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!

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