My oh my where has the time gone? Hard to believe we celebrated One Year in Albania last week! Over the weekend several PCVs gathered in Elbasan (our training site will always hold a special place in our hearts) to give a toast to the wonderful friendships and experiences gained during our time so far, to bask in the glory of our endurance (hey by this time last year the previous group had lost 12 people, whereas we’ve only lost two, and gained 7!), and to greet the newbies! G12 arrived in Elbasan on Wednesday, spending the first few days locked up at Hotel universe on the edge of town-- getting acclimated to their new group, time zone, foods, and PC staff. We were originally inspired to welcome them, square them up, and try to alleviate their anxieties through cheap beer, however, our plans were foiled by PC staff. Instead, we took cover from the pouring rain at Beer Gramelli, where a mug sets you back 60 leke (ie 60 cents)—think about that next time you hit the bars in Scottsdale. :)
Earlier in the day Chris and I took a bus up north with Allan (Gjiro), Meghan (Ksamil), and two French couchsurfers. I’m pretty excited to hear about their trip because they are going to Istanbul to purchase bicycles and from there traveling to Astana, Kazakhstan. We’re pretty excited about potentially COSing next June and pedaling our way from Turkey to Tunisia, specifically because we have heard from countless travelers how much more you can see/do/learn when you take the slower, more eco-friendly route, and also because I’ve been itching to do a long-distance bike trip for a few years now.
Our time in Elbasan was short but sweet, from there we caught a furgon to the lovely little village of Thane (and by lovely village I mean muddy street dotted with houses) to visit our host family. They adopted a new set of volunteers, and this was the couples’ first night. I had been worried about visiting on the same day that they arrived—I texted everyone first to make sure that would be kosher and there would be plenty of room for us. I just wasn’t sure if we would taint their whole experience. On the other hand I recall that first weekend being the most horribly awkward time, when we couldn’t speak a single word of shqip besides ‘faleminderit’, and our new “family” was still just a bunch of strangers whose names we couldn’t pronounce. Luckily everyone was able to breathe easier with us there, translating to the best of our abilities and giving cultural advice to our new friends, from here on out referred to by name: James and Jen. [On a side note, James commented on my blog a few weeks ago, and he also has a blogspot page: http://jamespeacecorpsalbania.blogspot.com/]
After saying our goodbyes to the family, our very-American foursome walked into town (Cerrik) to meet Karen for lunch at our old time favorite restaurant, the one next to the mental hospital where we used to sit outside during our training, getting covered in a snowy downpour of fluffy white tree pollen. Unfortunately it was still too chilly to eat outside, so we huddled in the small side room with a propane heater. Chris and James were almost immediately rounded up by a table full of gents next door, invited to sit down for a few shots of raki, however, they didn’t stay long because I was instructed to come drag them away. I think the motherly owner was afraid they would be corrupted-- if only she knew…
Once stuffed with salad and ‘fresh village eggs’, we caught a Fier-bound bus with Karen to stay the night visiting our friend Stephanie. Steph, who is a community-development volunteer, lives in a tall sparkling new pallati (apartment) with her adorable puppy, Jack. We had a pretty calm night, toasted savory grilled cheese sandwiches (Fier has many European import stores so cheese, though expensive, is widely available) and fresh tomato soup, then departed for Berat all together in the morning. Chris was gifted a bunch of Arabic language books from Andrew, a G10 volunteer in Fier who happens to have studied at ASU, so we passed time in the furgon going over the Arabic alphabet and trying to pick out letters in the various forms. If we do end up going to Tunisia after our service Chris hopes to be refreshed and has been trying to convince me to learn with him. While I’m totally content with my Shqip-speaking ability at this point, and would be happy to focus on something else, I’m not sure I can learn from a book— do te shihemi.
Upon arrival in Berat we found Lauren in full birthday celebration swing, drinking cheap champagne and eating scones & cheese on her balcony with Marissa. The sheer site of them-- bundled up in scarves and sunglasses, sprawled out on beach lounge chairs and guarded by her 3-legged dog, Clara, absolutely cracks me up. Its soooo PCV Albania, and I hope I remember it always.
So it was Lauren’s 26th birthday! What to do? Well, as Lauren is the PCV queen of care-package Betty Crocker mixes, we of course baked a cake-- yellow with chocolate frosting. We got to spend almost the whole day with her, hanging out around her shpie, enjoying the comforts of her glorious wooden stove… Lauren’s house is always full of entertaining materials, magazines of all sorts, a roomful of odd treasures left behind by the volunteer before her, funny music playlists (she has been known to have midnight dance parties featuring Meatloaf), and somehow kicking back with friends as they knit and chat and draw makes the time fly by. Eventually we made our way across town to a cute little traditional restaurant, where we ate dinner upstairs on the covered balcony with a view overlooking the river. Chris wolfed down a steak that was wrapped in cheese and then deep-fried, and some french fries. I simply don’t know how his heart can handle that stuff. For awhile we were keeping a food journal to reflect on our dietary habits and see if we were really practicing what we preach to the kids at the Red Cross, when we taught them about the food pyramid. I bound a little book made from a recycled food container and hand-made paper, and each night we were diligently recording our meals and snacks. It’s interesting to see what one honestly eats, since we all believe we are healthy but might be shocked by reality. Like always, Chris reports more-than recommended amounts of fatty foods, whereas I OD on sugar…
And *speaking* of sugar, our cake was waiting for us back at Lauren’s house, along with some Thin Mint Girl Scout cookies she was kind enough to share. :)
Chris and I took off early the next morning, catching an 8 am bus straight to Gjiro. During our "pilaf stop" I had my first encounter with a bear! Actually, it was a big cub, and locked up in a cage. Supposedly there are many bears around Shqiperia, in Berat's castle for example, but I've never seen one. [Rumor has is there's an owl in Shkoder, and I've seen peacocks in Tepelene] There were also cages full of wolves, an eagle, and about 2 dozen wild dogs untethered on guard.
We had wanted to catch up with Monica and her visiting friend’s from LA, but since they changed their plans to come a day earlier we could only meet for a quick coffee before they took off. There trip here was short but Monica seemed to beam with glee
so I think it was well worth their effort.
Then of course the week began: meetings, talking, coffees, talking, translating, talking… you get the idea. I was super excited to move past talking and finally get to teach my plastic bag lesson in school. Aida (from Red Cross) and I got permission from the Director of Education to go to Naim Frasheri, the city’s model 9-year school up in the Old Town, and talk to the kids about the effects of plastic in our environment and oceans, and to introduce the concept of reusing bags/using cloth alternatives. I showed them some environmental PSA’s from YouTube before and after the lesson, for fun and to get their attention. At the end the teacher’s decided they would help collect t-shirts to be sewn into shopping bags [ very easy: simply sew the bottom straight across, and cut off the sleeves—voila! ] and if I can copy the lesson onto a DVD they would teach the lesson in other classes. Small victory, hope it takes off!
Another wonderful accomplishment at the school was my approaching some classes to survey student interest in joining our Outdoor Ambassadors club. This is a country-wide network of PC-led groups who focus on environmental education and preservation, with an emphasis on outdoor excursions like hiking, camping, picnics, etc. [This is a project we are all trying to get going in Gjirokastёr, and for which we went to the conference in Tiranё a few weekends ago] About half of the kids at this school are learning English, and undoubtedly would like the opportunity to practice their skills, but to be fair we’re opening this for everyone. We had tried to start the group in one of the high schools a few months ago and it received mild interest from a handful of kids, but nothing lasting. However this time the kids were literally falling out of their chairs trying to get my attention to call on them and accept them to come. We’ll have to go back with applications. That’s a very good sign!