Saturday, April 29, 2017

Week Seven


Time, in spite of all our attempts to alter it, marches on. I now have been in Albania nearly two months, and am beginning to gear up to move to my permanent site. The expertly designed pre-service training is entering a new phase of final preparations for trainees to transition to permanent assignment and the status of Peace Corps Volunteer. In previous health sector trainings, volunteers felt they were ill prepared to teach, not the subject matter,  but in terms of the mechanisms and format of teaching classes to children and youth. In response to this, our trainings are focusing heavily on remedying the situation. In addition to presenting practicums, we are having numerous sessions and assignments on how to design presentations as well as how to implement behavior changes required of the curriculum on health. We are also being encouraged to expand our service to include projects out of our sector responsibilities in terms of extra curricular activities like clubs and camps.

This week my intestines abandoned their rebellion and were quietly retreating to their normal activities. In the process of trying to implement the BRAT diet (bananas, rice, apples and toast) in my routine, I introduced my family to the glories of steamed apples with fig jam and cinnamon. I also was making my own variant of pilaf. After I felt better, I was able to whip up some crepes and filled them with steamed apples, much to the enjoyment of my host family. My version of crepes are more “eggy” than my host sister was used to, but after she tasted the result, I think this rendition will be offered more frequently in the household.

The older daughter is staying at the house while her husband in abroad working, and has brought her four year old son along. He is an intelligent, sweet and spoiled child in that he is an only son and the only grandchild of the family. The love aimed at this boy is a site to behold, where he has three adult women doting on his every need and hanging on his every word and whim. I am Stefania to him, and we enjoy watching cartoons together, which are actually helping my language recognition. It is a bit of a time warp cultural experience to watch Tom and Gerry cartoons where each speaks Albanian. The other day we played a variant of tag, where one of us would stand on the side of the porch, the other would go away and return to find the the porch occupant. We would trade places after each revelation. He never tired of this, showing glee and giggling each time regardless if he was hiding or being found for the 20th time.

My host sister was helping me with my pronunciation to prepare for my final practicums earlier in the week. With my volunteer partner, we lead a dental hygiene and  an HIV/AIDS class to fourth graders and 7th graders respectively. The teachers prepared their students with the material so when we would ask questions, the children would stand to attention and recited the entire text of the lesson ver batum. To mitigate this, my partner had the brilliant idea to have a couple of different questions to get the children to think, inspire discussion outside their prepared remarks as well as fill up class time . The dental hygiene class was a bit rough in that we ran out of material quite quickly since the children had all the answers beforehand. The HIV/AIDS class went much better, especially since the teacher was well versed in the subject, and had much to offer in terms of materials. My partner and I also had rehearsed quite a bit with our local dialect coach, my host sister. Because of this practice, I had level of comfort and the children were not staring at me blankly when I asked them if they understood. What I took away from these experiences, as well as observing other classes, was the Albanian emphasis on recitation in terms of displaying knowledge. I also learned hat asking questions outside of the pre-determined list was not a typical experience.

Throughout my education, which is considerable, wrote memorization drove me to despair. As you can imagine, I was in despair for a large portion of my life.  It was my particular beef with multiple choice question tests, and after taking numerous board and entrance exam test prep classes, one can mainly figure out strategies for answers that actually do not have anything to do with knowledge.  As a young child, I felt that if I was going to understand something, I basically had to do explore it for myself, and took to the library, wandering the aisles in search of books that would help me out. I guess I was a born researcher.

My first reading of Steiners Course for Young Doctors shook me to the foundation of my soul. “Everything you are learning about in your course work is dead, “ he began his lecture cycle to young medical students back in the early 1900’s. I put the book down, started to weep and could not read anything more for days. No wonder I could not understand what was being presented to me, I was supposed to be dealing with life and I was being taught about dead things, I don’t understand dead things, I am not interested in dead things, I want to understand living things. I wasn’t stupid, it was because what I was being taught was actually relevant, and as the quote in the movie goes, I am into that meaning thing. Why wasn’t I being taught about life in a living way? What is living thinking and how does one inspire living thinking particularly in an age of television and an education system that relies on regurgitating information? Can I do this with my limited language skills, and should I, especially since I am simply a volunteer with a temporary assignment? 

During the 1700’s scientific discovery was entertainment. Scientists would perform experiments in lecture halls full of people who waited days to see such spectacles. As electricity was being slowly contained and studied, these experiments were especially the rage in centers such as Paris, London and Prague. When one studies the biographies of the great contributors to our body of knowledge, what has always struck me was how the major contributing factor to their curiosity and experimentation was to figure out how God worked or what God thought. In antiquity and up through the Renaissance, the study of nature as science was considered, was to at it’s heart, to reveal Divinity to Humanity. 

For me, this has always been the case. The design, the evolution and revelation of the natural world from the tiniest microbe to the cosmos has been my confirmation of Divinity. Random is not a word I would apply to nature, creation or the universal laws of physics. The fact that the Universe is ordered by relationship, gravity as the materialistic word for this, for me is profound. It is not entertainment for me, the experience of comprehension of the mechanisms of nature goes beyond entertainment. But how, with limited language skills and competition with instagram can one convey the “unbearable beauty” as Merton would call it, of the revelation of the natural world in a 45 minute health lesson? 

As I look out on these darling children and youths who all have the spark of the cosmos within, their emerging reproductive systems that carry the potential for life, can I convey the amazing privilege and mystery they carry inside each one of their elegantly designed bodies?  How that apple you pass over for a bag of chips is a work of engineering and nutritional art, tended to by loving hands for years in order to be produced as a synthesis of soil, sun, water and the stars, that has specific structures and chemicals which interact with your physiology as a human, and really only for human health, not its own life cycle? 

In our reporting and practicum debriefs, there does not seem to be a segment on the form for “wonderment.” This is not a fault of our training or over site of our amazing staff. Wonderment is absent from modern culture, there is no check off or pay grade for wonderment. I think it is the main reason there is hunger for computer games and movies where lots of things blow up. Celebrity culture, not accidentally called for what it is (of the stars) fills the void for not watching the actual stars above. In many cases, we simply can not see them because of light pollution in large city centers, but every time I live in the country so to speak, I am the only one looking at the stars and planets, everyone else is inside watching television “stars.” Even here, I am the only one who regularly sees Venus in the predawn sky, and it is magical. Now with warmer weather, the lightning bugs are out in force, and I find them much more entertaining than television.

Can a chubby menopausal woman with rudimentary language skills inspire wonderment in children? We shall see. The main issue is how to frame the questions. As the Albanian question words are starting to penetrate my brain, the deepest question I hope to convey when approaching science is “who is before me?” What as a word conveys an object, who on the other hand conveys a being. As we study, if we observe in relationship to a being, there is a different sense, a different consideration than if we comprehend an object. It is also useful, and we are being reminded of this in our training sessions, to be a model. So while I will never be a muscular triathlete, I do have a sense of wonder and amazement for the natural world, which I hope to be able to convey in a way that does not completely confound or amuse the children with which I am to work. 

We spent our last two days of the week at hub, learning about youth employability in Albania, and how to run a successful workshop. We were placed in our regional sector groups with our co-site volunteers for our assignments. I will be serving with a TEFL (language instruction) volunteer from my class, and two other volunteers who are already at the site working on Community Development. It was fun to meet my classmate who will be my site mate, we are both west coasters, both foodies and I feel if nothing else, we will be eating quite well during our tenure. As the Peace Corps is an American governmental institution, data and outcomes are part of the job. We had a session on how to use the latest tools to report on our activities in terms of statistics, how many children served and so on. We also had a panel present to us on different extra curricular activities we could participate in as volunteers. In the midst of all the information being thrown at us, the staff has started to  brief us on how exactly we will be dispersing to our sites after swearing in to be full fledged volunteers in a couple of weeks. So instead of being a PCT (Peace Corps Trainee) I will be a PCV (Peace Corps Volunteer) OMG! (I am not a fan of these letter abbreviations at all, and everything I keep going to the medical terminology, which confuses me more, and we just got a list of Albanian abbreviations for our texting, will it ever end?) 

The opportunities to coordinate and implement different volunteer projects already in existence was impressive. We had a presentation from an organization called AIESEC, which was founded by seven people from seven nations after World War II for cultural exchanges and volunteerism as a way to promote world peace. From what I could understand, it seemed like the organization is a bit like a mini Peace Corps in terms of length of commitment, say for a few weeks for each project. The Gender and Diversity project encourages education on toleration and understanding of different genders and orientations. Girl Scouts has been in Albania for a couple of years, thanks to a Peace Corps volunteer getting the organization off the ground. There are currently 15 troupes in Albania, serving girls aged 6 - 12. This group tends to not get targeted attention by Peace Corps specifically, and Girl Scouts fills the gap nicely. I met the Albanian girl scout leader from my permanent site, and am looking forward to collaborating with her and the local troupe. Outdoor Ambassadors is an environmentally oriented club that helps children appreciate and be stewards of the natural world in their communities with projects like picking up trash and recycling. The Anti Trafficking in Persons committee works to educate Albanians to the warning signs of human trafficking risks. This is especially a problem for the Roma population because of their status. Some boys and mostly girls are lured into sex and labor slavery by promises of jobs with no need for visas and work permits. As a health volunteer, I feel the need to network with this organization to educate youth on how to protect themselves from this vicious, soul destroying multi billion dollar global industry. The Model UN is also an amazing organization in Albania, helping youth understand international issues and how to use diplomacy to solve problems. There are regional and national gatherings where students come together, representing different countries and debate issues through consensus.

The final presentation is a group I already have signed up to participate with, the World Wise School program. The third goal of Peace Corps is to help spread cultural understanding to Americans of the host nations of the volunteer. By signing up, I am paired up with an American classroom and will coordinate with the American teacher on presenting Albanian culture, customs and create exchanges between students. I will be working with the Waldorf School of Orange County, a charter middle school in Los Angeles and a home school group in Modjeska Canyon. I will wait till I meet with my counterpart to see what classes are available to pair up with these groups. One of the ideas that was presented was to deliver pen pal letters between the classes, which I find particularly attractive. While social media is all the rage these days, there is something about receiving a letter or a picture in the mail that is extra special.

One of the more interesting presentations at hub was from the Public Affairs Officer for the United States Embassy in Albania. I know I keep saying this, but I am finding the best cure for the post 2016 election horror is to listen to how our government works and meet the people behind the scenes who make it all come together. The US Ambassador to Albania is a career diplomat, and an elegant human being. The Public Affairs Officer is basically the press  and publicity coordinator for the embassy. This position is responsible for messaging US Policy to the host nation and representing the United States to the people where the embassy is located. He coordinates all the social media, press releases and cultural events at the embassy. Art and musical programs, “meet an American” events, press conferences and even movie screenings are arranged by this office. Recently, the movie shown at the embassy (which I saw twice in the theaters in the US I liked it so much) was Hidden Figures. A free showing of the film for 200 invited Albanian guests was organized by the Officer and his staff. 

For various reasons, Albania and the Albanians simply adore America. In today's global political climate, this is actually a bit of a rarity. Of all the American Embassies in the world, the social media following of the US Embassy in Albania is the most popular. The Facebook page for the Embassy has now 200,000 followers, where in other countries, the “likes” rarely go above 20,000. There are other social media options, Twitter and Instagram, but the hands down favorite for Albania is Facebook. An ad was made to thank the people of Albania for having 200K followers. 

One of the more interesting stories was how the Embassy now has a You Tube Channel. It was thought that instead of the normal Christmas/New Years message by the Ambassador, the staff and some Albanians could sing a holiday song. The Public Affairs Officer contacted a local band he had heard and liked, and asked them if they would like to be part of such a performance. They agreed and it was then found that there are no such things as holiday songs in Albania, so a new year good wish song was sung with local instruments, the band, Embassy staff and US Ambassador Lu in Albanian. The video has had over a million views and counting, and is really quite sweet. This entire diplomacy experience is causing me to really be proud of my country, to see the dedicated, creative and kind staff try to reach out, interact and present the best that the United States has to offer. Many people in the diplomatic core have their start in Peace Corps. If I was younger, I would certainly go that route after this stint. It is fun to watch the younger volunteers go and talk to the Embassy staff when they visit our trainings. The future is bright indeed with these young people wanting to serve our nation, be the face of America to the world.

After this full session, we went to a local hotel for an NGO fair. I was moved to tears as to the amount of local organizations dedicated to helping the Albanian people. From Roma organizations, to homes for mentally challenged children, many faith organizations, World Vision, and even a food bank, it seems Albanians are learning the joy and benefit of service organizations in terms of making investments in their communities. It seems there are many Christian organizations working in the NGO world here, particularly with special needs children. One organization has a bakery that makes money for the programs to help these children. I was so moved by the experience. It is good to see basic kindness, when there is so much turmoil about. I have always believed that people are basically good, and I am seeing this on a daily basis here in Albania.

As we wind up projects, submit reports and are drilled on prepositions and verb declensions, I keep reminding myself that the best is yet to come. I long to know my counterpart, to meet the children, to be of service to those who would have me. I hope to inspire wonderment beyond wrote memorization for the natural world and all her gifts. It is a privilege to be alive, and I hope to be a model for the gratitude that living inspires because of true, lasting and natural beauty. I hope to be a model of appreciation of all that surrounds us from the soil beneath our feet to the heavens above, for finding out through exploration exactly who is before us. Who I see  here in Albania through the land and the people is, in a word; wonderful.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Week Six

I knew going in that pre service training would fly bye, and I was right. It is truly hard to believe we are only two weeks away from our permanent assignment. As I have said before, in some ways my life back in the states seems like a distant memory, even our language drills that have us recite who are families are, what we have done, seem for me at least, in some ways to be describing another person. In the midst of the constant lessons, exercises, trying to navigate the Albanian culture, I have felt a calm I have not experienced in years.

 Before I left, my blood pressure was quite high, especially if my father was accompanying me on my doctors appointments. It was high when I arrived in Albania to the point where the physicians in Peace Corps were telling me if I did not get it down, “we would have to make a plan.” Well, I had my blood pressure taken yesterday and it is back to where it has been for years, out of the red zone, and this is with all the stress of training and the amazingly delicious high salt food I have been eating with wild abandon. I am not sure what is going on, but for now I will simply take it all in, and relish in the 125/70 readings.

This week was mainly presenting what are called “practicums.” We are given assignments in our various sectors and are to basically teach a class on an assigned topic as preparation for what we will be doing in the field. My practicums will be presented next week, so I was mainly an observer of my health sector site mates presenting various topics to school aged children. 

In the health sector, we are required to present a PE class, and a class to a lower grade, and an upper grade. About five years ago the Albanian Education Ministry collaborated with the Health Ministry to create curriculum to be implemented into the school year science classes on health and life skills. Peace Corps has collaborated with the Health Ministry to send volunteers to interested schools to help co teach and introduce the health curriculum with science teachers. Like teachers the world over, Albanian school teachers have too much work, too little time and anything new is hard to introduce. Our practicums are basically practice for our real world experience in carrying out the mission of the Albanian Health Ministry.

The classes vary in topics, from hand washing to basic hygiene. The more sophisticated subjects are HIV/AIDS prevention and reproductive health. We have been told that in some areas, the teachers are very relieved to have volunteers go over the more graphic lessons on birth control and sex, since in some small towns, the teachers and students are very close in contact, related to one another or neighbors. Imagine giving your 12 year old nephew graphic instructions on how to properly apply a condom, and then you can get the idea why such lessons may be difficult to convey in smaller communities.  The experiences vary, but in most cases, the teachers are glad to have the help, and the volunteers can see that they will be able to carry on the lessons after the volunteers leave.

Climate change has certainly come to Albania. After a few weeks of splendidly warm spring weather, it is back to being really cold and rainy again. The news and locals alike are remarking on how winter has come again. I joked with one of my language instructors, I chose Albania because I did not want to be hot (like I would be, say, in the jungles of Asia) and I have not once been disappointed since my arrival in March. My language skills are increasing so I can understand the weather reports on the news, and snow has come back to the mountain regions. In Kosovo, we are seeing minus temperatures. The onslaught of rain and cold forced our PE classes to be moved inside for our “plan B.” In my PE practicum, we did musical chairs, which was basically a blast. In the other presentation, my site mate taught the children the cupid shuffle and the wobble. Listening to the children say in unison “Wobble” in these magnificent Albanian accents, (the Albanian alphabet has no “w”) was a hoot. Some of the children were quite good, and I could see future dancers in them. The other classes I observed were on anti smoking, hygiene and peer pressure. My site mates command of the language, mind you most of these lessons were presented in Shqip, was impressive to say the least. It was also embarrassing for me in some ways, because I feel like I sound like a drunk person with a muscular tongue disorder when I attempt to speak long sentences in Albanian.  I was also struck by the essential beauty I find in all children, regardless from where they come. It is what Thomas Merton would call “devastatingly beautiful.” The beauty actually causes me to tear up, so innocent, new, full of spirit and facing such difficulties in the years to come as all children in our current era must face on a scale not seen in about 700 years. These children were as darling as are all children, some more mischievous than others, but still all quite sweet.

As I have said before, my exhaustion level is quite high. To put the proverbial cherry on the cake so to speak for my general fatigue, I succumbed to what I am going to call “Scanderbegs revenge.” I think I caught it at the local restaurant, because my host family food is impeccable, and usually over cooked. In any case, lets say I became familiar with the intricacies of Turkish toilets while enduring stomach flu, an experience I would certainly wish on people I highly dislike. I was able to stop the flow so to speak by doing acupuncture on myself, but my attempts to re-hydrate myself, while valiant, were not adequate.

During one of our sessions at Hub, I became extremely dizzy, and knew either fainting, vomiting or worse was imminent. I quietly excused myself and tried to gain my composure on the steps outside of the class. Being the gracious and over concerned people they are, one of the Albanian assistants came out to see if I was OK. I knew if I could just lay down I would be fine, but that was basically impossible unless I wanted to be on the freezing tile floors that are ubiquitous in Albania. He helped me up to the Peace Corps offices where I was allowed to sit on one of the office chairs, while other staff members came in to see what was going on. It was decided that I needed to call the medical officer, who is a really sweet woman, and was scheduled to come to hub that day anyways. She was on her way from Tirana with various medications for other volunteers, and would happily see me as soon as she arrived, armed with more medicament's for my particular challenge.

I gave in to the vertigo and laid down on the cold tile floors, eventually putting my feet on a chair so as to elevate them and hopefully raise my blood pressure that I felt had dipped tremendously through the two days of constant trips to the banya. I did acupressure on myself and my Albanian PC staff was sent to get me a large bottle of water and bananas as per the doctors orders. By the time the doctor arrived, I felt better, and after a thorough check up, given various medications and oral rehydration salts. It was then I was told my blood pressure was just fine, as was my pulse, though weak.

What was particularly annoying about my digestive system rebellion as they say in Chinese Medicine, was that I missed giving a first aid practicum, as well as the site reveal. The site reveal is where trainees are told where they have been placed for their two year term of service. It would have been fun and meaningful to be with my fellow trainees during this ceremony. I am actually quite a shy person who prefers solitude, having people fuss over me or being the center of attention I find grating under normal circumstances, but this time I feared I might baptize people with my stomach contents if you catch my drift. To have to go back into the class and explain I have explosive diarrhea and am dehydrated was not how I wanted to be seen by others. I was also still quite dizzy and a lot of attention might have actually made me faint, again a visual I would like to spare my fellow volunteers as well as contradicting what is left of my pride. The Peace Corps van was secured to take me back to my host family site, and the doctor got my permanent site announcement envelope. 

It is almost like being at the Academy Awards in certain respects. The envelope please, nervously opening it up, pulling out the paper and there it was: the name of my site where I will be spending the remaining time of my service. I almost started to cry. I was so touched, some place actually wanted me. It is hard to explain how being an exceptionally educated person with years of experience, many talents and basically a very kind heart, to be constantly rejected by potential employers mainly because you are old. I feel like I am a character in the 1960’s Christmas Classic Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer, on the island of misfit toys to be exact. To know you would be an asset, that what you have to give would be so beneficial, that you want so much to give only to be told endlessly that you are “not a fit,” and to watch other more younger, less educated and experienced people take on the job only to be fired shortly afterward because they could not do the tasks, just does something to the soul.  To be a healer with no one to heal is in a certain respect a true hell, it is as if you are running about wanting to give and all you meet are walls, you see the suffering about you, but you can not in any way try to alleviate it, is like an endless nightmare from which you can not wake. And you are regulated to this state of paralysis not because you have done anything wrong other than get older, which personally other than constantly being rejected by my culture, I actually have enjoyed as I obtain the wisdom that accompanies the years. It is also very hard on ones sense of self, if you identify as a healer and you can not heal, then what/who are you? If you have spent your whole life training, educating yourself to simply have interesting stories to tell, what kind of life is that?

What was particularly profound about the site assignment was that two days before, I had a dream that I was assigned to the place where I will serve. I had actually consciously wanted Kelsor, mainly because it was next to Permet and in the midst of some pretty amazing mountains and rivers. I also thought I would be assigned to a site where there had been no health volunteer before, and Kelsor was one of those sites. When I told my site mates about my dream, I was told that it would never happen, because usually Asian or African Americans were assigned there due to it’s progressive nature. Sometimes Asian and African Americans deal with extra cultural pressures by constant questioning of their American “ness.” Albanians consider Caucasians as Americans, and specifically Asians are all seen as Chinese, which obviously grates on the Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese Americans who serve to be constantly be giving civics lessons on American multiculturalism and the fact that one can be of an American family that has lived there for generations and be not of Caucasian descent.  Not a problem for me at all, it was only a dream anyways, but it haunted me because my permanent site was really not on my radar, it was simply a place I wanted to visit for the antiquities. I honestly thought I was to be placed in some remote mountain village, which if truth be told, had quite an appeal for me who is seriously considering becoming a Carmelite Nun after Peace Corps. I had felt a strange calm about the entire process of permanent assignment (which I attribute to consistent Novena prayers of release and surrender to divine will,) while my site mates and other trainee’s seemed quite anxious concerning the possibilities. When you have lived through what I have lived through for the past five years, getting a site assignment in Albania is simply routine actually.

So there I was, in the Peace Corps assistant office bundled up in a blanket someone brought me, drinking rehydration salts and eating a banana, when the Health Sector Director and Medical Officer brought me my envelope. I opened it, and basically could hardly contain my excitement and complete blissful surprise over the assignment. I told them of my dream, and the Director said, “then it is meant to be.” I was then whisked away by the Peace Corps driver, a delightful man about my age with relatives in Boston I learned on the drive to Bisqem. He was familiar with my host family and such. He had worked for the UN in the recovery from the Balkan wars, and had been with Peace Corps for five years. 

I truly felt and still feel like I won the lottery, and not just the $3 ticket I usually win during multi million dollar jackpots. It is like being sent to heaven really. My site assignment is a UN World Heritage Site, with castles, ancient churches and more, all nestled in mountains. The school where I have been assigned is quite large, and has received awards for outstanding achievements. In addition to the nine year school (grades one through nine) there is a high school, in which I am particularly interested. There is also a Roma community and health center, and I think this is why I was placed there, since I have experience with street kids. Roma are what we would call Gypsies and are the lowest caste of society here in Albania and Europe to be precise. They are the permanent refugees, often homeless and have no real status. So there are many avenues I can integrate myself into, and I am really looking forward to doing so, as soon as I can stand up for more than a few minutes without stumbling or retching. The spirit is willing they say, but my flesh is simply not cooperating at present.

I finished the week lying on my host families couch in the kitchen, watching Turkish soap operas. None of us in the house hold felt particularly chipper that day. My host mother managed to get a hay splinter under her nail, which required some minor surgery to remove. Luckily I have antibiotic cream and band aids in my trusty Peace Corps first aid kit we are all issued when we arrive, that she was able to use. My host sister seems to be coming down with some sort of cold. So we just huddled around the wood stove drinking tea and watching various Albanian game shows that are variants on US programs like the Voice and so on.

Today, the warmth is returning, the sun and colors of the valley are particularly vivid since we have had so many days of relentless cold rain. I am staying close to home and resting. I need to perfect my pronunciations of Albanian terms for teeth brushing and such, and also try to let some of the language instruction sink in. I was telling the Medical Officer I was looking forward to the Summer when I could actually integrate all I have learned. The brain as it ages, is simply full of more things, and it takes a bit of time for the new stuff to penetrate the sulci. For now, I am relishing in the greening of the valley, and feeling so blessed to be welcomed by this nation. I hope to give the children my gifts in the way they want and can receive them, and I can start by speaking in a way they can comprehend. 

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Week Five

Exhaustion has set in. While I support and understand all that we are required to be doing to ready ourselves for our upcoming service, it seems after each day, my only true desire is to climb into bed and sleep. Even when I wake after a long nights uninterrupted rest, I could go right back to bed and probably be unconscious for hours.

As Health Education volunteers, we have been given many sessions on how to design classes, numerous hand books on topics ranging from dental health to birth control, along with presentations from other volunteers on their various experiences working with the schools and communities at their sites. It is truly an inspiration to see how the communities are responding and carrying on the initiatives. As I see the slide shows and listen to the testimony of the volunteers, I am touched by the beauty of the Albanian people and the efforts of the Americans.

Our Peace Corps country director gave a long session this week, on the history and mission of the organization. She told of the inception of the Peace Corps by President Kennedy. How he was to visit a Michigan State as a candidate and was detained for various reasons, so the appearance was cancelled . His campaign managers booked a local hotel so he could go and rest up before the next days scheduled appearances. He arrived at his destination at 2 am or afterward to a crowd of thousands of students who had waited all night to hear him, and were undeterred by the cancellation of the university event earlier that day. Accounts differ, eyewitnesses report between five and ten thousand young Americans waited for hours just to see their chosen candidate. In response, Kennedy gave a spontaneous speech about service to the country, America’s role in the world and of his idea of what would later become the Peace Corps. It is said that after that unscripted spontaneous speech there were 10,000 letters written to the government in support of the initiative, and of a desire to serve. As president he made an executive order, the congress enacted legislation soon afterward, and the first group of Peace Corps volunteers went to Ghana and Tanzania in August of 1961.

All I keep thinking when I hear these stories is the stark difference between the Kennedy administration and the current one. The inspiration, desire to serve not only one’s nation but the world in the name of the American Spirit of equality, freedom and community is simply absent from the selfish, self centered, public and the world be damned attitude, of he who shall not be named. But as I am learning to say in my Albanian language class, the Peace Corps is a “organizate humanitare, jo politike” which means the Peace Corps is a humanitarian organization that is non political. 

Health Volunteer Trainees Preparing for Practicums

On a ride back from one of our sessions in Elbasan, a fellow volunteers was remarking that when she looks at Facebook, which is quite irregular due to all sorts of reasons, she is surprised that #45 is still president, “haven’t you gotten rid of him yet?” she told me she wants to respond to her American friends posts. 

In addition to being in a stunningly beautiful country 6000 miles from home, enjoying great hospitality and cuisine, I must say that being separated from the continuous shock and awe of the hour that the current administration inflicts on the American people is also a plus. It feels good to be immersed in the true nature of America, that of service, community, multiculturalism and creating opportunities for others. It feels good to be part of the spirit that met Kennedy at two am in front of a hotel where thousands of American youth came to hear about and support the deep American dream in 1960. It feels almost luxurious to be able to simply tune out the racist materialistic zeal of the current administration and concentrate on verb declensions, navigating capricious public transportation and drinking in magnificent sunrises and sunsets in lush green valleys while figuring out how to share my gifts in the most effective way possible. 

It is also interesting how angry I feel when I read the US news on the latest selfish and self interested stunt the president and his administration pull on the American people. Serving in the Peace Corps for me has caused me to fall more deeply in love with my nation, her people and our ideals. I am angry because I care about my fellow Americans, and they are being harmed by this man’s selfish and ignorant actions. I am curious when this administration ends, (which it will eventually I keep telling myself,) what can be done to repair the nation? So many demographics are being told and shown how insignificant they are, how their suffering and their well being are simply impediments to billionaire comfort, particularly to his and his children. I I have learned anything in all my years living in America, it is that each group of people has a precious contribution to the whole, everyone is significant, welcomed, important and worthy of membership and support in our American community. Maybe the Peace Corps needs to have a transition service to help those damaged by the insanity of these years under #45 and his vultures. #45 is intent on destroying our health care system, our infrastructure, education, environment and development to enrich his portfolio. Peace Corps volunteers would be quite useful in their experience to help our fellow Americans recover and rebuild don’t you think?

The weather is improving, it is definitely spring. The trees are now covered in lush green leaves. My classmates are all sneezing from the pollen that permeates the air. At my host site, the roses are starting to bloom. The family uses absolutely no pesticides what so ever, and the main fertilizer is the dung from the cows and goats. My host mother raises chickens. About 30 young hens roam about all day picking at the ground and what not for snacks outside of the food she provides twice a day. There are absolutely no aphids on the roses, not one. Could there be a relationship between the chickens and lack of pests on plants? I see the chickens pecking in the air, sometimes jumping up to do so, are they eating bugs mid air? Would we mechanized people call this “integrated pest management?” Or is this what happens when nature is allowed to act in a community within a farm?

The predawn skies are breathtaking, to watch the horizon change from deep blue to lavender and pink to the bursting yellow of the sun is a treat I hope many can enjoy. Venus has been showing quite brightly in the eastern sky these days. A few days ago, I went out to see a full moon in the west, Venus in the east and the sun changing the sky from blue to purple to lavender behind the snow covered mountains. Shum bukur as the locals would say, very beautiful.

It is also Holy Week here in Albania. Because of my schedule and host site, I have not been able to do my normal yearly routine of church and study. I did make it to a 15th century Orthodox church for Good Friday. No service, more of an open door to all who wished to come. There was an altar set up in the center of the church covered with flowers and branches topped by a cloth depicting the burial of Christ Jesus. Behind this altar, there was a wooden diorama set up with what looked like ancient icons of Mary, John and the Crucified Christ. During communist times, much of the art was either defaced or stolen, so I have no idea how old these objects are, but the effect was powerful. I bought candles and Easter egg dye at the shop in the back, and watched families wander in to pray, kiss the Icons and light candles. In one instance a grandma came in with her school aged grandchildren, and was telling them what to do and why. They dutifully crossed themselves and strained to reach the Icons on their tippy toes to kiss the images. It is a testament to the endurance of the Albanian people that these religious buildings and customs survived during the oppression of the dictator.

During the week, my sector was busy preparing for our practicums as Health Education Volunteers. We received sessions on how to plan and execute the lessons on health. My partner for practicum is very adept at the language. She has taken over much of the action in terms of working with the teachers with whom we will present or co teach as we are rightly calling what we are doing here as health volunteers. One session will be on dental health (my dad would be so proud) one on a P.E. class (this will be my last I can assure you as P.E. was a major reason for me to enter therapy as an adult, I had to overcome the damage to my self esteem from junior high and high school humiliations) and one on HIV and AIDS. Our counterpart for the latter session, one of the science teachers for the school, has been certified by the UN to give such lessons, so it will be interesting to see how he presents on the subject. Personally, I am relieved we have such a person to be with in front of the class, I need to hear these terms by a native speaker, hopefully I will be able to mimic them so students can understand me at my site when I get my assignment.

The week was finished with a real life walk about in Elbasan forcing us to use our language. When I was in Permet I was able to do rudimentary conversations, but for some reason, my tongue gets tied with my host family and in Elbasan. Obviously I will have to overcome this, but those language neurotransmitter pathways just keep going to German and Bulgarian in my brain, especially when I am tired, which is all the time so you can just guess what is going on for me in terms of communication. Simple yes and no responses take extreme effort on my part to discern what language to use; yes, ja, da or po, you make the call…….. I understand more than I can speak, which my darling host mother told a neighbor who came to visit, I smiled and shook my head in the wrong way (‘yes’ here is shaking your head side to side, “no” is nodding up and down, so what I do usually looks like a circle in the end, or as if I have slight touch of turrets syndrome)  Our most entertaining interchange yet was when I attempted to tell her the name of the town where one of our site mates went for training, I said “Lavash” and she was quite confused, until I realized the name of the town was “Labrash” and I was telling her the volunteer was going to a car wash for her training. Thankfully, I have learned the difference between “exicted” and “sexually aroused” so I will not give the wrong impression about my enthusiasm for a project before a parent group or teachers meeting.

During our walk about Elbasan, we had to ask for directions to get to certain language stations, where kind locals were pre-arranged and placed to engage us in dialogue. Prepared Albanians were not along the streets as we wandered asking where things were, many of these random locals responded to our garbled Albanian in English (because they are such gracious and helpful people eager to help visitors enjoy their city) and our language instructor had to continuously say “Shpip, Shqip…..” to them, Shqip meaning “Albanian language” so we could actually have practice hearing and understanding locals speak Albanian. In some instances our inquiries would result in mini street corner conferences where the Elbasani’s would argue about the best pathway to a certain destination,  each pointing in a different direction, followed by the usual questions of where we are from and so on. Many instances had locals using only hand gestures towards the destination and smiling, silently urging us on. Since SIRI doesn’t speak Albanian, this exercise will be my main source of directions in the future.

The entire experience reminded me of when my Dad and I were navigating our car through the former Yugoslavia and Bulgaria in the 1980’s. My father will talk to absolutely anyone, he sees no problem in asking blind beggars for directions or approaching well armed gang members dressed in full colors for help in programming his cell phone. In his peasant dialect, he would ask various tables at cafes throughout what is now Serbia and Croatia how to get to what is now Macedonia where our relatives live. This was usually followed by him producing a map, at least five locals pointing in different directions and arguing to the point of yelling as to the best most efficient way to proceed. After at least 45 minutes, my dad would come back to the car where I was waiting in the drivers seat and tell me verbatim what I had originally suggested an hour ago.

 For the language practice exercise in Elbasan, we went to the Castle, a Roman structure that was later taken over by various ruling bodies. It is now home to an amazing restaurant and cafe “Scampi’s” where we had asked for directions along the cobble stoned streets of Elbasan. We had tea with a Peace Corps instructor and a high school student, answering and asking questions about our respective families, hobbies and living situations. Afterward, we went to an art school, where we met a group of high school (Gymnasium as it is called here) students who are studying sculpture and painting. The three story climb to the classroom where we had our talk was a treat in that the art of the students was on display. It was beautiful to say the least, some of it was abstract, other pieces were stunning almost photographic quality oil painted portraits, and others were landscapes. We then were treated to a walk through the Saturday market, a sort of swap meet atmosphere were people throughout the valley come to sell their goods. Items raged from milk, to fruits and vegetables, olives, herbs, legumes, cheeses and an assortment of clothing, shoes and handbags. There were also piles of shredded tobacco for sale. The heaping mounds of spring fruits and vegetables were so hard to just pass by, it was equally difficult to ask in Albanian how much things cost only to walk away after we got our answer for our assignment. I hope to go back, but I did manage to purchase some fresh dill, peas, spinach and cucumbers to make something for my host family for Easter, or Paska as is called here. I was told very gently that I need to work on my verb conjugation and pronunciation by our gracious language teacher. So, that is my task in these remaining weeks of training. 

My mouth just does not want to do what is required to speak Albanian aka Shqip (pronounced sh-ch-ip, how we got Albania from Shqiperi I will never quite understand.) There are all these odd combinations of m’s and b’s, d’s and j’s, szhas and tha’s with e’s pronounced like i’s, j’s like ya’s and the Albanians seem to like to put sh - ch- ka- and p all together in mushed up sounds with their lips pursed as if kissing the air. It is actually lovely and melodic the way they do this, but I can not seem to make my Californian English mouth to mimic in any way these sounds. “U” is pronounced “ewoooo” and the lip pursing is particularly pronounced with that sound. To keep from loosing my mind, I imagine that the sound combinations are taken from the first year Hogwarts spell book. There are about five verbs all beginning with SH-CH-K followed by slightly different endings. Every time I sort of get the hang of them, (saying carefully crafted sentences that I am going somewhere rather than watching television or writing) we are thrown some new tense that varies with gender and what not. I can roll my “r’s” though, and that makes me feel somewhat competent. Our language group has decided that a coffee clatch of ancient Illyrian grandmothers had nothing better to do during the long cold winter nights thousands of years ago and they wanted to talk about others and not get in trouble, so they made up these endless complicated verb declensions, noun conjugations and gender rules no one could understand to allow them to gossip in code. Somehow it caught on and here we are. I never thought anything could be more difficult than German, but as they say, never say never.

 Yesterday on our furgon ride to Elbasan, the driver asked a lot of questions of all of us, about who we were, our families and jobs, just like in our language classes. Amongst the Americans, we were discussing how to answer the proverbial question of why we are not married. I half jokingly said I need to make up a story to stop the questions. Our site Peace Corps trainee Albanian language expert told the driver when he asked why I was not married, that my husband was dead, I was working too hard as a doctor to have children, and now I was married to the church. This seemed to satisfy him, it certainly works for me. I was impressed that I understood what she was saying, even if I could not spit it out in any decipherable fashion. 

But for this question that has been asked of me my whole life is one I honestly do not know how to answer in any language. Can you say to inquisitive Albanians that American men are stupid and volunteer to be fully frustrated with high maintenance women and still be a good representative of the nation of which I am a member? Answering truthfully that everyone I ever loved left me for a younger thinner less educated and passionate version is too painful and also above my vocabulary level. I certainly was not picky, I would remark to people who would blame my singleness on my apparent lack of trying, unattainable standards or desire, “you should see who I dated to see how un picky I was,” breathing male looking in my direction asking me out, certainly we can work it out somehow. So now I stick to, but will not say this in Albanian, the four “S’s”: single, straight, sober and sane. The combo apparently is unattainable for the male population I have been exposed to for the past 40 years. My last official date was before the invasion of Iraq, so both our nation in still being over there and my lack of romantic opportunities are in synch with being utterly pathetic and beyond reason. 

Our seemingly endless Peace Corps Volunteer training sessions on what to do to prevent sexually transmitted diseases, the dangers of mixing alcohol and sex and so on, are not really of personal relevance to me. My personal health plan (part of the reams of paperwork we have to do) where I have to outline my strategies to avoid pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, are met with the written answers in the same spirit. “I do not drink, I have no plans or desire to have sex with anyone for any reason, I went through menopause years ago.” Not included on the form is the real answer:  if I did, they would have to undergo a thorough physical, blood tests, genital swab, drug test, along with a psych evaluation, background check, proof of not be married to anyone on any continent, produce a prenup, tax returns, credit check, and a very nice one carat diamond solitaire.” 

We older female volunteers have a camaraderie going on, reminiscing about our fond distant memories of romantic escapades, and our current disinterest in anything but reading novels and baking in our spare time. This younger generation is at least more vocally honest about it’s promiscuity, but it does seem to me at least, who came of age at the onset of the AIDS epidemic where sexual contact could mean death, these young folks are especially open about how much they engage in intercourse and it does not matter with whom they lock genitals, making the volunteer sex precaution training sessions quite necessary in the long run. After the slides of genital warts and weeping syphilitic canker, I soothed my ego with thoughts that at least I don’t have to worry about that. Somehow studying lab diagnosis and microbiology takes all the fun out of sex. Treating patients with various diseases as a consequence of casual promiscuity also is quite a damper on personal desire. When I was in the Bay Area, my lack of being able to inspire straight men to spend time with me resulted in searching for other activities to fill the hours. I volunteered at a food and wine museum in Napa. I mastered tempering chocolate for truffles and baking bread, reading copious books on philosophy, history and medieval fantasy instead of “getting some” from as many random people found on the internet as possible. I am not sure my way was better, but I feel I am more interesting and talented because of it. The perfected recipe for those rose cardamom truffles rolled in pistachio dust are also quite an accomplishment. Not being on interferon for the rest of my life is also a plus. But trying to convey to the “tinder” generation that there are many ways to fill the hours other than sex is sort of a non starter. And to be honest, every generation since the dawn of time thinks they are the only ones with actively stimulated genitals in need of release. Historically every attempt to quell, inform or control such desire by the older generation has never proven successful. It seems we have to discover these things on our own, over and over, but this generation has more at stake in terms of health than past generations. Making truffles and reading fiction just seems easier, less time consuming and expensive. Perfecting a Truffle recipe vs AIDS or weeping sores on your genitals? Tough choice apparently.

Next Friday our permanent sites will be revealed to us. It will be sad to leave our current families, and I am not sure I will stay with the new one past my requirement of three months. While I am enjoying the food and hospitality of living in a family, I am longing to have a bit more control over my schedule. I would like to eat something small and simple after a long day and go straight to bed. Suppers here are grand occasions and are usually served quite late. We shall see, so far, much thought has been put into where we are placed, and I also think the angels are involved on many levels. I have enjoyed my host stay, and feel quite comfortable in my setting. For the most part, the meals have been amazing, to the point of making sure I will never loose the weight I need to loose to be healthy. The more permanent site I feel will offer opportunities to get my own health in gear over the summer, as I feel in order to be inspiring to others, I must set an example. So, I will keep you informed as to the next phase of my journey, where I am to serve and the last weeks of pre-serivce training.

Blessings to you all during this Easter Season! Happy Passover to all!


This week our cultural experience was to watch a movie made in 1956 about an Albanian Hero from the 16th Century. As we have been told, and certainly I have experienced, Albanian cinema from communist times is very well done. Scanderbeg was filmed in color. The costumes and sets, much of them the stunningly beautiful countryside of Albania, as well as the acting could rival anything I have seen from American movies of the same era.

Scanderbeg could be considered the Albanian version of Charlton Heston’s “The Ten Commandments” in that the story surrounds a charismatic leader uniting his people and leading them to freedom. They both tell the story of a native son, raised in a foreign enemy court, who leaves the luxury of his foster family to help his people achieve nationhood. Both leading characters were barrel chested men with beards and booming base voices. In the case of Scanderbeg, he was taken hostage as a young boy  by Turkish warlords to be raised in the Sultan’s home. He was given the name Scander in honor of Alexander the Great (whom it seems everyone in the Balkans from the Greeks to Macedonians to the Albanians claim as their own) Skander’s Albanian name is George, (Gjiergi) which of course I was quite proud since my Dad’s name is George. The entire film was about warring Albanian tribes forgiving each other and uniting to defeat the Turks, who incidentally all looked quite scruffy and had terrible dental health compared to the clean, handsome and well dressed Albanians. 

The film showed many battles, and several scenes of Albanian dancing and music. What struck me was how all the continuous slaughter, even of Scanderbegs sister, (who married someone she didn’t love to unite warring tribes and fought like Boadicea in a chariot against the Turks only to be killed in battle by an arrow from a Turkish foot soldier who looked like he needed a shave as well as a front tooth implant or two,) was all seen as glorious, passionate and purposeful. 

What I learned from the film that set it apart from other war hero legends was how the Venetians and Serbs were willing to let the Albanians be Turkish slaves and colonies in order to maintain good relations for trade agreements. Even a local priest was in on the betrayal, Catholics were seen in the film to be in collusion with the Venetians, in that he lied about an Albanian city state prince’s last will and testament saying that the province was to go to the Venetians instead of the dead man’s stated wishes that it go to his heir. The local Albanian soldiers dutifully destroyed villages that did not go along with this so called “will” and when confronted with why they were burning huts and mowing down vineyards, the soldiers kept saying “the decree” which told them to do so. It was sort of the 16th century Albanian version of “I was just following orders.” 

The Venetians and Serbs were not portrayed in a very positive light in this film to say the least. The real history behind Scanderbrg is remarkable, and unknown to most in the West, but it is important to know so that comprehension of world history is more complete. What was going through my mind was the length of time involved in the film, 25 years to be exact, where the Albanians under the leadership of Scanderbeg were continuously fighting the relentless onslaught of the Turks. And while the film shows healthy clean and extremely enthusiastic Albanian soldiers, and just distant shots of the burning and pillaging of Albanian towns where women are fleeing their homes with children in their arms as their thatched roof homes are torched, it seems there is another part of the story that is not being told, the one I heard repeatedly from my own Grandmother as to what it was like to live as an occupied warring people with numerous uprisings and their consequences. It is amusing to me that after all the horror of the Turks, the 500 year occupation and what not, that the rage in Albania is now Turkish Soap Operas, which are on all the channels, every night, with repeats for those who might have missed them in the early morning hours of the week end. 

I am reading Testament of Youth by Vera Brittan. It is an epic autobiography of a British military nurse during World War One. It also has been made into several television mini series as well as a recent film starring heart throb Kit Harrington as the leading male character. The theme of the book is the story of grief and horror of interrupted love and youth through the mechanized slaughter of modern warfare, of how the citizens experienced the war and the nurses and families who picked up the pieces of their maimed sons or mourned the loss of the dead. Her descriptions of the mangled septic messes that would return from various battles over several meters of trenches showed the futility of war. The recognition that the opposing sides soldiers had nothing personally against the people they were murdering was also quite poignant. Throughout the book, Brittan keeps harping on how her life, and the life of her generation was completely stolen by the war. The letters from the front and conversations  in the book also deeply questioned the constant slaughter of young everyday boys who just the year before were debating literature, preparing for exams in college and engaging in the conquests of romance.

As I was watching Scanderbeg, especially the tender moments between he and his wife, who lovingly supports his constant warfare and preoccupation with killing Turks, I kept thinking of Testament of Youth. The beautiful wife smilingly tells him on the day he forgets their anniversary, that loving him is loving Albania and that all her sacrifice and difficult life is worth it for the freedom of their people. I wonder what the real wife actually thought of never truly having a partner in life, of her emotional and physical needs being always second to the relentless needs of a nation of people, of wondering every time he was away if he would return, of her son’s eventual participation in war and of living under constant fear of being raped and killed by gangs of angry Turks when the local Albanian men were on the battlefield.

Scanderbeg the film was made in the mid 50’s when Hoxya was about ten years into his power. The nation at that time was unabashedly communist, but the religious oppression had not taken hold yet. The Albanian people had been through nearly 500 years of various occupations by foreign powers and recently had experienced the Nazi regime. They were still recovering and rebuilding from World War Two. The film is a masterpiece of showing traditional Albanian culture in terms of costume, music and dance. It also shows the beauty of the land, and the necessity of uniting as a people to protect them from the outside world. The film also not so subtly shows the treachery and betrayal of most of Albania’s neighbors, and for me it was interesting that it was presented in terms of a merchant economy (aka Capitalism.) 

It is also interesting to me that currently, the world basically does the same thing, we are willing to tolerate oppression, war and what not, all in the name of maintaining trade agreements with nations who are not friendly and oppress their own and other nations people. In the film, the trade routes with the Turks were maintained, Venice and Serbia made a lot of money in the process, and the screaming Albanian women in mountain villages who have no food or shelter for the bitter winters, they obviously do not count since protecting them might harm trade relations with the Turks.

What was interesting to me was the difference between Scanderbeg and Testament of Youth. I have yet to read anything substantive written in the 16th century decrying war and violence. I am only aware of Hildegard of Bingen, 12th Century German mystic writing on women’s menstruation saying that such blood was holy and clean and part of giving life to others and that when men bleed it is usually because of war, which was not exactly holy so women should not be ashamed of their reproductive processes. But what is it about making war entertaining and necessary that seems to be a consistent theme in human history?

I have always been fascinated as to how quickly humans can rally into war, which, in my never to be humble opinion, is legally sanctioned mass murder. Other community efforts seem to take long periods of time, like agreeing on how to plant a school garden. Women’s experience of war is particularly brutal in that rape and destruction of home and land go along with their “participation” in war. So much work goes into growing, preserving and preparing food, pregnancy and tending of children, of maintaining a home, all to be wiped out in a moment for no other reason than another nation needs a direct route to trade. To have your children raped and slaughtered in front of you when the original plan for the day was laundry and making bread would be shocking at the very least. As a women,  you would have no recourse but to wait for your side to do the same to the other sides women, which isn’t really a solution. Why do we continually tolerate this cycle? Why is this glorious, passionate? The film only shows smiling women in beautiful costumes cheering on their men as they march. The war drums were really amazing in the film though, quite large and well played by costumed men, by the way.

It seems the World War One generation was the first to document the less than enthusiastic participation in legally sanctioned murder. Brittain’s book certainly describes what happens in the aftermath of the battles. World War One is also the first to report battle fatigue and what they used to call “shell shock” and what we would now call “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder” I am also fascinated as to her description of the differing male responses to the impending battles, some are quite adept at the process, where others are truly terrified as well as unsure they will be capable of violence and proper decisions. In Scanderbeg, most of the soldiers were peasant farmers. In one instance we see a sheepherder defeat Skanderbeg in an arm wrestling match. He returns throughout the film with the sword Scanderbeg gave him, and we see him kiss the sword before battle. He also seems to come out of every battle with his hat, no blood or dirt on his lovely heritage white costume. In Testament of Youth the soldiers were tradesman, farmers and college students. All answered the call from their country to defend, and were thought of fondly by the press and community if they happened to die in the process. The women were left to deal with the gaping wounds in their souls having their loved ones killed on distant soil.

Now adays, we have drones and mega bombs dropped from thousands of feet away. The more rudimentary warfare is done by suicide bombers who think that blowing up women buying vegetables in open air markets, or driving a truck through civilians at a carnival somehow honors their god and shows their courage. As I watched Scanderbeg, read Testament of Youth, and watch Albanian TV news showing the aftermath of current bombings and terror attacks, that old 60’s folk song keeps running through my mind, “when will they ever learn…….when will they ever learn.”

War has not really touched American soil in over 150 years. Yes, we have endured a few terror attacks here and there, but we seem to be more intent on killing each other in malls, schools and movie theaters with semiautomatic weapons than other nations people, but  the local slaughters are not orchestrated for any other purpose than for lone nut balls wanting to send a message of their insanity for all the world to see. Our nation is comfortable with the random slaughter so that the minority of gun owners can somehow feel the constitution is being honored. Other citizens “right to life liberty and happiness” apparently is trumped by the second amendment, so any psychopath on medication can purchase machine guns on the internet. In our own way, we let the “war” continue so as not to interrupt the trade and commerce of guns I our own country. In both cases, that of Scanderbeg and America’s gun idolatry, the women are left to deal with the aftermath. War and occupation is very fresh in the Albanian mind, it is only 25 years since the fall of communism, and 10 since the civil war, and as the nation forges ahead in terms of how to participate in the modern world, it seems at least in terms of religious fundamentalism, they have learned not to succumb to that insane justification for violence.

But nationalism is taking the world by storm, at least now, just through elections. Turkey just voted to basically become a dictatorship. France is poised to elect a fascist. The Germans for now have held onto their democracy, it seems that even though they have had an influx of refugees and endured several terror attacks, the Germans see the benefit of democracy and have learned that nationalism isn’t very productive in the end.  Neighboring Balkan nations are also grappling with holding fascism at bay and avoiding ethnic conflicts within their borders. What frustrates me personally is that we have access as no other generation before, to documented information in terms of books, news articles and film as to the consequences of nationalism and fascism, so what is the appeal, why the rush to do the same thing that has proven to be costly in terms of life and ineffective over the long run? So far, it seems only the Germans, Albanians and Canadians are getting the lessons of history.

I told my mom my experience of the Albanian people as compared with other Balkan people is they seem more sedate. Where the Macedonians and Serbs seem to relish in passionate arguments and breakout into violence at the drop of a hat, I am not noticing this trend here for the moment. As I study the Balkans, and feel they are a bridge to the future, a future where the focus of culture will be transitioning from west to east, I am wondering if the Albanian experience will translate into the sturdy bridge to the future. Religious coexistence seems to be a very important part of a harmonious culture. As for now, it really seems to be part of the people. Everyone celebrates every holiday regardless of their background. I hope this holds as challenges loom. I hope more people learn about Albania and her history, especially the modern history and example. Yes they are struggling, but I am witnessing some very important contributions that Albania has to share on the global field. I just hope these contributions do not get lost in the rush to a market economy and the turmoil across her borders.

I do highly recommend watching Scanderbeg though, it is well done and highly entertaining, as well as giving an Albanian perspective on a very tumultuous period of world history.

Friday, April 14, 2017


Movie Poster for the movie Slogans, made in 2001, director Ghergi Xhuvani

Part of the comprehensive training we receive in Peace Corps is cultural in nature. In addition to living with host families, we have regular discussions, presentations and movies covering different cultural practises of our host nation. In one instance, we watched a movie that was made during communist times which explored the partisan movement against the Nazi’s. It was a story of a group of young school boys and their experiences living with and resisting the fascist occupiers. It was well done in all aspects, and also, of course, showed the valor and moral superiority of the Albanian people against the evils of the Nazi occupiers. Throughout the movie there were articulate monologues of communist principles performed by darling children as they organized to overthrow the occupying army. The natives here lament the lack of good modern Albanian films, and part of the US Mission in Albania is to help preserve the old films as part of the Albanian cultural heritage.

Our class was treated to a relatively modern Albanian film recently entitled “Slogans.” The film was made in the early 2000’s, but covered Albania in the 1970’s. The story was about a teacher who was assigned to a mountain village school and his experiences integrating into the local communist party system. During that time, it was the custom to have teachers, very respected leaders of the community in those days, be assigned slogans by party officials to be displayed on local mountainsides with whitewashed stones. The teachers and children spent hours mining stones and dragging them to hillsides to form letters for the phrases. Favored teachers would get short phrases, while teachers who were not as enthusiastic about party propaganda often got long sentences (pun intended) to assemble and tend.

One of the school officials was the local party representative, and used his position to basically oppress and terrify the villagers and his fellow teachers. In one instance, a child reciting basic geography, misspoke that China was socialist, instead of communist. He was reported to the official who had him called into the teachers meeting for questioning. He was asked who told him to lie about China, he said he misspoke and corrected his mistake in class (which he did) and after intense questioning, the official decided to interrogate his father who must have poisoned the child’s mind in this matter. And so goes the movie, which shows how the system was designed to keep everyone in a state of panic over being turned in to the officials for trial, work camp punishment or worse. In one instance, someone was punished for not clapping enthusiastically enough during a political rally. In another, a person was sanctioned because a herd of sheep had overturned the stones on his slogan.

After the movie, the conversation that ensued was quite interesting. The younger Americans were simply confounded over the hypocrisy of the party officials. As I have family in several countries that endured communism for decades, I was more familiar with the pointlessness of such activities as the “slogans.” I had also been part of a citizen diplomacy exchanges in Moscow and St Petersberg in the early years after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of both the USSR and Yugoslavia. I heard many stories throughout the years, as well as reports from people from the recent falls of communist nations

My family had their lands confiscated by the communists and their homes overtaken. Party officials forced them to share their home with tenants who moved in without their permission or desire. In one instance, drains were put in closets to make defacto bathrooms for the “new tenants,” and a three story home that was in my family for generations was made into three apartments courtesy of the government. My relatives to my knowledge did not receive rent from such arrangements. My family had to have their children baptized in secret, in dark basements, because if they were found out, things like education, health care and job advancement would be denied. My relatives were hauled into jail on weekends when workers for roadwork was needed, and were put to work on crews. This also happened in cases of nuclear waste clean up, causing the painful cancer deaths of several beloved aunts and uncles. It is for these reasons, I cringe when I hear how certain religious groups in the US cry discrimination if they hear “Happy Holidays” in December at Walmart when they are rushing in to get a $100 flat screen TV’s at 3 in the morning. Such complaints of religious oppression in the states are so hollow when compared to what has been endured throughout the history of humankind. I thought about this as I was watching “Slogans.”

What is it about human beings that tolerate oppression and certain forms of irrational political structures? I asked my teacher why the Albanian people went along with the regime. She said that right before the communist dictator Hoxha, there was the one and only Albanian King. He apparently was elected, and after World War 2, fled the country with all it’s money and gold. Hoxha offered some sort of organization and recovery from the war and theft of their economy.  Albanians were completely isolated until he died, then with the loosening of the grip, the Albanians started to get televisions, see the outside world, and then the rest they say is history.

As someone who absolutely adores history, and buries myself in it when I am feeling concerned about current events, (I want to see if humans had encountered something similar in the past and what worked, what didn’t work so as to see how to approach the current problem,) I am eager to learn more about the Albanian history of the late 1980’s and the formation of the modern state. But my deeper question is, while obviously there are major differences, in some ways, we Americans are also guilty of our own slogans. 

In one culture class, we were presented with the structure of the government and health care system, the corruption involved, and then basically told: (my words, my understanding of the purpose of the lesson) here is the problem, this is why you are here, solve it with your talents. This was told to me by a wonderful teacher who is basically living in Italy most of the year because she can not find work in Albania.

In order to help another, one must heal ones self. So how is my culture doing “slogans?” What are “slogans” ? What did the “slogans” represent? What are the historical and modern counterparts?

In my training site, my other site mates are involved in watching “Game of Thrones” I will admit, I am a bit of an addict in terms of this medieval tella novela, but I honestly can not bear to re watch the non-stop violence and such. The story is a fantasy based on the real Earth history of the War of Roses in Medieval England. As two of the site mates supported the other Game of Thrones novice during an especially shocking segment, I noted the essence of this epic cable mini-series is actually all about the manipulation, exertion and confiscating of power in terms of warring kingdoms, families and business interests. It dawned on me “Slogans” the film, and current political turbulence is really all about power. Again, how has my nation used “Slogans” in the past and or present?

The era of McCarthyism comes to mind, where people’s loyalty to the USA was demanded by oaths and all sorts of things. For me to volunteer at the Fullerton Arboretum in Southern California, to be an adjunct faculty at the School of Medicine at UCI and other jobs related to the State of California, I had to sign and swear an oath to the state and the constitution. I was not really clear how I would uncover a communists threat to America during my garden tours at the Arboretum, but I went along with the oath thing simply to expedite the process. I would also venture to say that traveling on a plane these days rivals the communist hysteria in Albania; The humorless TSA agents who confiscate toothpaste and baby formula came to mind when I was watching the party officials in the Albanian film, apparently if you refuse to give up your seat that you paid for, you can get dragged off the plane and beat up by airport security for protesting your treatment.  If you run away from the police, in some cases if you tell them you are getting your wallet so you can show your ID, you can get shot, especially if your ancestors come from the Southern Hemisphere. Depending on the mood of our current president, you can also be denied entry to the country, even if you have lived in the USA for years, with a business, American born children, pay taxes and create jobs for others if you are from certain countries, read a certain religious text or have brown skin. And then there is the entire history of slavery, the treatment of Native Americans and those Pilgrims were not what one would call a free and easy crowd allowing creative expression and alternative viewpoints from their community members. What would the slogan be for these actions? 

Many issues come up for me personally, when I ponder the film we saw during our cultural session, the history of Albania and the US, and what I am witnessing over most of the world.  It is all about power really. I am fascinated as to what people will tolerate, why and what exactly changes their minds. Obviously in certain circumstances, say if you live in a country where you can be stoned to death if you are a female who dares to lift her head scarf to eat a sandwich in public, publically whipped for some perceived slight to some religion, the tactics are quite persuasive in getting a community to accept oppression. But still, the tactics are tolerated by the population, and they persist. The minority controls the majority who complies with whatever stupid rule the minority makes up about most anything. It is a question as to what structure, purpose and to whom tolerating such rules serves. 

It seems that power is often justified through offering security. But what is real and deep security? Can democracy actually give both power and security?

Freedom is messy. A successful democracy depends on the population being educated and also having a stake in the system. True security comes from meeting basic human needs, food, shelter, water, health care, absence of violence. Power comes actually from within, and true deep power does not actually come from oppressing anybody or anything, because if you have to oppress others to maintain your power it is always tenuous and best. Yet we humans keep thinking if we oppress others, if we arm our selves or become violent, somehow those we want to control will just give in. They might for a while, but history shows that in the end, violence simply prolongs the cycle and never really results in anything other than creating  more violence where the oppressors just trade sides every few generations. A healthy community is also dependent on the good will and basic kindness towards ones fellow human beings. 

As I have traveled the world, my experience is that there are good people everywhere. The bad ones get more attention and press, but basically we are still here on the planet after thousands of years because people care about the future, they care about their friends, families and communities. Hopefully the era of slogans and the environment that produced them is over in Albania. I am also hopeful that the American public is also quite tired of the various infringements on our democracy that go beyond having rocket launchers in our garages without permits or background checks. I hope as Albania develops, she will develop into a nation with real security as well as deep democracy. I also hope deep democracy comes to America, and that we focus on true security for our people that does not come from weapons or military might.

I feel that the good people of both of our nations will work with the good people of all other nations to create a world where there is real security and deep democracy exists. When slogans and all they stand for are simply a relic of the past, a confusing era that no one understands anymore,  where all people regardless of their background, faith, age or class have an equal voice and a stake in our collective future. Maybe that would be a good  new type of slogan, it would take up a lot of space, but it is certainly something to aspire in these transformative times.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Week Four

Breezeway next to the Orthodox Church in Elbasan

 Well, we are finally here, basically half way through training. In some ways I feel like I have never had a life before this experience. I think it is mainly because I am not staying for a vacation but for two and a half years. Most of this week was spent at our volunteer shadow site, observing a volunteer in action. The visit meant we were all away from our training routine and host families, as well as our other class members. It was nice to see the country, get a feel for what lies ahead, and to get a bit of a break from the grind of pre service training. This entire experience has been like being in finals all the time to be honest, with all sorts of information, projects due combined with basic navigating in a foreign country. Our ultimate exam of course will be the day to day working with the natives in various capacities. I have my ideas, but one needs to realize that the needs of the people may be different than what I think would be helpful. As always, we shall see.

Orthodox Church in Elbasan

After our site visits, the Chief of Mission of the United States Embassy in Albania came to address our class at the hub site. While I love my country, I am often quite ashamed of her behavior on most occasions, especially after our last selection of a president and the ensuing hourly catastrophes that have followed because of his selfishness and ignorance. Listening to our career diplomat in Albania address our class, talk honestly about what is going on through the embassy, I became quite proud of the spirit for which America stands. At least in Albania, this spirit as a force for good is certainly in action. I wish everyone could see and understand what we are doing in terms of diplomacy, it is so important in our modern ever more connected world.

The Chief of Mission covered the basics of what a US Embassy does, how diplomats are chosen (mostly on merit and experience and a certain percentage are political appointees) and how the Peace Corps is a vital part of soft diplomacy and service to our nation in ways that the professionals can not perform. He also gave his insights on what were the major challenges of Albania.

Kings Mosque in Elbasan

After the fall of communism and the ensuing upheavals, it seems that the judicial system was basically non-existent. Through study, intelligence gathering and observation, the US has decided the best way to support Albania's success economically is to help to repair the legal system. This has been done in no small measure by replacing corrupt judges, assisting municipalities in creating functioning court systems, and police in terms of training. The thinking is, if there is a judicial system where civilians feel they can get justice so as to stop corruption in terms of business, the health care system, police and so on, then investment can come in and create a stable economy. Such an environment will inspire the natives stay put. The assistant ambassador felt very hopeful for Albania in general, and told us as Peace Corps volunteers, we can help create initiatives to make the social service system more effective, and be a vital force in person to person diplomacy for America.

My language is slowly, I mean at a glacial pace compared to my youthful classmates, improving. I am not sure what is going on, but ever since I arrived in Albania, I am moving slower in general. With all of my personal turmoil in the last few years, maybe it is just part of my own recovery. I can not move fast these days, it is physically impossible for me to rush at anything, even brushing my teeth. But I feel calmer than I have felt in years. 

Protestant Church in Elbasan, across the street from the Kings Mosque

I continue to make discoveries each day in terms of culture, people and places to visit. We had a training experience this week where the volunteers visited religious institutions. Each house of worship was built in the 15th century, suffered terribly during communism, but now is thriving in peace and cooperation with other faiths. I hope to delve further into the history of Orthodoxy, Catholicism, Islam and Baktesh history and current practice in Albania. The houses of worship are all basically next to each other in Elbasan, and are quite friendly and cooperative with one another.

I learned from my site visit volunteer there is a road within the Castle walls of Elbasan called “The New Road” where the Apostle Paul is said to have walked on his missionary journey. Again, I hope to delve further into this history, but it did give me  goosebumps to be walking in Paul’s foot steps. It also shows how ancient this land is in terms of civilization and the formation of Christianity. Maybe the Albanians have been through so much, exploring religious strife and conflict which has a several thousand year proven track record of being a bad idea, isn’t so attractive anymore. The Muslims here are what we in California would call quite mellow. Women were allowed into the Mosque, no problem, the Imam had one of the kindest faces I have seen in a long while. The Orthodox priest spoke only of peace, cooperation, of how all religions are friends and working together for the betterment of the community. What ever the cause, it gives me great comfort and peace to be in a place where religion takes its proper place, as a foundation of cooperation for the betterment of humanity. As I watch the bombings in various parts of the world on the evening news, radicals driving through crowds of tourists or bombing prayer services all in the name of something they call their religion, it feels good to be here in Albania where religious strife and extremism is simply not an issue.

The gardens next to my host family's house

After training on Saturday, I treated myself to lunch with a fellow “vulnetare” as we are called here, in a restaurant inside of the castle. It was a glorious spring day, warm breezes and puffy white clouds after several days of rain. The waiter thought we were from England, which I thought was nice. It was fun to order off a menu and enjoy regional specialties in such a setting. I am cooking supper for my host family on occasion, which is entertaining for us all and gets me to discover food items in the markets and shops. Everything is unbelievably delicious. The local honey tastes like vanilla, and the vegetables are full of flavor. I made my host family meat loaf and mashed potatoes, which were quite a hit. 

We get our permanent site assignments in two weeks. Until then, we are working on assignments, lesson plans, language and culture lessons. I watch Turkish and Indian soap operas with Albanian subtitles in the evenings with my host family, and try to figure out the plots. The music usually gives the story away without language. The Turkish shows have more instrumental music, while the Indian is full of chanting and singing, so even if I can not figure out the vocabulary, the gazes of the actors and the tempo of the music help convey the general plot. It is interesting to see how people live. I look forward to the next chapter as they say, in my training as well as assignment.