Tuesday, February 21, 2017

And Let it Begin With Me

I am busy trying to figure out what to take and what not to take in these days before I embark for my journey to Albania. In some ways, it feels premature to take everything, mainly because I do not know where I will be assigned. Albania is a coastal and mountainous nation, which means there is a broad possibility of weather conditions. Packing a large down parka seems odd to do when I will be arriving in Spring.

Last Sunday, I started saying goodbye to my different communities. At the Church where I grew up, my father asked for prayers for my service. What he found that was interesting was the anthem that day was "Make me an Instrument of your Peace'" Followed by the congregation singing "Let There be Peace on Earth" Since I was a child in the 60's, one of the main memories I had was of the Peace Movement. Tie dyed hippies with headbands, peace signs and slogans, but the song Let There be Peace on Earth" was quite popular in those days. It is rarely sung these days, at least in my circles. The words are quite profound, and follow the Peace Prayer of St Francis of Assisi

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace:
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy. 

O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive, 
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned, 
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

If you have ever had the chance to see Brother Son, Sister Moon, it is a 70's era film about St Francis and even though they tried to be in line with the 13th century era, it really does look like a bunch of hippies dressed up for a medieval play. The sentiments of the movie and the 70's are very similar; counter culture, placing importance on relationships not material things. Even the generational arguments reminded me of my childhood watching the "peaceniks" versus the establishment argue about what is real.

To say I am a bit anxious about embarking on this journey during the current global political and emotional climate is an understatement. The US administration is essentially dismantling decades long structures. The Peace Corps was conceived in the aftermath of World War II as a service oriented mission to developing nations, a gesture of good will and sharing on behalf of the American people. Humanity seems to be quite adept at making war, but how does one wage peace? As I see the constant international mocking of my president (for whom I did not vote, precisely because I believed every word he said and knew he would be a disaster both for the American people as well as internationally) I wonder, how is it I can represent my nation through the Peace Corps? 

There is much to be proud of and to convey to the world about the USA. My personal favorites are; our national parks, our museums, the hopefulness and ingenuity of the people, and our ideals of freedom, equality and community. The assaults to these values and what I enjoy about living here are now coming from within. How do I represent this? As I counseled with my pastor as a final spiritual and emotional preparation for leaving, we talked at length about how to convey what it means to be an American. At our core, Americans are a very helpful people. The basic mission of the Peace Corps is to be of assistance to others. In Albania as with other nations emerging from the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Peace Corps was one of the first citizen diplomatic missions to help these nations emerge from the damage of autocratic governments. The mission was to help formerly communist nations adjust to modernization and American ideals in the vacuum created by the lack of infrastructure. If nations can develop themselves, the people are less likely to want to leave, more likely to be future trade and cultural partners. On a human level, missions like the Peace Corps were to show kind and helpful faces behind the media of Americanism often portrayed through the news, TV and movies. Friendships have been made all over the world and have lasted for decades.

John F. Kennedy greets volunteers on August 28, 1961

In my belief system, when a human being is on their way to being born on earth, the spirits of the about to be born interact with the spirits of those who have just died. For those of us born in the years after World War II, we were witnessing from above the carnage of that horror, but also encountering the recently departed who were communicating to us about their experiences. It is interesting that so many people that shaped the counter culture movements of the 60's were born in the years right after the war. What ever you think about the 60's, it was the first time in the history of humanity that war was questioned in a significant way, and the causes of peace were considered important. The Peace Corps was born in these years, I think as an attempt to try on prevent further conflicts.

So, I am trying to stay focused on being a positive representative of my nation, to go back to the values I so dearly love, the ingenuity and warmth of my people and how to carry this abroad during a time when the face of the highest leaders in our government do not convey these ideals to the world. My pastor said for me to simply embody love, and through love we can generate peace. So as usual, the angels were busy at work, reminding me through song my task, that I am an instrument of peace and it does belong with me.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

432 hours 27 minutes and 15 seconds to departure, but whose counting?

Permet Gliko Fruit and Nut Preserves from Albania

It is basically a little over two weeks before I leave California for my staging weekend in Miami. It still is not really sinking in for some reason that I am going. I think in a certain way because of the unstable nature of the current US Administration, it still is feeling iffy. 

I have just a few dull sort of chores to complete, including packing and purchasing some facial products, a sleeping bag and snow shoes. But that can all happen rather quickly. 

Part of the wonder of modern technology is Facebook. I am a member of the Albania 20 Future Peace Corps Volunteer group. this handy service is helping to fill in the gaps between what we are being given in terms of materials and updates and what it really is like on the ground. Originally, we were told that we would live with a Host Family for our pre-service training and then get housing when we received our assignments. A recent email update informed us that we would now be living with a host family in our assignments. The group started a thread discussing it, and the basic response from Albania volunteers on the ground now, is that the main benefit of being with a host family was the food, which it seems everyone there is enjoying. 

When I was in Acupuncture school, I was in my mid 40's. The Bay Area of California is not for the budget anything, just to get into San Francisco, it cost you a minimum of $10 no matter what you did, drive, metro or bus. Purchasing prepared food was simply out of the question, as even way back then, a basic sandwich was $10.00 and included a few packets of mustard, everything else was extra. If I did not cook, I could spend up to $20.00 a day on food and still be very hungry at the end of the day. I love to cook, so I would always bring something to eat for my long days. The 20 -30 somethings marveled at my dishes. "What is that?" they would ask with longing eyes. "Black beans and brown rice" I would answer, "How do you make that?" "Well, I put rice in a pot, add water and boil. The beans I do in a slow cooker, beans, water, can of tomatoes, chopped onion and taco seasoning." They thought I was a genius, I was just eating the cheapest way I knew how. It looks like the younger generation in our group both on the ground and on the way are also not adept in the kitchen. So it seems like the home stay will really help them keep their weight on for the time being.

I have been documenting Slow Food Initiatives in the Balkans for about nine years now. It began when I went to Terra Madre 2008 and connected with the Macedonian delegation. Since that time, I have witnessed the coordination amongst the Balkan nations that has resulted in a bi-annual Terra Madre Balkans and something called the ESSEDRA project which helps member states combine resources to help promote and preserve culinary and agricultural practises throughout the region. 

You can look at the ESSEDRA project through this link, the title is more words than I wish to type:

As I grew up celebrating Macedonian holidays, one of the only things I actually got from my grandmother was how to cook the food. She taught me how to make stuffed grape leaves, leg of lamb, stuffed cabbage, eggplant casserole, spinach and feta pastry, pepper relish and yogurt cucumber dill soup. She even made the filo dough by hand. I learned the Macedonian words for these dishes, but I do not have the Cyrillic fonts on my computer, and will not try to do a Latin mash up. What was amazing to me was how when she cooked these dishes they were so good, but if she cooked American food, it was TERRIBLE, meaning what ever it was would really make one's digestive system revolt along with the not so good taste of the dish. She was the only woman I know who could make dry tough pot roast that clanked on the plate when she served it. 

As I ventured out of her kitchen, through travels abroad as well as visiting relatives and friends from different Balkan countries, I found that essentially all the Balkan nations have similar foods with regional additions. In essence, it is all really Turkish food with local adaptations. We call it sarme, the Greeks call them dolmas and so on. 

I looked on the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity site and found 43 products unique to Albania. I hope to try them all, and learn how to make them, especially the homemade cheeses. In a book I found at the Orange Library, the one and ONLY book on Albania, a short chapter was dedicated to agriculture and another to food. Apparently lamb is in everything, as is yogurt. While I tend towards vegetarian, I am prepared to try to blend in with the locals. The one thing I have put out there is no coffee, no alcohol, so hopefully this will not be a problem, because I will not drink either, ever, hate the taste of them as well as how I feel when I have. 

So, enjoy looking at some of the culinary treasures of Albania at 

and here

and as the Albanians would say Ju bëftë mirë!

Friday, February 3, 2017

The Announcement

It is nearly a year since this journey has begun. Like all government institutions, there is quite a bit of policy, procedures and steps to go through. Filling out forms, getting recommendations, background checks, finger prints, applications, health screenings, essays, classes and so on, and then waiting. I have been rejected for so long from everything you can imagine, I enter new arenas with the assumption that it will not work out. I know, this is counter to being "successful" this envisioning stuff that sells lots of books and workshop tickets, but let me tell you, being a single female over 50 is worse than having Ebola in many respects regarding rejection and isolation. (No disrespect or trivialization of real Ebola sufferers intended but sometimes I would start to wonder what exactly was causing people to flee from my presence in such a hurried manner, what was so repulsive about my presentation, education and experience in terms of trying to find gainful employment.)

When I got my final clearance and was given the "you will make a fine volunteer" in writing, I must say I was a bit shocked. My fellow over 50 single friends of both sexes completely understand. I mused that the Peace Corps did not get the memo that instructs all potential employers. (Yes, this is volunteer gig, but it is much like employment in that they give me a stipend, health care and housing allowance) The universal rejection memo which also covers all sane eligible men in addition to prospective employers reads something like this: string this highly qualified, deeply sensitive hard working, creative and fun woman along as long as possible and then tell her, thank you we have filled the position, you were not a fit, not what we were looking for, which is code for "old and over weight. She is not to have a shred of self esteem or feelings of competence in this life time, it has been decreed, discount this memo to your own peril." So I still was not quite believing that it was real until I got the "Peace Corps Albania Staging Information" email.

As par usual with my email, it did not post until about 6 hours after it was sent. So I had already checked my email twice that day and assumed that either it had not been sent or the Peace Corps finally got the universal memo to all potential employers to reject me after great effort on my part. I checked email late last night and POOF there it was, I clicked with apprehension, hoping we had not been cancelled in some sort of frenzied alt right budget cut under the new Department of State purge, and there is was:

"The Staging Unit is looking forward to your arrival in Miami, FL on March 4, 2017 for the Albania staging event. Please read this email and the attachments carefully, as the information here will answer many of the questions you have regarding your final steps prior to departing for Albania. "

Since my menopausal ovaries refuse to let me sleep for any length of time, I was actually WAITING for 6 am to arrive so I could call the Peace Corps Travel office in Washington DC. After all the email said to call them IMMEDIATELY to book my ticket to Miami from Southern California. This was an order I took seriously.

Cool, non stop flight from LAX on an airline with which I have frequent flyer membership! Free frequent flyer points! 

This is the next step towards Albania. We gather to basically get to know one another, get our government issued Passport that will allow us to live in Albania and become Peace Corps experts. Apparently we will be having a choice of pancakes or waffles for breakfast during staging. I have also been learning through our FB chat group that I can get my hair cut in Albania for a very reasonable price, and it is best to purchase a blow dryer there. 

I will now actually look at the check list of things to purchase and bring, I just did not have the heart to do this before getting my ticket so to speak. Sleeping bag and Albanian phone are the first items. Yesterday, I thought I should try to educate myself a bit, so I went to the Orange Main Library to see if there were any books on Albania. I found ONE, and it was in the childrens section. I went to the number in the adult section, and could not find it, only books on Byzantium and the Balkans. When I asked the research librarian where it was, she told me the "J" on the call number meant it was in the "juvenile" section of the library. The only book on Albania in the entire Orange County Library system was in a series of picture books featuring nations like Estonia, Bulgaria and Macedonia. Checked it out along with a couple of Balkan books I found in the adult section. Everything to do with the Balkans is so highly charged in terms of perspective, so we shall see what I learn. So far, the pictures in the Albania book are quite lovely. 

I found a couple of beautiful California picture books at the Library book shop yesterday. I have been trying to think of gifts to bring for my host family during my training. I am feeling more like I am a representative of California than what I would term a chaotic USA these days. Discussions are sort of eeking out on skype calls as well as on FB on how we can best deal with the inevitable questions regarding the new administration. We have been reassured that Albanians love Americans. Well, hopefully so. I for one and looking forward to getting out of this tornado and simply being blissfully distant from all of what is going on in the USA. I also found a great text book on anatomy and physiology which I think will be useful for me as a health educator.

So, Miami and then Albania, here I come!