|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.