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.

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