[That’s Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!]
Wow what a month! Throughout December we were kept pretty busy—at work I was eagerly encouraging my counterparts to continue help arranging an HIV/AIDS contest between high school students (postponed until January) and spent my afternoons at the new Red Cross youth center. I also continued English lessons with the local police, began exploring possibilities for a women’s co-op to sell local Gjirokastrian yarn/wool, and started meeting with high school students (along with Chris, Allan, and Greg) in effort to create multi-functioning “English” clubs. We’re hoping to help kids practice their English by becoming involved in various projects such as radio shows, photography, and Outdoor Ambassadors (this is a new nationwide PC club with an environmental focus).
Everything took a stand still from Dec 9- 15 when Chris and I and all the other PCVs grouped in Elbasan (where we did training) for a week long language refresher and technical training. Usually these are two separate conferences for only 3 days each, allowing volunteers to have a break from their lives and refresh, which is surprisingly helpful. When together we share oodles of information, support and ideas for projects, and even teach each other interesting language skills—in addition to an energy boost. It’s always so nice to see friends, especially when we’re put up in a hotel with heat and hot showers! However, due to worldwide PC budget cuts we combined these into one longer conference, which was unfortunately tiring near the end... que sera~
After returning from the conference it was time to prepare for Christmas festivities! Granted Albania, which for several hundred years was occupied by the Ottoman Empire, carries the façade of a Muslim country. There are some (empty) mosques that can be heard calling prayer throughout the day, teqars (temples for Sufi worship), crumbling tombs of once-thriving Bektashi cults, and close to half of the population has a Muslim surname. However, as virtually every Albanian will readily explain, Shqiperia was never really interested in Islam, and anyway communism strictly forbid any form of religion except worship of the State, so today no one knows anything about the Muslim doctrine or Islamic culture (or thus, collectively they have “forgotten”). Rather, it seems that Sufism spread politically through the region centuries ago, blending an acceptable Turkish Islam with animistic beliefs, and creating a religious culture-club of power holders. This jihad probably didn’t completely dominate and transform local cultural as it has almost everywhere else in the world (take Indonesia for example) because of Sufism’s somewhat “soft-core” attitude. But in addition, it’s important to understand national boundaries as imaginary; ‘Albania’ didn’t exist then, it was actually a collection of Shqip-speaking regions that included much of northern Greece, Kosovo, and the edge of Macedonia, and whose cultures greatly overlapped the customs of what is now considered Greek, Serbian, and Macedonian. So the south of Albania is composed of many Greeks—those who strongly resisted Turkish control and refused to change their Christian surnames-- that have left a legacy of Christian and orthodox family lines. They “practice” to the extent that people celebrate their “name days” and perhaps have a decorative picture of a saint in their house. Except for a few specific regions, communism was successful at wiping out any remaining beliefs or rituals. Anyway, back to the point: Albania has a plethora of religious influences: Christian orthodox (Greece), Catholic (Italy), Islam (Turkey), Atheist (communism), and several other more recent missionaries, but essentially has developed an extremely tolerant system of recognizing all faiths through public holidays while at the same time completely ignoring them. The one holiday that everyone does celebrate (this was encouraged during communism) is New Year’s—families come together to give gifts and share a meal on the 31st and then at midnight the sky is filled with fireworks.
However, now that so many Albanians have emigrated to America (and similarly Albanians as a whole are head-over-heels in *love* with America!) Christmas celebrations have been adopted, though they are transposed onto New Year’s festivities—for example, decorative plastic New Year’s pine trees and Santa Clause (called Babagjyshi, “Father Grandfather”) who comes on the 31st to give presents, etc.
~Well!~ (pause, take a breath)
As for us, we got to celebrate with some of our favorite people, Cam and Donna! [That’s my daja- mother’s brother- and nuse e dajes- wife of mother’s brother] Luckily, the snow storms in the NW paused briefly enough for them to escape Seattle and catch a flight out to Athens, then up to northern Greece. Chris and I met them in Ioannina, a beautiful city with a lake and castle of Ali Pasha (he was Albanian, from nearby city of Tepelenё), and then returned to Gjiro by bus. Although our time bashkё [together] is always too short, we did manage to squish in quite a lot of activities, including several outings to the cafes (I think they especially loved the 50 cent macchiatos), a city/ castle/ historic home tour, a children’s holiday concert at the Red Cross center, a party with the GCDO (Allan’s office) complete with circle-dance lessons, and some spontaneous visits to friends’ houses where they could experience wonderful Albanian hospitality. Cam and Donna stayed in our house’s guestroom—it’s a beautifully refurbished room with traditional wood carvings and antique fixings. Hedho and Fatos (our homeowners and semi- host family) were so welcoming to Donna and Cam; I loved watching each pair exchange the few words they knew of each others' languages to symbolize all of their mutual respect and kind wishes for the other. In our side of the house several PCVs camped out on the couches, which might have felt a bit crowded had we not desperately needed the extra bodies for warmth!
Coffee and hot chocolate, yum. ;)
Of course, most of our time revolved around preparing meals, particularly the big Christmas dinner feast. There were about 10 of us, and together we bombarded the downtown outdoor market, gathering fresh fruits and vegetables; I’m so glad to show off one of my favorite parts of our town. Markets are especially beautiful to me, and now that I’ve gotten to know some of the vendors it feels like my home (though occasionally I yearn to shop anonymously at Trader Joe’s or Sunflower!)
Preparing meals requires teamwork~
I’ve overheard my aunt Susie joking that our family goes from one meal to another, which is especially true around the holidays, but oven more exaggerated with PCVs. It might be Albanian culture rubbing onto us, but it seems the topic of conversation never sways too far from food, or maybe that’s just our crutch to life’s pleasures while we’re in service…
Christmas Night with friends and family!
One of the most surprising and prominent events occurred on the 27th; we woke up to a city blanketed in snow and still more pouring down! Everyone was shocked (me most of all) because several Albanians had told us that no, it hasn’t snowed in the city for over 10 years… I think C and D brought the snow with them, just as I always seemed to bring heat waves with me to Bainbridge during my summertime visits. :)
Albania tested Donna's limits to cold weather... ;)
Beyond inescapable freezing temperatures, the snow brought another challenge to us: how to move up and down the steep cobble streets without sliding or falling flat on our faces. I will admit it is eerily beautiful to look out at the frozen, white-topped mountains and stone houses, but oh man I am still adjusting to such weather! Having grown up in ConcreteVille, Arizona, I consider snow a dangerous and foreign entity—I would have been miserable if it weren’t for the lighthearted snowball fights and impromptu snowmen (complete with a real corncob pipe and buttons, which Allan conveniently found nearby). And luckily Donna brought necessities like super wool socks and leopard-printed galoshes to keep me warm(er) and dry, among many other wonderful Christmas goodies they had packed in their suitcases!
Plak Prej Bore: Old Man from Snow
View from the Zakata house
Unfortunately, D and C had to leave. :( I’m so glad they could visit and take a peek into our PC lives. I love that they could experience and learn first-hand what Albanian life and culture is like… ;)
For New Years, Chris and I shared a holiday meal with the Hedho, Fatos, Ermal, and Alma. We dined on Russian salad, Turkish stuffed peppers, roasted chicken, and fried potatoes, followed with baklava and a plethora of fruits and nuts. And homemade wine. ;) Hedho told me she heard in the TV that a glass of red wine each day is healthy for the heart, that’s public health promotion right? Then at midnight the sky was lit with fireworks and explosions from virtually every house and balcony—like war! Now I can imagine what it was like during the German invasion!
[Chris got a 4 minute video of the festivities, I'll let you know when it makes it to YouTube]
Around 1 am we decided to partake in the local “cultural activities” and go to a café with our friend, Eni—standard New Years fare. This turned out to be a little too much for my liking: a smoky bar jam-packed with people… and music so loud I couldn’t even hear myself think. Not my cup of tea. But at least people weren’t there binge drinking like they would in the States--- in fact people were only really having maybe one drink or a Red Bull. But in any case my eardrums were about to burst so we politely excused ourselves around 2:30. So much for cultural integration.
Well now here we are in 2009. Sounds funny. The new year always sounds funny to me until at least June, and by then I think ‘don’t get used to it, it’s almost out!’
Jan 1st and 2nd are official pushims here, so every store and office is closed. Chris and I have taken to sleeping late (it’s simply too cold to move) and we are living in our sleeping bags. Our electric heater does little to nothing to make the kitchen warm, so we’ve pretty much given up on that, except just before going to sleep we put it on the bed to warm up the sheets….
view from the castle, Dec 27, 2008. I'll leave you with that!