Thursday, March 30, 2017

Week Three

The Nine Year School in Bishqem

It is hard to believe but the A20 Peace Corps class has been in Albania now for three weeks. In many ways, I already feel as if I am behind. The language is the key to everything, and I am still mixing up Albanian with German and Bulgarian. How many people do you know who can say that? One of my site mates is having the same problem, she has studied German for years and did a language training seminar there recently. I am feeling my age through this language training, those cranial sulci just are too crammed with other information. We have competency exams coming up, oral examinations where we are expected to display our basic conversation skills. As I have been saying throughout this blog, each and every detail has been honed and perfected in terms of  Peace Corps training, so I am trusting that everything required for us has a deep purpose. I am looking forward to the time when I can converse with people, there is so much to learn from them, and of course I have things to offer, but as I was telling one of my advisers today, Albanians are not familiar with my German verb endings I am putting on the Albanian roots, so I need to get with the program as they say.

Today the Health Education sector trainees were introduced to the Albanian education system. As it seems all over the world, the educational system here is in the midst of reform. We were shown how the ministry of education works with regional organizations, the structure of the schools from nursery school through advanced university programs. What I thought was a good idea is that Albania has vocational and arts programs for secondary school, in addition to the broader educational offerings for what we in the states would call “high school.” 

We are expected after we are assigned to a sector, to integrate into the community. Our mission is to carry out the directives of the ministry of education multi year plan to integrate sexual and reproductive health within the science curriculum, as well as life skills which range from relationship issues, to hygiene and nutrition. There is a broad structure of community support for the schools in terms of parent networks, and district representation of teachers and students. The most interesting thing we were told to take advantage of was the Community Center. These can be independent buildings or within what is called the Nine Year School. This school serves students from first through ninth grade. Each school has the mandate to provide at least 10 hours per week of availability for the Community Center for extra curricular activities.

After this introduction, we went to our training site school to work with the administrators and plan for our practicum for each age group. What continues to amuse me in a sweet way is how similar the personalities and presentations are between the Albanians and the Americans. The PE teacher is, well for lack of a better word, a “jock” with sports logo sweats and such. The teachers who have been there forever are calm, nothing phases them, there are teachers who are not respected by the students, and others who have control of their classes. Our site team is now the topic of the children at recess, so everyone wants to try out their English skills, and we are usually surrounded by smiling children eating chips or Popsicles. In three weeks we will be leading a class for three age groups, My assignment is for dental hygiene, a PE class, and an HIV and AIDS education class for the 9th graders. My partner is quite adept at this topic as she was a public health educator on STD’s and such. How this will all unfold in Albanian is going to be interesting to say the least.

Our regular (and basically only) lunch place is now expanding it’s offerings. Again, the language is the key, and asking the right question opens delicious doors to local gastronomical delights. Apparently it is the best sausage place in all of Albania, and we finally had the vocabulary to ask for sausage instead of “mish” which means “meat” and translated into whatever was available that day. We have normally been getting the local variety of “sause kosa” which is similar to Tzatiki, but now we are having “white cheese” also what one would call “feta” and delicious salad, bread and potatoes. I have offered to make supper to celebrate my host families daughter who just got her diploma for her undergraduate degree. She is going on for a Masters, but it is time to celebrate. I am going to try to make something to chile rellenos with the bukova peppers and feta, it will be the ultimate fusion cuisine, not yet explored in the food trucks of Los Angeles. The Albanian word for “Albania” is  “Shqiperi” so I will be the first to launch Mexiperi cuisine, the ultimate fusion experience!

Next week I will be shadowing a Health Education volunteer in a Southern district. Along with two other trainees, I will be braving the “furgon” transportation system, which is independent drivers in minivans transporting people all over the country. When we were given the education training and I talked with the volunteer who will be hosting me, I started to get really excited. While I am enjoying the training, I have not really felt like I was doing anything other than fumbling through language lessons. Now it is feeling more like what I came here to do. I am brimming with ideas, eager to get to work, and now I will see exactly how another volunteer is getting along in her assignment.

The days are getting blessedly warmer, and everything is in bloom. It is a glorious spring here in the valley near Elbasan. I am trying to drink in the beauty as much as possible.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

The Women in the Castle

For various reasons, I have not been reading fiction for a very long time. In the past I often indulged in fiction during the Christmas Break, and over the Summer. This past November, I was giving a series of lectures in the Devon Pennsylvania area in the weeks following the election. The day after Thanksgiving, I indulged in the towns “Black Friday” offerings at a local independent bookstore. One of the specials was if you spent $10.00 , you could choose from a table of books that you could have for free with purchase. The staff recommendation card was above The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck on the “free table.” One sentence grabbed my attention; “relevant to our current political troubled times of cultural divisions…” As I was still basically hemorrhaging dismay and horror over the selection of president president #45, I thought a fictional approach to what the heck was going on in my nation would be more useful than the endless whining in the media, as well as my usual medieval fantasy in which I escape annually during the holidays.

The book chronicles the lives of three women in the years leading up to and after World War II in Germany. Another comment on the staff recommendation card also struck a chord; “for anyone wondering how it could have happened, this book offers insight into ordinary people coping with extraordinary circumstances.” Sold! I searched for a $10.00 item so I could get this book. I found a selection of Eleanore Roosevelt sayings to give my 17 year old niece for Christmas. She was a Bernie Sanders supporter, so the selection of #45 was even more devastating for her, as she is now embarking on her youth, college and formative years. I thought she could be inspired by an American Woman Icon. The Women in the Castle basically went everywhere with me, unread until now, here in Albania.  

While I was contemplating the volume in the Devon bookstore, a woman of similar age to me, was also examining the free book table. We started one of those intense intimate conversations one can only have with a complete stranger. We talked about the recent election, our dismay, our sorrow over the impending challenges that our youth would face, and as the staff comment card said, “how could this have happened here?” She was also inspired to obtain the book for herself.

Years of intense reading that my professions have required, make me a fast reader. After a couple of weeks trying to orient myself in another country with complete strangers and no language, the experience has been overwhelming to say the least. Coping for me is to lose myself in literature, so I cracked open the book during my free Friday afternoon. I finished it by midnight. It was that good, and also caused great reflection on my own situation as an individual ordinary person living through extraordinary times.

The parallels presented in the story: the rise of the Nazi’s and the current political upheaval in the US were extremely uncomfortable to read. One of the characters involved in the story was part of the “lager” movement. “Lagers” were series of camps where German youth were given a combination of living skills on farms, physical exercise and basic Nazi propaganda. After the humiliating and difficult era of WW 1 and the aftermath, one could see the attraction of these orderly, fun and useful camps, sort of like the ultimate lengthy summer camp scenario. With all the chaos of the previous years, the character basically dismissed the seriousness of the propaganda she was teaching the campers. Hitler was bringing jobs back to Germany, wasn’t he? What I found the most interesting about the story in general is how people justified their survival, how they grappled with what it meant to be a “good German” and trivialized blatant racist ideology. For me as an American during our current era, I have certainly been grappling with the same issues.

Rudolf Steiner gave many lectures to help his community cope with the horrors of WW1. This war is often overlooked in terms of where it came from and how it has shaped modern history. I have also brought a book along with me on that war to help gain some perspective on Albania. Something Steiner said during one of the WW1 lectures has always stood out to me regarding Germany and how a nation gets mixed up in such conflicts. In summary he said that when a nation can not rise up to it’s spiritual destiny, it devolves into nationalism. For me, nationalism is a form of idolatry, and the best examples can be seen in Nazism, fascism and also what I am witnessing going on in a large segment of America. 

What I am finding here in Albania through my Peace Corps training is an interesting view of what I feel is America’s spiritual destiny. I think it is why I get weepy when I hear the lofty ideals of the Peace Corps, read the quotes by the founding organizers and listen to the original PSA by Kennedy. I feel a stinging sadness when I watch my current president and witness the basic unkindness and selfishness of him and his family, his cabinet and the Republican members of the Senate and Congress. What I also find painful on a deep level is the contrast between these political escapades, the statements and behaviors of those who vote for these people and the ideals I am seeing unfolding through the Peace Corps.

Since I am sort of a baby boomer, the concept of American Exceptionalism has been part of my cultural orientation since childhood. This term means many things to many people, but in essence it encompasses the concept that there is something special about America. Some interpret the “exceptionalism” as America basically can do what it wants without consequence, enforcing it’s will regardless of consideration to anything other than it’s own interests. Others, including myself, see the exceptionalism as being a model for the highest form of civilization, and a responsibility towards those who aspire to this form of civilization.

This highest form of civilization  is conveyed by the three core values of America: Freedom, Equality and Community. The latter term is traditionally coined as “fraternity” which means “brotherhood.” In the interests of gender inclusive language, I like to use the word “community” since in essence they mean the same thing. Our exceptionalism as America and Americans is that we are to be a community of free and equal beings. This form of culture, of civilization is the highest ideal in human history and orientation. But how does a nation and a people form “a more perfect union” of free and equal members?

While America is in many respects quite young, we have been working out these ideals in practice for 241 years. We have had uprisings, a civil war, civil unrest, assassinated a few presidents and endured severe trials of our values through such experiences as the communist scare, the Civil Rights and the Anti War movements of the 1960’s. We have had economic booms and busts, environmental catastrophes and plagues, but through it all the concept of what it means to be a free and equal human being within a community has been our guide. I would say that these values, these deeply American values of high civilization have been a direct impediment to the surge towards materialism and capitalism. Some sectors of our nation think the only value to be promoted in America is freedom, especially in the economic realm. It is here that I think America is not living up to it’s spiritual destiny, and why nationalism is seeping into our consciousness and political process in alarming ways.

When president #45 was selected, my biggest sorrow was all the suffering that would ensue. Suffering for the earth, for the vulnerable, all to enrich those who really do not need to be enriched economically. The lie was that #45 would help the economically disadvantaged, and that is why he appealed to as many people as he did. Within days of his election, his main activity was to see how he could enrich his family and circumvent laws and taxes he found tedious to his economic freedom. His cabinet for the most part seeks to enrich themselves and dismantle the basic values and practises of America’s highest form of civilization in the name of greed, which they label “freedom.” The immediate and consistent rejection of all of their efforts by the majority of Americans to me shows we have not abandoned our Spiritual destiny. The Peace Corps for me is also showing the highest ideas of America’s Spiritual destiny.

When the president’s travel and immigration ban was unleashed, the immediate spontaneous response and resistance of the people and our institutions I think was one of the finest moments in our history. Lawyers, judges, courts and basic everyday people flocked to the assistance of strangers, of those who are not Americans trying to either travel ,emigrate or become refugees in the USA. Airports were closed due to protests, and courts and attorney generals across the nation worked round the clock to stifle this very un -American executive order crafted by those who find kindness, inclusivity, freedom, equality and community a threat to their sense of safety. As I saw lawyers overtake food courts in airports with laptops, cellphones and coffee to labor through the night assisting those lost in the ban, my faith was restored in my nation, my people who do value freedom, equality and community.

How does a culture have free and equal members within a community? Through compassion, kindness and respect, through the sort of love Christ talked about and we understand as “Agape,” a form of universal love that is free of attachments and personal desire. It also struck me as I was reading The Women in the Castle, that a large segment of America actually got the deep lessons of WWII, that we learned the consequences of not challenging the onslaught of evil, of a nationalism that harms others. 

As hate crimes increase against Muslims, Jews and Christians of African, Latino and Arab descent in the USA, what I am witnessing is a solidarity I have not seen before in my nation. Synagogues are offering their buildings to Muslims who have been burnt out of their Mosques. Muslims are raising money to help repair desecrated Jewish Cemeteries. Jewish organizations have pledged to register as Muslims if there is a Muslim registry created. Christians are reaching out to join Muslims at Islamic Centers for joint prayer services. During the flooding crisis in California, Sikh and Hindu places of worship opened their doors to house evacuees, mostly of the Christian faith. All of this was done in spite of the callous and often non existent response of our new president to the ongoing hate crimes done in his name. 

I am also witnessing, albeit at a distance, the relentless unraveling of the cruel policy initiatives of #45 and his party. The system is working, the press and the courts are relentless in their search for the truth. That all of this has happened in 60 some odd days is actually quite breathtaking in its scope, and from my perspective is testament to the Agape at work within our civilizations ideals. For me it is showing that the American people are truly their own leader, in absence of moral example of a president to a crisis, we simply fill in the gaping hole with grace and charity.

Discussing the unsettled nature of the US government with a Peace Corps staff member who served under several presidents from each party, I remarked that it seems the current president is waking the American people up to the nature of their community. While he and his administration seek to destroy them and take away their livelihoods so billionaires can pay less taxes, we are seeing the quiet dedication of our federal and state employees to our values of freedom, equality and community. We are seeing that there are faces, families and histories of people who serve us in so many ways, from our intelligence agents to our federal park rangers. We are also awakening to all members of our culture, regardless of their religious or ethnic backgrounds, seeing the value of each human being. Are we totally there yet? Of course not. But we have history and access to it to be our guide. We can learn from books such as The Women in the Castle and see how “it” could happen to regular ordinary people, and learn as well as transform our civilization so “it” can never happen again.

This is our challenge, this is our task, this is our destiny as Americans, and through the actions of my people both at home and abroad in the Peace Corps, I am seeing that we Americans are rising to the occasion, even without moral leadership of our president and his party’s legislative bodies. My people are capable of the deep love necessary to embody our exceptionalism to carry out the values of freedom and equality within a national and global community. My people are meeting their spiritual destiny in ways they never thought they would have to, and we all will be better off for their efforts.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Week Two

Spring is Blossoming in Albania

While I am slowly reconnecting nerve synapses where my basic understanding of grammar is ingrained, I am also waking up to the realities of being in Albania as a Peace Corps Volunteer. The level and sophistication of training is quite immense to say the least. But then, they have had 56 years to fine tune this process. I keep going back to the fact that I was born in the same year this initiative came to be and where the world was then and where it is now.

In my many conversations with my mother about world events, we both reflected on how I was born in extremely interesting times. 1961 was barely a generation after the end of World War II. Stories of the Holocaust and the war were still quite fresh in the global consciousness. America was seen as the great vanquisher of evil by defeating the Nazi’s, and for reasons I will never understand, our dropping of the atomic bomb and unleashing the “destroyer of worlds” really never overshadowed how we ended the war that was to end all wars. is the link to watch this historic original PSA announcement.

It was out of this war that John F Kennedy emerged to be a Senator and then President. “Ich bin ein Berliner” and “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country” became motto's for a generation in many respects. One can watch the public service announcement given by Kennedy on the Peace Corps You Tube channel. While only about a minute and a half long, he talks about the aspects of America that are often hidden, that we desire to be of assistance to others and to live in peace. The horrors of that war, and especially the aftermath caused much reflection on a level not reached in generations past. While humans have been quite busy slaughtering each other for all sorts of reasons for the last 10,000 years and calling it war, something quite different did emerge in the aftermath of WWII in that there were quite thoughtful and massive attempts to recover and prevent future catastrophes. The United Nations, the Declaration of Human Rights, the Youth Hostel Movement, Eurail and Peace Corps all came out of the notion that if we as a human community recognize the dignity of all peoples and the necessity of getting to know one another in the spirit of cooperation, maybe, just maybe we would not slaughter each other in mechanized zeal in the future. Another truly revolutionary outcome to war after WWII was the Marshall Plan. This massive assistance program was commenced to rebuild war devastated Western Europe and Japan in terms of infrastructure. The prosperity of these areas and basically friendly terms we have been on since WW II is a testament to the success of this program.

The Grade School where I am learning Albanian and where my practicum will occur, outside of Elbasan in a village called Bisquem

In one of our many training sessions in Pre Service Training, we were given a talk about development. The Peace Corps aims to assist host countries who ask for volunteers in community development, English language training and health education sectors. The aim is to help the people of the host nation through education so that they can have sustainable projects in many different areas. In some nations, engineers are asked for to assist in water infrastructure projects, other nations request agricultural experts and such. The Marshall Plan is seen as the first attempt at modern development assistance. It struck me in terms of my age and awareness, that most of the delightful twentysomethings are not that familiar with either World War II or the Marshall Plan. But then, why would they be in many respects? My uncles fought in that war and were part of the reconstruction efforts after the war. My lovely twentysomething cohorts  were born long afterward.

In more progressive and environmental circles, the subject of “development” is quite controversial. What is development exactly, and whom does it benefit? From what I am seeing in the Peace Corps, the projects would certainly pass muster in terms of the sustainability and culturally sensitive arenas, no problems at all.

What continually amazes me as well as causes me great pride is the almost hyper attention our Peace Corps training is to being culturally sensitive to the host nation. The care to be as inclusive and caring for the diversity of the volunteers is also something of almost a shock when compared with the disdain and rudeness upon which the current president’s administration seems to be based. What I am also struck by in terms of listening to current volunteers talk about in the context of their own experience is the tension between individual identity and the collective culture where we Americans are volunteering. It seems to be more of an issue with younger volunteers, but this may be an issue of their evolving biography. As an older volunteer, and an extremely independent person who has simply gotten used to being isolated due to lack of real peers, I have learned that my own identity is not dependent on how I am seen by others. This may not be as easy of a context for those who are emerging from the group consciousness of youth. But I think it is a great cultural challenge for Americans who are more independent in general to be in a culture that is more communal.

I am intrigued by the evolving process of the training; First Aid, Safety, Process, Policy, Language and now “shadowing.” As Albanian TV seems to be this odd mixture of reality based game shows and Indian Soap Operas. I feel like each step of  our training is a new reveal on one of the game shows I watch nightly with my host family. We met our host families in such a manner, where we were announced and met our respective hosts in what felt like an awards show. For the current reveal, we received an email stating where we would be sent for a few days to observe an existing volunteer in one of the regions being served. People all tuned into their IPhones for the reveal, where we were given the name and location of our site assignment and volunteer, and waited for the phone numbers so we could text and connect. I keep wondering how all of this was done before social media and the internet. 

On the more human side, I have been exploring more of the local institutions, such as markets. Near our hub, I went to a market that was recommended by a local. Many of my fellow volunteers are lamenting the lack of basic condiments available with Albanian cuisine. I was able to secure some Heinz Ketchup and Tabasco Sauce for desperate volunteers, and I have been able to drop by some interesting spice stores and organic options. I am also quite enjoying watching my valley erupt into spring, with baby chicks, blossoms, emerging leaves and lambs. 

I hope my language skills improve. It is nice to have a day off just to study, as we are given about four major topics every day in terms of verbs, sentence structure and vocabulary. I have decided that Albanian sounds like Valeryian from Game of Thrones, so I will be able to sound like Queen Danerys even though I will never EVER look like her. We celebrated Norwiz, which in the US is Persian New Year. My family sacrificed a Turkey for the occasion, and also made a Buryek with a coin in it, the daughter discovered it. I am seeing strawberries in the markets, and there is a waffle house next to our hub.

The most interesting thing I learned in terms of culture is how religiously tolerant the Albanians are, which is interesting because religious tolerance and Balkans are rarely mentioned in the same sentence. Somehow the obliteration of religion under the communist regime, while destroying priceless churches and mosques, seemed to actually do what the practice intended, stop religious divisions. With all the horrors associated with the Crusades and Eastern Europe, the fighting between different Christian Sects as well as between Christians and Muslims, it seems to be absent now and here in Albania. I think this is another aspect of the culture that should be spread beyond its borders. I am curious to explore this further, mainly because however they got to this place, it is REALLY important that this sort of toleration be emulated, particularly in America at this juncture in our own history.

So, I have completed two weeks of training. In many ways, my life in the states, my history seems so faint and distant, and I am curious what it will be like to spend two years here. As I was able to get to the internet today and read up on the current insanity of the administration and the GOP legislators, the one thing that the Peace Corps staff and volunteers seem to agree on is it is nice to not be in the US right now during this unsettled time, to not be immersed. But it does hurt every time our president is featured on Albanian news. He is reported as to his latest antics, the failure of the health care bill made it to the evening news, along side the latest Albanian Soccer team performance and the upcoming Albanian elections. I actually cried when I was watching Kennedy’s Peace Corps PSA during our Hub Day training, when I thought of the selfish man who now occupies the oval office. When you compare the Peace Corps with the supposed initiatives of President number 45, the difference could not be starker. I am glad the Peace Corps exists, in Kennedy’s words, to show an aspect of America that is especially hidden. With the boorish crass current president representing America to the rest of the world at present, it is more important than ever that the world knows America actually does want to be of assistance, to share our blessings, our heart with others, and that we do indeed wish to live in peace with other nations, as well as learn about their cultures and their people.

Children circle dancing at the grade school in Bisquem, Albania

Friday, March 24, 2017

Te Buftem Mire

Te Buftem Mire is the Albanian phrase which basically translates to “enjoy your food,” or Bon Appetit. In English, we really do not have a phrase for this, I wonder if it is because no one has to encourage Americans to have good appetites. While my language skills are still at about a toddler level, it is interesting how much one can learn from a culture with a few conversations here and there. When one is in the Peace Corps, there is a basic understanding that the volunteers come to help out with technical and logistical expertise. We are told to make assessments and assist where asked by locals to give input. As I sit on the porch of my host family in a beautiful valley that is slowly erupting into spring, I am curious as to what sort of expertise is useful here and on what level. It is also quite ironic in many ways, since I am quite concerned about the fate of my own nation during this time of our own deep political and cultural crisis. What adds to the mix so to speak in terms of how best to serve as a Peace Corps volunteer is how Albania has experienced a generation into joining the modern world after enduring nearly 50 years under one of the most oppressive and isolated communist regiems in the world. 

I was discussing this observation with my language classmates and a health volunteer logistics leader after class the other day. We were reflecting over lunch at a local cafe on how delicious the food is in our village. On many levels, I have been observing my own nation for years. The calmest context for what I have been watching duirng the last 20 years can be described as the USA is in the throws of some sort of massive transformation. This transformation is for the better or worse depending on ones perspective, but I am still not sure. During the economic downturn of 2008, one of my friends articulated the issue of the times as how Americans do not know what they do for a living anymore. My Albanian leader said that she felt her nation was also grappling with the same challenge. Since the fall of the communist government, many Albanians have emigrated to other nations. My leader and host family both complain about the lack of jobs available in Albania, forcing many to be seasonal emigrant workers abroad, mainly in Greece and Italy. These emigrant workers are often found either on farms or in the tourist industry in neihboring countries. Because so many Albanians are leaving or working abroad, there are less and less people to work the land for basic food production, creating a growing dependence on imports to feed the nation. The youth who stay in Albania want to study and become professionals, not to continue farming as their parents have done. 

The daughter in my host family has remarked on numerous occaisions there are no jobs for her people. We were watching an Albanian TV show calld “Fiks” which is an investigative journalism expose program on various injustices and abuses going on in the country. The hosts use humor mixed in with reporting to explore issues.  According to my host family, the show is actually quite effective at righting wrongs in Albania. The latest “Fiks” segment featured what we in the states would call “sweat shops.” Italian clothing manufactureres invest in Albanian factories employing locals to work long hours for very little pay. I would wager (without proof) that these companies got all sorts of tax breaks and incentives to create such facotries by the Albanian government so as to employ eager and needy Albanian workers. What is sad to me is that these factories have been established for a fraction of what it would cost in Italy. The Italian firms  employ Albanians at a much lower cost than if they used Italian workers.  One can only imagine the profit margin for such products produced in Albania, and yet the Albanian workers are not benefitting from this model. My host daughter would like to be a teacher, she is studying hard to get her degree as Albanian language instructor for primary and secondary schools. Her fiance is educated to be a Lawyer, but he is also an electritian.  When I look about the village where I am staying, I am not seeing any young people working the land, only people around my age.

Yesterday my class was exposed to several periods at the local grade school. After observing a junior high and 4th grade science class, we joined the children in the school yard for recess. As I looked around, almost every child was eating a bag of some sort of chips or sweets.  I remarked to my leader how similar the students were to American children, even in their eating habits. Again, I was struck that we are in the middle of a fertile valley that is basically brimming with food, while the children are catered to by a local who is in need of income (no jobs) selling junk food to the children right outside of the school yard.

In the US, it is fair to say we have been working out the capitalist materialism thing with gusto for at least the last 150 years, and the whole industrialization paradigm in earnest since World War II. Before this war, Americans ate within 40 miles of their home, meaning the bulk of the food they consumed was grown and produced within a 40 mile radius. Now, we can venture to say that Americans eat within a 6000 mile radius from where they live if you factor in all the produce that is flown in from Mexico and South America, all the food grown and produced around the nation and trucked into regional processing centers, gourmet goodies from Europe and fish from Asia. 

In essence, America has perfected what Wendell Barry talked about in his landmark book The Unsettling of America. Barry articulates in very  succinct terms how Americans have become “experts” and do not eat or work where they live (an example of this thesis is eating fast food hamburgers made of beef from Brazil at a job one commutes to for an hour or more each way.) When one has no real connection to where one lives, it means there is less investment in where one resides and a basic loss of connection with the land in general. 

What does the separation from the land do to a culture? Farming is hard work. It can be satisfying in many respects, but it is not for the physically weak or faint of heart. While chefs, the food movement and  food television have created a deep appreciation for concepts such as “farm to table,” it is obvious that there is a great disconnect between a market for such products and a labor force to produce them. Farming is hot smelly work, and is conducted basically 24/7. America seems to have to import workers to do the bulk of these tasks, pays the laborers poorly and now terrorizes them with police raids for the crime of picking tomatoes without proper paperwork. How can this occupation compare with reality show teens who pose for a living and make millions for being liked on Instagram? 

But we have to eat. Even the plastic wrapped items that pass for food need some sort of raw materials in order to be made. I look out on my host families plot of land. One bed is filled with seedlings for flowers that will be sold to a “business man” who will take the flowers to be packaged and sold on the broader European market as culinary teas. My host father remarked that he has to be in Greece during the harvest time, while his daughter is in school. Only mama is home to harvest, and it may be too much for her to do all by herself. I offered to come and help, we all smiled, and knew that I might not be able to do so when the time comes.

What is it we are supposed to do for a living in this modern era? One of my classmates commented he was very pro GMO and that America should not be farming anymore, that agriculture is not “cost effective.” One benefit of GMO’s he said was that more could be grown on less land, requiring fewer people to farm. Obviously to him this makes farming more cost effective. But is this a good idea in the long run?

I reflect on the amazingly delicious food I am eating with my host family. The flavors of everything are profoundly yummy. The household is basically a contained ecosystem of interrelationships between the land, animals and human hands. Everyday, my host family rises at dawn to tend to the animals, work the land, and later in the day, prepare food that will be consumed immediately. When the summer comes to an end, there will be much effort at canning the bounty of the trees and garden. Why does everything taste so good? Science tells us the fresher the food, the more flavor chemicals and vitamins are within the substance. I think there are other components. 

There is something about the human touch when it comes to food. During my Redlands tenure when my farmer friends would dump extra produce on me, I would offer dishes at my church potlucks. During tomato season, I brought a large platter of sliced tomatoes with basil, topped with olive oil, salt and pepper. Everyone raved at the dish, asking what I did to make it. I told them the simple recipe, and they marveled. I am sure the copied dish with store bought items did not taste as good. The only difference was that the tomatoes were picked that day, and I cut them. The land was tended by hand, and the tomatoes were picked ripe by people living on the farm, not by imported near slave labor living in fear of incarceration. In short, the tomatoes were produced by loving hands invested in the land. While I am sure there are no chemicals that can be measured for this, I do believe, and I have experienced it to be true. Such food just tastes better, is more satisfying. There is simply something different to food that is grown and produced by loving human hands on soil that is also treated with respect and care. Such food is more flavorful, and it seems is becoming quite rare in our ever changing and mechanized world. It may be the lack of experiencing what I call “real food” that creates a desire for the packaged junk that is taking over the world. But also, as we figure out what we do for a living and it is not farming, the need for junk food rises. As I watch commercials on Albanian TV for chocolate sauce and cookie dipping snacks in plastic containers with cartoon characters on the label, I wonder how the separation from the land has impacted the market for such products. How can these snacks compare with the amazing stews,  salads, cakes, cheeses and herbal teas I am enjoying? With no reference, will people actually care and demand “real food?”

America is basically at the end of the arc for experimenting with industrialization and materialism. In some ways, it has been fun creating leisure for at least a certain percentage of the population. For most, we are facing what the Albanians are experiencing in their 25 year crash course in modernization. Albania has trash, mostly from convienience foods and soda, everywhere, the quality of air in the cities is poor, drug use and obesity are on the rise, organized crime is rampant, there are no jobs for those willing to work. The population for the most part especially the young, wants to leave. The USA has similar problems, only on a grander scale especially considering obesity and drug addiction. While we have better trash and recycling practices, we are trashing our land in more dramatic ways with industrial agricultural pesticides, mining waste, fraking and petroleum production. We cleaned up the environment, but our current president and congress have found such practices to be burdensome for billionairres who seem to not have enough money already. It seems the US executive and legislative branches are also intent on slashing good paying public sector jobs, removing minimum wage and labor protections and inviting foreign investment to create factories where workers will work long hours for very little pay. Will Americans go back to the land? Will the Albanians?

What is it we are all supposed to do for a living? I obviously have certain ideas, and we have seen what does not work in the long run. Can you tell someone else to not make the mistakes you have made? That remains to be seen. Until then, I will enjoy what I see as a luxury of orange yolked eggs, high fat fresh yogurt and handmade cheese and bread. No wrappers for me, only crumbs left over for the chickens to eat.  Maybe the reason we do not say “Te Buftem Mire” or Bon Appetit in America is because we have forgotten what real food tastes like. Maybe, “god help your body endure what you are about to put into it” is a better wish. In any case, I can see why they say “Te Buftem Mire” here, because the food deserves an grand introduction with flavors like the ones I am experiencing in Albania.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Week One

Meeting my Host Family in Elbasan, Albania

In many ways it feels like I have been here forever, and yet it has only been a week. My only regret is that I did not do this (Peace Corps) when I was younger, because I am not sure my nervous system and brain capacity are up to the challenge. I know I keep saying this but it really is true; I am so impressed at the organization of all aspects of training. I am not sure what I was expecting, but I wish my other educations and life in general was as well organized and supported as this volunteer training experience has been up to this point. 

My host family is very dear, but I actually expected them to be so. There is a beautiful innocence to people from this part of the world, innocence in a good way, not so hard and material in the ways that I have found in most Americans. I am not sure what the difference is, but it is there. In some ways, I am experiencing a Slow Food paradise. I look forward to being able to tell my family that they are living a life that many Americans would like to live but can not figure out how to do or even afford. When I lived in Redlands, I was struck at how amazing the produce was that I consumed on a regular basis. I had never, EVER eaten anything that delicious, but then before I lived there, I usually ate store bought products. Most of what I was eating in Redlands had been picked that day. What I have been eaten so far here in Albania is basically the same experience, only what one would call “on steroids” meaning most of what I am eating is grown within 50 feet of where I am staying.

What impresses me is that most of what I am observing in terms of food production seems almost effortless, and completed in a fraction of the time and mess I would incur. The other thing that amazes me is that my host “mother” and “sister” do not have all the fancy high tech tools one would find in a similar foodie kitchen in the states. And yet, each and every day I am treated to some sort of amazing meal with eggs gathered that morning, milk produced an hour before, yogurt freshly created, fresh pickles, kraut and cheese made that week. Bread is baked regularly, jams and preserves are brought out, I am told they were put up last Summer. Nuts are offered that were collected from local trees. I must say the almonds almost tasted artificial the taste was so strong. I am looking forward to the evolving seasons in terms of what will be available to eat. What inspires me is that this model could be replicated almost anywhere one has access to land. On about an acre they have orange, cherry and pear trees. There is a container garden where I watched potatoes and salad seasonings be planted. They have several egg laying chickens and a flock being raised for meat. A milk cow and three goats is in a small barn. My host mother makes cheese, a solid ricotta like creation, and feeds the whey to the calf and goats. Trash is almost non existent as everything is utilized and there are few packages of anything other than coffee, sugar and some other things. Paper is used in the wood burning stove as kindling and the ash is spread on the garden soil. The dung from the cows and goats is mixed with hay and used as fertilizer for the land. Chickens are allowed to wander at will, eating bugs and such from the dirt, along with corn that was grown last summer. A large sack of flour was delivered, and put into a container for making bread, which happens about three times a week. I have had a few meals in Elbasan, the city where our training hub is located, but to be honest, the food where I am staying is much better, mainly because it is so fresh. 

Now that I am waking up from jet lag and major upheaval trauma, I am hopeful my language capabilities will start to improve. Language is central to success, and yet it so far seems most elusive. During our language classes, everything makes sense and seems to come easily into use. As soon as I am with my family, it escapes me. I will need to do something soon as it seems these few weeks will fly by in many respects. In the meantime, the piecing together of charades, English and my very basic Shqip is sufficing. The land is beautiful, the skies full of Spring and the blossoms are starting to peek out making the hillsides yellow, white and pink. In the distance I can see snow capped mountains, nearer is an interesting phenomena of terraced hills with olive trees. How ancient are these practises, and can they withstand the onslaught of development?

My host family keeps making comparisons between the USA and Albania, mainly pointing out that Albania is small and poor, while the USA is big and rich. I wonder, is the US rich? Obviously material wealth is quite different, but what is rich, what is wealth? To have more fresh food than you could ever eat within reach, to have a beautiful sky, a home, loved ones surrounding you, for me this is true wealth and certainly not the norm in the United States, and certainly not in my life as of late. When I have traveled in Macedonia, I have also thought the same thing, and yet those who are living in the Balkans think they are poor, they want to leave, to go abroad for “opportunities.” Today in our training we were told that for the lottery for a US visa, there were 250,000 applicants from Albania alone. This is out of a nation of 3 million people. How to keep the young and the educated in the nation seems to be the main question. My question is why would one want to leave such beauty not only of the land but of the people? 

As I watch my own nation unravel in the name of greed of those who have more money than they could ever spend or enjoy, I wonder what is it about human nature that always wants more, thinks that somewhere else is always better. In many ways I have, we Americans, have much to learn from the people of Albania. With it’s 25 years of rapid development and implementation of democracy and capitalism, I hope they do not make the same mistakes we have made in the West. Time will tell, until then, I will savor every minute, enjoy every vista and try to learn this obscure language so I can discover the not so hidden treasures of Albania.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017


Peace Corps Albania 20 Class 2017

I got on a plane from LAX to Miami on Friday to join the Albania20 team for what is called in the Peace Corps experience as:"Staging." It was a strange experience these last few days before leaving, trying to figure out what to take, who to speak to, taking care of mundane tasks like alerting my credit card company of my overseas trip and getting my taxes done. With so much upheaval personally and nationally, it was quite a novel experience to know in one way what would be happening to me. I wish I was in better physical shape, meaning exercising more and had more knowledge of the language. I have learned through experience and age, one can actually never really prepare enough for what lies ahead, an open mind an heart seem to actually be more practical in many respects.

As I have been saying for a while, the Peace Corps began in 1961. This year it turned 56, my age almost exactly. It is the third cycle of the moon node in both of our earthly existence, meaning the position of he moon is in the same configuration as it was when we were born and cycles back approximately every 18 - 19 years. The first moon node incorporates a reflection of how one faces the world, does one have the fortitude to embark on adulthood and how to create that scenario. The second moon node one reflects on whether or not one has the community one needs. The third moon node one comes to how one interacts with the Spiritual World. When I reflect on my own life, I can certainly see how these cycles are evident in my own biography, especially now. When I look at the Peace Corps as an entity, it is also an interesting consideration.

The two things I have experienced in terms of the US Federal Government that have been extremely efficient  have been obtaining my passport from the Passport Agency at the Federal Building in Los Angeles, and so far the staging and training of the Peace Corps. It is interesting that in both instances, these agencies are equipping Americans to interact with the world. My only expectation about the Peace Corps was to be open to experiences and to not have any expectations. What I have experienced so far has been massive appreciation and generally overly impressed with the organization and humanity of the agency. Obviously I am in the beginning stages, but to say they have left no stone unturned is an understatement. My only frustrations have been with the airlines, airports and "security" staff that make me feel great empathy for people traveling to concentration camps during WW2.

All of the classes and experiences designed to orient Albania 20 class members have been well executed, useful and actually fun. Just the right combination of touchy feely and this is what you need to know to survive, were all presented by extremely cheerful Peace Corps staff on a hourly basis. Even our disembarkation experience, which is no small feat transporting a 43 extremely independent and experienced adults to the airport with enough luggage to open our own department store was effortless and efficient. Whenever there was some sort of gap, we all helped one another to fill it. Our arrival in Tirana was also one of the easiest I have ever experienced, and that is saying something.

An interesting current weaving itself throughout our coming together as a Peace Corps class is the general unease and frustration with the current US president and administration. Questions were bounced in our Facebook Chat group, we received gentle emails and calls from recruiters regarding our anxieties over the threatened budget buzz saw of those wanting to militarize every aspect of our nation. There were very lively discussions, mainly echo chambers in my estimation, of how upset people are in terms of what is going on in our nation, and a basic unease over if this was a good time to leave the country.

The first time I ever traveled to the Balkans was in the early 80's with my family. My parents purchased an Audi in Frankfurt Germany to drive us about on the way to my father's lecture tour in the then Yugoslavia and Bulgaria. My parents and my two big teenage brothers jammed ourselves in an Audi 2000 sedan car with all of our luggage and my dads slide projector and carousels. I joke that I saw the Balkans in the fetal position on top of suitcases in an Audi. What was of particular interest the whole time we were in the Balkans was the deferential treatment we received. American tourists were extremely rare at that time since it was during the latter days of the cold war. Our family throughout  Bulgaria and the then Yugoslavia, fought over hosting and entertaining us. On many occasions were were seated in a dining room, fed more food than any one human could possibly consume and the village neighbors would be filed in to look at us like we were some sort of new appliance or pet. It was often quite primitive in terms of infrastructure and communications. I remember on one trip in a train, the local dogs were outrunning the locomotive. Since my travels started up in 2011, the differences in the Balkans have been massive. Efficiency (often outpacing the US in terms of Internet access and such), trains, and tourism services are almost unrecognizable compared to the late years of communist governments. But what has also changed in many ways is the orientation the Balkan nations have towards the US and her people.

The Internet and cable television have changed how Americans are perceived. What has also changed is the occurrence of the wars of the 1990's. The biggest change I am curious about is how the current occupant of the White House will affect how Americans are received. The boisterous conversations at staging indicate that our class members are also worried. For me, the deeper question still remains: what does it mean to be an American?

When one is jet lagged and completely changing one's life, weepiness is often a result. When I was standing in one of the many circles we formed during our staging, I would become quite weepy. I would look across the room and see so many different faces. All ages, ethnicities, regions and professional backgrounds were represented. Our class also included several immigrants from different nations who had become US citizens. While obviously we all joining the Peace Corps and are citizens, I would venture to say that we are also a deeply altruistic group. People do not upend their lives, leaving families and careers to live in third world countries for basically no pay if they are selfish. My weepiness came from the realization that these faces I encountered in staging are what it means to be an American.

We come from everywhere, we have basically fine tuned diversity, and in our diversity lies our strength. In the months leading up to my departure, there has been an underlying ambiance of anger in the United States. I think this was what I was encountering in the US airports. The feeling of frustration, of a climate that is trying to pit one against each other is quite novel for most Americans. I also think our nation is struggling to define who we are, what we do and how we present ourselves to one another and the world. With the flush of post WW2, Americans became the model for democracy, freedom and innovation. We have been faltering ever since those heady days, and the current crash of our election is leaving us reeling as to who we are exactly.

I became weepy during staging because the answer to this question came to me as I saw all those faces, those beautiful faces in our circles. I became weepy when I experienced the intense organization around the focus to go and serve in the name of the US for the people of the world. America is an ideal, the highest form and experiment in civil society. The essence of who we are is not in our documents, our systems or anything else, it is in our people who come from all over the world, from every different sort of background and orientation to be one people. We help one another, our ideals are our touchstone, and our differences can be used to fill in the gaps so to speak.

We Peace Corps trainees and volunteers are being trained to be missionaries of the American spirit. In this third moon node of not only the Peace Corps but also my own biography, it is so fitting that during this very challenging time when our presidential leadership is violating every aspect of that spirit that the Peace Corps continues to exist. We have a great task, we volunteers and this government agency started in 1961, we are to convey the spirit of the highest aspects of human civilization to ourselves and also to the world from which we all come in one form or another. I have found out what it means to be an American, and my only hope is that I can live up to this challenge in the days to come.