Sisyphus has always been somewhat of a patron saint of mine. Not that I worshipped him, nor asked him for favors, but it seemed he reflected by existence on every level. Sisyphus has come in handy here in Albania during my Peace Corps service, as it seems he dominates the entire country in terms of daily experience of social interaction and project completion.
As you may or may not know, I am a health education volunteer. My primary focus is to teach school children about reproductive health as well as general health behaviors. My school is blessed with highly trained, motivated and active teachers, who upon casual class observation, I could see were handling these subjects with great effectiveness. I saw that I really had little to offer, especially with my limited language capabilities. This inspired me to focus on approaching health from a nutrition perspective, since I could see that the one area I might have something to offer was through school gardens. After more set backs than Sisyphus experiences on a daily basis for various reasons, my grant was approved to start the garden project. After more Sisyphician challenges of getting someone with a car and knowledge of where to buy supplies, I was able to order what my fellow Peace Corps Volunteer Miguel had suggested. Since Miguel is a year ahead of me, my urgency and frustration over the slowness of my progress was exemplified, as he is supposed to leave soon. I had daily panic attacks that I would be saddled with materials and no idea as to what to do with them.
My prayers were answered when I was able to finally put all the puzzle pieces together, pick out nails and garden wire, chicken wire and pallets. One of the more nerve wracking experience was to be told the chicken wire was to be 25,000 lek (the Albanian currency) for 15 meters. My counter part commented that the blood left my face, until he reminded me this was in “old” lek, and not “new” lek, which knocked off several zeros from the total. For some reason that mystifies we Americans, the old system of currency that was abandoned 30 years ago is still part of the vernacular language. 100 lek is approximately 1 dollar. Albanians still add a zero to everything when it comes to prices, so instead of saying 100 lek or njeqind, they say 1000 lek or nje mije. You can see why the color left my face when I was told I would be paying $250 for 30 feet of chicken wire, and my grant was for $900 total. This was especially shocking when my Albanian to English translation was given to me by my fluent in English counterpart in “old” lek, (cue to Sisyphus to push the bolder down the hill early for me that day.) Thankfully it was all cleared up and the order was placed, I did have enough cash and went home with great hope the pallets would be delivered somewhat on time on the agreed upon date.
I was able to tap on a rich source of local volunteers. Peace Corps had rejected my request for volunteers from other sites, much to my dismay and fatigue over yet another boulder tumbling down the hill in front of me. Since the two volunteers were still on site in Berat, along with a new volunteer, Nick, who was eager to have something to do, and a French volunteer, Priscilla, who has become part of our western volunteer Tuesday night pot luck group, I felt we could get along without the much needed help from other equally disappointed volunteers from neighboring towns.
I awoke early the day of the delivery, prepared to have my boulder which was carefully pushed up a large incline to be pushed down again. Since my skills lie more in concept and cuisine, I lured the other volunteers with the promise of food. With my picnic lunch bag in hand, my heart leapt when I arrived at school seeing the delivery truck waiting for my signature to unload the pallets. After the security gate was unlocked and the truck backed into the school yard, swarms of eager school boys emerged from their classes to help with carrying the pallets up to the roof top where the Director told me she wanted the garden.
Pallets are basically inexpensive ways to re purpose wood. The trick is to disassemble them without breaking the boards. This involves a complex activity of trying to pry nails out or pounding the wood off the nails on blocks with other smaller boards of wood. It was truly a miracle to watch the Peace Corps volunteers talk with and instruct the children on how to do this task, and also how the children worked together, one prying the nail out with the pronged side of a hammer or crow bar and another child using a mallet or large chunk of wood to pound out the nail. Against the pleading of their teachers not to, numerous groups of boys kept trying to join the effort, and it was beyond adorable watching the original team of boys instruct the newer groups with authority on how best to disassemble a pallet, correcting their hand and foot positions. Since we were on the roof, all the class room windows facing us were filled with smiling faces as I could hear the teachers yelling at the children to sit down and get back to their lessons.
Being ever the caterer, it was my duty (and only real skill to offer this phase of the garden) to make sure everyone was hydrated and fed. The children refused my water and offer for snacks. I had packed sandwiches and cups filled with pasta salad, along with fruit, veggies and some cake. I felt it was imperative to not serve convenience foods for this project. Albanians always shake their index fingers back and forth when they gesture “no.” I got this gesture from the children each time I offered refreshment in spite of the long hours of hammering away on the roof top in the sun. The Americans gobbled up the snacks and drank the water. Eventually, the children came to me asking for water, but still refused the snacks. Erik, a volunteer who is leaving in a few weeks, has an easy rapport with the boys as he has helped them with basketball. He asked one of the boys who refused my pasta salad as to why he was not taking it, he told the boy it really is good and that I was a great cook.
After about a half an hour, the boy came back and asked me for the pasta salad (shells with a mustard curry sour cream sauce, peas, red onion and red bell pepper, ie very American and Californian all at the same time.) I knew this was a culinary first for him, he slowly peeled back the plastic wrap, and took one bite, I then got a thumbs up and he gobbled up the rest of the serving.
This is a big deal, the concept of a cold pasta salad is completely foreign to Albanians. In fact, Antonio and I lamented the fact that in the blistering heat of Summer, our dear Albanian community is still cooking and eating well cooked food piping hot in 100 + degree weather. I would invite Antonio over during the Summer specifically to eat cold food. Cold food really is not a value here. Our favorite OMG story was Antonio’s attempt at eating cold food through preparing a pasta salad for his host family during a heat wave. He fixed it and had it cooling in the fridge while he went out on an errand. When he came home, he found his host mom eagerly sauteing the salad so they could eat it nice and hot. We both almost cried during the re-telling of the story. I thought of this story while watching the 11 year old Albanian boy enjoying for him, what was probably his first ever California cuisine pasta salad, and wondered if I had started a trend.
As the days wore on, more pallets had to be ordered, and our child work team expanded to the point where we had to turn people away. One day, a group of girls ventured on the roof, much to the dismay of the boys. As we in Peace Corps try to promote gender equality, it took much prompting from Erik and Miguel to get the boys to “allow” the girls to help out. As you can imagine, the disassembling of the pallets was a lot quieter and more orderly with the girls involved. It never ceases to amaze me how easily the Albanian children fall into full cooperation mode when doing a task. During the sessions, we got more and more groups of four to five children venturing out on the emerging roof top garden, hands on hips surveying the situation, then scampering back into the building. One of my counterparts Hassan, an English teacher, told me the garden was the talk of the students, and that they felt it was “their garden.” I got a call from the High School I am working with, asking when it was their turn for the garden initiative. Later that day when I was in one of the markets in the city center purchasing bread and beverages for the next days lunch, one of the cashiers introduced herself and asked me my name. When I told her, “stephanie” she told me her son's name is Albio, and told me he was one of our workers and how proud he was of the emerging garden.
It is difficult to present an idea for a project when a culture has no concept or example of what you are endeavoring to produce. I have had several sessions with the children on imagining which sorts of things would go in a garden to grow a pizza: tomatoes, wheat, peppers, oregano, basil, onions and garlic but not pepperoni as one student told me. I also had sessions where I would present the idea to teachers, who were very very supportive but still I did not seem to be able to convey, even with a translator what it was that I wanted to do, or the great effect this project would have on the children as well as the community.
Berat is like the rest of Albania. With the increase in technology and access to education, people are moving away from the villages and into the cities. Thousand year old traditions for food and farming are quickly disappearing, and with them convenience foods and the trash and obesity that accompanies such practises, are creeping up on the population. There is also another casualty of the moving off of the land, that of lost relationship with the earth. The ubiquitous trash and plastic bags clogging rivers and draping over trees are evidence of this lost relationship. Children are on their phones and computers all the time, and not out in nature. This is not unique to Albania, but the rapid transition here is unusual and is causing great generation gaps especially between the youth and the what we would call baby boomers.
The United Nations is encouraging both School Gardens and Urban Agriculture as a way to meet the demands of increasing population and less arable land to grow food for our ever more urbanized civilization. I see the separation from the land as the great tragedy of modern civilization. Wendall Berry, farmer poet and essayist, put it best: we do not eat where we work or live. Because of this, he states it is easier to loose connection to both the land and one another. I have been reflecting much these days on climate change as well as the origins of humanity, specifically as it is articulated in the Genesis narrative. We left the garden so to speak to try out our freedoms, and now, as we have seen the consequences of our actions, we are seeking to enter the garden anew. For me, the segway is the school garden.
The garden, as is the earth, a focal point for learning. It is the opportunity to create relationship with nature as well as one another. After the LA Riots in the 1990’s one of the great initiatives came out of creating community gardens. This gave people meaningful work, as well as launched businesses surrounding food products. The Homeboy and Homegirl industries offer gardens, kitchens and food preparation as a way out of gang life for the youth of the LA ghettos. The gardens at 22 Tetori and Bab Dud High School are microcosms of community with the natural world. The are methods of teaching how to cooperate with nature and one another, to learn about all aspects of knowledge from science, biology, ecology, mathematics, design, health and language. Along with our gardens I have created groups who will be writing about and promoting the garden through social media and publicity. I am working with the herbalist and the high school students to create a guide and booklet for the garden as well as wikipedia pages on Albanian herbalism. I am inviting the culinary vocational high school to join us in teaching cooking skills. The spiral out of the garden is infinite, the spiral out of these gardens here in Berat is infinite. This opportunity for learning, connection and healing all started with the delivery of pallets on a warm Spring morning.
Sisyphus has taken a break, the boulders have been pushed up the hill and are staying put.
My heart is full.