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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!]