, where we were served plates of pomegranate-banana-apple-honey (great combo!) and a syrupy orange peel concoction. My landlady also makes these fruit syrups, hers with plums, though I've also seen watermelon peels, eggplant, and lemon. Pretty much anything can become syrup I suppose, and I presume these deserts are common throughout the region.

I'm going back this weekend, along with Megan, a PCV further south, to have an all-girl's party. I'm super excited! In the works are a Mexican feast, chocolate cake bakeout, endless conversation about how much we can't stand Sarah Palin (or McCaine), and a movie marathon.

So now the highlights I am looking forward to are: Girls' weekend in Delvine; Halloween bash in Elbasan (any costume ideas?); 2 a.m. election party on the 5th; and finally, running the marathon in Athens!!!
Never a dull moment. ;)

So on that note, I'd like to end this blog post with a call out for anyone who wants to help support me during my trip to Athens, and thus mental and physical health while serving my time as a volunteer here. ;) I approximate that with the registration fee (90 euro), bus (40 euro), and per diem (??euro), its going to be about $300 total. If you would like to send out an early Christmas gift or just because you love me, I would *greatly* appreciate donations made to my paypal account:

Thank you thank you and also thanks for reading! :)

Saturday, October 4, 2008

23 miles… check!

I did it! This morning I accomplished the previously unthinkable —I completed a 23 mile run and feel totally prepared to tackle the marathon next month. I’m so happy!

This time the run felt much easier and smoother than a few weeks ago when I did 20 mi; no terrible stomach cramps, no extreme exhaustion, no “ runner’s wall” (where one thinks they are running when in fact they are barely moving forward). I think because I didn’t let myself get as nervous and worked up-- just jumped into it-- and also I took 2 Ibuprofen before I set off, which probably prevented the cramps. I also ate and drank less, so I didn’t have all the liquid and solid weight sloshing around my stomach like it did last time, too.

Today’s weather was pretty funky, providing a whole new set of challenges than I’ve experienced. Early on the sky was partly cloudy with some intense bouts of sun (reminding me of Arizona), then, all of the sudden a dark cloud rolled over the mountain ridge, bringing with it a heavy downpour and a blanket of fog. Luckily, I was wearing a baseball cap (donated by Cam and Donna—thank you, thank you!) which happens to be waterproof, so I stuffed my Ipod shuffle into the top and was able to keep it (and my head and face) dry throughout. Of course, the rest of my body and clothes got completely soaked, causing passersby to freak out and demand that I go inside, my presence utterly dumbfounding to them. The rain lasted between miles 14- 16, dying down and then Whoosh! the sky cleared and the bright and shiny sun came back!

I was surprised to feel as energized as I was. At mile 14 I nursed a blueberry-pomegranate gel pack, and wasn’t hungry until mile 19, when I ate half of a Cliff bar. Otherwise, I chewed gum the whole way and drank only .5 liters of electrolyte water throughout.

Right around mile 19 the wind picked up; I somewhat bitterly contemplated its unpleasant timing, but consciously decided to toughen up and throw all my strength into the final stretch. As for body pains, when I run my legs are only sore from the knees down, especially around the ankles, and my feet go completely numb as they slam against the asphalt. When I got home I stretched and promptly applied ice while elevating my legs. Now I can look forward to an easy week, then one final push of 25 miles before “tapering down”.
In other news: Albania’s Prime Minister, Sali Berisha, came to Gjiro today, so the streets were absolutely flooded with police officers, blowing whistles and waving little stop signs in effort to direct traffic and display their authority.

I’ve recently noticed a surge in city projects around Gjirokastёr: the infamously disgusting public restrooms near the castle have been renovated (though still not open so I can’t verify), the New Town’s main road was re-asphalted, and this morning there were workers out along that road, filling in the meridian with soil and planting young saplings. What is this? I wondered. Lo and behold my Albanian sources tell me that elections are coming up soon, and it is tradition that the ruthless and corrupt mayor will carry out one string of visible projects near the end of his term, winning over popular votes and securing his seat in office. I’m disgusted because Gjiro’s mayor is particularly corrupt and already I’ve learned of several occasions when he has not only stolen money outright from international organizations that was meant to develop and improve the city, but also situations when he bribed (or tried to bribe) local organizations for the benefit and profit of his friends. Ugh I’ve been so wound up in political talk and debate in America from NPR and Democracy Now! podcasts that the absolute inescapability of corruption and evildoing just seems overwhelming, even from this tiny corner of the world. Are people everywhere evil, ignorant, and greedy? I feel so despaired.

Well, I don’t really want to leave you on that note, so I’ll just mention one interesting little side quip. Did you know that over 36,000 people around the world are aged over 100 years old? (According to BBC GlobalNews, see I told you I’m addicted to podcasts!) Well, Albania has an expression that is always said to wish someone a happy birthday: U Bёfsh Njё Qind Vjeç! [ May you live to be 100 years!] I’m thinking that pretty soon they will have to modify their language to wish people a much longer lifespan..!

Wednesday, October 1, 2008


OK its been a few weeks since I’ve gotten my act together and scripted an update of Albanian life, but much has happened so I’ll try to lay it all out as best I can remember---

First and foremost, summer has ended! We woke up one fine Sunday morning in Berat to a cloudy, rainy sky, and haven’t seen then sun since! In the mornings fog hovers across the city, hugging the castle and completely obscuring the enormous Lunxhёri mountain range we face across the valley. When I get up to go running I have to wear gloves and sometimes a jacket, pumping along a dark road, amazed at the dramatically altered landscape… I successfully finished a 20 mile run, now I’m shooting for one 22 and one 24 before the marathon in November—wish me luck!

Well, the second weekend of September marked Çobo’s annual wine festival (this is a beautiful winery in Berat that we visited with Arlene), where I participated by dressing up in traditional costume with a bunch of young girls and guys and dancing through the grape vines, then stomping grapes in the barrel, à la I Love Lucy…! There were tons of people from different international and local organizations, news crews, friends and family members, and of course PCVs. I was nervous to stomp the grapes—a friend told me that it was painful to step on the stems for 2 hours—but it ended up being a blast, feeling the squishy soft balls pop under my toes…

Pre-festival I was in Vlore, celebrating the birthday of a PCV friend; we had a pre-party gathering with a bunch of people, cooking a communal meal and hanging out at her ranch-style house that is surrounded by grape vines and guarded by several recently born puppies. She later went to Athens via bus (14 hours) to visit her grandparents, just in time for our out-of-country leave to open.

After the wine festival that weekend Chris and I hitchhiked back to Gjiro, welcoming the beginning of the school year. Not only did the weather flip 180°, but the streets are full of young students, flooding the New Town road by my office, and we’re eagerly anticipating the new winter vegetable crops available, like pumpkins, leeks, and supposedly spinach.

Later that week I was invited to join the G10 mid-service conference in Korçe to take part in the first Gender and Development committee meeting. We were put up in a hotel at the very top of a hill overlooking the city-- quite a hike-- and packed full of volunteers. At night we went out to various restaurants nearby, mostly Italian (volunteers never ever go for Albanian food if we can avoid it). After dinner some of us went to a super chic localё with a sparkling faux star ceiling and tasty hot chocolate, which I’ve decided will brighten the long winter season (the chocolate, not the stars!). I stayed another day in Korçe, hanging out with another PCV couple whom I really like, then took the 6 am bus home on Sunday.

I was only back in the office one day before notifying them I’d leave for Tiranё, where I’d be at a PC-sponsored HIV/AIDS conference with a counterpart. I took a Gjirokastrian doctor from the blood clinic, hoping to help educate and motivate him to develop future HIV awareness campaigns. Once again, I took the night bus, which unfortunately blasted music and lights all night and kept me from catching a wink of sleep. So, I arrived, groggy at 4:30 am at Skanderbeg Square, utterly lost in my search for the hotel. Luckily I’m female and still young enough to elicit immediate help from police, who escorted me there. I was able to crawl inside and drop off for an hour of shut eye before the conference began.

The conference lasted 3 days, set in the basement of our very nice jungle-themed hotel, and included almost all of the health volunteers + counterparts in addition to some TEFL PCVs. We were let free around 5 pm; the first night a large group of us went out to a nice restaurant near The Block, where the foreigners live. We had Mexican food, or at least an Albanian rendition thereof. Another girl and I had a great time the second night out with a couple we had met (at the wine festival) who work in the consulate office. One kick of being a PCV is getting to know lots of embassy and international organization professionals, and asking all sorts of career questions. Afterward we joined a going-away party for a friend of ours leaving her office at the OSCE, bound for America, during which many volunteers took advantage of the free drink tickets and then moved on to a karaoke bar. I had to cut out at that point—screaming drunken Albanian girls in a smoky, dark room is not my idea of fun. Whatever floats your boat I guess.

After the conference ended, most PCVs stayed in town one more night, and several more came in town to attend a picnic I had helped arrange to welcome the new Georgia volunteers. We are all excited to take on an additional 8 PCVs who were evacuated from Georgia last month; they have been living in Tiranё while taking an expedited Shqip language and Albanian culture course (3 months crammed into 5 weeks). Most of them will be dispersed to the south, and we are über-excited to be getting a new person in Gjirokastёr to replace Tara, who was the first of our group to ET (Early Terminate) last month.

So, several PCVs and I cooked up a bunch of food and we had an afternoon party (intended to be a picnic if it were not raining) at the PC office with G11, the Georgia crew, and various staff members. Another girl even coordinated people to knit scarves of red, black, and white yarn (red + black = Albanian; white + red = Georgian) as a gift for the newbies; someone gave a welcome speech and I swear we almost Kum Ba Ya-ed. Outside the party we did get a lot of time to hang out with them as well, hearing about their experiences of evacuation, a month holed up in Armenia, and now finally their impressions of Albania… Such a fun-filled weekend!
Now, I’m back here in Gjiro, trying to pick back up on this month’s work schedule. The Albanian health calendar dictates October as Healthy Foods Month, along with Breast Cancer Awareness Month, so I’m really hoping to get my counterparts to carry out the projects we’ve discussed, such as seminars with nurses from surrounding villages, and distributing a healthy Albanian cookbook around the market. It’s challenging here.

Today I gave my first English lesson to some of the nurses. It could have gone worse. We’ll see how much they retain.

And finally, this week we have been surprised with endless music festivals from various organizations! In the morning there was an artisan festival with several artists from around the country, along with a parade and cannons, and later fireworks in the night. We were shocked that despite so little assurance or planning, various groups had coordinated traditional dancers and musicians, as well as a collection of international classical music ensembles, to perform at several venues. Some were set up in the stadium behind the mosque, others up in the castle, and still more downhill in the crowded New Town. None of the festivals are related, in fact I think they probably detracted the number of audience members by competing for time, but maybe they’ll keep that in mind next year.

That’s it for now—Ja Kalofshni Mire! [ lit; Pass the time well!]

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Camping in Puke

So I haven’t updated on the last excursion we took, 2 weekends ago. Chris and I boarded a night bus bound for Tiranё, arriving around 6 am (and promptly crashing on a park bench until the city woke up), then made our way north into the mountains once again to Pukё. Our gracious hostesses—Karen, Patricia, and Jenny—welcomed us once again to their tiny little town, this time with the intention of a larger party of people camping out in the woods. Now, when one tells an Albanian that they are going to, or returning from Pukё, their reaction is always the same: “oh bo bo! Pukё?!” (insert sound of head slapping), which is sort of like saying that you’ve come all the way to America to visit Leakesville, Mississippi, or some other unknown po-dunk place. But in fact, this is a deceptive prejudice because the northern region and the people there are quite lovely, the air is fresh, and the scenery is beautiful! And despite Pukё’s small size (2 streets long, lined by pallatit, or apartments) the three girls get along so well with the community and seem to know (and be loved by) everyone.

So, a large group of us volunteers gathered in the square to make our trek into the woods, after a slightly laborious climb far from the city and up to a plateau, we set up tents and lit a roaring fire. Karen, our guzhinarё- extraordinaire, had ingeniously prepared a feast of chicken and/ or veggie packets to roast on the fire, a delicious Mediterranean orzo salad, and a pasta salad, plus people stocked up on drinks and we even roasted s’mores! It was spectacular.

This weekend, after one weekend of rest (which was somehow sinfully delightful to laze around doing absolutely nothing, without any obligations) we invited volunteers to travel south, and make a day trip to the spring of Syri i Kalter (The Blue Eye). [that is the beautiful, crystal clear pool of freezing water we took Arlene to] We semi-picnicked with a small group (10 or so) and then all stayed the night in Delvina, crashing in the apartments of two girls from that town. Chris and I hitchhiked back in the morning, catching a lift with one man who is a professional polyphonic singer ( who gave a us a DVD of his Shqiptare ensemble, and hopefully we’ll see his group perform at the traditional music festival at the castle in the end of September…
I’ve been thinking lately that I haven’t really posted much on my marathon training. But, since it’s such a big part of my life and daily routine right now I ought to! I’m still preparing to run the Athens-Marathon (yes, the original, to Marathon, Greece) in November. I’ve only got a few weeks of solid training left, as I need to make 3 or 4 of the longest runs before tapering down at the end of October. My routine has been to go straight out of the New Town and run to the villages near our great mountain, Lunxhёrri. Two weeks ago I capped at 17.4 miles, my longest run yet, and this week I hope to stretch to 18 or 19. After my runs in the morning (waking at 5 am before the sunrise, that way I can get home by 8 or 8:30 and prepare for work), I stretch, shower, eat muesli, and ice my knees. Maybe I need to lose a few pounds and it will lessen the burden on my knees, because they have gotten really sore and creaky. I don’t want to screw them up permanently, and I really hope the pain doesn’t last. I’ll write again later to let you know how excruciating the 20 mile run goes… ;)

And, as a final note, I would like to remind any and all readers here that if they have any desire to send a care package our way that would be greatly appreciated!!
Some goodies that might be thrown in are:

*Packets of sauces from all those restaurants you hit up: soy sauce, hot sauce, splenda, whatever strikes your fancy and can be dropped into your purse or pockets—these aren’t desperately desired but its fun to get them in an envelope, like a bonus

*Gum, mints, and other fun treats

*Organic/ whole grain bars

Really anything…
Our postal code is:
Chris Hassler
Zyre e Koordinimit
Pazar i Vjeter
Gjirokastёr, Albania

Thanks and look for more pictures soon to come!

Friday, August 22, 2008

Festa e Birrёs

I forgot to mention the excitement of our last weekend! We joined two dozen or so volunteers in the cultural capital of Korçё, in the east near Lake Ohrid and the Macedonian border, for the annual beer festival. Well, this was year #2, and turned out to be quite a success, so certainly the brewery will be hosting the event indefinitely (or as long as this mayor is in office). In case you ever see a case of Beer Korçё in the supermarket (perhaps in Michigan or Florida, say?) it comes highly recommended, especially the dark variety.
Most of us piled into the house of another married couple, going out together Friday night and sprawling across every available inch of floor space and couch cushions. Saturday morning we were invited to have pancakes at the house of two of their friends—a missionary couple who have lived here for 10 years. They were super nice—a man from Guyana and his exceptionally tall, blond, German wife-- and they ended up serving us a buffet of pancakes with peanut butter (!! This was a real hit) and maple syrups, scrambled eggs, fruits, did I mention the peanut butter? Their house is gorgeous, with a corner fireplace and an array of very un-Albanian fixtures they’ve imported over the years, along with gifts and food packages sent from friends in the States.
Honestly, and not to be gross, but I was up all night with some kind of stomach bug, which didn’t go away but gradually resided into a steady, brutal pain in my abdomen. Another volunteer caught the same thing, so we spent Saturday evening at home, watching The Sopranos on my laptop and whimpering as we clutched our aching bellies; meanwhile, the crew was at the brewery getting an early start on the tap. We caught up with them at the festival, doing what we coined the “Gyshja walk” as we limped down the streets, hunched over and walking at a snail’s pace. The festival was even better the second night, without lines for beer cups (which, by the way, 50¢ a pop) and a band covering mostly American songs that our posse belted out to the confusion and amusement of all the surrounding tables.
Sunday morning everyone had to scramble for buses to make the long journeys back home. We caught a bus that went as far as Permet, a town nestled behind the mountains that loom over Gjirokastёr, and from there took a taxi and a furgon back to the city. Two French guys joined us, crashing on our couches and sharing a meal with us at Kujtim’s, a peaceful family-run restaurant near the castle, along with a few other local friends. We met an Albanian-French woman who is organizing a classical music festival here in Gjirokastёr, to take place for 4 days in September, which will include various international artists and local polyphonic singers.
Now we’re back at work—the rest of August is the lull before the storm in September, when the many projects we have been planning will begin. Chris will be working with two separate organizations to help carry out restoration workshops of several historic houses here in the Old Town, and I will begin lessons in the schools (both in the city and the surrounding villages in conjunction with my counterpart and volunteers from the Albanian Red Cross, Kryqi i Kyqe). I’ll also begin teaching English lessons with a group of nurses, something I’ve never done before. As I was writing out some lesson plans today I realized how confusing it is to explain English grammar-- though 10 times easier than Shqip— because, for example, Shqip has one word for “in”, “at”, “to”, and “into”— so how do I explain why we differentiate going in the house vs. to the store? Furthermore, how does one explain the concept of “at”? And that’s just a start…! (Mos murzit, PC will supply me with English language material next week or so...!)

Next up: Camping in Puke!

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Hiding Out

I think I’m breaking Peace Corps Volunteer Rule number 136: Don’t hide in your house. But I can’t help it, today just went downhill. Luckily I’m not having any issues of depression, cultural unease, or homesickness; instead, I’m only suffering from embarrassment and preoccupation with the Olympics. I just got back from the market in the New Town, where I had been happily scrounging for the last decent vegetables left in the sunbaked stalls, reacquainting myself with the village women hawking their tomatoes and llakra (weeds, essentially) when I slipped on the shiny cobblestone and took a total nosedive right in the center walkway. My hand (now swollen) and purse stopped my fall, though the eggs that I had just recently purchased and stashed inside for safe keeping were sacrificed, thoroughly soaking my money and everything else in slimy yellow yolk. I quickly gathered my things and cowered to my office, realizing that no one was in and that I was wasting my time, and in the stifling midday heat I hiked back uphill toward my shtёpi.
Once back in my safe haven I promptly flung myself across the couch and breathed a sigh of relief. Our house is temptingly cozy, enough so that if I’m not careful I could easily hermitify myself and happily live out the two years meditating and reading historical fiction. So anyways, not only is the power on, but one of our 3 TV channels is streaming the Olympics! Surely my luck has changed! By the way, that American gymnast that won silver for parallel bars sure looks pissed next to the two beaming Chinese medalists.
OK no more power. S’ka drite! I’ve found another distraction--- recycling cereal boxes by weaving them into vegetable baskets. Genius.

Monday, August 11, 2008


August in Albania is the time for pushim, or vacation/ break/ rest, when everyone closes shop and moves to the beaches. The days are long and hot; work is on a standstill for the month, heck even the electricity takes pushim! (In Gjirokastёr, daily from 9-2, conveniently during working hours…) We’ve been puttering around in the south, climbing the steep hills of Gjirokastёr routinely as tour guides for the many couchsurfers that come through in the summertime (more Chris than me, he is the tourism guy after all). Chris is working on getting more signs posted around town that indicate which road to take to the castle (in English and possibly German), where to find a public restroom or the Old City, and perhaps a long term goal of street signs or numbers or any sort of indicator of one’s location on a map.

A few weeks ago I met up with a group of health volunteers in Elbasan to assist conducting a life skills class at an English camp, where once per week the focus is health lessons. With the students we discussed HIV/AIDS myths, history, and associated stigma, which I think went over pretty well. The next morning we went to the Roma Community Center to talk about the importance of personal hygiene; afterward I taught the kids how to make those paper doohickies (I’ve also heard called “cooties”) that sit on your thumbs and middle fingers, and when you pinch together and apart you can open up the flaps to reveal a dare or whatever you have written. We had the kids write down things they can do to stay healthy, such as ‘brush my teeth’, ‘comb my hair’, and ‘wash my hands’, and then they would act out whichever command the flap revealed. I really enjoyed seeing the center because the Roma people and especially children are so discriminated against, not only in Albania but the entire world and especially Europe, and this place provides a great opportunity for them to grow and play in a safe environment.

It was fun getting caught up on each other’s new lives in our new towns, discussing what we have (or have not yet) gotten accomplished and how we all feel about it, challenges and suggestions, and of course eating the city’s best gelato that had won our hearts and stomachs during training!

Eventually, I caught a furgon with another volunteer, heading over the mountains to Tiranё, though it was a very painful experience because I’d been feeling very nauseas and the bumpy, winding, hour-and-45-minute journey (that felt like 3 hours) only made it much worse. Alissa continued on to Shkoder while I went to the apartment of a friend who is working at the embassy and crashed on his couch for an afternoon nap. This friend is actually an ASU student who we had met here in Albania, he joined in on some Peace Corps events and we learned that he lives only a few blocks from our old Tempe house on Maple St.

Chris came in later that evening; together we all went to the Steven’s Center, a Peace Corps legend, which is an American-run restaurant, serving burgers and fries, some Mexican entrées, soups and salads… all in English! I couldn’t yet eat food for fear that it wouldn’t stay down, but I’ve made a date with a chocolate milk shake in my future…

Arlene’s plane arrived late at night; we picked her up in the car (“American Ford Escalade, nothing but the best!”) of a friend of my counterpart, who is an extremely friendly Albanian man working in Tiranё. She passed through customs near midnight, and we arrived back at the apartment of our ASU friend around 1 or so. Chris and his mom stayed up for a few hours after I passed out, excitedly catching up on her week-long Germany trip, studying maps, and plans for our 3 weeks together in Albania… (two peas in a pod)

In the morning we rented a small Volkswagen, an expensive venture here in Albania that I don’t recommend to future visitors, and together we began the journey back over the mountain towards Elbasan. We had plans to stay the night with our host family, the Çepa’s, in the village of Thanё, which was both wonderful and exhausting merely for the need to translate. In her luggage Arlene brought some photos from Costco that I had taken on our last night with the family, then uploaded online for her to pick up in Pennsylvania, and we gathered in the sitting room to browse through and reminisce. A few times while we lived together they had proudly shown me a small stack of prized prints from various vacations they have taken at the beach or in the snow, and some scattered shots of Mamai as a communist Youth Brigade and as a young nusё (bride), so I’m really glad we could expand their collection and add some photos of our time together and that show the girls as beautiful young women. Later we were taken via Babai’s furgon to a neighboring village to visit our gyshja and her family--- ahh brings back the many memories of such trips “out visiting”: sitting for coffee or juice while they grill us with questions and pleasantries in Shqip. Arlene loved it—and they loved her. The family proudly showed off their gardens, both houses in the split family compound, many animals, and even a new sprinkler system!

After such an evening we went home for a traditional late night feast—and I mean late, they began to set the table chock full of food and the fine china (so to speak) at 11 pm. So many nights we had done the same, sitting on our hands and wondering ‘when oh when will we eat?’ But overall the evening was fantastic; the Çepa’s were so happy to meet Arlene and did everything they could to make us as happy and comfortable as possible. In the morning we slept late and shared a second feast for brunch, then packed up the car with some bags of vegetables they let us pick from the garden (generosity never ends in Albanian culture), then set off for the long, wild road to Gjirokastёr.

We spent a few days in the south, showing off our town and house to Arlene and making day trips to sites around the town such as the beautiful pristine spring of Syri i Kalter (The Blue Eye), the castle in Libohovё and (though we never found it) historic church in Labovё, and the ancient ruins of Butrint.

The once-thriving city center of Butrint has been inhabited for centuries, though it officially dates to the 4th century BC as a sanctuary honoring the Greek god of medicine and healing, Aesclepius. The ruins (and much of the south of Albania) used to be considered Greek territory, and it is believed that Butrint is mentioned in the Aeneid, described as a place where Aeneas stopped on his way home from Turkey. The city was rebuilt several times by various empires, including the Romans who expanded the town to include numerous fountains, mosaics, bath houses, gymnasiums, an amphitheatre, and an aqueduct, occupying the region until at least the 6th century. For now, it remains a sleepy, well-labeled set of crumbling monuments hidden amongst cyprus and olive trees, and bathed in the majestic light and air of a soothing Mediterranean Sea breeze.

We decided to take Arlene up the coastal road to Dhёrmi, one of Albania’s few accessible beaches still unspoiled by mass development. I’m astounded to hear people suggesting a trip to Sarandё, which is a small bay near the Greek island of Corfu. Though considered the ‘pearl’ of Albania’s beaches, Sarandё is now a hideous mess of unfinished concrete hotel sky-rises that overlook a beach so full of umbrellas the sand is no longer visible. I am told that it resembles some parts of southern Italy and maybe Spain in the 1970’s, which leaves me both confused and horrified. Peace Corps sent us official warnings not to go in the ocean there because the University of Tiranё conducted tests that revealed dangerously high levels of e-coli in the water, due to the dozens of hotels and restaurants that simply dump their waste directly there into the bay…! So, needless to say I avoid Sarandё like the plague.

Dhёrmi, however, is beautiful, and after a late lunch stop in the Porto Palermo restaurant overlooking one of Ali Pasha’s many castles, we were able to find a quiet cove to plant ourselves and jump in the crystal clear water before the sun set. Unfortunately, development is quickly catching up— even in the month since we went last we noticed two more large restaurants had been built out over the water. Such a shame!

We slept on the beach, comfortable except for the chilly ocean breeze we hadn’t properly prepared for. I woke in a delirious daze that I always seem to have after camping, turning over in the bright morning light, confused by the splashing of the waves and shouting voices of excited Albanian families.

The drive up to Dhёrmi is pretty horrendous, and I must give props to Arlene for braving the winding, unpaved, narrow road along cliff’s edge. To drive north of Dhёrmi requires climbing an unending series of switchbacks up a steep, rocky mountain. The passenger view is amazing, gazing down at isolated stretches of sand, as of yet impossible to access and untouched. We stopped at a café on the top of the mountain, taking in a cool breeze before winding down the other side toward the beach city of Vlorё.

Vlorё is a typical Mediterranean beach city, built up with hotels, restaurants, apartments, all striving to be larger than life. There are 2 volunteers living there, though the girl from our group happened to be out of town so we crashed on the bunk beds of a veteran from G10. Enver Hoxha’s dilapidated and graffitied mansion sits out at the edge of a cliff, and is now a popular cliff jumping location. We found the water to be much dirtier than Dhёrmi, so none of us ventured in, but instead spent the evening xhiroing (promenading) through the crowded streets and finally eating a late dinner at a restaurant across from the beach. Our waiter was super nice, but toward the end seemed to forget completely about us as we waited to pay, and then made it up 45 minutes later by rushing to bring us free cakes of whipped topping and an elaborate fruit platter, sweet!

From Vlorё we drove to Berat, which is in a valley in the middle of the country. Just outside town there is a beautiful winery owned by two brothers who had lived in Italy for 10 years, and now make delicious wines called Çobo. If you ever see it in the market, try it! Lauren and Marissa, the two volunteers in the town, gave us a tour of Berat through the xhiro, which is the most spectacular xhiro in any city I’ve seen so far. The roads were closed off and it seemed everyone was out, dressed to the nines and strutting their stuff up main street; the event was popular without seeming overcrowded. In the morning a friend of theirs gave us a tour of Berat’s fabulous castle and museum, which ended up lasting 4 hours. The castle remains are mostly just the walls and a few churches, but what is most impressive is that many families live in the old stone homes inside the fortress, just like they used to, so it still feels like an medieval city of cobblestone streets and grapevines. Under the castle are two very crowded neighborhoods that give Berat its nickname “City of a Thousand Windows” because (you guessed it) the homes have so many windows, creating a very picturesque effect. Berat, which has only very recently become a UNESCO World Heritage Site, has a far more advanced grasp of tourism than Gjirokastёr; they seem overall more sign-friendly and organized, so Chris will be working closely with them to hopefully build a mutually beneficial relationship. For example, there is a British man who is building a youth hostel in one of Berat’s historic neighborhoods, and we’re hoping he’ll let us post a bulletin board of things to see/do and where to eat/sleep in Gjirokastёr, and vice-versa in the tourist center of GJ.

Next stop on the tour: Shkodёr, the Italian cultural capital of the north. We were surprised at how much better the roads became near to and above Tiranё, like actual paved highways, a rare treat. I am technically visiting town on business leave, helping another volunteer with some life skills classes at another English-language summer camp, which will hopefully go as well as the last one. Until next time--- ;)

Friday, June 27, 2008

Working Life and Networking

So we’ve been here in Gjirokaster for 2 weeks now, acclimating to our new home, new jobs, new streets, new faces, etc. Every other morning I have been waking at the crack of dawn to go running with Greg, since we are training for the Athens Marathon in November, then I come home for a quick shower before I head back down the hill to my office in the Directory of Public Health. I work with a man named Bledi, who is in charge of Monitoring Health Education and Promotion, and with a young woman in another office named Edlira, who does Health Education and Promotion. These titles mean nothing, but titles are always important.

Bledi seems to work more closely with the Director, who is somewhat of a big shot with many connections, as he is also both a lead surgeon and major car-importer, and is usually spotted driving his canvas-topped black Cadillac while blasting American country music. His entire family lives in Michigan, so he is fluent in English, and actually lives in America for 4-6 months each year with them (also conveniently buying cars to ship). Edlira works over in the Office of Family Planning, with a gaggle of other women, and with her I will be going to various schools and community venues to conduct classes and pass out health education fliers, etc.

There are lots of other people in the Directory, spread among 3 different buildings in the New City. I spent the first week simply touring various offices and shaking hands with many people, as well as meeting doctors from the local hospital. I can’t remember anyone’s name, but I don’t think I will work much with most of them, so I’m not sweating it for now.

Usually in the afternoon its ungodly hot here, so much that when I climb back up the hill to our house around 1:30 I am absolutely drenched when I arrive and have to lie down on the floor for a good 15 minutes to recover. We don’t have A/C, or even a fan, but if we close the windows and pull the shades down in the morning the house temperature remains fairly decent—like maybe 90 degrees or so.

Last week I suffered my first bout of sickness in Albania—one morning I was feeling quite ill while preparing for work, and just before I wanted to leave the house I had to sit back down on the bed, and very quickly succumbed to a fever with crazy violent chills. My landlady and Chris came over to wrap me in a blanket and force-feed me hot tea, which calmed me down enough to sleep for the afternoon.

So now, we’re doing great, keeping fairly busy. Yesterday I went to a luncheon with members of the Directory, a party to celebrate the retirement of a few doctors. Despite the city-wide power outage, most restaurants blast gas-powered generators, so we were able to eat, drink, and dance to loud traditional Albanian music, one woman even showing off her skills at dancing with a glass of raki on the top of her head. It was an unexpectedly wild afternoon, followed by a private ice cream & coffee social in a café further down the street. Afterward, I met with Tara and Greg to attend a music school concert at an outdoor café outside of town. We were there to accompany Greg’s counterpart, who teaches flute the school, and is always to kind and excited to sit for a kafe and converse in Shqiplish.

Another exciting event for the week is Max is here! Chris’ longtime childhood friend hopped a ferry from Italy (where he’d been vacationing with his family) and is staying in our house for the week. Its so nice to have visitors already, Chris and Max keep busy spending the day in the Old Quarter around the office and walking around the castle and town. Max will be leaving from here on Monday, passing through Greece to meet with another friend in Istanbul before he flies home to San Fran.
We’ve also been completely inundated with the EuroCup. I consider this a totally cultural experience—the excitement of all of Europe to watch the series of soccer matches, its jut funny to watch it here with the Albanians. And I am amazed at how many coffee shops open up quite late into the night, serving raki and coffee to the slews of men who roar with enthusiasm at the game, most of which are projected onto a nearby wall and have Shqip commentary broadcasted through loud radio speakers.
That’s it for now—kaq. If anything exciting picks up here I’ll be sure to let ya’ll know. ;)

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Posh Corps 101

When I applied to the Peace Corps I envisioned living in a straw hut or yurt, and having to walk to a well to collect water. After arriving in Albania I began expecting to live in a large concrete apartment bloc surrounded by trash. Now, however, I am almost slightly embarrassed to report that for our next two years of Peace Corps service we are renting a considerably posh house situated here in the Old Quarter of Gjirokaster. I write that because I feel like PCVs should be regarded with some level of pity and respect, this is the hard life after all, right? We’re supposed to live without the developed world’s modern luxuries and, well, suffer. And it takes a lot of sacrifice to leave family and friends for so long, work in unfamiliar and sometimes frustrating environments, and not even be financially compensated like every single other work-abroad occupation. I personally have seen and discussed with fellow volunteers that we (grown adults mind you) sometimes cry ourselves to sleep at night-- an unfriendly little side effect of loneliness, discomfort, perhaps regret, and a hundred other unsuspecting yet compoundable reasons. To deal with this stress, a lot of volunteers use alcohol for consolation and to shut off their minds. Others focus all their energy on comfort foods—god forbid someone mentions a restaurant from back home, causing our mouths to water as we excitedly reminisce the multitude of flavors and textures and endless imported goods we are so used to. During my travels I love experiencing local culinary traditions, but I’m always selfishly smug inside because I know that back home I can sample different flavors from around the world at each meal. On the other hand, I often hear volunteers craving “authentically American” foods like boxed macaroni and cheese, or Taco Bell sauce, or even Hamburger Helper! Some people say they would give in to a McDonald’s burger or Starbucks latte, even though back home they would never have stepped foot inside. Anyway, this entry isn’t about volunteers! It’s about our new home!

We’re renting from an Albanian family whose children live in the US. The house is split in two; their half contains a rentable guestroom that is decorated with traditional Albanian woodwork, furniture, and handicrafts, and in between our areas sits a large American-style living room, with imported furniture and a giant TV. Upon entering our half of the house, there is a small sitting room that we will convert to an office (our landlady offered us a desk), with our bedroom just beyond a set of double doors. To the left is the washing machine (OMG what? Is this Peace Corps?) and a remodeled bathroom (with a bidet!), then further down the hall is the TV/ dining room and kitchen. We’ve got a balcony to hang our drying laundry, which overlooks the front courtyard, full of pretty flowers and plants, and also covered in grape vines that currently dangle hundreds of clusters of green marbles. [I am über-excited for the harvest in August!] Our place isn’t as big as the house on top of the hill (where our sitemate Greg is living), but it’s cute and I think will be easier to heat in the winter. Plus it’s super clean and has a washer! I am stoked—washing clothes by hand is not my forte (Chris can attest that no matter how much I scrubbed my clothes they remained perpetually stinky in Asia). So beyond power- and water -shortages, and the inability to escape harsh weather, we really can’t complain, though I do get homesick and culturally stressed occasionally. ;)

We arrived at the house late Sunday night, after a 4 hour ride in Sedi’s car (Tara’s counterpart). He was returning from Tiranё and offered to let us pile in, though we didn’t foresee the imbalance between trunk space and our luggage… However, due to some miracle we were able to squish in and cram bags under and over ourselves (and tied to the roof), and thanks to his driving we made it in record time.

As for work, this week we began service at our offices—on Monday morning I walked down the hill to the Directory of Public Health and spent the day meeting new colleagues and touring different office buildings. I think I will be split up between projects with my counterpart in the Directory and with a young woman who works in the Health Promotion and Education sector. Her job, from what I have been told, is to go into various schools and centers and deliver health education lessons. I am very happy to hear this because really the only thing we trained for in our previous villages was to implement more creative lessons for children with nurses… So I feel at least a little prepared to offer some assistance, and she’s about my age so once we get through the language barrier I hope we can be friends. There are a lot of women who work in the directory, all very excited to hear me speak and to teach them English soon. My counterpart wants me to deliver English language lessons of medical terms to the nurses in the hospitals starting in August, I presume so that if they want to attend trainings internationally (if that’s even possible, Albanians are super restricted on their movement) or read medical journals they might be able to comprehend more. We’ll see.

Oh and I forgot to mention that we had a going-away party with our host-family, the Çepa’s, on Saturday night. Our cousins and aunt and uncle came over for a feast and then we went upstairs to circle dance. After they left Chris and I gave them some gifts we had brought from America while we planned some visits we will make soon and promised to text each other. We really bonded as a family, and they have been extremely generous—some volunteers’ families won’t feed them and sometimes steal from their luggage—so we are super lucky. I will miss them. But I am definitely happy to be here in Gjirokaster now.

Today I woke up feeling sick, so I am going to force myself to go rest in bed. I hate feeling unproductive in the daylight, but I better get used to the slooooow life.
Oh yes, and PS—I am going to take my host-family’s advice and use the bidet as a foot washer!

Friday, June 13, 2008

Its Official!

We are now official Peace Corps volunteers! This morning all the PCTs, host families, PC staff/ teachers, members of our host communities, local mayors/ ministers, and the American ambassador met in Elbasan, at Skampa Theatre, where we sat through a lot of very rigid speeches before raising our rights hands and repeating the oath of inaugeration. "I do solemly swear to uphold...."

And, to top it off Greg, one of my future site-mates, and I stood at the podium and gave our own Thank You speech, completely in Shqip! I was semi-nervous; less than I thought I would be, but happy because I felt confident while speaking and didn't fudge it up... I had practiced reading aloud many times the day before and on the bus ride into town in the morning, so I felt pretty well prepared.

Part One of the Speech Video:

Afterwards we had a "cocktail party" of cookies, soda, and slightly stale crackers in the hall outside, said our goodbyes and then fizzled out in small groups to grab lunch. Even though it is June, every few days here we seem to have spring-esque downpours, and today was one of those days. I went with a group of girls to Maggie's house (she is one of the 4 PCVs who will stay here in Elbasan), where she hosted us like a proper Albanian woman by serving us coffee, tea, and chocolate, and then we grabbed our umbrellas and raincoats to go find some pizza and soufflace. I can't believe training is over! Now there will be no more schedules, classes, superiors to answer to, etc., and thus we are having a final celebration here tonight.

Chris and I will return tomorrow to Cerrik, and spend one last evening with the Cepa family, then on Sunday we'll make the 6+ hour journey back down to Gjirokaster. And that's it--- we're home!

I am posting the videos from the speech on You Tube-- which can be found by searching for Swearing-in Speech, Peace Corps Speech, Courtney Albania Shqip, etc. For now I only have 1 of the 3 videos here because the connection is too slow and it times-out, but please do take a look if you have the time! [ ]

Goodbye for now, next time I post will be from Gjirokaster~~~ :)

Monday, June 9, 2008

PST University Week

After returning from our respective future site placements, we spent this week regrouping and gossiping about our experiences, killing time in Elbasan by attending optional language courses and fun PST University sessions. The classes of PST University were created and voted on by the volunteers- whoever could offer a skill or topic that enough people were interested in got a 75 minute time slot; with topics that varied from grant writing to knitting to networking skills to cooking Albanian foods. A lot of the time people were lounging in the office training room on their computers, or reading Newsweek (as gov’t workers we each get a complimentary subscription), socializing, or preparing for the language exam. On Friday I took mine—messing up completely the first time out of sheer nervousness—but luckily we were all allowed to retake the test if we felt bad about our scores. I was so shocked I cried! It was ridiculous because the test is really not a big deal, as long as we get above the very basics and can say simple strings of words, but I worked myself up and knew that I could do much better than it turned out. However the second time I calmed down and performed fantastically, so I’m very happy.

Thursday night was particularly fun because we had a History Club film series after class, and since the furgons stop running after 7 pm or so, we were all allowed to spend the night in Elbasan together. About half of the PCTs showed up to class with backpacks and blankets, and in the evening there was a lengthy pushimi i birrёs (beer break) before the marathon began. We watched 5 of the 6 DVD episodes of ‘The Death of Yugoslavia’, which is extremely well produced and significant knowledge for us as we live so near the region and need to understand more about the Kosovo-Serbia issue. Just before midnight, Chris and I went with a small group to sleep in the comfortable beds at Agim’s house, which is around the corner from the office, and in the morning I walked around the city with my Ipod to kill the time we saved in transit.

Now, our last weekend in Cerrik, I think we will hang out with the family on Saturday (they don’t really seem to leave the house much, and as far as I can tell they don’t have any hobbies except Serxhio, who plays chess incessantly) and then on Sunday maybe having a final PCT rendez-vous in Cerrik. I am both sad to leave all the PCVs, even though we will all see each other again, but only once every few months, as well as leaving my family. I feel like we’ve become part of the Çepa’s lives, so I will miss coming home and trying to translate the day’s events for them...

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Viva la Gjirokastra!

Finally the end of PST is near—thus PC hosted the annual Counterpart Conference, which took place in Hotel Universe (where we stayed for Orientation upon arrival in Elbasan some 2 months ago) and we were able to meet our future co-workers, a slightly awkward but altogether positive experience. Everyone who came from Gjirokaster speaks English, but most of the Albanians who came do not, so we were all prepped to have an introduction and description of ourselves ready. The counterparts spent day one at the hotel attending sessions about the Peace Corps’ goals, methods, cultural awareness, etc., while the PCTs boarded a Tiranё-bound bus and took a tour of the PC office and city. Day two we stayed in the hotel together, doing session activities such as discussing our hopes, expectations, and fears. Each satellite site also shared a PPT presentation about our recent community projects, sort of to show off that we have tried to be productive, and immediately afterwards Chris, Greg, and I began the long, bumpy ride to the south.

We drove in two cars with Chris and Greg’s counterparts, and several of their friends who were returning from a conference in Tiranё, arriving in GJ in the evening. Traveling this route is amazingly frustrating—the 127 mile journey takes over 6.5 hours of driving (plus rest stops), especially since the road remains flat and only passes through a few mountains toward the end. However, rumor has it that over 23 construction companies were hired to build the “road”, which is why sometimes it is a long, wide, perfect stretch of asphalt that stops short into a loose-gravel, pitching path full of holes for a few miles, then followed by another decently paved stretch perhaps with many or only a few irritating potholes and jagged chunks of missing ground, etc. It’s a cycle, over and over. Apparently everyone had an uncle in the business with favors to call…

Regardless, the opportunity to live in Gjirokaster is priceless, and we are stoked to call this our new “home”! The city is built into the hillside, extending down from the enormous castle that dominates the mountain, and is surrounded by an array of gargantuan mountains and forests and scattered villages. The old quarter is the most beautiful, with a few hundred large stone houses nestled into the steep, twisting cobblestone roads, and is brimming with shady grape vines and fig trees. Chris and I are reminded of the silver city we visited in Mexico, called Taxco, which also had winding, sheer streets and cobblestone roads, as it was developed on and around the mines that have now made it very wealthy, though I prefer it here because the food is better.  Its so odd that this medieval site is not yet swarming with tourists-- although there are a few now and again who are so obvious and fun to pick out—but the tourism office just opened last year and is only just now (with Chris’ help) creating a plan to advertise, make the city accessible, develop necessities such as a collective hotel/ restaurant guide, and generally improve tourist-minded initiatives to draw in traffic through Greece and/ or Italy.

Chris’ counterpart, from here on Luis, has spoiled us by giving a private tour of the city, treating us to many meals and kafé breaks, introducing us to numerous awesome people, and generally making sure we are absolutely comfortable in every way. He is really great—in fact, so are all of Chris’ counterparts! He is working in the Office of Administration and Tourism Development, which is located in the old quarter, and they have presented him a private desk with a computer, internet, printer/scanner access, and they even remodeled and installed red carpet for his arrival! Luis, who is also a tour-guide in the nearby seaside resort town of Saranda, took us around different neighborhoods of the old and new quarters, into the castle, and to several historic buildings such as Enver Hoxa’s childhood home (which has been turned into the ethnography museum) and the former residence of Ismael Kadare, Albania’s famed author.

Greg, who is also a talented artist, has been assigned to work in the fine arts school; and, together he and Chris are already conspiring to collaborate on an endless list of projects that can be mutually beneficial, for example, having the high school artists work on a traditional Albanian mosaic that can be used to beautify some of the public walls.

I will be working down in the new town, within the Directory of Public Health, where (I think) I will be doing health promotion. The office consists of 3 persons, including myself, and although the man who came to the CP conference can speak English words, I often do not understand the meaning of his messages, so I hope to use Shqip mostly.

We have a 4th site mate, Tara, who arrived late last night, and with whose counterparts we were invited to go on a long hike through mountains. Our group set off at 8:30 this morning, intending to walk to an archaeological site Tara will working at, called Antigone. The ruins date back to the 3rd century B.C. and were built by “King Ptolemy of Egypt”, who we are inferring to be the Greek Ptolemy who had an affair with the Egyptian queen… The city, which is situated in what was then Greek soil, was apparently a large and prominent center, named in honor of Ptolemy’s niece. Our journey into the mountains became more than I expected—literally scaling mountains farther than our eyes could see! We stopped a few times in the shade, where my skin would suddenly wretch out buckets of sweat, but thankfully we were high enough to catch a breeze that dried me off. Once at the site, I was surprised to find furgons arriving with school children, and then several cars full of “important city people” and computer/speaker equipment to set up the makings of a pagan festival! At noon we watched young kids perform traditional games and dances, then took off once again into the mountains and back to the city. The return trip should have been easier, mostly downhill, and faster, however we didn’t have a guide this time so we became somewhat *utterly* lost and trailed over and around several different mountain paths that sometimes led us astray… Eventually we did make it back, stopping for a rest and drink in the town center, before being dropped off back home to shower and rest.

And that’s where I am now, typing on our balcony that overlooks the city of Gjirokaster. From here I can see the length of the castle, endless speckled stone rooftops, the lower modern city, and beyond that an enormous wall of green and bluish-grey mountains. Tomorrow morning we will board the bus back to Elbasan, and we have 10 final days with our host families before returning for good. Gezuar!

The end is almost here…

And we’ve only just begun!

Monday of this week marked the final day of class in Cёrrik, which felt like senior year all over again. Here it is hot during the day and we are all daydreaming of our future sights and lives and the events shortly to come, which involve moving out of our host-families’ houses and saying our goodbyes to each other. And, in addition to the heat, after so many weeks of pounding Shqip into our heads we’re all just tired! So we weren’t too upset when the PC staff invaded our classroom to confiscate the chairs and blackboard they had supplied for the lessons, but tried *almost* sincerely to feign sadness that we had to close up shop mid-sentence. Goodbye school! Goodbye Cёrrik! Afterward we celebrated our final lunch in town together by feasting on pizza from the big, fancy hotel near the internet café.

The weekend was also very exciting and busy because we completed our final community projects—in Cёrrik we hosted an art festival. Our squad of PCTs has been meeting with school directors, the bashkia, students, and store owners to talk about the festival, trying to encourage submissions of art work from all age groups and in each of the categories. We have 5 schools in Cёrrik, and we got submissions from almost all of them ranging from “littles” (or, nxeneset, which explicitly refers to pupils in the lowest grades, and people get wildly distressed if you call them studentes ), “middles”, and the gymnaz (which sounds like gymnasium, but actually means high school, and no they don’t have a gymnasium anyway). The submissions included drawings, watercolors, beadwork, embroidery, sculpture, and poetry, which we displayed in the town cinema for the event. The bashkia allowed us to use the kinema, as well as donating some prizes for the winners. Other prizes were donated by the dyqan (shop) owners, and Chris drew fabulous certificates to award each of the participants. I think all of us were nervous that at any moment the whole thing would fall through—but luckily we received a ton of art work and a very large crowd of students who were eager to get their awards and see what this art fest was all about. We were fortunate to have a surprise interpreter, the daughter of the urban planning director from the bashkia, who speaks wonderful English and was kind enough to stand on stage and translate our speeches and call out the unfamiliar names for awards. We definitely got lucky, but maybe that’s just how it always works…

After the art festival we jumped into a furgon and joined the massive crowd of PCTs and staff members in the nearby village of Shalёs, in order to watch and support their project, which was an all-girls’ volleyball tournament. This was introduced as a past time for the girls, who very obviously lack recreational spaces, faculties, and opportunities, and who otherwise sit around the house all afternoon because they are not allowed in the internet cafes, or to go out without a specific errand (and a partner). Not that the villages or towns are dangerous—there is simply nothing to do, especially for girls.

The PCTs had been practicing for several weeks with the vajze in the 5th-8th grades in order to teach them how to play, as well as eliciting a group of mother’s to knit the net by hand in effort to promote sustainability. It was a fabulous success- we got to help by selling (and buying) deserts to make back the money on the cost of the balls, and it felt more like a huge party with all of the PC staff, music blasting, and tons of children crowded around the asphalt court, cheering and screaming as the girls battled it out. Perhaps none of the girls will grow up to be superstar volleyball pros, but they certainly had a lot of fun these last few weeks and will hopefully continue to play, or even create other outlets in such a male-privileged atmosphere.

Chris and I walked home from Shalёs, through Cёrrik and around the koder (hill) to Thanё (our village) that evening. We wandered through the fields, stopping along the way to pick wild chamomile and to talk with the shepherds and farmers. With a stop in Cёrrik’s crowded park to buy a bag of fresh popcorn (needed to refuel), the entire journey lasted almost 2 hours. And of course our family slapped their heads and moaned when we explained that we had walked so far—completely unheard of for anyone who does not absolutely need to…

And finally, on Sunday we celebrated several PCTs’ birthdays by having a party in Cёrrik, which started out as a large gathering for lunch (at the outdoor restaurant we frequent, which we foresee becoming very grand once Albanian tourism picks up). The tables were smooshed together and everyone ate family style—the usual Albanian fare of tomato-cucumber-salty cheese-salad, yogurt, meat, french fries, and bread; then some gals revealed the birthday cakes, which were dark chocolate and covered with white frosting and cherries, yummm… ;)

Afterward the real excitement came, where we took over the Turkish college’s soccer field and played our first ever round of PCV kick ball. Although the weather was intensely hot, we lathered ourselves in sun screen and played, becoming quite a spectacle for the guys hanging out the dorm windows! Vilma, our language teacher who also celebrated her birthday, joined the game, despite the fact that she was dressed in typical Albanian female-wear. Which means that she sported clothing we might wear to a night club—a slinky half-shirt, sparkly jewelry, and spiky high heels (which we forced her to trade for tennis shoes not being used). Eventually, as the players disappeared under the shade of the trees, a small soccer match formed, and then just a few of the die-hard players with too much energy were left to bat the ball around until even we became too tired.

I’m always surprised to talk with current PCVs from groups 10 and 9, who always seem to agree that no, they never did such PCT activities. They hardly ever grouped together—no parties, no gatherings for lunch or ice cream or to kill an afternoon, nothing really. I think that for Albania, our group is unique in its cohesiveness, optimism, and creativity; and, because of these I hope we will be more successful than the groups before us who seem jaded and/or indifferent to their experience living here. I know Chris and I are excited—we’re going to live in Gjirokaster! We have many personal goals--which are encouraged by the PC in order to stay happy and busy—and, even though life as a PCV can sometimes be ‘uncomfortable’ (i.e. no water, no electricity, no heat, dirty spaces, etc.) I think we will find joy in little pleasures that outweigh the negative aspects.
At least I hope, check back in two years!!

Friday, May 23, 2008

Elabasan Pazar

I haven’t yet written a spiel on the wonders of the Elbasan pazar, where one can buy all fruits, vegetables, fresh dairy products, meats, grains, and extensive varieties of mysterious canned/ packaged foods unfamiliar to the America eye.
To begin, the market is largely outdoors; most of the fruits and vegetables are piled into tall stacks under a great ramada, just off the main road, near the furgon and bus stops. Surrounding this first area are many densely filled shops brimming with bags of grains, various salts, kitchen utensils, candies, meats, specialties, and whatever else they can fit in the modest spaces. Then, around the back an additional ramada full of vegetables emerges, stocked with another round of similar goods. Along with the many shops there are dozens of unofficial vendors, each crouched on their heels with bags of home-picked produce in front, usually of salad, spinach, weeds, fig leaves, and other foliage. And, despite having seen numerous markets of late, I still cannot decipher how to know which vendor to buy from, when they all have the same price and clearly provide foods from the same sources (hence same quality)?

The great thing about our markets here in Albania, which only strike me as special because they weren’t present in any of the markets in Asia, are the mass dairy centers. In Elbasan there is a building in the pazar full of giant clumps of yellow and white cheesewheels, as well as plastic buckets of gjalpё (butter), kos (yogurt), gjiz (semi-cottage cheese), Fanta bottles filled with qumestё (milk) and various other degrees of homemade dairy products. The smell of the building alone can knock you off your feet, it’s intense!

During our recent trip to the market I snapped some photos of the bountiful cherries (just came in season—they are the “expensive” ones at 200 lek per kilo, which equates to less than $1 per pound!), assorted piles of olives sold by origin, some cheese vendors happily posing for us silly American folk (who also lovingly like to ‘shoot the shyet with’), and hopefully in the background you can pick out the completely old-school scales, whereby the vendors chuck weights into one bucket while increasing or decreasing the amount of produce on the other side until they balance. I think they must be decades old, and every once in awhile I come across someone with a real antique—wonder if they could sell to a dealer in the US and buy a digital one with the profits?

Another funny thing about the market (and all shops) in Albania is that everything is quoted in “old lek” prices; so when they answer “dy mi e gjashtё qind e pesё” (two-thousand six hundred and fifty), we have to first convert to English, then remember to drop a zero. It becomes especially confusing when the occasional vendor quotes in new lek, knowing that as foreigners we probably don’t know the system, and in turn causing us to think they are giving us a fantastic deal! However, in general, we are all very confused as to why they changed the system of money and bills, and refuse to speak with the correct numbers, considering they adapted the currency over 35 years ago… S’ka problemё (not a problem) but it just goes to show how stubborn their mindset is when adjusting to new ideas…

(Please stay tuned for future pics!)