Wednesday, September 6, 2017


Albanian Volunteers at Water Station during Service Project at the Grand Park Tirana

The word service has seven definitions. Ranging from maintenance of machines to religious rituals, the word “service.” in the case of Peace Corps matches the Marriam-Webster dictionary entries of “the action of doing work for or helping someone,” and “an act of assistance.” Our training to become Volunteers was called “Pre Service Training” and keeping with the theme, we just finished an “IST” or “In Service Training” to equip us for our assignments.  Before the “IST” we had an “AVC” or “All Volunteer Conference” where the classes of the year before mine, and my class of Peace Corps Volunteers gathered to hear one anothers stories and participate in a first of its kind in Albania, multi agency service project.

Cooking up After the Fourth of July BBQ at the US Ambassador's Residence

Every year, the United States Ambassador hosts a “post Fourth of July” party for Peace Corps Volunteers at his residence. This year was no different, and our Country Director decided to combine an All Volunteer Conference (AVC) along with a joint service project in Tirana. 

(Sorry about all the letters, this I am learning, is basically how PCV ((Peace Corps Volunteers)) speak with staff and the CD (Country Director,)) apparently staff is not shortened to (S,) for obvious reasons, and saying titles is well, so not PC ((Peace Corps and not Pericardium, Post coitus, Pancreas or Politically Correct.)) I am not sure this has to do with trying to conserve breath by eliminating extended syllables, save ink on print materials or a way to create a tribal language that only we in PC (see above first definition) can decipher, but if one wants to get with the program here in Albania ((HC or Host Country)) one has to learn what these letters mean in addition to the HCL ((Host Country Language.)) With my medical background, I can assure you it is utterly confusing to have all these letters flung about in conversations and memos, I am thinking they are talking about medical tests or pathological states, which in some cases are actually more descriptive that the intended phrase………)

Back to the AVC…… What was unique about this effort was to bring the entire corpus of volunteers together in once space. We A20’s (The 20th Albanian Peace Corps Volunteers class) Had yet to meet all the G19 (Group 19, the name was changed with my class) It was so inspiring to meet all the faces behind the names, and hear about their respective projects. It was also a shot in the arm so to speak to see that volunteers had served before us, lived through the experience and were there to tell their stories.

The focus of the gathering was on “service,” a term our CD likes to infuse in most of her addresses to the volunteers. In fact, she always signs her emails “in service.” Our first speaker was via Skype from the USA. Retired Senator Harris Wofford. Harris was in President Kennedy’s administration as Special Assistant to the President for Civil Rights. He worked with Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. Senator Wofford also worked with Sargent Shriver to found the Peace Corps and later collaborated with President Clinton to help create AmeriCorps. Our Country Director was a Peace Corps Volunteer, and worked in developing and implementing AmeriCorps. Americorps is a governmental service organization similar to Peace Corps, only based and executed on American soil. It was very inspiring to say the least to be addressed by Senator Wofford. He worked to found the Peace Corps as well as carrying out the goals of King, and urged us to keep the flame going, especially during such dramatic social and political times in the USA. Wofford also spoke of how central youth and students were in the creative enthusiasm both for the formation and implementation of Peace Corps. He charged us to carry on that spirit that is so necessary during our challenging era.

PCV and Tirana Parks Department helping Trees at the Grand Park, Tirana

The next day was spent collaborating with the Tirana Parks and Recreation department and a newly formed Albanian organization “Different Weekend,” or as the natives would call it “Fundjavë  Ndryshe” There is a Facebook page of the same name, please “like” it to keep abreast of their impressive activities. We American volunteers were rewarded for our work with tee shirts commemorating our 20 years of service in Albania. Donning the shirts, sun screen, hats and garden gloves, we all went to  the Grand Park of Tirana to help mitigate the effects of the drought that was affecting Albania. What was particularly impressive was the extreme heat in which our service project was conducted. I can speak for myself in that I looked like I had jumped into the lake after the mornings activities.

Tirana Mayor Erion Veliaj, Grand Park Tirana

The Mayor of Tirana, Erion Veliaj, is a progressive visionary who was initially inspired by Peace Corps Volunteers when he was a school boy. He has initiated numerous projects like a plastic bag ban and tree plantings. We were charged with helping the young trees this vibrant mayor had gotten planted in the park. As anyone who has been part of a city wide tree planting knows, the planting is the easy part, it is the care and watering that makes it sustainable. Due to lack of funds and basic drought conditions, the Parks and Rec department of Tirana has had difficulties in tending to the trees as well as basic fire abatement in this very beautiful and well loved park. Along with the Green Shirted Tirana public works employees, Peace Corps and Different Weekend volunteers worked shoulder to shoulder helping to loosen dirt around the young trees (which at times might have been better served with jack hammers the ground was so dry and dense.) We cut weeds which in some instances were about 3 feet high, watered and basically made the place look quite spiffy. We were told by the Mayor during his press conference that our combined morning efforts would have taken the park employees weeks to accomplish. 

Clean Up Crew at Grand Park Tirana Service Project

While we Americans are used to such volunteer efforts, this collaboration was a first in Albania. It has been about a generation since the fall of communism. While the nation is still reeling and adjusting to this event, one thing that has taken this long for the economy and civilians to become stable enough were the concept of volunteerism from the natives has become an acceptable, even an enthusiastic reality for the people of Albania. 

Tirana Park Workers, Grand Park Tirana

With the fall of communism, there was a rush from both America and the European Union to help modernize and stabilize Albania. USAID, the European Union, various religious organizations and Peace Corps came to help fill the void left by nearly 50 years of an isolated dictatorship. It has not been a smooth path of recovery, but the combined efforts of effective aid, diplomacy and the resiliency of the Albanian people has resulted in dramatic advances. In the early days of post communism, volunteerism was seen as something foreigners did to and for Albania. The word volunteer (vulnetar) had bad memories and connotations, as a misnomer for enforced work camps and slave labor on behalf of the government. It is also difficult for a people who are struggling to feed themselves and combating corruption to have the energy or time to volunteer. Thanks to great efforts in no small part of the Embassy of the United States and the efforts of our Ambassador, corruption is being cleaned up and sustainable businesses are being set up. As my pastor used to say, one has to be in a place where they can help others, the “put your own oxygen mask on before you help your children on the air plane” analogy. The people of Albania are now ready and very willing to help themselves. I saw this miracle of transformation in action on that steaming hot morning in central Tirana.

Panel at Univeristy Hall

After our fire and drought mitigation activities in the park, we were treated to a panel discussion in the very hall at the University of Tirana, where the students had started the uprising that led to the fall of the communist government. One of the leaders of that historic event was present on the panel. Blendi Gonxhe was a student during the fateful days of late autumn of 1990. He is now the Parks Director for the city of Tirana. He was joined by the US Ambassador Donal Lu, Arber Hajdari, founder and director of a Fundjavë  Ndryshe/Different Weekend, Manjola Gega, teacher from Rreshen and founding board member of Girl Scouts of Albania, Enrik Deda, student from Rreshen and Girl Scouts Volunteer, Gillian Richter, Peace Corps Volunteer and AmeriCorps Alumni, Michael McLemore, Peace Corps Volunteer and AmeriCorps Alumni and Ola Keci, college student from Shijak Albania and Fundjavë Ndryshe Volunteer. 

We listened to how Blendi Gonxhe described the fateful events leading to the collapse of communism, and how he has experienced his nation since those dramatic days. Ambassador Lu shared that he too, was a Peace Corps Volunteer and how that shaped his desire to serve in the Foreign Service. Manjole Gega spoke of how she along with Peace Corps Volunteers created the environment for Girl Scouts Albania to thrive. Fundjavë Ndryshe founder Arber Hajdari and fellow volunteer Ola Keci gave us details of how they started this organization and had raised over 2 million Euro from Albanians within and abroad in just two years to help the most needy citizens of this emerging nations. Projects ranging from help to pay hospital bills, to repairing houses, weekend service projects and recovery from natural disasters are quickly addressed by Fundjavë through its efforts. The American Peace Corps volunteers shared how both their Americorps  and Peace Corps inspired them to give back to their communities at home and abroad.

What struck me as I listened to the stories was how Albania had been exposed to Peace Corps Volunteers for most of the time since the revolution that had occurred in the hall where we were sitting. The mayor of Tirana was served by Peace Corps Volunteers as a boy, and the director of the park services in Tirana had by his actions made it possible for everything to happen since the Autumn of 1990.  Gonxhe was asked why he did not run for public office. His response was that he felt he could do more for his people outside organized government. From what I was witnessing through the panel, it seemed he had a point. In my own humble opinion, the mayor of Tirana is the new face of politics in Albania, one inspired by public service as demonstrated by his programs to plant trees, bring healthy food to school children and ban the ubiquitous plastic bags that are choking Albania's beautiful landscapes. It struck me that through the long process of consistent service in this emerging nation, Peace Corps had inspired a new generation of public good.

Fundjavë  Ndryshe Volunteers, Grand Park Tirana

I think it is profound that the service organization I am involved in through the United States government is called the “Peace Corps.” It is fitting that what we do is called “service.” As Kennedy and so many presidents after him often say, the United States does not wish to go to war. War in and of itself is often a quick way to solve disputes and address certain injustices, but the lasting road to what I would call deep diplomacy and global citizen ship is through peaceful service. The creativity, passion and in many cases long slog of Peace Corps Volunteers under seemingly insurmountable odds in many instances actually does pay off in the long run. In our own way, we paved the road for the service project that day, of both governmental, local and international volunteers to come together to address the drought and help the people of Tirana have a safe, beautiful place to rest, exercise and contribute to their fresh air. It was a first ever in Albania, and I for one was proud to be part of the service to this emerging nation of incredibly resilient and generous people. 

The people of Albania love their country and are eagerly working to make it better through Fundjavë  Ndryshe and other organizations. It was a grand weekend at the Grand Park Tirana indeed!

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Choosing Life

Throughout Pre-Service Training, we trainees were exposed to all sorts of sessions on various topics related to how we could best serve the people of Albania. As Peace Corps is constantly reviewing and revising, it was determined that more of an emphasis needed to be placed on youth development, and my training reflected this orientation. Special focus was placed on cultivating youth through projects such as camps, clubs and events. Two of the three sectors in Albania are school based, Health Education (HE) and Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL), the other is Community Organization and Development (COD), which often involves youth organizational endeavors. Since we have been released to our site assignments, most of the Volunteer efforts I am observing are reflecting the emphasis in our training.

As I watched quite a bit of television with my host family during training, one recurring segment of the evening news had caught my attention. There seemed to be an on-line interactive game sweeping the planet, including Albania, that was a teen suicide challenge. According to the reports, Eastern Europe was especially hard hit with this wave of Internet game inspired deaths. It had claimed the lives of young people across the globe, and was alarming public health and educational officials in Albania enough to where strategies and warnings were filling the evening news. The game is called "Blue Whale," and is enough of a phenomena that it has earned a Wikipedia page (eerily informative if you ask me,) and numerous on-line chats and YouTube videos from mental health professionals seeking to stem the threat of this deadly game.

Blue Whale is the name chosen because of the tragic phenomena of whales beaching themselves, seemingly to commit suicide. The game was originated by a 20 something Russian man, who felt the world needed to be rid of stupid people, a creative eugenics one might say, so he designed the game to have a 50 day/step process where he would interact with willing participants and invite them to do increasingly dangerous and scary things ultimately resulting in a social media documented suicide. The Russian court system apprehended the Blue Whale designer, and he has been found guilty of murder and sentenced, but the game persists and has morphed into similar challenges under similar names.

During my practicum and at my site school, I encountered a frequently asked question by the 12 - 15 year old children. After the basic questions of where I am from and my age, I was always asked about the Blue Whale. What did I think of the Blue Whale? I would respond that any thinking person would not listen to or do what the Blue Whale asked, the Blue Whale does not care about you, no one who cared about you would ask you to hurt yourself, the children agreed, but the questions persisted. I also felt my 15 + conversations about this horrible phenomena were woefully inadequate to meet the challenge. How could one convey on a large scale to match the Blue Whale, for youth to choose to embrace life and nurture themselves? What could compete with this carefully crafted program that increasingly lured otherwise normal youth to hurt and kill themselves?

During training, we were given a session on dealing with the "post communist mentality." We were encouraged to conduct leadership trainings with youth to encourage them to think in independent and creative ways. I had some deep conversations with my health sector trainers regarding the challenges the younger Albanian generation was facing. If we are honest, when communism fell in Albania, a large segment of the population was living in the same way they had lived for hundreds of years. At the time, Albania was existing much as North Korea, completely isolated from the outside world and held in a constant state of siege/panic mentality in fear of both the government as well as the rest of the planet. Considering that youth of today in developed countries are having difficulty coping with modernization and technology, it was daunting to imagine how much more difficult it was for the youth of Albania to adapt in such a short amount of time to the stresses of modern materialistic life within one generation.

Another challenge is the competing attention between a secular culture and the reintroduction of religious life after two generations of enforced atheism. Religion gives context to life, as well as rituals surrounding transitions such as birth, marriage and also the entry into adulthood. Confirmation and Bar Mitzvah are examples of ritual initiations for youth entering adulthood. In Aboriginal cultures, we see elaborate initiation practises requiring youth to go out into the wilderness and face their fears through various exercises. In these practises, youth are pushed to their limits, face conflict and learn to overcome using their ingenuity. Modern secular culture does not offer such initiations, so youth, in attempt to mark the great tumult that accompanies the stage from puberty to adulthood,  "initiate" themselves.  We see this attempt at "self - initiation" in modern gang culture, in the exploration of sex and mind altering substances, participation in the military, most dangerously in the flocking to terror organizations.

Teen "self-initiation" is a major factor in the obsession and compliance with on-line games such as "slender man" and now the Blue Whale. The evil side of confronting and challenging the self is seen in all aspects of these exercises. There is a pledge to an over arching principle or being, a series of challenges that go beyond the normal day to day activities, resulting in the transformation of the individual. Tragically, in these games as well as terror organizations, the transformation is physical death as a badge of courage. Young minds lack the physical mechanisms, full Frontal Lobe brain development to be specific where reasoning is conducted, to discern the full implications of their decisions to participate in such deadly endeavors. The deep question is how to meet the realities of a very disheartening world, constant technological media distractions, the physical limits of adolescent brain function and the need for healthy initiations to offer alternatives to video captured suicides.

The purpose of the Blue Whale is to damage the participants, to scare them and overtake their decision making process to the point of willing compliance with directions to harm and kill themselves. When we consider the initiation process, we can understand the attraction on a certain level. Obviously, participation in these cult like behaviors is a cry of pain and disorientation, a desire to transform into the next phase of life. It shows a lack of modern cultures ability to meet it's youth, there is a void, so the question is how does one fill that void?

I was talking with a group of children from my Summer Camp about the Blue Whale. It seemed that the game held all the thrill of my own youth filled memories involving telling scary stories round camp fires until we were terrified to sleep that night out in the wild. I asked the children what they thought of the Blue Whale. I then introduced the concept of an alternative game. I asked them to vote on a color, and then another ocean mammal. We decided, very democratically I might add,  on the "Purple Dolphin" which would be the name of a game where participants would do healthy activities. One of the girls who was interested in science, chimed in, "Oh that will be the antidote to the Blue Whale." Check, she got it, first step achieved.

I started asking my health sector classmates to help coordinate the project. I got some great ideas, and invited a volunteer who is a nurse from another site to brainstorm, compile and design the Purple Dolphin. This volunteer has experience in Psychiatric Nursing, so her input and experience was invaluable. What resulted was a forty-step program compiled into a booklet with activities designed to foster healthy habits, self esteem and positive interaction with the community. Where the Blue Whale commanded that gamers watch horror flicks in the middle of the night, the Purple Dolphin invited participants to watch NASA television exploring the galaxy. The Blue Whale commands gamers to cut themselves and post on social media their bleeding limbs, the Purple Dolphin invites children to do a Yoga Pose, pick up trash, help to cook a meal, offer a complement. Other Purple Dolphin activities follow the Albanian Ministry of Health guidelines for subjects such as Oral Hygiene, Nutrition and Exercise. Purple Dolphin also aims to create a happy sense of self for its participants. When appropriate,  gamers are to post pictures of themselves doing various activities on social media. Each step needs to be signed and witnessed by a caring adult. When the forty-step cycle is completed, the final stage is to promise to choose to do things that will foster a healthy rest-of -their-lives, which they are invited to post and document through social media. The final step is in direct contrast to the posting of a youth falling to their deaths from windows or bridges.

Visiting a local pharmacy on the dental health scavenger hunt in search of tooth paste and dental floss

We created a series of lesson plans that subsequently were used in a one-week summer camp that circled around the concept of the Purple Dolphin. In the beginning, we created pledges with a Purple Dolphin on the page. The children had to stand, raise their hands and promise to choose to live a healthy life. We then used face paints to paint purple dolphins on the children's forearms. This exercise was in direct contrast to the demand that the Blue Whale gives for children pledge loyalty to it, and to create a razor cut image on their forearms or thighs of a whale. The oral hygiene lesson featured a tooth brushing and flossing exercise, a dental health scavenger hunt where the gamers went out into the community to find where tooth paste was sold and were to find dental floss. We had the children go to pharmacies and ask the pharmacist for help, requiring them to list names and prices of these items. Next it was to find a local dentist and list the address, and finally go to a fruit vendor and list the different kinds of apples and what they cost. When the children returned from the hunt, there was a lesson on snacks that do not harm the teeth: carrots, cucumbers, nuts, apples and water. One of the later lessons was on self esteem, where children made "self esteem flowers" writing their names on the center of a paper flower and putting things they liked about themselves on petals to create the picture. We ended the lesson with reading to each child what they had listed, and telling them they were special. At the end of the experience, we had a party and a ceremony where they received certificates of participation.

Learning the delicious joys of healthy snacks that do not harm the teeth

We plan to release the project through a club format at the beginning of the school year. Depending on how it goes, we hope to share the project and have some simple trainings for teachers who would like to have the project in their communities. Another plan is to have a Face Book page where children can post their Purple Dolphin Task pictures, in addition to having them share on Instagram with the hashtag #PurpleDolphin.

Self Esteem Flower Activity

The goal is to shape those frontal lobe brain synapses to choose to live and choose health. With practice, such behaviors as "eating a vegetable" or "giving a complement" become habits. Instead of jumping off a cliff to prove ones courage, life itself can be seen as a daily initiation toward wholeness. Instead of escaping into violence, numbing through drugs,  alcohol and sex, the invitation is to embrace things that enhance life. The exercises are mostly simple things that most youth have access to, the nature of the booklet also allows those who do not have Internet capability to participate.

Children writing on flower petals what qualities they appreciate about themselves

It is my personal hope this catches on, as always time will tell.

May the Purple Dolphin be with you!

Tuesday, August 8, 2017


Many years ago, way back in an innocent age when it used to be embarrassing the admit one was a sexual predator and racist, I attended the United Nations Fifth Conference on Women in Beijing, China. This was in an era when the Internet was in it’s infancy, cell phones almost non existent and people had to talk to one another on a land line to get things done like plane reservations. At that time the only thing China was adept at was denying Visas and mowing down peaceful protesters with tanks. While agreeing to host the conference, little else was done to prepare for the thousands of the world’s women who would be coming to network and lobby for the betterment of half of the global population. The utter lack of preparation other than to assemble legions of armed soldiers from around China to monitor the event was evident at the NGO pre-conference, which was held in Hwairo. 50,000 women were pointed to an open field with 10 meter diameter circular slabs of concrete on which we were to hold our different workshops and panels. A day later, we were provided with inflatable tents and fans with generators.

Some women had ridden on trains for weeks to get to the conference. To say we were greeted with a giant foam middle finger is an understatement. What was the women’s response? What did the women who came from every nation on Earth do with the ultimate lemon catapulted in their direction? They decorated the tents with beautiful handcrafts, brought out tea and coffee service, sang, danced and carried on in spite of being literally abandoned in an open field to face 100F+ temperatures with 99.9% humidity. I have carried that image with me these many many years, how it is the women who always try and make everything nicer with their decorations, hand crafts and hospitality, in spite of extremely oppressive external circumstances.

I was thinking of this when I was invited to watch my host mom create Byrek. As the followers of this blog may remember, I live with the Albanian version of the Darlings in a terraced garden on the side of the Castle Mountain in Berat. The garden is a model for urban agriculture in that it maximizes a small plot of land to produce numerous food crops on a vertical plane. One of the more amazing techniques they employ is growing vine crops on a series of ropes, wires and trellises. The ripening (what I have called) “air squash” and the locals call “kungull,”  while others might call a fairy pumpkin, are being harvested on a weight basis. This means when the squash is so large that the intricate system of wires, platforms and ropes can no longer support the squash, it is picked and then turned into something delicious.

Since my arrival, one of the great cultural sharings has been through food. My hosts offer me supper and coffee with regional dishes. I cook for them in what I would call a “Californian Albanian fusion” style, meaning I try my best to recreate California cuisine with Albanian ingredients. Somehow I am able to convey the essence of the gastronomy without my beloved Cilantro, various peppers and hot sauces and cheddar cheese, but they are getting the hint. We trade plates, when I cook, I bring them a plate of my creation. I am treated to plates of various Albanian culinary gems left for me on my kitchen counter. Now that the Summer is in full swing, I am also treated to cucumbers, various fruits and of course the kungull. Sara, my host mom, asked me if I was available to watch her make byrek the next day. I eagerly said yes, and asked what time. She said she would be ready at 9 am. I arrived on the dot to witness what can be described as kitchen alchemy, the taking of maybe five ingredients and transforming it into gastronomic gold.

Byrek is a staple of the Albanian table. It is also the go to fast food available on every street corner. During training, volunteers had scouted out the best Byrek stands in Elbasan. Since I am not all that into the know at times, I only found the gem during our last two weeks of training, and I can recommend the cheese and tomato Byrek quite highly, I can tell you where this place is even though I could not tell you the name of the place to save my soul. 

The first time I heard the name “Byrek” was during one of my trips to Macedonia. In Skopje, the different bakeries proudly displayed their offerings of either spinach, cheese or meat. I had never seen Byrek in my past trips, and was never exposed to it through my grandmother. We ate “banitza” and it was more like what most people understand as “spanikopita” the famed Greek spinach filo pastry wonder. My grandmother made her banitza with hand rolled filo sheets. Her living room, kitchen and dining room was transformed into a pastry drying rack, with the delicate sheets draping towel lined flat surfaces. Grammie as we called her, filled her banitza with either cheese (cottage and feta) ground meat and onions, spinach and cheese (see previous ingredient list) or apples and raisins. She would either make a tray or roll it up in the style most would recognize as the Austrian Strudel. On New Years, she would bake in silver dollars into her pie, and if you found one in your piece, it would be a lucky year for you.

The Albanian table and agriculture has been influenced by the many invaders to their land. Byrek may be a legacy of Ottoman  occupation in that similar dishes are found in Northern Africa and they are called Börek. Some sort of variation on the theme of layers of thin flaky pastry with a variety of available fillings can be found throughout the Balkans. What some would call Greek cuisine, I would say is actually Turkish. Regardless of it’s origins or accurate nomenclature, Byrek is delicious. Byrek is also a symbol of the resilience and constancy of the women of Albania.

When I entered the kitchen of Sara, my host, she had already cooked the kungell from her garden. It was steamed, mashed and seasoned with butter, eggs, milk, a bit of sugar and salt. The dough, known as yufka (we Americans would call this filo,) was prepared into small balls. Sara took the ball of dough, rolled it in corn starch, the magical ingredient that I now know will enable me to actually roll out the pastry without having it stick to the table, and rolled it into a paper thin consistency. Sara would then take each sheet and dry fry them in a large pan she had on her stove, making what looked like to me extremely large thin flour tortillas. I realized that she was making what I have been seeing in the markets in plastic bags, a sort of “instant Burek” stack of the prepared cracker like yufka. She repeated the rolling, frying and stacking into a separate dish until there was only two balls of dough left. One of these, she made into a very large sheet that she placed on a towel on her couch, the other was smaller, which she placed to the side of the larger pastry. 

When the “kungullur” or squash Byrek was ready to assemble, Sara rolled the large uncooked pastry sheet on the bottom of a large circular pan. She oiled the pan with a mixture of sunflower and olive oil, and then drizzled oil on top of the sheet. Then the layering magic began; one dry fried layer of pastry, then drizzled oil, then the squash mixture, over and over until everything was used up. The final layer was the smaller raw sheet of pastry, and then the larger bottom layer was rolled up on the sides to complete the construction. Oil was drizzled on top and the creation was popped into the oven, where is expanded into a flaky domed fragrant example of the deliciousness of the Albanian kitchen. 
As I watched Sara roll the dough into the corn starch in meticulously equal portions, I noted that she does not use any sort of measuring devices. She patted the dough into small flat circles, then rolling them out on a kitchen table dusted with corn starch and a dowel with almost machine like precision. I wondered how many thousands of times she completed this ritual. As Sara is a grandmother, she had endured the aftermath of World War II and the subsequent entire generation of communist oppression. She also lived through the fall of communism and the resulting turmoil that accompanied that transition. 

Sara’s hands create the most amazing dishes, her hands keep a spotlessly clean home. She gardens and tends the many plants that make up the lushness of the terraced levels. Her children and grandchildren are quite successful people. The resulting Byrek that we all enjoyed later that afternoon was incredible. Knowing it had come from her garden, and the organic flour she told me was the best for making Byrek, I think influenced my experience. My lack of sophisticated language skills keeps us from having more complex conversations, but the food speaks for itself. 

Sara is like those women I witnessed at the UN Conference. In spite of being given very difficult circumstances, they all make life more pretty and delicious. During the years of great oppression under the dictatorship, Albanian women continued to love their families, grow and make food, keep their homes immaculate, and make countless Byreks. While I enjoy the Byrek from the local bakeries and fast food establishments, there is something intangible yet present when the Byrek is made from garden fresh ingredients and by hands that have shaped and rolled the dough for decades. It just tastes different, and is more satisfying. As Albanians become more educated and two salaries are needed to keep the family budget in tact, one of the casualties of this modernization is less time for cooking.  As television and exposure to all that entails, markets and tastes are moving towards prepared and pre packaged foods. The younger generation understandably is moving away from the cooking traditions of prior years, mainly due to lack of time. As I watched Sara make her work of art, I wondered if such a tradition would continue. 

As I forced myself to eat Sara’s “air squash” Byrek slowly, as it was melt in your mouth delicious, I said a prayer that such traditions survive in the transforming modernization of Albania. 

Some wonderful websites for learning more about Albanian food:

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Kujdes (Careful)

On the Gorica Stone Bridge as a staging for the hike

It is sort of amusing the words one says frequently when interacting with locals in a foreign country. The children at Summer Camp tease me because I say “shumë interesante,” which means “very interesting,” all the time when describing some great universal truth in nature during a lesson. Obviously my Albanian vocabulary lacks the volume my English one has, I am also finding Albanian is a very economic language meaning the options for adjectives and adverbs does not seem as broad. The word “mirë” (good) is used ubiquitously and with gusto in every conceivable situation in conversation. We had a song in training on “mirë”. We American volunteers often reflect on how when women and children say this word it almost sounds like a kitten meowing. What is nice about both shumë interesante and mirë is they allow my lack of vocabulary to go unnoticed, and I can get my point across in full comprehension on all sides.
On the way to the trail head

A word I have been saying constantly as the Summer Camp activities have progressed is “kujdes.” Pronounced as “kweedes” it means “be careful,” which one has to say continuously when doing any sort of outside activity with boys. In addition to my constant admiration and amazement of Albanian women’s ankle ligament strength in high heels on cobble stone, I am seeing that school aged boys also have a bio mechanical wonder in their bodies as well. The boys in our Summer Camp seem to not have to obey the laws of gravity, and in some instances I am convinced they are related to spider man. 

Antonio and I have been diligently conducting daily Summer Camps since the middle of June and will be completing our programs on the 3rd of August. Apparently we have had the longest and most successful camp in all of Peace Corps Albania this Summer. Situations vary from site to site. In some cases, the Albanian counterparts are not interested in Summer Camps, in others strict perimeters have been set in terms of length and timing of Camps. In my never to be humble opinion, I have the dream assignment in that my school director and counter part are very enthusiastic and supportive of Peace Corps and have welcomed any of our initiatives. Antionio’s primary assignment is to teach English at the High School next to my school ( a mixed grade and junior high school called a 9 Year School) His counterpart informed him that his services would not be required until September, leaving him free for the Summer. I suggested he join me in our Summer Camp and it has been a very rewarding and entertaining collaboration to say the very least.

View from the Trail, showing the Castle Mount from the west side

The word “kujdes” became vital to the success of our outdoor ambassador camp week as we braved the beautiful local offerings for hiking. The River Osum separates Berat into two sections. On the northern side of Berat is what I call the Castle Mount, on the southern side is a very steep mountain where the Gorica Medieval Village is located. There is a beautiful rustic loop trail that we thought might be fun to explore with the children. Informing them to wear walking shoes, sunscreen, hats and to bring water, we assembled for our exploration. As Antonio is a generation younger than I, he led the eager children, and I brought up the rear bearing oatmeal raisin cookies I had made the day before and several bottles of water to fill in the gaps of the children who forgot theirs. 

The trail was extraordinarily steep, narrow and full of loose gravel.  It was actually the first time the children had gone on the trail in spite of the fact it is literally in their back yards, a 10 minute walk from the city center. Unencumbered or inhibited by heat or steep drops on one side of the trail, the children gingerly ran up the side of the mountain,  much to the shock of Antonio and my constant loud uttering of the word “kujdes!” At one point, I simply could not keep up and told Antonio to hike a bit more, break out the cookies and then come back down the trail where I would be seated waiting to bring up the rear on the descent. 

The children were disappointed we did not go to the top, but it simply was too hot and dangerous for Antonio and I to keep them safe. As they descended, I kept my part of the bargain to bring up the rear. Much to my dismay I simply could not get up. There was nothing for me to hoist myself up on, say a rock or a tree. The trail was very loose, with thick brush on either side. I tried to get on my knees and stand that way, but my muscles chose that very day to go into spasms, making my calves and feet go into charlie horses if I dared get into any sort of position enabling me to get off the ground. One of the younger boys who is extremely polite and helpful offered to give me his hand. Knowing it would be certain death for us both for him to pull me off the ground, I politely thanked him and declined the offer. As I continued to struggle to get up, he then started to chant “ Ste - fa - nee” over and over until I finally rose from my cramped posture, clapping for me when I stood upright.

When we got to the foot of the trail, Antonio and I were completely drenched in our own sweat, our stomach linings a bit thinner due to the constant angst of worry over the possibility of dead children on the hike. The children asked repeatedly when we could do the hike again the entire way back to the school.

We decided to try again, but next time to leave at 7 am to beat the heat. We also invited the local Girl Scout Troop to have the older members come and help corral the nimble gravity defying children. The back tail to the castle was our next endeavor, mainly because it was not as steep and had a paved road back to the city. As I am one of those annoying morning people, I arrived at the deserted city center at 6:30 am on the day of the hike. I was alone in the city, as no sane person ventures out before 7 am. At 5 minutes to 7, I saw the small herd of camp regulars slowly make their way to the school, hands in their pockets and puffy partially closed eyes. Soon cars started arriving, and children tumbled out, rumpled hair and stunned faces, obviously they had just awoken bless their hearts, but they were there and on time. 

We started our ascent with me of course singing my “kujedes” song in regular rhythm. There is a point in the trail where a landslide has covered the road, forcing hikers to walk along an ancient stone wall which has a 30 foot drop on one side and the landslide on the other. Antonio and one of the Girl Scouts led the way, and I and the other leaders acted as a toll booth, only letting one child cross the patch at a time. We of course had to physically restrain the boys, and in some cases had to hold the hands of the more shy of the children as they crossed. After this stretch, the walk was through a beautiful forest leading up to the castle walls. When we got to the gates, we had a snack and played cards. After a while, the more spider man like of the younger boys started to make piles of pine needles with their feet, jumping up and tossing clumps of needles between their ankles. Others were making launching pads to climb trees with the offerings of the forest floor. Who says children need technology to be entertained?

The next day I woke at my usual pre dawn hour, to go on my deck and enjoy the sunrise. To my horror I saw open flames on the hill across the river from where I live. It is amazing how a new language can fail you when you are in a panic. It is sort of like those nightmare dreams where you are screaming and there is no sound coming from your mouth. We did not have any training in phrases for “fire.” As it was about 4:30 am, I was in a quandary as to what to do. Should I scream, should I wake my host family? There was no response of any kind that I could see, no fire crews, sirens or anything. I waited till 5 am to knock on my host families door. Sarah seemed impressed with my sentence structure  in terms of saying there was a fire. She patted me and congratulated me on my language improvement, that yes, there is a fire. Should we call someone? Oh, no, she calmly said, the police will take care of it, and she went back to bed. 

I then started texting everyone I could think of, my safety and security officer, my local Peace Corps Volunteer Warden, my country director, Antonio, my director and counterpart. I then wondered if I should pack my valuables, cancel summer camp and then what?  Still no sirens, no helicopters, no nothing, and the fire continued to burn. Antonio told me he had been watching the fire from his house most of the night. We were both in a quandary as to what to do. We decided to show up at school for camp and see what was the best course of action. What struck me was how everything was going on as it always does, buses running on time, shops opening, people in the cafes greeting on another as they began their days all with open flames in the background. 

When I arrived at school the guard was calmly watching the hillside across the river burn. I joined him in his watch, and he quietly told me how sad it was that the hill was burning and then went to sit at his post. The children also simply watched the fire, and we had our planned activity. Afterward,  Antonio and I agreed to keep each other informed of any changes, and to make sure we had cash and water on hand in case of the need to evacuate. Later that day when my Peace Corps Country Director called to check on me, I told her it seemed that Antonio and I were the only ones in all of Berat that were upset (I said this as the helicopters started to arrive finally at noon that day) and since the locals were not upset, I would integrate my emotional state to the citizenry, and follow their example to not be alarmed. She agreed that it was probably the best course of action, and told me to inform her of any changes in our situation. I thought to myself, that the locals had endured five centuries of Ottoman occupation, two world wars, a repressive dictatorship, civil war and economic collapse, so forest fires obviously are low on the panic list. I also rationalized that Albania would not let its jewel World Heritage Site burn. It was one of the odder experiences I have had to date, as a Southern Californian survivor of many fires to simply watch a forest burn itself out and no organized response or concern of the local population. 

Now that it is August, our camp is almost finished. We will have an ending party where we give the children a diploma for completing the activity. They have been such a delight this entire time, complying with all of our many different offerings of games, lessons and activities. One of the more interesting aspects of our camp is that the boys are the majority of the participants, regularly coming every day at 8 am. Antonio and I have thoroughly enjoyed the experience, but we are both ready to take a bit of a break before the onslaught of activities begins in the Fall. The children would be happy to have the camp seven days a week until the beginning of school and are visibly disappointed that we are ending on Thursday. Antonio will be traveling with friends through August. I am going to stay put and work on my language and some writing projects, as well as do some early morning exploring of trails and churches that I have been unable to enjoy because of camp. 

It is hard to believe we have been here in Albania for six months. In some respects it seems my life in the states is a distant memory. I feel like I am in a rhythm here in Berat. I have my vegetable sellers I frequent, I know where to get certain consumer goods, I am starting to make some local friends and know the soap opera schedules. The combination of natural beauty and unique architecture here in Berat makes for a very satisfying experience, and I have little desire to go anywhere else for the foreseeable future. I am glad everything did not burn in the fires. As I watch the rest of the world implode and explode, Albania seems a haven for me, filled with delicious Summer fruits, sweet children and a deep history I am discovering on a daily basis. While I am kujdes in terms of not tempting fate, I feel very much at home here. I look forward to the next chapter in my Peace Corps Journey.

Monday, July 10, 2017

I Have Heat

The Church of St. Thomas the Apostle, Berat

Is it climate change, menopause or Balkan summers? Is it sweat beads, a renegade hair or a bug crawling on some patch of exposed skin? One can never truly discern the true etiology of being bloody hot all the time. I am starting to perfect my Albanian language skills and small talk surrounding expressing my extreme displeasure at sweating like a pig all the time. Apparently, “ I am hot” is not the correct way to convey what you are feeling in terms of temperature, one must say “I have heat,” which is interesting and somewhat hopeful, because I am not hot, I have heat, I can give it away. 

The heat is exacerbated by the constant feasting that is happening on my limbs by mosquitoes. I am finding that ice is the best way to take away the itch, so I have several small plastic bottles in the freezer at all times to help relieve the agonizing feeling. I am also considering how to make my abode less hospitable to mosquitoes without dowsing everything in DDT. As the available areas on my body for new bites is getting smaller and smaller and the red lumps become more numerous, the choice between liver cancer and betting bitten is now quite a tough call. As I was exploring the chain grocery store near my house, I stumbled upon a bag of citronella candles with the label “ZZZZZZZZZZzzstop” Oh joy, I can avoid cancer and also stop the critters, all while smelling like Avon’s skin so soft.

It is interesting to talk to locals about the heat. Apparently, the Balkans sort of skipped summer for several years, having instead so much rain that there was flooding in numerous regions. This past Winter in Albania was the coldest in 35 years, forcing the closure of the nations schools for several weeks. Some volunteers in the northern mountains simply lived in their sleeping bags with hot water bottles for several months, venturing out to quickly use the toilet only when it was absolutely necessary. In times past, August was usually the hottest month, but this year the heat started in May. I am no longer retaining water in my ankles, I sweat constantly, so nothing collects on the inside, only all over my body. Antonio and I were realizing we had begun to live like vampires, closing up our living spaces so no light could penetrate and simply lying in the dark until the sun set so as to avoid the heat.

This morning, Sunday, I ventured out of my garden abode to try  and attend another historic church. Today’s destination was St. Thomas the Apostle, a sweet church with a bell tower in the Gorica side of Berat. The gates to the church were open, revealing a steep cobble stone walk to the courtyard surrounded by lush green gardens. As I began my ascent to the church, I was greeted by a man who was filling bottles of water from a hose, he told me the water came from the snow of the local mountains. He insisted on taking me into the church, and everytime I tried to say something, he would say, “wait” and then continue his monologue about various statistics on the mountains, how many people lived in this section of Berat and various landmarks. All I wanted to do was light some candels, and attend services. I did manage to get in a question even though I was told to wait as I started to ask it, and was told mid sentence on some Icon description, that the only services in this particular church were during Easter. He kept encouraging me to go up flights of stairs to get a view, and the more I did as he bid, the more I started to sweat all over my body. I was thinking to myself, I was all clean and dry when I came, now I am soaking through my dress and my bra is completely drenched. Vasili, as he told me his name, then wanted to hike to the top of the village so I could get the best view. As we started to ascend the 45 degree road, and I became increasingly more drenched, I started to understand what exactly was going on. This kind, informative and enthusiastic man was basically giving me a tour and would expect payment for his service. I told him I was a Peace Corps Volunteer and wanted to go to Mass. He told me he had a family business to maintain. I thanked him, gave him a modest tip which I felt compensated for his 10 minutes of church cobble stone inspired step aerobics and made my way down to the main church in the center of town, next to my school.
Icons and Altar of the Church of St Thomas, Berat

Shën Tomari as it is called in Albanian was built in the 18th Century but was razed as part of Hoxha forced atheism campaign. When Albania ended communism, the church was rebuilt in the 1990’s in a joint project between Orthodox and Catholic donors. One of the original St. Thomas Icons remains. I found the 12 pointed star mosaic in the center of the sanctuary the most interesting, mainly because it was from the original church. I would like to go back and simply sit in the gardens and relax. I hope to make it there for services next Easter, I am sure they are quite beautiful.

The Orthodox Church in the new part of Berat it seems is where services are held regularly. It is across the street from the the main mosque. I can not for the life of me remember the name, and finding basic tourist information on the web seems beyond my ability. I do know it is a relatively new church, while most of the smaller churches date from the 10th - 15th century. What is particularly interesting about this large central church is the quality of the cantors. If you are lucky enough to make it to Sunday Liturgy, it is like one is entering heaven or an ancient historic rite. I watched intently, wondering  how many centuries these rituals have been performed in this 2000 year old city. It also was apparent that the main church is served an arch priest or patriarch. Mostly men participate in the services, which is unique, back in the states, it is usually women who dominate the pews. I found it touching to watch people make the rounds to the Icons with flowers. As I watched the elderly congregants hobble to kiss the priests hands and the icons, I pondered what each of them endured when atheism was enforced as state law.

We, (the children of my school, my A20 fellow Peace Corps Volunteer Antonio and I) are nearing the mid point of our summer camp offerings. From what I am observing from other volunteers throughout Albania, is that Antonio and I have the most ambitious summer camps. We started the Monday after school was out and will continue through the first week of August. At the very first day of camp we had two children, the next day attendance went to 40. Now we have a steady stream of 20 - 30 children per day. Antonio is a seasoned English teacher fresh from a three year stint in Japan. I have learned quite a bit from him as he teaches language games and exercises. The camps are from 8 - 10 am . The first hour has some sort of activity or lesson, the second hour focuses more on games and sports, mostly by the grace of Antonio’s 20 something energy level and physique. I am more of an arts and crafts sort of person sitting on cool marble steps. I justify my lack of motion as trying to keep my bodily fluids inside my sweat glands and not pouring out copiously for all the world to see.

Summer Camp, Berat

We started the camps with a “sampler week,” meaning one theme per day as an intro for the upcoming camps in the following weeks. We had an English Language Camp, obviously led by Antonio. The children were really adept at all the games Antonio presented. Everything from Simon Says to variation on the theme for pictionary and charades. One week was “Food Camp” as a dry run for starting Slow Food in School at my site. This week was all about Honey and Bees. We tasted several local honeys and had the children describe the different flavors. I made them honey ice cream (Akullore me mjaltë) which was so fun to watch the childrens faces as they ate it, as they realized the ice cream had no sugar in it. It was also fun to listen to them describe the quality of the honey; floral. Antonio thought my freezer creation tasted like flan. The week was rounded out by a visit from a local bee keeper who talked about his craft, and a local apple farmer who talked about his orchards. I was truly impressed that the children sat still and asked questions of both guests. 

We then had Science or shkencë as it is called here. I would say what I thought was Shkencë only to have the children say it, with a helpful extra  “sh-k - ee- n-s” pronunciation lesson which resulted in them grinning due to how the mouth needs to be positioned to get the proper sound. Adorable simply isn’t descriptive enough in terms of what they all look like when making sure I say things properly. We did three days of really cheap science experiments illustrating different states of matter, water cycles and mathematical patterns in nature. 

Next week is the All Volunteer conference in Tirana, with an extra treat of celebrating a “After Fourth of July Celebration” at the American Ambassadors Residence. Yours truly volunteered to help with the food prep, so I will be driven by private car to the residence with several other volunteers to help set up tables and grill burgers and hot dogs. 

Summer Camp, Berat

After the conference, Antonio and I will then continue our camps with one week dedicated to “outdoor ambassadors,” one week to arts and crafts and our final week will feature health. 

There is a current phenomena on the internet called “blue whale” a sort of game where an on line animated blue whale dares players to do scary and ultimate deadly tasks such as jump off the side of a building. I saw a segment on the nightly Albanian news about the phenomena. Parents, teachers and health officials were voicing concern over how this newest computer game was a danger to the youth of Albania. On numerous occasions when talking with older children, I was asked what I thought of the ‘blue whale” Inspired by this, I have decided to do a game - scavenger hunt  activity where the children are “dared” to do healthy things, like drink a glass of water, floss their teeth, find out where fruits and vegetables are sold, do a healthy exercise like situps and so on. I discussed this with a few of my older girls, one said immediately “Oh that will be the antidote to blue whale” This girl admitted to me earlier that she watches science experiments on you tube all day long. We had a vote, and it was decided that the color should be purple and the ocean mammal will be a dolphin. So the last week of camp will end with a rousing game of purple dolphin. I have invited other health sector volunteers to join in on the fun, and hope we can start a movement to invite children to healthy life affirming activities prompted by an imaginary internet creature.

Tonight, Antonio and I will be scouting out a hike we will be taking the children on for an upcoming camp. We will be doing this on the way to a supper at a restaurant in the mountains featuring regional specialties from an organic farm. One must couple tasks you know, all in the name of research. When learning of the upcoming hike, the children of course asked what sort of food I would bring them. Spoiled these children already, I have, as Yoda would say. I was able to find the ingredients for oatmeal raisin cookies, we shall see how they turn out considering my baking temperature challenges. The children were told to wear athletic këpucët (shoes) a kapelē (hat) and bring ujë (water) for the hike, which will only last for about an hour. What is the most darling is that the children are upset we do not have camp on the weekends. 

So we are making inroads, trying to be good examples of Americans to the community as well as these children. For myself, I am having a blast and basking in the glow of adoration one can only experience in the presence of children who feel appreciated and encouraged. I am particularly touched by the young boys. Boys these days, and yes I understand everything surrounding girls, sexism and such, and am actively encouraging girls, but boys are getting lost in the shuffle of gender role changes and a more specialized labor market. I am finding that being attentive to boys in positive ways to be quite amazing. 

One young boy who is big as well as plump gets teased by the other children on a regular basis. As a chubby person myself who was tortured my entire childhood for taking up too much space, I do not tolerate this sort of bullying at all. One of the taunting children told me the recipient of their attacks was ugly. I loudly disagreed, holding the target of the abuse close too me. Later I sat the humiliated boy down, who to be honest is not the most handsome person ever, and told him in my best Albanian, that he was beautiful. I kept saying it, over and over, holding his chubby face in my hands and looking into his eyes until he accepted my statement. The next day, this boy ran up to me, took my bags and gave me a hug and a kiss. He tries to help out with tasks and pays attention to the more mundane aspects of lessons with a new vigor I had not noticed before.

I think this is what we are here for, to affirm the dignity of each person we meet. The ramifications are enormous. One wonders if the children who are strapping on bomb jackets and detonating them in outdoor concerts or vegetable markets would do such things if someone took the time to look them in the eye and tell them they were important and beautiful. It seems that the Peace Corps may be preventing terrorism by sending volunteers out to the edges of the earth to simply love children in developing nations. It is much cheaper and more effective than building walls or dropping mega ton bombs on villages. 

Gifts from the Kitchen

It is these experiences and the knowledge that the seeds are being planted for future peace and collaboration, that more than make up for my constant sweating and scratching from the latest evidence of my involuntary blood donation to the local mosquito population. Here is hoping the citronella candles stop the munching.