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Friday, March 28, 2008

Si u nguse?

[How has your evening gone?]

Today Chris and I had our first day of classes, which took place in a very drafty, loud, concrete school. Fine enough conditions (as in, I wasn’t afraid the building would fall down), but I can’t believe how lucky American students are to have insulated, warm classrooms with carpet and bathrooms…! We could hear the wind howling through the building the whole morning, and just before we were finished the rain began and continued all afternoon. So cold here! Unё jam ftotё! [I’m cold!]

After class finished at 1:00 our group of 5 PCTs and our teacher, Ervin, went to get lunch with us in one of the only food establishments in town. There are only a few cafes in our town, mostly catering to the masses of men who come out in the evening and chug coffee and smoke cigarettes, and some serve one or two food options. We had “fast food” next to the town’s concrete mosque, which ended up being meat (except mine), tomatoes, cucumbers, yogurt, and french fries rolled in a pita. Surprisingly tasty!

Ervin, our ‘mёseus’, is a very funny and nice Albanian guy—this is his first time teaching a class but he’s been interning with Peace corps for two years. He laughs hysterically at the littlest jokes and his face turns beet red, and otherwise he is extremely concerned that he doesn’t offend us culturally!

Chris and I got to see the apartments that the other PCTs are living in—one of our girls is being fed only pilaf and bread, so she’s been joking the whole time about starving on the “Peace Corps diet”—but otherwise everyone’s families are great and the homes are all nice and simple; small but typical since pretty much everyone shops at the same store. Our friend Becca, showed us her one bedroom apartment where she is living with an older widow, during which of course we got a round of kisses and hugs and then were presented with small chocolates. We took her back to our home [“shtëpi”] and did some homework together in the living room, surrounded by our immediate family and some of the many cousins who have regularly been visiting. I think learning the language is very intimidating, but if we really put our whole efforts into it and practice reading and speaking all the time we’ll be able to reach a pretty good level, hopefully!
Tonight for dinner we had yet another bountiful feast—this time Chris and the family ate bowls filled with chicken and what appeared to be mashed potatoes, but on closer inspection turned out to be mashed cornbread! They sure like their bread here… (Maybe I didn’t yet mention that each meal begins with several thick chunks of freshly baked bread? Delicious but very filling!)

I had a piece [copё] of burrek, which in case you don’t already know, is a fabulous spinach pie (and quickly became my favorite Albanian food). I love my host mami because not only does she make everything from scratch using foods [ushimë] from her garden, but also serves eggs from their chickens and fresh milk from the nearby cow, *and* get this she makes yogurt, bread, cheese, and fig jam at home too! I think it is so neat and I’m really excited to try it myself. ;)
Did I tell you about our family yet? They are wonderful—even in two days Chris and I have decided they are the best in all of Albania! From the moment we arrived at their door we were welcomed with kisses and hugs (this is an important custom each time you see a friend or family member) and they have been patient and generous with us every moment of the day. It is so difficult to try and say the simplest things (everything must come from the dictionary) and putting together simple sentences is like a bizarre unending word game we play each night.
In the evenings the entire family (and all visiting friends and relatives who stop in for kafe and chocolates) sit in the kitchen/living room where the stove is. This is where Chris and I also sit trying to do homework to the sounds of Albanian hip-hop and rap music emitting from the TV; Chris challenges Serxhio to chess while Darina and Elizabeta try to string sentences together with me. Babi is a furgon driver so he rests throughout the evening, Mami stays at home all day cooking, gardening, cleaning… Its amazing to see gender roles so clearly defined. For example, when anyone comes for a visit the daughters must stop whatever they are doing to cater to the guests’ needs for kafe, chocolate, comfort, etc.

Ok enough for now, more stories from Shqiperië nësër!

Mirëdita familia!

I am writing from my new home in Cerrik, Albania, with my host family, the Çepa’s. Our family is made of babi, mami, three sisters (mottёr) and one vёlla (brother). We’ve just looked through my computer’s photos and they have now been introduced to all of you! Their home is very comfortable and cozy and we are having a great time. It is hard because we don’t speak any Shqip [Albanian language; pronounced ‘sheep’], but they are very patient and we look in the dictionary a lot. Our town is small—the first homework Chris and I have done is to make a map- and we have an internet café which the other PCTs do not. Tomorrow we will go to the local school for our first language classes (five hours!) and then we will spend all afternoon trying to practice Shqip. Twice each week we will ride a furgon (minivan) to Elbasan and meet up with all 35 other PCTs to do project training.

I am not wearing my piercings because the Peace Corps staff told me they would be offensive, but I think my familia is OK with them. Big Brother is a very popular TV show here (I am not certain yet if there really is a Big Brother in real life here too) and they see a lot of western pop culture.

The food here is really good—mostly I have been eating homemade breads, green salads, lots and lots of cheese, tomatoes, and this morning I had figs! Chris is getting lots of lamb, but my family is so nice and they understand (and joke about) me not eating meat.

Orientation in Elbasan was a lot of fun—a good chance to get to know the other PCTs we will be working/ living/ learning with; G11 is very diverse with a range of talents and personalities and Chris and I have really hit it off with some. Our schedule was packed full; each hour the group was assigned to be in some room or another, learning about various aspects of Peace Corps, the history, assignments, living conditions, safety & security, intro to Albanian culture and what to expect, etc., as well as a few language classes, interviews, medical check ups... The days’ work was broken up by kafe breaks and meals, during which we roamed around meeting all the new faces of Peace Corps. Everyone was loaded with materials: training manuals, project manuals, language books, medical kits, water filters—good thing we brought an extra duffel because we filled it right away! While in the hotel room in Philly I was embarrassed by how much stuff we had brought along with us, however I feel much better after seeing that everyone is completely overloaded.

I feel completely overwhelmed being here and knowing that not only will I be staying for two + years, but that I have this enormously challenging task ahead of me. I realized that volunteering for PC is a challenge in a completely new context; instead of living in the states and getting a job, balancing bills, striving for a social life, etc., I have thrown myself into a whole new dimension where none of those things matter. Instead, I must be totally focused on learning to communicate with the people around me, which can be extremely frustrating, in addition to creating community development and health awareness-raising agendas that I’ve never done before. I also must spend my energy trying to adapt to another pace of life with new rules, unfamiliar faces, at times horribly cold weather (!!), endless unknowns, fewer amenities; and to try and stay healthy and positive, forcing myself to believe that I will be successful and have a fulfilling experience…

At least I feel safe and welcomed by our new family, which can make all the difference. For now, I’m going to roll up into my sleeping bag because “unё jam lodhur!” [I am sleepy!]

Monday, March 17, 2008

Philadelphia Orientation

Today marks our official service as Peace Corps Volunteers!
We began orientation in the afternoon, after almost everyone arrived from the airport (although I arrived with Chris last night), filled out registration paperwork, and began getting to know the other G11 volunteers who will share our experiences abroad for the next two years.

I've been absolutely frantic this week; suddenly realizing how unprepared I am to go live in the potentially freezing weather (especially in the north!) of Albania, and to leave all my friends and family whom I've only just recently returned to.
My brain and heart are being torn with anxiety-- anticipating the trials of a life lacking electricity & water, adjusting to dramatically different cultural values, and pressure for the job I've signed up for are all being swiftly realized... Most of all is the emotional stress of leaving everyone I love-- in this last week I felt like I didn't know how to savor all of those seemingly insignificant moments with them.
Am I ready to move away again so soon? Am I able to learn Albanian? Will I be able to contribute anything to my community?
I don't know... But time is up and I guess I better sink or swim.

[Continued on Mar 17]

Actually, after finishing both days of orientation I feel more confident than ever that Chris and I will get on that plane tomorrow and have a great time. I know I can learn the language; I will create friendships with my counterparts; I will find my niche. I think everyone has the same fears, questions, emotions, etc., and we will help each other be successful and fulfilled with our experiences.

Tonight we went to a Japanese restaurant with Cam, Donna, Tom, and Arlene-- maybe the last time I get to eat something besides beans, who knows! I wonder what the food will be like and if I will be forced to eat lamb. I wonder if they will have as much fried foods as Asia...

Chris and I still haven't finished rearranging our luggage (the airline allows 100 lbs in two luggage pieces totaling 107 inches) so the hotel room remains a chaotic mess of clothes, books, toiletries, etc. Our last night in America!! I must take advantage of the English-language TV and sparkling hot shower... My body hasn't yet reset itself from Asian time so I can't sleep until early in the morning anyway, but perhaps we should really stop procrastinating and try to get some rest before the sun rises. [Truth be told its already 2:30 am] Tomorrow we'll check out by 9:30, leave on a bus for JFK airport, board a plane to Munich at 6:45 pm, and eventually arrive in Tirane, the capital of Albania. I haven't really absorbed much about what will happen in the next few days, but I trust PC has a well-practiced methodology to herd us along. :)

OK I'm signing off-- goodnight! Or, natёn e mire!