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Saturday, April 26, 2008

Birthday in Albania!

Wednesday (E Markuan) I celebrated my golden birthday, turning 23 on the 23rd of April.
The day carried on as normal—Sqhip classes in the morning and projects/ assignments in the afternoon—but random Albanian family and friends excitedly wished me “Edhe nje qind vjet”, which means “May you live to be 100 years old”. If you want a peek into my life, I made a bunch of short video clips of the day and posted them on YouTube:



Oh yes and the other exciting thing about my birthday was getting to bake cookies with my host family—my sisters had never tasted homemade chocolate chip cookies before, which is a shock to me, and although it took a lot of convincing to get our 7 year old brother to try one, even he admitted they were good. They asked later if we can bake again sometime before we leave, which made me glad because I was afraid they wouldn’t like these “crazy American foods”. I brought some of the cookies to class and gave some to friends in town, also a big hit. For lunch, my teacher’s mother baked us a special Albanian patёllxhan (eggplant) dish, since I told him how much I love eggplant, and we all ate together in a localё after class.

When Chris and I got home from school in the evening our host aunt and uncle came to visit, and as a gift they gave me a bright red bra and underwear set! I couldn’t help but laugh because it was such a suprise, but also i know that such a gift is pretty expensive by Shqiptare standards, so I actually do appreciate it. She also gave me a cell phone dangle that has mickey mouse beads and a light-up doohickey, as well as a long necklace. Very Albanian. I expect to need to some serious designer readjustment lessons when I return to the States.

This week we progressed much further in language—for awhile we were caught up on learning the cases. Shqip changes the nouns depending on location and the verbs that modify them, whereas English only uses Nominative (subject of the sentence) and Genitive (property of owner—ex. Chris’ shoes). They are difficult to understand, memorize, and use, so we really haven’t grasped them yet, but hopefully it will come will time. However, this week we also learned a new set of verb conjugations that we can use to say the Imperfect/ Past-Continuous/ and Past Simple tenses, which is very useful now that I can go home and tell my family what I learned in school and that I ate lunch, instead of “today I learn cases” and “for lunch I eat byrek”. Its one step further, very exciting believe me.

Today was another long day—this week our afternoons are free to work on our technical practicums that start next week. I will be co-teaching a kindergarten class, 8th grade class, and community group on 3 different health topics. I’m working with the other volunteers in the nearby village of Gjergjen, so we get together to create our lesson plans and activities, then later we will translate into Shqip with our teacher’s help. I am nervous, but thankful that I get to work in a group.

Its been raining pretty hard, Chris and I got stuck in a terrible storm and had to walk home in the pouring rain. I think pretty soon it will be hot and I will wish for the cold weather again, but for now I'm eagerly anticipating the heat....!

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Excitement in Elbasan!

Much excitement has been occurring here with our PC group—on Friday afternoon (the day we had been anticipating for weeks) we found out our site placements for the next two years!
Although each of us desperately wanted to know our fate (because of course we all want a beautiful beach-side town with mountains and all the amenities) at the same time ignorance is bliss… To be told we would spend the next two years of our lives stranded somewhere uncomfortable is heartbreaking. However, when the time came and we were handed our packets, the most important thing turned out to be which other volunteer(s) we would be close to.
Chris and I totally lucked out and got assigned to a town in the south, called Gjirokaster. Its supposedly a beautiful place nestled in the mountains, near to the border of Greece, and because it has been deemed a UNESCO World heritage site it will be a great location for Chris to work on tourism development. The thing I like most about this town is that it is extremely hilly—similar to the silver mining town of Taxco, Mexico, and so it should be full of steep, winding streets with a new view on each level!
Here are some sites to give an idea:

We also have two site mates—one of whom is an excellent artist and will no doubt team up with Chris to create some amazing animations (his animations have part of some international film festivals) and who knows what…
I will be working in the Public Health Department—and word on the street is that I have my work cut out for me—I’ll keep you posted! Not sure what I’ll be doing exactly (we’re not given assignments per sé, but are matched up with counterparts and instructed to assess the community needs) so hopefully the practicum training I am doing now will give me more concrete skills to implement something useful.
After learning our sites there were a lot of emotions—knowing where we would be/ not be placed, who we would be living with/ without, and what situations we’d be facing caused a lot of stress! As you can expect, almost everyone went to Castle Bar to kick back (and for some, drink away their anxiety), which is an outdoor localё next to the historic castle ruins. Our crew from Cerrik were the last to leave, and only just too late so that we missed the last furgons going back home! No more busses, and the taxis are 5 times the price, so we tried to get a hold of my babai, who drives a furgon himself. Of course we couldn’t understand each other on the phone, but I think somehow he got a hold of his buddy who happens to work for the PC because the driver pulled up out of nowhere to save us! We did make it home safely, if only a little embarrassed…
Today is Saturday (E Stunё) and feels like 3 days in one! In the early morning all the PCTs met back in Elbasan to perform “simulation stations”, which was a fun way to test us on our language skills. We divided into small groups and went out to 7 different “stations” around town, with the task of interacting using Shqip while our teacher silently observed and graded each of us. We went to the clothing market and semi-spontaneously created questions such as “How much does this pair of socks cost?”, “Do you have this in purple?”, “Do you have it in a larger size?”. Next our group went to the food market and pretended to buy all the ingredients for a four-person birthday dinner, within a budget of 2000 lekё. We had to ask for directions, speak with the priest in the Orthodox Church (which was built back in the 1400’s!), question some furgon drivers about journeys to Tiranё, answer questions about our families in America and Shqiperiё, talk with students in the high school about our daily routine and finally explain the 5 W’s of Peace Corps service…! Shumё e veshtirё!!
Afterward the PC staff rewarded us with cookies and snacks in the PST office.  We met with our teachers individually to discuss what we did well/ what to work on, then Chris and I took off to catch a furgon to the nearby village called Kyqan, where our host-cousin was hosting her wedding.
So an Albanian wedding! What can I say?—it was interesting (not terribly different from any other party: lots of food, dancing, terribly loud music) but a little nerve-racking because all 200 guests wanted to talk or see the Americans who showed up, and so we did a lot of smiling, nodding, and trying to decipher some of the things people were asking us. And of course, circle-dancing! Chris and I were corralled to the neighbor’s house on Thursday night to participate in the pre-wedding dancing celebrations, so that we could practice for the Big Day. We’ve done it a few times and I’m still not getting the steps, but I think it’s acceptable that Americans have two left feet. Also, the bride is marrying a man from Greece, so there was also a bit of Greek dancing and music, though I can’t yet tell the difference beyond the Greek dances which include slowly bending down to slap the floor.
My head is still ringing from the music—I’m sure I broke an ear drum. I had to go stand outside a few times because it was so loud I was getting nauseous. Also I didn’t partake in most of the food, which consisted of 3 different courses of sausage, biftek, chicken, kabobs, veal, pork chops, and several “mystery meats”. Chris and I both turned to each other and synchronously shouted “How many animals died for this feast??” as we burst into laughter; it was border-line jaw-dropping.
Finally! The family got lodhur [ pronounced lothure: tired] and we squished into our uncle’s makine [ car, actually a green station wagon] to make the journey back home. The rest of the evening is ours, so I’ve been doing Pilates and soon I will go downstairs for dinner. Hopefully we’ll get bean soup. Then who knows… perhaps an early nights’ sleep? Natёn!

Friday, April 18, 2008

Unё jam nё’nё!

I am busy! This week has been chaotic—Chris and I returned from the volunteer visit late on Tuesday evening, and spent the rest of the night trying to relay our adventure to our host family. The next morning we had language classes as usual and then hopped on a furgon in order to meet with all the other PCTs in Elbasan for an afternoon of PC training. Today (Thursday) we ventured out early in the morning to attend meetings with various school directors around Cerrik. Our community project is going to be hosting an art festival /contest at the end of May, so we’re trying to coordinate with the schools to encourage kids and young adults to enter. Since we didn’t have a translator with us, we were forced to test all of our primitive Shqip skills in order to convey our proposal. Everyone seems to love the idea—and there are plenty of great young artists around town so the kids all got pretty excited. So now, as long as the mayor agrees to give us the deserted cinema as a venue we’ll be all set…

Alas, after spending time with all the directors, we were exhausted even before language class began! Luckily we had one of our favorite teachers, Oriola, and we successfully completed another complex grammar issue (we’ve been discussing cases lately (they use all 5 in Shqip, whereas English only uses 2), and now we’re modifying our definite and indefinite nouns to be both gender-- and case-sensitive, as well as identifying singular vs plural in each form) before begging to be let free around 4:30. We all still have plenty of work to do—tomorrow all the PCTs have to turn in several mid-term assessment papers, our technical group assignments, a presentation on our community project proposal, and to prepare for our oral assessments. Of course we went to our favorite spot in town—the posh internet café, with its comfy couches and friendly staff-- to do our work, though I can’t imagine how PC expects us to be able to complete all of this in such a short work-week!

And, ironically, when Chris and I got home, we had a few minutes to chat with our family when all of the sudden they whipped out some gjellё (soup) and told us to “hani bukё!” (ie “eat food/ bread!”) so that we could go dancing! Wasn’t expecting that one, and there’s no way to turn them down—our entire family had gathered down the street in preparation for the wedding of one of our host-cousins (big day this Saturday). She is marrying a man from Greece, who will take her away and she will likely never return. So the evening turned into a night of dancing—which means that Chris and I got to go meet another 50 or so people, sit for several rounds of café and be smothered by kisses from the gyshes (grandmothers), hold hands and circle-dance for a few hours to the sound of piercing Albanian music, and try desperately to be as polite as possible while everyone is talking about us in a language we can’t understand… Exhausting!

Tomorrow we’ll be back in Elbasan, a long day of technical training. We’ll also return on Saturday to do language simulations (we get to go buy foods in the market, ask strangers for directions, etc. while our teacher grades us on our grammar and comprehension), then in the afternoon Chris and I will rush off to join in on the last half of the wedding. I’m excited to attend a wedding here—should be fun and I like to take part in the activities—however, it’s terribly stressful to be attentive and try so hard to communicate with everyone around. From what I saw at the volunteer visit (and confirmed by all the others) is that everyone gets pretty comfortable with the language later on, it only takes time… So here’s to a shot of raki, and I’ll let you know how it goes….!

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Volunteer Visits!

This weekend Chris and I ventured north of Elbasan, taking an early-morning furgon with a small group of other trainees and stopping off to wander around Tirane before heading even further to the mountainous town of Rreshen. Its not really mountainous, but it is technically amidst the mountains, and slightly cooler than even Elbasan. We all joke about how the PC sends you to every place you don't want to be-- my only request is that I go someplace warm so I laughed and thought "Gee, of course" when we got our placements. *but* It was only for 2 days so I didn't have any problem, and it was a lot of fun.

The two volunteers in Rreshen are doing Community Development and TEFL, and they have amazing projects going. The counterparts they work with turned out to be fantastic-- ambitious, hard-working, and really wanting to improve their own lives, so it was really helpful to see how they guys are able to facilitate success.

We joyously made tacos for dinner the first night-- quite a change from the seasonless Albanian fare we often consume, and its already getting to the point where tiny little things from "back home" are utterly cherished. Looking back, I think we had it easy while traveling through SE Asia because we could move on when we wanted to get away from a particular town, and the food changed frequently from region to region. However, once we get on our own and have our own kitchen I am sure we will find plenty of satisfactory dishes-- Albania has plenty of produce and once I discover where I can obtain whole wheat flour I will be set. :)

One of the very cultural activities we did was properly go "do gyro", which means that we wandered up and down the town's main drag (which in the summertime is closed to all traffic). Walk walk walk. Albanians do this, along with visiting each other's homes for kafe and chocolates, just to meet and greet friends, neighbors, etc. Its a very sociable country.

We also played basketball with some of our volunteer host's friends, which would have been America vs Albania, except that if we did that we Americans would have had a dramatic 2-foot height advantage... I was proud to be the only girl playing in the swarm of guys (setting examples for gender roles), though I think the scariest thing was actually just slipping on the loose gravel of the unpaved asphalt! Talk about danger, I almost ate rocks several times just in the half-court!

Oh yes, and their apartment had wireless internet (sometimes, when the signal and power were both working in sync), and I've been pondering since then about the actual situation I am living. As Dan says (he's the volunteer whose been here one year, our host) "This ain't yer daddy's Peace Corps!"
We jokingly call it Posh-Corps because we have cell phones, occasional internet, and all sorts of gadgets/ apparel (ahem, North Face anyone?) to make our lives easier. When I signed up I expected to go into the jungle or desert, far away from anything western. However, there is just enough influence here from Italy and the rest of Europe to make the landscape, food, and dress seem like a cheap knock-off of our western world. More European than American for sure, but not enough to really feel comfortable. I am still deciding whether this makes me sad and disappointed to be missing out on true hardships (although please don't take this to mean adjusting to Albanian life, culture, rules, limitations, etc. is easy), or if I should revel in the so-called progressiveness of this society.
OK my time is up, more later!

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

E He’nё

April 7, 2008

Monday ( E He’nё), a brand new week begins. This is the third week and I’m beginning to see what the previous volunteers meant when they said training is long and tiresome! I’m still having a wonderful time and haven’t yet slipped into depression or homesickness, but when I go to bed each night I am exhausted and despite the fact that we do have free time on Saturday afternoons and Sundays, I feel like every moment must still be useful.

Last night I got some phone calls from Cam and Donna and Arlene! Such excitement! It’s funny though because there is so much I’d like to tell everyone and express all the experiences and emotions we are going through, but I feel caught up on the telephone and suddenly dumbstruck…

This morning we had class bright and early, in our chilly little classroom on the second floor of the town’s slightly-decrepit elementary school. When our pocket of volunteers arrive it feel like we’re celebrities on the red carpet because a few hundred school children stop their chattering to gawk at us (some brave ones yell out “hello!” and “who are you!”)—look the amerikans are coming! They have been opening our classroom door to peer in on us less frequently this week, so maybe soon they will get used to us. After class we went to the souflaçe shop, where we ended up meeting with the crew from the nearby village of Shalёs, then soon ran into the volunteers from Gjergjen and Shtermen . Rendez-vous in Cerrik!! Our town happens to be the center point for a few of the PCT sites, and we have the posh internet café, so every once in awhile we all get together here which is truly wonderful to have so many friends. Especially since after this three months is over we will all be completely alone (well, except for the married couples of course).

So we flooded the café and ice cream shop—the owners love us because we bring so many customers—and slowly people faded away, scurrying off to catch furgons back home. Chris and I got picked up by our baba and mama who were at a host-family meeting with the PC reps, then they took us to Belёsh to visit some family members.

The house we drove out to is in the middle of a beautiful valley of farms, near Belёsh’s town lake. The town itself is stunning—cute little homes and cafes dotted around the lake rim and surrounding mountains, walkways lined with grape-vines, donkeys pulling carts, etc. Chris and I also came out yesterday for the first time, with a bunch of PCTs to hang out on our day off.

So we spent some time doing the usual—greet the entire family outside, then go inside and re-do all of the same greetings, sit for an hour or so while they exclaim in rambling Shqip that we can’t possibly follow (every once in awhile we caught on that they were speaking to us, everyone would turn and look expectantly for our remark which of course we had no idea what to say).

Before we left I got to hold some of the baby ducklings in their backyard (then quietly repeated the mantra reminding myself not to touch my face until I got home to a sink...), and they gave me eggs as a parting gift! I think my parents had been talking about how they don't know what to feed me, and that I am always so excited when I get an egg for breakfast...

Tomorrow we find out where we'll go for our two-night site/ volunteer visit! And it's a hub day, which is always so exciting...! :)





Today is Sunday [e diel], and we have officially been in our PST towns for one week! Its hard to believe all that we have seen and learned in such a short time, yet it feels like forever since we got here. Chris and I live in the outskirts of Cerrik (we call it the ‘burbs since we’re a half an hour walk from the town center where we take Shqip classes with three other PCTs) and I will need to ride a furgon to the next fshat [village] in order to meet up with the other health volunteers and do our practicum. In a few weeks I will be pairing up with another trainee and coordinating with the biology teacher, nurses, and English teachers of the local school in order to teach a kindergarten class, a 9th grade class, and a community group on some health topic of our choice. In Shqip! Such pressure….!

Sunday is our day off-- I spent my afternoon visiting different volunteers and their families before walking to the next fshat , called Shtёrmen, where we met more volunteers and their families. I love how so many people have large gardens surrounding their homes, which provide the main staples of their diets. So far I have noticed a bountiful array of cherry, pear, orange, olive, lemon, fig, and apple trees, as well as loads of eggplant, onion, garlic, peppers, beans , lettuce, grapes, etc. I can’t wait until everything blooms in May!

After the rounds of visits a few volunteers and I went up into the hills to see the lake, then climbed up a steep path to their old church, where we could see out all around to the villages, including Cerriku. Becca and I took a furgon back to town to save time, since the sun was begin to set and we didn’t want to get stuck out in the dark away from home. Plus, I would have to walk an additional 30 minutes in the muddy ditch by myself, avoiding cars as they sped past. It doesn’t really feel dangerous but we are told there are many drunk drivers and since there is no sidewalk or lights it can be a hassle.

For now, I’m sitting on a couch in the family room surrounded by my host family, aunts, uncles, and gjёushja [grandmother], who are speaking rapidly and loudly in Shqip, or so it seems to me. Life here is very family-oriented and no evening is complete without stopping in to drink kafe with one’s relatives, neighbors, and friends. I think that’s why we eat so late here—usually around 10 pm, because we need the evening to socialize…

Tomorrow [nesёr] Chris and I are catching a furgon to Elbasan, for training with all the PCTs. The US ambassador will be there to meet us, and another week of language classes, trainee activities, Elbasan meetings, and practicum preparations will ensue… Hopefully in a few minutes we will get to eat some dinner [darkё], which will be byrek, the spinach pie I watched our host mom prepare this morning. They were shocked to learn that I make bread in America, and wonder why I am so curious to watch them make yogurt [kos], cheese [djathe], and gather eggs from the chicken yard. Now back to the books!

Natёn e mirё!

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Week 2 begins….

This week we had an early Monday morning start in Elbasan, which means that all the volunteers caught furgons heading toward the city in order to meet at the PC office by 8:30. For Chris and me this was a chance to actually sleep a few precious moments longer, since all we have to do is walk out front to the main road and flag down a passing van, rather than walk 30 minutes into Cerriku.

Sort of an odd schedule today, rearranged because the US ambassador was visiting in the afternoon. So we took language class in the morning, followed by some routine PC health and safety trainings, then after lunch we had an hour or so to speak with the ambassador. Very formal—we were told to dress up, stand when he enters/ leaves, and to address him as “Mr. Ambassador”. Not all too thrilling but I guess it’s a necessary gesture…

Hub days are a lot of fun—actually I think every day is a lot of fun. I must be one of the more positive people in the group because I am loving the experience so far. Even when I’m uncomfortable-- like in the cold, when its rainy, when people stare at us, when my host mom serves me French fries and potato soup for dinner at 10 pm, etc.—I still enjoy getting up for class, visiting Elbasan, hanging out at the posh internet café, grabbing lunch with the other PCTs. Maybe this is more like the day-time college social life I never had? Or maybe I’m content because I don’t think about where I will sleep at night or fret about money like I did while backpacking SE Asia? However it happens, I got the impression that other people are not adjusting as well to the set up here quite yet.

And on that note—I’ve got a nasty cold! My throat is sore and itchy, I’m producing enough phlegm to compete with the Ghostbusters 3 river of slime, and sometimes my voice runs out completely mid sentence. But it’s alright—I’ve got plenty of medicine in my kit and I think it will pass in a day or two. Maybe I should read more Harry Potter because despite all of the vitamins I take I don’t understand why my white blood cells haven’t mastered the defense against the dark arts.

I learned some imperative commands today: ‘hayde’ [hi- duh] = “come here”; ‘dil’ [deel] = “go out”; ‘hap’ = “open”; ‘mbyll’ [muh-bull] = “close”.

Oh yes and I don’t think I’ve described what the housing is like around here—there are tons of large half-finished homes scattered around the landscape. Most towns just pop up alongside the “main road” heading south from Elbasan. Restaurants and homes all looks the same—large, 2 or 3- story concrete structures usually painted soft colors. Inside they are all pretty similar: the doorway opens to the family room/ kitchen where the wood burning stove is. Everyone hangs out here because it’s the only warm place and they sure like their family-time! Homework is done while the TV blasts racey Shqiperi music videos and relatives shout loudly as they sip kafé and raki. I assume in the summer time (we’ve been told is blisteringly hot here because absolutely no one has A/C) it must be nicer to be in a concrete room, especially at our house where the upstairs has full window panels that we can open to get a breeze. Chris and I have the whole upstairs, which is another family room with TV and computer, a bedroom, a bathroom, and balcony. In the morning I walk outside and stretch myself awake as I peek out at the neighbors, fields, animals, and distant factories.

So that is my life so far in Albania! I’m sure there are tons of details I’ve forgotten because they have become so natural to me already, but I will try to post pictures and maybe that will help you envision it….!