More photos! check 'em out at:

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!!