Tuesday, May 8, 2018

One Year and Counting

2018 Close of Service Ceremony at Peace Corps Albania Headquarters, Country Director Kate Becker officiating.

 Last Summer at the Albania All Peace Corps Volunteer Conference in Tirana, the then co-country director (who has since gone on to other career path’s) put up a number on the white board. It was the number 87. We were asked what the number stood for, and after many guesses, we were told it was the number of weeks we had left in our service. As a health care provider who worked with pregnant women, I thought to my self, wow, that is almost two gestational periods. It was interesting to hear the number however, mainly because it seemed so long, and yet I knew it would fly bye. 

When I arrived at my site assignment in May of 2017, one of the first orders of business was to meet with the existing Peace Corps volunteers in town. My class site mate, Antonio, and I had just met in the days leading up to our new community. We were warmly greeted by both Miguel and Erik, and were given the low down and need to knows for Peace Corps Volunteer survival in Berat. At the end of the Summer, we started a weekly pot luck, where we would share our respective stories, challenges and see how we could help one another in our varied projects. What was particularly interesting for me, was listening to Miguel and Erik talk about their experiences prior to our arrival. For this year since I have been on site, I have also found it useful to witness them in their final year of service. In a way, it was like private tutoring sessions on what to expect as we spent out our days in the 87 weeks to come.

It is a unique experience being an older volunteer. Most volunteers are in their 20’s, fresh out of either college or grad school. Life questions are looming large, and mixed in with the ever pervading challenges of finding meaningful impact in a foreign country with only 24 months to accomplish something of value. Watching Erik and Miguel was in actuality, viewing our future, and seemed to drive home that 87 week reveal in a very profound way. Volunteers come to service knowing it is temporary, and one needs to prepare accordingly when you are watching those who have been at this task before.

In many ways, it is beyond my comprehension that I have been in Albania for a year now. As I have figured out the bus schedules, where to get certain condiments and the best places for vegetables, it seems a bit odd to know in a year this will all be a very sweet memory. 

G19 Class of Albanian Peace Corps Volunteers being addressed by US Ambassador Donald Lu

I was chosen to help out with the Close of Service Ceremony at the newly remodeled Peace Corps Headquarters in Tirana. For the past two classes, it has been a milestone for Peace Corps in Albania. I was in the 20th class of sworn in volunteers, and the group ahead of us marked the 20th year to complete service and become what is called a “Returned Peace Corps Volunteer.” (RPCV) Both my swearing in, and this years Close of Service was attended by the current US Ambassador Donald Lu, who himself is a RPCV. (Personally, I feel an affinity with him as a fellow Orange County Californian as well, he coming from Huntington Beach.) His words at my swearing in, as well as the Close of Service were very personal and insightful mainly because he has served in Peace Corps as a college student. His service later inspired him to start a career track with the State Department. 

PC Albania Country Director Kate Becker and US Ambassador Donald Lu at 2018 Close of Service Ceremony

Ambassador Lu speaks from experience when he told the recently graduated RPCV’s that they need to prepare for re-entering life after service. He told about his European tour after service, of returning to a changed America, and also how the RPCV's need to prepare themselves for how after the first few service stories, friends, coworkers and loved ones do not find Peace Corps adventure tales all that interesting. He also informed the RPCV’s that they will always carry their host nation in their hearts.

Nick, Pricilla, ME, Antonio, Erik and Miguel at our Burrito Send Off Celebration

I was reflecting on this as I returned to Berat after the service. The week before, when all the good bye rituals were being honored with Erik, Miguel and others, it was very bittersweet. Cook outs, excursions, special dinners and celebrations were being had all over Albania as the G19ers as we call them, were slowly disengaging from their communities. The A20 and A21 volunteers were scoring all sorts of possessions and food items as the G19’s shed their accumulated stuff from their service. I got several shirts, a travel pillow, electric blanket, a broken but working electric floor fan and rain poncho, in addition to some absolutely amazing spices and food items given to Miguel in care packages from his mom and girlfriend. Here in Berat, we had a large gathering of volunteers from all three classes gather at Erik’s house for a cook out and a water pong marathon. On the G19 last night at site, I hosted with Antonio a burrito supper in honor of Erik and Miguel. Our new site mate Nick joined us, and luckily our French volunteer Pricilla had come back early from her trip so she could join in the fun. We have all come to truly cherish these weekly potlucks as a way to eat Albanian/American fusion cuisine and giggle about our cultural misunderstandings. I will miss the Berat G19ers very much.

Earlier that day I received a phone call from a A 20 volunteer who had just said goodbye to her G19 site mate. She was very upset and needed to talk to someone about her grief. We reflected on the fact that it is a very intense experience to navigate a different culture in service, and how difficult it is to convey our experience to friends and family back home. I hearken it to a military experience, how soldiers have such a bond that we civilians simply can not understand. But Peace Corps service is the opposite of the military in intent, in striving to convey the ideals of America to our host communities.

The day after I returned, I delivered some condiments and spices to Antonio which were left for him in his mailbox at Peace Corps headquarters. He was hosting a Cinco de Mayo taco fest at his place, and a volunteer from a neighboring site was visiting along with our new volunteer Nick. We got right into our discussions about observations of our experience, what the Close of Service ceremony was about, and started planning new activities. So while we missed Erik and Miguel deeply, in essence, life was going on and we were creating new memories.

Walkway to the St Michael chapel on the Castle Mountain

Reflecting on my past year, there are a few things I have come to absolutely love about Berat:

The loud thunder and lightning that accompanies every rain storm. 

How the dogs sing along with the Call to Prayer from the local mosque, but only when the calls are in the dark.

How there is a ticket taker that walks up and down the bus, taking coins and bills from people and giving them a ticket. I love that they give change, and no mater how crowded the bus is, they push their way through to make sure to get every passenger.

That “farm to table” is just how these people eat for the most part.

That there are grapes on every roof top and a citrus tree in every yard.

That every bit of these grapes and trees are used in making things from Raki to stuffed grape leaves, jam and juice.

How the elderly are always pulling what the rest of us would call weeds from walls, the roads and fences and using them as food and medicine.

Watching teens walk their grandparents on the bus, deliver them to their homes and return alone to their own homes. 

The endless display of American tee shirts from everywhere, I saw one from Huntington Beach, CA the other day.

The diversity and complexity of the insects here, there is one type of moth that looks just like a humming bird, I truly have never seen such amazing bugs in my life! From grasshoppers to butterflies, this is really an entomologists dream. I wish I could find a good guide book on the subject.

How the Albanians simply cherish their children.

Watching this cherishing of children in the public parks in the afternoon and evenings.

The clouds, big puffy white clouds that make the dawns and sunsets so spectacular.

The poppies, violets, marigolds, daisy's, and dandelions that dot every square inch of dirt no matter where it is.

The absolutely stunning mountains that seem to strut out from nowhere to ragged peaks.

How when you pick out your produce and hand it to the cashier for payment, the seller gets something different because you would like it better apparently.

How if the seller does not want to make change, they simply put more produce in your bag and smile.

Tzatziki potato chips 

Oregano potato chips

That you can get filo dough in a box for about a dollar

While I am tired often and actually homesick on many days, I strive to soak in what surrounds me. As that 87 weeks have quickly reduced to 52, I know there will be many challenges ahead, but also much laughter and pure joy in watching the children grow and friendships deepen. It will pass quickly, quicker that I would like, so now I try to enjoy the sound of the rain and the shapes of the clouds, the aroma of orange blossoms, honeysuckle and jasmine while trying to figure out the best way to create Mexican food with Albanian ingredients. 

Sunset after a Spring rainstorm

Saturday, April 14, 2018

The Pallets are Coming!

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.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Mjekësi popullore

When I first started to investigate Albania after my Peace Corps invitation, I found an old tourism video on Youtube. What fascinated me was the casual mention of Permet as the center of Herbal Medicine in Albania. I asked my Albanian contact about this, and he forwarded me a link to a report from USAID on the economic feasibility of Herbal Medicine in the post communist Albanian economy. As a practicing naturopath and acupuncturist, the prospect of learning herbalism while in Albania, I set my hopes on being assigned either near Permet or another region where herbalism was prominent. Being placed in Berat was an architecture admirers dream come true, and I was determined to see if this beautiful part of Albania also had an herbal tradition I could explore.

During my first week at my assigned school, I was introduced to Demokrat Keli. I was told he was a Mjekësi popullore, which is loosely translated as “folk healer.” In the States, we would call him a medicinal herbalist. My director and counterpart thought because I was a Mjekësi popullore from America, Demo as he preferred to be called, would have much in common with me professionally. With my broken Albanian and nearly three decades of herbal teaching and practice experience, Demo and I were able to communicate. He was anxious to start teaching medicinal herbalism in the schools in Berat. He was from Berat and has an active practice both in Permet and Berat. As I started my project for a school garden, I incorporated him into the initiative. I felt it was a way for him to not only share his knowledge, but get a foot in the door so to speak in terms of teaching herbalism to the children.

As I started to spend more time with him, I learned his personal story, and was intriguing. I asked if a friend could serve as an interpreter for a more formal interview and drew up a list of questions for him to review before our appointment. We met at the Berat Library, and an amazing biography that paralleled Albania's recent history emerged.

Demo was born at the beginning of the Hoxha regime. As a child, he was part of the Pioneer Youth movement, which for him in Berat involved hiking in the local mountains, summer camping trips learning survival skills and plant identification. It was during his summer days as a Pioneer scout, he started to fall in love with the local flora and fauna. As he will tell you, he knows the local mountains like the back of his hands. 

Demo is educated as a chemical engineer with an emphasis on textile dye and design. Berat is home to a textile mill that was part of the Hoxha economic plan where workers were given housing and work in a centrally located factory. Demo was a manager at the textile plant in Berat during this time. The isolation of the Hoxha regime resulted in limited availability of pharmaceuticals and few medical doctors. There was little awareness or concern for toxic exposure from the dyes from the central government, and any sort of complaining or documenting of problems could land one in a work camp or worse. Demo noticed a trend with the textile employees. One of the side effects of working with the dyes was increased kidney problems. From infections to stones, the worker’s kidneys seemed to be the leading cause of illness and lost productivity in the plant and surrounding community, with no options for any sort of treatment. As a caring person versed in the local flora and fauna, Demo turned to historical books he found at the local library as well as the traditional knowledge regarding herbal medicine to help his workers. He was so successful, he was considered “the Kidney man,” by locals. Demo boasts that there are no kidneys he has not treated in the Berat region. As a regular on local Berat TV after the fall of the communism, Demo has educated the public on his skills. According to him, he has earned the ire of local physicians who view him as harming their business when it comes to helping the people of Berat with regional medicinal herbs.

I had the deep honor of joining Demo on several walks in the local mountains to watch him in action. Demo travels with what I call a “magic bag” when he gathers herbs. He pulls out various clippers, a scythe and climbing tools from his bag while explaining the local plants. During one walk, he told me he had special secret locations he did not want others to discover where he collects various plants. His most successful method is to put a very realistic rubber snake across the path, which seems to deter hikers from following him into a hidden enclave. The other things Demo pulls from his bag were an herbal snake bite kit (an antique looking glass bottle with a dark herbal antidote and a tourniquet) and dog repellent fire crackers. Demo also has a long rope with which he lowers himself down cliffs to pick certain delicacies. 

On another occasions, I was able to visit Demo’s flat where I got to see his library and his home medicinal herbal artisan kitchen. He had numerous potted plants, tinctures macerating in large glass containers, and a closet filled with dried herbs. He told me he has clients from all over Albania and Greece, where he creates signature dried herb tea blends for various health issues. These wild crafted herbal formula's are wrapped in white paper packets, with the directions for dosages hand written on the surface. During larger artisan gatherings and festivals in Berat, Demo can be seen in the town center educating locals on his skills and selling herb teas. In the Summer months, he is a weekend regular amongst the artisans, selling his teas in the city center.

 A typical conversation between us entails him saying the Albanian vernacular for a plant. After very slow and difficult conversation trying to find something we understand, I will ask him what the Latin binomial for the plant is, to which he dutifully gives me an answer. I then try to decipher the Latin pronounced in his Berati dialect and repeat the name with an American accent, writing it out, to which he agrees this is what he is talking about.  During my interview, I asked him what his favorite herb was, he told me it was, (literal English translation) “snake bush.” After our now familiar language exchange, I figured out he was talking about Hypericum, for which the rest of the English speakers know as “St. John’s Wort.” When I asked him why he liked this plant, he said it was because it was so effective. He uses this plant for people who are depressed or stressed, as well as for trauma. Demo told me that the plant was used by the Illyrian physicians successfully for battle wounds. He said that “snake bush” was so effective, it actually helped the soldiers to get back into combat quickly, and was the secret to their battle successes. 

Demo has taken the medicinal herb garden project at the High School as the culmination of his life’s work. He plans to have the garden designed into six zones reflecting the different regions in the area of Berat. He is leading weekly lessons at the High School and regular walks in the local mountains showing the students the plants in their back yard so to speak and how to use them. One of my favorite visuals was after class, Demo was surrounded by students asking him questions regarding certain health issues. He was writing down suggestions on a stack of hand torn business card sized papers he keeps in his pocket, and inviting the students to join him on a walk.

Democrat Keli is part of a proud and ancient healing tradition in Albania. It is rewarding to see him interacting with a new generation. As the garden comes into reality, it will be interesting to see this new generation of herbal practitioners carry on this heirloom practice into a bright future.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Its beginning to look a lot like Christmas!

When I first was invited to join the Peace Corps in Albania, one of my concerns was being placed in a predominantly Muslim country. Not that I have any issues with Islam per se, but Christianity is part of my fabric, and I thought I might miss the presence of the religion of both my ancestors and my choice for two and a half years. I had an odd experience when I was in China, which was at the time still quite overtly communist and absent of anything other than some hints of Taoism and Buddhism through things like Temples and museums. I stopped dreaming and praying, which for me is quite unusual. I realized when I tried to analyze the situation, it was because for the first time in my life I was in a land that was not saturated with historic Christianity. For me, this was novel, and to be honest, very uncomfortable. Because of this, I was at a bit of a loss as to what to expect from living in a nation that I was told was so different from my own practice. What has met me here in Albania has been quite a  different mystery on all levels in terms of approaches to spirituality and religion. It is also something I feel Albania has to offer our world in these days of increasing tribalism and inter-religious strife.

If the historians are to be believed, the ancient peoples of Albania, the Illyrians, are the most antiquated of all Western civilizations. They are famed to pre-date the Greeks, and to be the authors of what we typically attribute to Greek Mythology. What is unique about the Illyrians in terms of documenting their effect on world history, is a glaring lack of written evidence, either through tablets, scrolls or an abundant repertoire of artistic objects. I am coming to learn that during the Greek and Roman times, there were thriving Jewish communities throughout what is modern day Albania, with major centers of learning and worship in Durres as well as my site of Berat. It is thought that because of the strong network of Jewish communities in the region, that the Apostle Paul was actually preaching to the Jews of the day, not the pagans. There are roads in Elbasan recognized as his foot paths for evangelizing in the first century after the Christ Event in Palestine. There are places in Berat that are also famed to be locations of some of his sermons to have been delivered on his tour. We learn through the Epistles and the Acts of the Apostles, that Paul traveled throughout Asia Minor and the Balkans. We hear often about initiatives in Macedonia, and I have seen the plain in modern day Macedonia called the “Paulruci” as evidence of his mission in the area.

Albania claims some of the first Christian communities on Earth. It was part of the Byzantine empire and ultimately fell under Muslim Ottoman rule in the 15th Century. The local Sultans and Imams had a rather tolerant practice of Islam, and allowed the indigenous population to maintain their religious practises, but for a price of higher taxes.   Many Albanians at the time converted to Islam mainly for business reasons. Albania also welcomed many of the expelled Jews from Spain and other nation’s pogroms, contributing to the thriving communities along the coast. Throughout Albania's bloody history, locals had to band together to fight various invaders. I was told by a tour guide that fighting in so many conflicts, the populace did not have the luxury of separating themselves along religious communities. The banding of religious groups fighting common enemies resulted in centuries of inter religious coexistence and support.

When Albania came under the Hoxha dictatorship, he ultimately instituted a harsh form of forced atheism, destroying most of the Mosques in the nation, and a large number of Orthodox and Catholic churches. The Churches that survived were made into either storage facilities or military barracks. I was told by one of the Albanian Peace Corps staff, that Hoxha targeted specifically the Muslims and Catholics, killing most of the clergy, because he considered them to be smart and educated, but he left the Orthodox alone, because he considered them to be stupid and harmless. What followed the  purges was two generations of non-contact with the outside world, and the supplanting of religion with worship of the dictator and the state. My sector leader told me that during those times, the markets would stop selling items like nuts, eggs and sugar in mid December. These foods are traditional Christmas ingredients. After the New Year, the items would come back onto the shelves. If a person was fasting, they would be suspect of celebrating Ramadan. Another friend of mine informed me that while Christmas was basically obliterated for 50 years, the dictator did like the tree aspect of the holiday, so New Year Trees were allowed instead.

To be honest, I have appreciated not being inundated by the crass materialism that Christmas has come to represent in America. I have enjoyed, actually enjoying Autumn, without all the oppressive blaring of Christmas carols and red and green everywhere starting in mid September. No pumpkin spice latte in red and green cups here, no sir re, just a glorious Autumn ripe with harvest produce and all the glorious orange, red and gold that gets lost in the endless push to get one to buy stuff for December 25th. I had no idea what to expect when it came to Christmas.

Since I live in the Southern Part of Albania, it has a larger Christian population, mostly Orthodox and heavily influenced by Greece, which has been helping to restore the destroyed churches and educate new clergy since there are no seminaries left in Albania. Much to my surprise and delight, decorations started to appear mid December in shops, cafes and city centers. This, I thought, is perfect, just right in terms of timing. 

At my host families house, it was fun to watch Ibrahim, a Muslim, dig out the Christmas tree and lights and watch him decorate the deck in front of my room. Slowly, more lights started appearing throughout the city as the days progressed on peoples windows and porches. Sarah, my host mom, has red Christmas balls on her kitchen cupboards, and a wreath on her front door. Poinsettias were at the florists, and fake trees sold everywhere.

The center of Berat erupted into a mish mash of customs all in twinkling lights. Since the sun sets here at 4 pm, it allows for a long viewing of decorations. What I found most adorable was the tree in the center of the square, next to a Santa hut and lighted sled the reindeers. 

People could take pictures with a Santa (quite thin my American standards) during regular hours. There was also a Nativity scene, done in Orthodox Byzantine style where people also posed for pictures. It wasn’t set up for that, as there were ropes placed to keep people out of the Nativity house, but people basically stepped over the ropes to pose in the center, between Mary and Joseph, but completely blocking the Christ Child. Such images reminded me somewhat of the donor paintings we often see in terms of religious images, but it was fun to watch all the same. I found it most amusing that everyone’s selfie pose blocked the manger as a “selfie” sort of supplanting themselves in place of the baby Jesus. I am sure there are profound psychological and spiritual underpinnings of such actions, for me it was just really interesting to watch.

Another aspect of local Christmas and New Year’s traditions is the consumption of Turkey or Gel Dita as this bird is called in Albanian. What I found particularly entertaining was the opening of the Holiday Turkey Market (my name, not anything formal) in front of one of the Mosques on the main road of Berat. Throughout the year, one can see flocks of turkeys roaming about the countryside, tended by what I would call “turkey herders.” In the Spring in the larger marketplaces, one can buy baby turkeys in large boxes, that one can take home and fatten up all year leading up to the holiday season. Starting in early December, the local turkey ranchers bring their birds to this one corner in front of the mosque. It was rather darling to  watch the turkeys strut their stuff in the front lawn of the Mosque, and observe people carrying the birds off after a bargaining session. I kept thinking of the holiday specials in my markets at home, where you buy $100 of groceries and get a free turkey, I was wondering what the marketing ploys were here in Berat. I was also wondering if this was some sort of fund raiser for the Mosque, again just my speculation but what goes through my mind as a pass these sorts of events as walking home from school. 

The schools went all out with Christmas programs, mainly singing secular popular American Christmas songs, which I found quite intriguing. Antonio, Erik and I hosted a Christmas party for the High School. We had Christmas card crafts, cookie decorating, and watched “Home Alone.” After a while, one of the teachers put on traditional Albanian folk music and the teens broke out into circle dancing. I had the honor of attending my schools Christmas Teachers luncheon, which was at this really amazing new restaurant in Berat. I had baked cookies for the teacher, my go-to-American cultural exposure of Oatmeal Raisin. I baked banana bread for my counter part and my director for their Christmas gifts.

One of the volunteers from a Northern Site decided to visit me for Christmas. We found that the Christmas Eve services were at 4:30 and 6:00 pm that night at the main cathedral. We went to the earlier service, not knowing what to expect in terms of public transport. crowds and local revelry. We were part of the six faithful at the service, and watched throughout the liturgy, people show up, go behind the screen, and come out in robes just in time for that part of the service such as carrying the Bible. I also found amazing was how the choir assembled in the same manner. It started with one lone cantor, and more people joined as the evening progressed, expertly arriving when their part of the liturgy was to be sung, and then leaving if it was over. The music was so beautiful, it reminded me of the Aramaic early Christian music I had heard from ancient Arab Christendom. At the end of the service, the Priest, a very tall man with salt and pepper hair and the countenance of what I would call a surfer from California, wished us all a happy Christmas.

The next day, I hosted the Peace Corps Volunteer from the North (Chris) and a French Volunteer (Priscilla) for a lasagna Christmas lunch. It was a quiet day of good conversation and reflection. I made crepes in honor of Priscilla. Persimmons were ubiquitous here, and I had also made a variant of persimmon bars, which helped me feel somewhat at home since this orange pulpy fruit was part of my childhood due to our prolific tree in Santa Ana. I was able to talk with friends via Facebook and called my parents.

It has been interesting watching TV and the ads regarding Christmas, as well as the news coverage. I got to spend New Years in Tirana and enjoy the Christmas Market in the city center. It rivals anything I have seen in tourism promotions for other European nations. Another truly Albanian moment occurred in the middle of the evening revelry of the Christmas market. Kenny G Christmas toons were blaring and the square was all lit up with lights, precisely at 6 pm, the main mosque in the square started the call to prayer. Only in Albania I thought to myself, as I looked at the Mosque which was next to a parliament building twinkling in Christmas lights. I am off to Macedonia to visit relatives and partake in Orthodox Christmas with them. I am sorry to miss however, an Epiphany celebration in Berat where a flaming cross is thrown in the river Osmi, and locals swim to retrieve it. I hope to learn more about this custom.

So this has been my first Christmas in Albania. It was full of surprises and I must say, quite fulfilling. There was just enough “jingle” and Santa to make it fun, and at least from my perspective (I do not watch much Albanian TV, nor go shopping in the larger cities) not the crass materialism that nauseates me in the States. I miss my Church dearly, and the contact with my parents. For some reason, memories of Christmas past have been quite present in my thoughts and dreams. Maybe it is part of aging, or maybe it is due to being in a foreign land, it also might be part of watching the America I knew disintegrate with the gleeful hatchet of corporatist, I long for the days of warmth and caring of my youth. What I have found though, is a deep caring and hospitality of my new home, which at times almost hurts because it reminds me of what I have lost in these last few years. I reflect back to the haunting music of Christmas eve, so reminiscent of the first Christian communities on earth, which might actually be from those very first on this land. I am inspired by how people here all celebrate each holiday, regardless of religious affiliation. Here it seems they learned a painful lesson of what it means to be forced into atheism. Now, it does not matter how you worship or celebrate Divinity, only that you do in what ever manner you find comfortable. I honestly think this is the message of Christmas, of Divinity coming to humanity, to be intimate and whole. I think my experience of Christmas here in Albania is probably the closest to what I think was intended by the first Christmas. 

Gezuar Krishtlindjet!

Saturday, November 11, 2017

The Garden

Peace Corps Volunteers Weeding

On paper, Peace Corps Volunteers have to meet numerous well titled goals. We are to be a representative of the United States of America, we are to share our culture as well as immerse ourselves in the culture of our host country. We are also to share our host culture with Americans. Peace Corps Volunteers are to lend our expertise to the people of our host nation. While these goals are laudable, they are by no means easy to meet, and often require great ingenuity and perseverance to  uphold. 

Depending on the sector where one is serving, there can be what are called “secondary goals” to be met. As a Health Sector Volunteer, my primary goal is to provide health education within my assigned school. Secondary goals are often met through service projects in the local community. Since I am serving in Berat, I have the good fortune of having several other Volunteers in my community, as well as Volunteers who are a short bus ride away to draw upon for projects. Anywhere in the world, one can find numerous opportunities to help communities improve. Here in Berat, a United Nations World Heritage Site, the opportunities are unique indeed.

When I arrived in Berat, I was immediately contacted by the two existing volunteers from the class before me. They are both involved in the Community Organizational Development (COD) sector and were working with the municipality and social services department in Berat. Both volunteers had been working on garden based projects, and asked me if I wanted to contribute. After learning about the specifics of one of the gardens, which was to be part of a community center within the Castle Village, I set to designing a program incorporating the concept of the “Edible School Yard” project, my school and the community center in the Castle Village. I brought in one of my pre-service-training classmates who was an architecture student in undergrad. She had a program on her lap top that would produce visuals for the garden design. I compiled research on the need for nutritional education in Albania. After writing up a proposal and including the very slick visual design from my fellow volunteer, I went about presenting it to the community center municipality representative, as well as an Albanian regional director of a German NGO for agricultural development in rural areas.

The director of the German NGO’s name is Qamilla. I had met her earlier in the Summer at a Cherry Festival in one of the villages near Berat. She was with an organization called “Women in Sustainable Agriculture.” We had an excellent first conversation, and both vowed to try to coordinate our respective efforts in the future. Qamilla really liked my proposal and responded by telling me she would do everything possible to help this project along. The appeal for her and her organization was the proposal to create School Garden curriculum which included classroom visits by local farmers to educate children on where their food comes from, and who grows it.

Albania is like the rest of the world in that the newer generations are moving off the land and into the cities. Traditionally, the majority of the Albanian populations was involved in agriculture. While this is still true in many respects, as economic conditions improve and education is more widely offered, the younger generations are choosing the professions. Another issue is the younger generations are also choosing to leave Albania due to the lack of economic opportunity, in many cases to work in agriculture in neighboring countries. Qamilla felt that such a curriculum, combining school gardens with classroom visits from farmers, would be helpful in presenting agriculture as a viable vocation, as well as increasing awareness of healthy nutrition. She also noted that Berat used to have a vocational High School for Agriculture, that had been closed over a decade ago, and there really was no opportunity to present educational opportunities to students in this very important economic sector. 

My proposal included bringing chefs in addition to farmers to the classroom, so children could be exposed to this career as well. The chefs would present cooking techniques and skills in combination with what ever crop was being featured for the lesson. I asked Qamilla if she would be willing to introduce me to the director of the Culinary School in Berat. She laughed quite heartily, and said she was happy to do so, since the director was her sister. They both came over to my flat on July 4th for an American style Fourth of July celebratory supper (vegetarian red lentil burgers however, along with three bean salad, potato salad and of course apple pie.) A very lovely exchange and dedication to future projects ensued. 

French Scouts Peace Corps Volunteers Enjoying Lunch Together

After this collaboration, a group of French Scouts came to Berat for a two week service project. In addition to Albanian language lessons and enjoying both the natural and cultural beauty of the region, the volunteers participated in numerous events designed to beautify Berat. Picking up trash around the castle was one activity, helping to prepare the community center garden was another. Weeding, removing large dead bushes and tilling soil filled up the morning. I called our local Peace Corps volunteers to come and assist in the endeavor. After the work, they all came to my flat for a “California and Albanian Fusion Cuisine” luncheon. It was a very sweet event to see three sets of volunteers, Berati High School Students, French Scouts and Peace Corps Volunteers chatting away  over lunch after a long hot morning of gardening. One of the Artisan leaders from the Castle Village kept remarking on how clean my flat was, and how well organized the food presentation. What can I say, years of catering and also of living in very small apartments with tiny kitchens obviously paid off. I told her the key is to clean as you go, since there is no place to pile up the dishes. I now have the high respect of the Castle Artisan community because I know how to cook regional dishes and keep a very clean and orderly kitchen. I must say this is refreshing, since my own culture does not value me because I am older and do not look like Samantha from “Sex and the City.” It is rewarding to know one can be appreciated for things other than youth and looks.

Part of the garden project was to feature an herb garden. I had met what is called in these parts a Mycksi Popullar, which translated means “Folk Medicine” Another way to understand this term is “herbalist” or “folk healer.” He had been at my school trying to get hired to teach the children about herbalism, and we became fast friends. I knew he wild crafted herbs from the local forests. I thought his expertise would be useful in designing an herb garden, and also be a way for him to showcase his knowledge and hopefully lead to some sort of position in the school. 

I also had plans to have a series of raised garden beds featuring how agriculture has evolved in Albania with each wave of conquerors. We planned a Medieval garden to show what Albania's were growing and eating in the Middle Ages, an Ottoman garden showing the influence of the Turks on Albanian agriculture (cherries  for instance, were brought by the Ottomans and have been cultivated widely in the region ever since) and a modern garden with items such as Tomatoes and Corn, which as we know came to Europe after Columbus.

Several weeks after the combined volunteer work party, I attended a meeting with Qamilla, the municipality and representatives of US AID on the project. To say it was a roaring success would be an understatement. I returned back to my flat from this meeting in the Castle with a very warm satisfied feeling in my tummy. Not twenty minutes after I entered my flat, I got a phone call from my Peace Corps Volunteer partner who began the conversation with “are you sitting down?” My heart sank, that is never a good way to start any conversation. After a few minutes of explanation, he told me that somehow the community center property that he had received grant money for and had been working on for over a year, a higher level official informed him that the proper paperwork had not been completed to use the property. (It had actually been properly filled out by his counterpart on the project, who had proposed it in the first place and asked for his help in executing it.) He was told that the property (a closed school with no electricity, running water or easy access for tourists) was to be sold. It seems on examination, that the recent elections put a different power structure into the municipality, and this particular official was being let go due to party affiliation. As an act of personal profit and spite, he was taking away the permission for the project that had been granted last year. I have come to learn this is standard procedure here in Albania and is a leading cause of the young and ambitious for leaving the country.

Luckily for me personally, I had not submitted my grant proposal before this shattering development. I had, though, worked quite hard at researching, developing, designing, networking on the proposal for the entire Summer. To say it was deflating is an understatement. My greatest sorrow was for the Castle Community, to lose such a great project, and for my fellow Peace Corps volunteer Miguel, who had worked much harder than I for the entire length of his service. As my previous life experience had taught me, it was time to pivot, re-invent and go in a different direction, and let my mystified rage at the situation be tabled for a later date. 

One of the reasons I incorporated the Castle Community Center in my garden project was that my school had no place to grow a garden. It is completely paved, with a basketball/ volley ball court and a play yard. I thought the community center would be ideal for a garden plot where the children could learn and also bring foot traffic to the Castle. A leading educational trend for the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization is incorporating what they call “urban gardening” into local and regional food policy recommendations. More and more people are leaving rural areas for cities. To meet the food demands of an exploding global population, there are concerted efforts to educate people to start growing food on roof tops, apartment terraces, in container gardens and in small spaces of land that cities offer. I also noticed that the High School I was working with had a couple of plots of mostly barren dirt in their courtyard. I thought, well, we can do container gardens on the roof of my school and small plots in front of the High School and it would be quite difficult for any future disgruntled municipality official to rescind the land for the gardens. So I had to re-write my proposal and set a new budget that included lumber and old oak barrels for container gardens.

In the process of all of this, I signed up my school to be part of the Edible Schoolyard Project based in Berkeley, California. While mostly in the United States, there are member gardens of Edible Schoolyard throughout the world. I noticed there were none in Albania, and of course made everyone know that my school gardens would be “The First In Albania,” or as I call it “FIA.” FIA is a great selling point to the locals. I also made Edible Schoolyard in Berkeley aware of this, and they were quite enthused about the prospect.

The School Director of 22 Tetori, English Teacher and a High School Student preparing for a Skype Call to Edible School Yard Headquarters in Berkeley

I set up a skype meeting between the project managers in California and my director and one of the English teachers. With the time difference, the meeting was at 6 pm at my flat and 9 am in California. We made contact and conducted our introductions via skype. I must say, it was probably the most moving thing I have witnessed here in Albania, this connection between Americans and Albanians via the internet, in real time, collaborating to create opportunities for children to grow and eat nutritious food. To say the Albanians are were on Cloud Nine, would be an understatement, it was more like Cloud 378 and rising. The Californians were unfamiliar with Albania, so it was a unique opportunity to spread one of our Peace Corps Goals of sharing our host nations culture with Americans. We are now on their radar, and it is very possible that one of the Edible School Yard staff will come to the opening of our garden in March of 2018. I also informed the US Embassy of this development, and the Public Affairs official is on board to cover the event from that angle. In an attempt to spread Albanian culture, get some publicity at home and create other partnerships, I asked the director of California's Roots of Change for some assistance, but he told me he has other priorities, and can not use any favors to help out, apparently writing an email on our behalf was too “expensive.” So I learned that it is not always disgruntled Albanian municipality staff that are unwilling to help out in great projects that assist farmers and children. 

At present, I am awaiting approval of the grant. It is an interesting and informative exercise to apply for these sorts of things. I have never applied for a grant from a US agency before, and it is a very laborious and thorough process. Luckily, I had my fellow Peace Corps Volunteer Miguel to basically sit next to me and answer questions on how to fill out each aspect of the application. He did this graciously, while he designed the visuals for the gardens at both the grade school and high school. We were sitting in the municipality together for several days, trying to lobby for the castle community center in a last ditch effort to save the project, but alas, we were never given the chance. Miguel has now experienced what it is like when your project gets pulled because of “circumstances beyond our control.” He is busy returning unused funds and trying to find eligible parties to donate the equipment already purchased for the project. Since several children at my school are members of the Castle Village, we are hoping some of the equipment can be given to 22 Tetori.

Meanwhile, the Herbalist, Demo, is absolutely chomping at the bit to teach herbalism at the High School. He had his suspicions that the Castle Community Center would not happen, so he is very intent that the opportunity through Edible Schoolyard not fall through. After lengthy conversations, often with an interpreter so there are no misunderstandings, and my carefully hand written notes in Albanian telling him about the process and need to wait till the grant money comes through to start our collaboration, I get almost weekly surprises from him. One morning, I got a phone call from Antonio, my fellow volunteer who is teaching English at the High School where one of the gardens is proposed, asking me if I was planning to attend a function at his school that day. I said no, and he told me, “Well, Demo (the herbalist) is giving a presentation to the faculty and students at 1 pm today, and there is supposed to be a local television station covering it, we have to come because it is a Peace Corps event.” 

What was problematic about this specifically, was that the week before, after lengthy meetings and agreements with the Berat Municipality chief of city park and grounds keeping to help remove dead trees and bushes from the High School garden, he (the grounds keeper) informed me a group of children had insulted him. He called the head of the school district to complain and nothing was done. He was so upset, he had to go to the doctor to get medication to cope with the stress of the incident, could not sleep for an entire weekend (the incident apparently happened on Friday afternoon, and our meeting was the following Monday,) and upon careful reflection, while he loves his country and is very grateful to Peace Corps for wanting to help the children, he will not be involved in anyway. He did invite us to dinner at his olive grove, though. So, once again, back to somewhat of ground zero in terms of how to prep the land for the garden. Having the Herbalist present to the students and local television media, when I was in the midst of yet another setback was extremely problematic, especially when representing Peace Corps in the process. 

I quickly emailed my director and sector director, because Peace Corps wisely has media policies with which we must adhere. I frantically typed on my laptop, while trying to fix my wet hair and put on make up, “I was just informed of this, what do I do?” My sector director immediately called me and on conference call with other staff members gave me excellent talking points on how to manage things, mainly because the project had not yet been approved by Peace Corps. I was to calmly say that Peace Corps was in support of Demo. We all laughed that I remarked how I was glad I had washed my hair that morning so as not to appear greasy on Albanian TV, (no small feat in these cold damp days with no heat.) I showed up to the gathering where there were about 50 students and 6 faculty members present. Thankfully there was no media, and I fully supported Demo in his announcement of the garden and his desire to teach herbs.

I met with him a few days later, again with an interpreter and a carefully written four page note in Albanian explaining the status of the grant, the upcoming winter holidays and how I could not guarantee anything, and it might be wise to wait till January. He smiled at me, gave me an incredible curriculum which included a class on Christmas Day for teaching herbs and a design for the herb garden according to regions in the area of Berat. He was going to start teaching anyways. He promptly walked over to the school director, who gave him permission to use the community center hours to start his herb classes. Obviously, I am a bit annoyed that I go to all this trouble to communicate with him as to the realities of the grant. But then, this ultimately is not about me or even Peace Corps, it is about him and the school, and if he wants to take on this project by himself, it is actually the ultimate goal of any Peace Corps initiative, to foster independence and sustainability in a project. Most volunteers complain they can not get projects going, this man has taken the project and ran with it, which in the end is actually a relief and truly a wonder to watch evolve. He is a gifted practitioner with immense knowledge of the local flora and fauna. He also has a lifetime of experience, and will be an asset to the community in numerous ways. In a certain way, this entire process is actually about Peace Corps goal of giving expertise and assistance to the host nation. I am certainly doing this, and the project obviously evolves in spite of my efforts and setbacks. What keeps me going is that essentially everyone in happy, and that it will actually happen in ways I had not imagined.

The ultimate goal of the Edible School Yard project in Berat is to collaborate with teachers to create an Albanian centric curriculum that can be implemented in any school in Albania. The teachers I am working with will help design both the curriculum and teacher training seminars. This has the attention of the School District Superintendent as well as the Curriculum Director for the Berat Region. For me personally, it gives an opportunity to address what I see as a glaring problem of rapid industrialization in Albania.

On the one hand, the problem of trash is just heartbreaking to witness here in the absolutely breathtakingly beautiful land. The lush pristine countryside is strewn with trash, mostly from packaged junk food and sodas. The waste from these foods carpets every school I have ever visited, and keeps the janitors quite busy in terms of picking it up. The eating habits of the younger generation are contributing to “first world” health problems of obesity and diabetes, while many children are malnourished due to poverty, eating only cheap packaged junk and not enough fresh fruits and vegetables. Agricultural traditions are being lost due to the movement into the cities, specifically Tirana. In a country of 3 million people, over one million live in Tirana. How can this be sustainable in terms of food production and access? 

While growing gardens seems like a leisurely pass time, knowing how to do so is actually one of the most powerful counters to rapid industrialization of the food system and increasing diseases related to this process. What I have also learned is that school gardens were part of the curriculum during the communist era, a sort of “Victory Garden” initiative. Students cared for and competed with one another in terms of their gardens. With the fall of communism and rapid industrialization, the gardens disappeared. The enthusiasm I meet whenever this project is proposed shows that memory of communism at least in this respect will not thwart it’s development. My experience with the children over the summer, providing healthy snacks as part of healthy living, was very successful. When they have fruits and vegetables presented to them, they eat them. It is a simple concept actually, but the basis of the Edible School Yard in general, and here in Berat specifically. 

I feel there can be a sustained process of education long after my service is over to make the newer generations of Albania as healthy and resilient as possible in this time of transition. It has been exhausting and informative along the way, but I also am very blessed to be working with excellent teachers and community members. I look forward, with cautious optimism that all will be well, and our first seedlings will be planted in March. I know for sure, that the Herb Garden will be carried through, and I have a good feeling about the curriculum development.

Stay Tuned, it actually might be on Albanian television!