Thursday, May 25, 2017

Week One of Permanent Assignment

After a leisurely couple of days where I took several naps in the mornings and the afternoons, I figured out how to turn on the water for the shower, don my one and only professional looking out fit, put my hair up and walked down the white cobblestone road to meet the school director for my first day at my assigned school. It was a lovely warm late spring day and I was up for just about anything.

The day before I was promised tea at the castle. There is something inherent in European Women’s DNA that enables them to walk on cobblestone in any sort of shoe, obviously their ankle ligaments are incredibly strong, as they never seem to trip or wobble in the least whilst traversing what I am experiencing as a sprained ankle mine field. For our tea at the castle outing, my 70 something host mother was decked out in a skirt with nylons and slip on cork soled sandals with a three inch heel. The “walk” to the castle rivaled my climb of Maccu Picu, only this time I and these lovely senior citizens in front of me were scaling boulders and walking along what was once stone fences that lined long gone roads with 20 foot drops on either side. They gently teased me, calling me a “ballerina” as I was walking on stone precipices with my arms outstretched as I would if I was on a high wire.

The castle is a medieval wonder, a UN World Heritage site complete with a maze of steep slippery shiny white stone roads and steps. My hosts told me that at one time there were hundreds of churches and shrines within the walls. As I tried desperately not to twist my ankles or slide on the slick surfaces, I wondered exactly how people in the middle ages did anything on these slippery things, especially when fighting off enemies in full armour and soft leather moccasin type shoes. The climb was worth it in that the view was simply spectacular, with a full panorama of the surrounding mountains, the old city, the river Osma and I could even see my school.

Something that never ceases to amaze and amuse me is how certain types of personalities are in certain types of jobs, and those “types” seem to be universal. Police for example, are very similar in demeanor everywhere I go , swaggering hyper masculine men and very rigid humourless women with deep voices. Similar characters are found around the world in sales people, secretaries, mechanics, construction workers, cab drivers, truck drivers and teachers. I was introduced to the teachers at my school, and taken to meet the school superintendent. His demeanor I found similar in any school official I have ever encountered, professional, in charge and by the book in terms of dealing with his underlings. Berat, due to its economic base of tourism, has the resources to put into both infrastructure in the city as well as schools. I was assured if there was anything I needed to simply call. 

I have come to the conclusion that everyone in the Balkans has mixed DNA, particularly between the Greeks, Macedonians, Bulgarians, Kosovarans and Albanians. I think (but don’t tell them this,) they are all basically from the same tribes that migrated about the area for thousands of years. Everyone thinks that the other nations land is their land because at some point in the last 1,500 years it was actually. Due to the Ottoman occupation, there is also some of that blood mixed in the pool as well. When I looked at the faces in front of me, I saw the faces of my relatives and cousins both in America and in Macedonia, Bulgaria and Greece. 

The children at the school are darling and look like children from anywhere in the US, with their Disney tee shirts and back packs. Best tee shirt of the day award goes to a 6th grade girl wearing a black tee with bold white letters proclaiming “I am not a morning person.” I watched the children on the playground bicker and tease one another, as well as play and joke. With the older children, one could see the flirting going on amongst the teens. Some of the teachers grabbed their students or children to talk to me in English, one 9th grader in particular expressed with all the drama and idealism that is suitable for her age, how she tried to be positive about life, but she was disappointed by so many things, so she has gone back to expecting the worst in everything. I told her that this outlook was very Albanian, she agreed. She wants to be a doctor, and when she found out I was an acupuncturist, that was also of great interest. I told her of my desire to start a club for girls who wish to be in the health sciences, and she told me that it “probably was going to be very interesting to other people.” She promised to tell her friends, and she said there might be “a lot of people interested in such a club.”

The school has so many children that they have to split the day so there are enough class rooms for everyone. In one promotional video I watched during training, it proclaimed that Albania had the youngest population in all of Europe, as I see all the children in this and other schools within Berat, I appreciated the validity of the statistic. The older children attend in the morning, and the younger children attend in the afternoon. After I was introduced to the afternoon teachers, the director, the school secretary and one of the teachers took me to lunch. I met their children, one of whom was quite angry when his mother would not buy him ice cream. Again, this behavior is not limited to Albania, and the look on the mothers face as she tried to deflect his rage while holding firm against junk food was quite familiar indeed. 

The school is beautiful, very clean and nicely decorated. I am curious as to how I will be serving, but I have found that when one is in the Balkans, you just go with it instead of having an agenda. Things always work out as they should, never how you envisioned, and often better than you had imagined. When I was in Russia, I learned there was not a word for “goal” which made for great cultural misunderstandings between the east and west especially in terms of business. The journey and the exchanges along the way were more important for the Russians, while the Americans were all about outcomes. The Balkans are in the middle, so I am not sure where they are on this continuum.

There are three directors at my school. The head mistress, Albana, is young and extremely competent and professional. In our training we were warned that it might take a while to integrate into the community but to be patient. I will not be experiencing this as Albana basically took charge of the situation and has a complete grasp of what it means to have a Peace Corps Volunteer. I sat in on meetings where she was setting out strategy for me to meet the teachers, the students and set up a schedule. My counterpart Yilka is a biology teacher. She looks like my cousin Katherine who is the Dean of the Chemistry Department at Cal State San Marcos. Yilka has a great sense of humor, and I can tell she has a very soft heart. She introduced me to 18 classes of children today, dutifully telling each class that I was a volunteer from Peace Corps, that I would be with the school for two years, and pronounced my career title better than I have been doing, which is probably why no one to this point understood what I do. The youngest grades were the most darling, with the children quite interested in where I was from, and telling me I needed to stay for three years, not just two. Of course they are expecting non stop entertainment and miracles for Summer activities, as I am an American capable of producing such things. One child asked if I was going to take them swimming.

The day was completed with my observing two biology classes for different grades where the subject was on recycling. Shum interasant. I am curious, while the children were very engaged in the subject, how much they can put into practice. I was invited to have some cake with my host “parents” this evening, and was able to catch up on the news. One segment showed some public works employees fishing trash out of a river, with the segment featuring the minister of tourism who was pointing out that tourists do not want to experience the great outdoors of Albania when there is trash everywhere (my interpretation and translation, but you can get the gist of the segment). I remember a few weeks ago seeing the Prime Minister on the news addressing a crowd of people in front of a large industrial plant that was going to be a recycling center. 

Albania is truly one of the most breathtakingly beautiful places I have ever been, since I have been on four continents, that is saying something. The mountains are stunning. So majestic and a bit wild in their unhindered grandeur. They almost have the same mystic as the Andes to be honest. Here in Berat, the natural beauty is complemented with unique architecture. Not only are there medieval buildings, there are churches and mosques everywhere. It seems as if the people are really trying to make things better here, but the corruption in Albania as a whole, not here in particular. is what drives the best and the brightest away. The issue is how to respect people’s desires and encourage them to be their best, but inspire them to transform what they have into something amazing. 

To me, a people who speak this incredibly complex and difficult language with ease must be extremely intelligent. They get clitics and use them casually for goodness sakes. To have endured what they have endured for a thousand years must also have affected them deeply. But the planet simply has no where else to go to for those seeking a better life, and we are going to have to learn how to make the most of where we are instead of constantly dreaming that some other place has the answers, the fulfillment of our desires. The world is in an uproar with those fleeing war and environmental catastrophe and not willing to let such refugees in. For people who want to make more money, when they live in a lush productive land with adequate water, land for food and room (since everyone keeps leaving) that has excellent possibilities, it is less urgent, in fact it actually is against their better interests considering the turmoil that surrounds them. 15,000 Albanians self deported from Germany last year mainly because they could see the writing on the wall. 

When I witness the beauty of both the natural and man made world here, see the bright and engaged children eager to learn, and witness the deep commitment that the Albanians have towards family and friendship, I honestly do not think that moving to America is what they think it will be. Especially with the racist hateful US regime giving carte blanche for border patrol agents to abuse women and children, thugs to oppress the vulnerable and clamping down on all immigration, now is not the time to dream of America as the destination for anything.  I hope to convey to them on some level that they have something extremely valuable here which could be the envy of the world if they could invest their hearts, souls and dreams in this incredible land instead of focusing on leaving for foreign shores.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

The Next Step

I am now an official Peace Corps Volunteer, I signed the oath, got the pin and was directed to where I will be spending the next two years serving in the best capacity I can within my assigned community. I am curious if the massive fatigue will ever leave now that I am official, or it will simply increase. I was not alone in this feeling. After the swearing in, the volunteers were set free for several hours while our Albanian counterparts were involved in workshops to help them orient themselves to having Americans in their midst. Everyone, regardless of age, complained about how exhausted they were feeling and the desire to just go to bed instead of gearing up with limited language capacity to meet new people.

With the impending protests and gay pride parade in Tirana, the staff had to reorient the entire training they had spent months preparing so the volunteers and counterparts could leave before the onslaught that had the potential to become violent. I felt sorry for the staff, as their stress in managing this entire experience was more tiring than what we volunteers were feeling. Designing and executing such a project is more time consuming than the volunteer obligations of pre service training. Not only was the staff responsible for conducting the trainings and logistics, they also had to deal with the inevitable events that go along with managing humans in a foreign country. Their charges are not familiar with how to deal with challenges on a daily basis. Lost phones, illnesses, personality clashes, security issues and in one case a volunteer injuring himself requiring an airlift back to the states for surgery were mixed in with trying to secure housing and assignments for 41 people. This was no small feat, because the personality and skills of the volunteers are incorporated with trying to find suitable housing and counterparts. In some instances everything is set into motion after months of discussions, in person meetings, inspections of housing options, negotiations and such only to fall apart at the last minute, causing the staff to scramble for alternatives. 

Our counterpart conference got pushed up an hour on Friday, and was shortened to basically an hour on Saturday (originally it was to be four hours) to allow us to be able to disperse in time to escape the threat of the protests. Before the meeting, I was in the hotel lobby leisurely trying to post my last blog entry after breakfast, and I was gently told by one of the trainers that I had 10 minutes to check out of my room and take all of my luggage downstairs to a pre assigned room for temporary storage. I was asked to please spread the word. I thought to myself, actually no, I will not be checking out in 10 minutes, it is logistically impossible to get 41 people dispersed on four floors of a small hotel to pack up, check out and assemble massive amounts of luggage to a hotel lobby in one teensy elevator in 10 minutes. I am not refusing the order, sorry, I simply can’t do that, nothing personal, but it is just not going to happen. 

I thought it better to keep this brilliant insight to myself as the trainer looked quite exhausted, and I am sure she was just as flabbergasted by the change in the schedule as I. Desperate times call for desperate measures, I commandeered the one and only luggage cart in the entire hotel to expedite the process, much to the delight of my room mate, who told me I never looked as beautiful as I did when entering the room with the cart. We piled on our numerous bags and such, and she attempted to get the loaded cart to the lobby while I checked us out of the hotel. As you can imagine it was a mad house and the line for the elevator was massive. In case you are wondering, no, we did not check out and assemble our luggage in 10 minutes as I had silently predicted.

I had never heard my health sector director speak as fast as she did in the next 45 minutes as she did during the abbreviated session. I was actually impressed with the speed that she was able to get through the material in so little time, especially since I never heard her pause for a breath. The volunteers and counterparts were supposed to plan our first few months together in about 15 minutes during this segment. I tried to introduce the concept of Slow Food in Schools, the class exchange program and the idea of a health club. I am also interested in having an art and science either club or classes where the children are invited to observe nature and make art inspired by their observations. The session had a very detailed plan of action as a template for our integration. 

I am actually quite surprised at my level of Albanian language skills, while rudimentary at best, I am able to convey basic thoughts, speak simple sentences and understand things. The vocabulary has finally started the descent into the gray matter, it took a while but it has started. The health sector director, as I said, was speaking nonstop at a rapid pace, very important directions for the counterparts. When I say rapid, I am not sure if she actually finished a sentence or when the sentence ended, it was sort of like a stream of consciousness that went on for ever, and I understood……. “Please take the volunteer to register with the police in the first few days after their arrival” Oh my god, I understood……..  “Please make a plan for your first few months and send me a copy of your ideas in the first month.” Oh my god, another sentence comprehended…….. My delight was not shared by others, some of which were not paying attention and again, I felt really sorry for the sector trainers who were obviously quite frustrated by having to cut their carefully planned sessions by 2/3rds. I am sure they were very unhappy with both the Democrats and the Homosexuals for planning their events on the last day of our training, but what can you do? Freedom of expression obviously had precedence, much to the complete inconvenience of us all and at great expense to the tax payers of Tirana who had to pay overtime to legions of police.

And then the moment arrived, our documents were passed out, and we were instructed to get out of Tirana as fast as possible. I was absolutely dreading the thought of navigating across Tirana in the heat with all my heavy luggage, a sleeping bag and water filter. My counterpart and site mate informed me right at the end of our meeting that the professor from the High School at our site had a car and was going to drive our luggage and deliver it to my home stay. I almost wet my pants with relief, it was like the Angel of luggage transportation appeared on cue and answered my fervent prayers for some sort of solution. I loaded up my bags in the car, said good bye and my counterparts and I caught the city bus to the regional bus station and boarded a “Berat” bus with ease. Some of it actually was familiar in parts from the confused sprint we had “practiced” the week before. 

It is amazing how wonderful life is when you are not carrying 150 pounds of luggage, a very profound insight on many levels actually, almost tee shirt, self help book and bumper sticker worthy slogan if you think about it. Since it was in the low 90’s in Tirana and a bit muggy, I can not tell you the pure joy I experienced over NOT having to make that last push with three large bags, a sleeping bag and water filter. Since I plan to give away most of what I am carrying now, it was bliss knowing I will NEVER have to do this again EVER (lug bags etc.) Most of my fellow volunteers did not have it so easy, and I had great compassion watching them try to move heavy back packs and such through the hot muggy city streets.

On the way to Berat, the school director showed me many pictures on her phone of the different activities of the children. It seems as if I have been placed in one of the higher achieving schools in the country. I also learned from here that there is a project in Berat called (in English) “You Are What You Eat.” I hope to connect with this organization in terms of implementing some sort of nutrition program. I had traveled some of the road before on my shadow visit, and it was as interesting and beautiful as before, less mountainous, but still presenting the great contrasts that is the reality of Albania. One sees a computer or appliance shop next to an open field where a shepherd is navigating his flock of sheep, a new mercedes bypassing a donkey laden with firewood, bill boards promoting various expensive consumer goods with Roma beneath them begging for money and food. These are a few examples of what I witnessed on the road to the next phase of my service. 

We arrived at the bus station and caught a city bus to the center of town. After a while it then appeared, the UN World Heritage Site worthy architecture of this beautiful medieval town, the town of a thousand windows as it is called here. The other bit of information I was told was that Berat is the second most beautiful city in Europe. I could not seem to get at what was the first, I am guessing Venice. My counterparts were graciously offering to feed me lunch or walk around the city, take me shopping and such, but I felt the urgent need to meet my host family, unpack and sleep. We arrived at the stop, got off and the director pointed up to the foothills of the castle and said my house was there. Again, I silently blessed everyone I could think of that I was not having to haul luggage up these old cobble stone walkways that are on a 45 degree angle. Albanian women are famous for dressing very stylishly at all times, which means heels in terms of footware. I felt a bit sorry for my counterparts as they climbed the hill in their beautiful shoes, while my cushioned arch support sole flats were having a much easier time with the experience.

We came to the house and my host mom greeted us. I have for the last five years, kept complaining that I was wanting my happy ending after great sorrow and trial, just like in the movies thank you very much. There just had to be some sort of purpose to the endless ordeals that kept getting worse by the week in spite of many valiant efforts to switch directions, there had to be something to point to and say, see, all that (fill in the blank with awful event) and look at where you are now! Today, I got my happy ending. I feel like I am staying in a boutique B&B on the side of a mountain in a medieval fairytale setting. It is just beautiful, a garden terraced home with a large tile deck overlooking the river, part of the old city and the mountains. One can walk to the castle from here. I feel like I am living out the Balkan version of Eat Pray Love, only the love part is the adoration from the children that warms my heart. 

The couple I will be staying with is very warm and kind, the mother actually reminds me of one of my now deceased aunts in demeanour and looks. She is always telling me to be careful when I climb the stairs linking the terrace gardens and the floors of the house. When she took me to a local cafe for tea, she produced a bottle of hand sanitizer for both of us to utilize before the beverages arrived, telling me that when you are on the buses, you pick up a lot of germs. The sanitizer she told me was from Greece, and was rose scented. 

I have a sit down toilette, called French in these areas, which means I will, well, be able to sit instead of squat, and is such a liberating feeling considering my lack of thigh muscle strength let me tell you! I have my own kitchen, a porch and my own bathroom. The absolute cherry on the cake is I have NO TELEVISION!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! The Albanians are much like Americans in that they are constantly watching TV. While I have learned language and such by watching TV with my first host family, I really dislike the constant noise of the darn thing, both here and in the states. When I live as I please, I do not have a TV, and do arcane things like read books, listen to music and write. I also am able to, you know, think, when not being inundated with ads and the inane nature of what is on the tube both here and in the states. Sometimes it is nice to be ignorant of all the thought engineering enabling mass consumerism proclaimed by television. 

I was able to share pleasantries with the couple, Sara and Abraham, give them their gifts of dates from California as well as a beautiful wall calendar with pictures of my home state. I unpacked for real this time, put things in drawers and closets and no longer have to rummage through bags to find whatever because I could not put it away, and be a real person for the first time in years to be honest.

After a nap where I felt like I had been in a mini coma, Sara came up to my flat with Chai Mali or Mountain Tea which is the word for the local wild crafted herb tea where ever one is in Albania. Sometimes it is a sage tea, other times it is a local flower or mint. We sat on the deck sipping tea and enjoying the sunset. She offered me supper, which I declined, and then offered me some yogurt, which I accepted. I had a left over muffin from lunch that I enjoyed with my “kos” which is the Albanian equivalent of Keifer, and simply relished in the silence of being alone.

Tomorrow, we go shopping to the local Pazaar, and she also wants to take me to the Castle for tea. Okey dokey, I can fit that into my schedule. I will be going to my assigned school on Monday and begin the process of integrating into the program there. Abraham has promised to get internet hooked up for me sometime next week. I learned that there is a music High School at the foot of the hill where my house is, I wonder if I could connect it with the Orange County High School for the Arts. The possibilities are endless. I told Sara after she complemented me on my Albanian, that I need to practice over the summer to be more fluent. That is my goal. That and loosing quite a bit of weight the last year of stress layered on my body. One of my site mates, Antonio, and I hope to coordinate on some projects. I have yet to meet the two volunteers that are from Class 19. Antonio and I are to meet with the local Girl Scout Troupe to discuss possibilities. 

It is so wonderful to not be freezing all the time. I know the heat is coming, but for now, I am truly enjoying not being really cold every minute of the day and night. I am contemplating purchasing an air mattress so I can sleep on the veranda when it gets to the promised 110 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer. I chose Albania mainly to not be hot, oh well, the heat will be a small price to pay for this location and situation. Some of the northern sites only get up to the 50’s during the summer. Last year was the coldest winter in 30 years, some of the more rural areas had no water or electricity for almost two months in the depth of the cold spell, forcing schools to close due to the freezing temperatures. If the volunteer had no wood stove, it meant living in their down sleeping bags. 

All in all, I feel truly blessed, and hope to enjoy my time here as much as possible. I am also hoping that this happy ending to a very long stretch of unhappy occurrences for ever so long, will be a start to a continuous happy beginnings and a middle for the time being.  

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Swearing In

In certain ways, I feel like I have lived several weeks in these last few days. The logistics of moving stuff without the aid of a car is but one of the challenges, along with finishing up language exams, culture assignments, preparing for new housing arrangements and getting to know the new counterparts. Mix all this in with saying goodbye to people I have shared a very intense and intimate experience with for over two months and you get the hint in terms of the level of exhaustion that has set in. I was joking with one of my fellow trainees that I felt like the mouse everyone learns about in Psychology 101 that is in the maze that gets shocked no matter what they do, so the mouse simply crawls into a corner and shakes. It seems like each phase of this journey is one leaping into the great unknown after the next. While I am leaping yet again, it will be really wonderful to just stay put for a long while. From what I hear, my site assignment sounds wonderful. I hope it works out, wonderful in the past has sometimes turned into not so wonderful in the end.

Our last day in Elbasan was a blur of saying goodbye to host families, lugging the remaining luggage we had not brought to hub and learning about our permanent housing. I had been hoping for what is called a hybrid situation where the volunteer has a somewhat independent housing arrangement, say a small guest house in the back or a floor in a house or flat. To my delight, this is what I was assigned. Some people were really jazzed about their assignments, while others were visibly disappointed. We saw a Peace Corps film on Nepal, and that housing was rather spartan compared to anything any of us here in Albania are receiving.

The miracle of Peace Corps Albania logistics went to work again in terms of getting 41 volunteers and all their luggage to our hotel in Tirana for the swearing in on Friday. I was envying kangaroos as I loaded all my things onto the luggage truck, how convenient to have a pouch built into your body to store things. It was so glorious to take a shower with water pressure. After I washed my hair, I went out in search of food and water. I found this small place called “bio fast food” a sort of healthy Albanian take out. I ordered a vegetarian pita and the young man behind the counter told me to speak English. It was so fun to watch him make the Pita with all the care of a Swiss watch maker.  After walking back to the hotel and eating the pita while watching Indian soap operas with Albanian subtitles,  I fell fast asleep and woke early the next day.

Being completely decadent, I took another shower and dressed for the swearing in. Since this was the 20th class of volunteers to complete training, our swearing in ceremony was at the United States Ambassador’s Residence in Tirana. Everyone came down to the hotel lobby dressed quite nicely to the point that I did not recognize them, we had always been in sweats and stuff during the entire training. We donned our Peace Corps Albania pins, an Albanian and American Flag over the Peace Corps Logo, got into the bus and watched in wonder how our driver went from one near death experience to the next in terms of driving us through Tirana traffic. We were dropped off a ways away from the residence and walked for quite a while to get to the compound, which looks like a planned community. The compound houses staff in small homes and condos surrounded by neatly manicured lawns, rose bushes and high walls with barbed wire patrolled by guards with automatic rifles. At the pinnacle of the property is the Ambassadors Residence which looked like a mid century large home. Inside there was an art show featuring folk art from around the United States. Several large tents were set up for us where we would sit for the ceremony. 

After we posed for pictures and were seated in our section, the guests started to arrive. Teachers from all of the schools where we had our practicums, along with our language instructors and sectors arrived. Our host families had ridden on a chartered bus to attend the ceremony. It was truly a sweet sight to observe when host moms and dads, sisters and brothers embraced their American volunteer. In one instance a four year old child called out the the American and ran to her, leaping into her arms for a long embrace. The heads of the main religious institutions in Elbasan were also present. The priest at the Orthodox church and the Imam from the Kings Mosque sat next to one another with their calendars on their laps obviously trying to find time to do something together. I did not know it, but one of our classmates mother is the American Ambassador to Montenegro. She and her husband drove in, quite a distance I might add, to watch their daughter take the oath of service. But the true guest of honor was Ambassador Lu, the American Ambassador in Albania.

Ambassador Lu I learned is from Orange County, California, Huntington Beach to be exact. He served in the Peace Corps in West Africa and has been a career diplomat in Pakistan and many other locations. He has been the Ambassador for three years in Albania, and is well respected by the Albanian people. Both my counterparts and my host family wanted pictures of me, the Ambassador and themselves. After the swearing in, Lu simply stood at the reception in one place so people could pose with him.

The service was quite moving. We had remarks from our country director who bravely addressed us in Albanian, two of my classmates who presented in flawless Albanian as well. A young Albanian man who has experienced American Peace Corps volunteers for nine years spoke on his experience growing up with Americans, and another class mate presented two poems in Albanian as well. Ambassador Lu’s remarks were partly in Albanian and partly in English. He spoke of his experience as a Peace Corps volunteer, and then gave us three insights to carry us through our service.

Since he served in Africa as well as being a diplomat in many different countries, he has had to learn quite a few languages. He told us that in all his career, he has never encountered such a difficult language as Albanian, with its “clitics” (which drove me and my site mates to despair in week eight) 300 different cases for plurals and so on, so we should not be upset with ourselves that we might be struggling. He also told us to not watch television news because Albanian politics is, as he put it, rough and tumble and winner take all, which is not indicative of the true nature of Albanians. He then spoke about the deep hospitality of the Albanian people that had been present before any sort of organized nation state, before and during communism and afterwords, and that we should honor this with our service and warmth in return.

The event culminated in our taking the Oath of Service for the Peace Corps and saying the Pledge of Service with our country director prompting us. Afterwords, the Paove site mates danced an Albanian circle dance. Guests were invited for “refreshments” while we new volunteers posed for class pictures with the Ambassador. I put quotations on the word refreshments because much to my horror, soda, bagged cookies and potato chips were offered to everyone, the staff must have spent untold minutes cutting open packages and dumping them into bowels. Oh well, the snacks were very American when you think of it, but geeze, it is cherry season, and that is kind of Americana with George Washington and the cherry tree story, but then I am an unabashed Slow Foodie so what can I say? 

We were driven back to the hotel to eat lunch on our own, and then meet our counterparts for a few hours of work shops, meet and greet and a shared supper. I met mine, two women from the Nine Year School in Berat. One is my counterpart, a biology teacher and the school director. I feel a genuine warmth from both of them, as well as a good sense of humor. When I told them I was not married, they both congratulated me as if I had accomplished something of value. I was able to say in Albanian that I have three schools with classes who are wanting to share in a culture exchange through World Wise Schools. I hope to introduce Slow Food to them, and also assist in terms of health lessons. We finished the evening watching a video of pictures from our training, that was sweet in terms of reminding us all from where we started this entire experience. 

Our training sessions have been cut short to help us all clear out of Tirana before the Gay Pride Parade and national protest of the government, they are unrelated events but for some unknown reason were scheduled on the same day to begin at noon. Our security experts felt it in our best interests to get out of Tirana before the “festivities” On my Albanian twitter feed, I follow the EU in Albania where I saw a tweet inviting people to come and march in the Parade, so it is anyones guess what all the homosexuals on bikes will do if they class with the Democrats who are calling for a boycott of the up coming election. I am sort of sorry we will not be present to witness this truly unique occasions, but it will also be nice to just get to our sites and settle in. I long to sleep uninterrupted for a few days, we shall see what is feasible. We are supposed to go to our schools right away and start to network in the community.

As we were driving to the swearing in, I asked people what they were thinking, and the answers were quite interesting. One man said he was thinking how tight his necktie was, a girl was thinking about how she hoped we would not have an accident on the way, another said she just wanted to get on with things. I was thinking of the contrast of our ceremony, of the adulation the Albanians had for the American Ambassador, how proud the Albanians were to have hosted the Americans, and what we were swearing an oath to do as Americans in Albania with what is going on in America right now. How Ambassador Lu worked in West Africa helping the locals build in infrastructure and his dedication to diplomacy, his fidelity to American values of diversity and inclusion and how the leader of the nation the Albanians so admire has done nothing even remotely similar to what our Ambassador and we volunteers have done to prepare to serve our nation and the people of Albania. I was one of two people who actually sang the national anthem, and I was told that I garnered filming focus because of it. 

What is the America I just swore to serve, took an oath to protect my nation and the constitution for all enemies domestic and foreign? I feel that nationalism is a form of idolatry, one of the big 10 in terms of no no according to the commandments. What does it mean to protect my nation and the constitution? Do I work towards the essence of America which in it’s own way is Universalism?

America is a deep experiment in the evolution of humanity towards the highest form of civility, the equality of every human being because they are a human being and not because of their status, physical appearance or anything else. America is a grand experiment on the state recognition of the dignity of every human being. America is the impulse that founded the basis of the United Nations, where the welfare of every human on the planet has a right to safety, security, dignity and wellbeing. It is this America that I recognize and will work towards upholding and sharing with my Albanian counterparts. I look forward to not only the next two years but hopefully being part of a force for this impulse in my own nation, where the dignity of every person is cherished and supported. Laws exist because we have not reached the state in human evolution where we can count on our fellow human being to be moral towards others in all situations. I know that in time, we will come to recognize that our wellbeing, safety and security is dependent on the wellbeing, safety and security of our fellow human being. It may be a long time in coming, but we can established the framework for a just and equitable culture now. It may be the dream of this that inspires the admiration we are receiving in Albania, the near celebrity status of our US Ambassador, a Former Peace Corps Activist, that the Albanians can see. I hope I have the ability to live up to these ideals. The swearing in ceremony was a reaffirmation of my commitment I feel towards deep citizenship as an American.

Thursday, May 11, 2017


There are two things I dislike about getting older, no, three actually. One, I dislike that quite frequently my body just does not cooperate with my will forces. Two, I dislike that my brain is slower. Three, I dislike that so much of life is full of endings, and when you age you have quite a few endings to contemplate usually with a pang of pain in the process. 

This evening was the last evening I spent with my host family. Since we volunteers sprinted through Tirana our last Sunday of training, I was unable to celebrate with my family the way I had intended. I had fixed my host family supper as a beginning of the goodbye process the week before , in anticipation of the build up to separation. Today in Elbasan, I purchased some Baklava and some sort of Albanian variation of Rum Baba’s (which were divine I might add) as my contribution to the marking of my departure on my last official evening in Bishqem. 

My language exam went much better than I expected. I truly was prepared to completely bomb, but I was able to actually carry on a marginally intelligent conversation for 20 minutes. It seems my technique of writing down all the answers to possible questions paid off, except for one aspect. When asked about my profession, I dutifully answered: Unë jam Mjeke Popullore dhe Myeke Ackupunctore. My interviewer was very interested in the Acupuncture, and I was completely unprepared to delve into explaining Chinese Medicine in Shqip, the best I could come up with was that it was beautiful and interesting because it was successful, those descriptions were the extent of what I could pull out of my brain on cue. I was gently informed that I needed to work on that aspect of conversation in the debriefing after the exam. 

What is the Albanian word for “meridian” “five element correspondance” and “needle”? How do you explain “Qi” in Shqip? I was so focused on comparing Orange California with Bishqem Albania,  and getting my parents professions and ages pronounced properly, it truly never occurred to me to look up a couple of words so I could explain Acupuncture. I thought this was quite ironic and hilarious all at the same time, but I certainly felt the nudge from my Angel that I need to make up a few sentences on the subject for my counterpart conference. I was told my pronunciation was good though, and that I speak slowly and softly, which is actually how I speak normally when in professional settings.

On the way back to my host family from hub, the beauty of the valley was what I allowed to soak in as it would be my last ride there for maybe forever. There had been a wallop of a rain storm that day, and the clouds started to part while we drove through the farms and vineyards. As I saw shepherds with their flocks, and women in white scarves bent over at the hip gathering herbs in open fields, I had the insight that these activities have been going on since the dawn of time, and will continue after I leave. I was allowed to observe, just for a little while, but it is time to go, and they will continue without me.

As one of my site mates and I walked to our respective houses after the furgon dropped us off, we were stopped by a man I had never seen before. He warmly greeted us, and asked us if we were happy with our assignments. Wow, I had never met this man and he knew I was a volunteer and the name of the city where I was going to serve. He wished both of us great success while in Albania. 

I had lugged a bag and my water filter and fire extinguisher into the city  that morning to leave at hub. I then purchased a bag to help with what is left of my things, and did laundry so I could meet my new host family with freshly laundered clothing. After coming out of the Language Proficiency Exam, I had a levity to me that I have not felt in a while. There is something about  feeling somewhat competent that puts a skip on your step. My host family made a wonderful supper with pork chops, potatoes, fried peppers and salad as a farewell supper. I felt so at home, and was able to chat a bit in Shqip, telling them of my Acupuncture language fiasco. They insisted I take fresh eggs with me to my new site, I declined not knowing how I could possibly carry raw eggs and everything else I have to carry on numerous buses to my new site. It was decided  instead that I would take two large jars of plums and peaches, and some pop corn on the cob, all from their farm, grown and produced in their kitchen. Somehow I will find room in all of my bags for these treasures that come from their heart as well as their land.

The grandmother or gjusha as they are called here, came by, and I was so happy, since I wanted to get a picture of her. I also wanted to get an intergenerational picture of the hands of all the women in this family, as it is the hands of women that are involved in transforming the land, raising children and feeding both animals and human alike. Gjusha has no teeth, which is common for women of her age in this part of the world. This woman raised seven children in the midst of the communist regime. I was sorry I could not really talk with her beyond pleasantries, I would be so interested to hear her talk about her life and what she thinks about how the world is turning out these days. She enjoyed my sweets, and asked questions of me that I could actually understand and answer regarding my next plans.

Endings are part of aging. When I was in Naturopathic School, our counseling class focused on grief, because my teacher, a PHD psychologist, said that encountering grief was the basic experience of all human emotions. We are always in a state of letting something go, and how we process this determines our physical and emotional health. For me, the last few years of my life has been filled with acute soul crushing grief, too many good byes, too much letting go to the point of not wanting to be intimate anymore because of the guaranteed eventual pain. I healed much of my sorrow by caring for an infant who actually enjoyed my presence and would allow me to hold and cuddle him without feeling suffocated and the need to recoil from my touch. I feel that the people I am to encounter here in Albania may heal the rest of my brokenness. What is actually ironic is that both of these experiences involve little or no spoken language.

For me, relaxing is listening to podcasts, books or lectures. Recently, I was listening to a lecture on the nature of the make up of the spiritual world, from the Angelic hierarchies through the Trinity. The lecture spoke of how at the core of Divinity, there is a deep mystic silence. I have often wondered what exactly God and the Angels hear and what language they speak, and a bit in amazement that they must understand all languages. It is also an interesting phenomenon that when people loose a sense, the other senses become heightened. For those who are blind, they tend to have acute senses of smell, hearing and touch. While speaking isn’t necessarily a sense, I have found that when I can not speak for various reasons, my senses become quite acute. I also have developed through my clinical experience a keen sense of observation because I have found that some clues to people’s current health status are not always something they can report on using language.

There is a deep communication that occurs when there are few words. The essence of who we are does not get hidden or lost in the maze of verbal expressions, beliefs and misunderstandings. The warmth of simple caring for another person, of fixing a cup of tea, of laughing at a cartoon or marveling at fireflies and a mauve sunset actually have no  vocabulary, sentence structure or verb case involved. All of these encounters have no words but convey the depth and beauty of the human soul sojourning on earth.

I do not say goodbye often, because I dislike endings. I like au revoir till we meet again, because I believe that we will at some point either here or in the hereafter. Some of the richest encounters I have ever had have been short term and sometimes without words. The meeting of our hearts here in Bishqim has had few words, but the understandings are deep. The beauty and dignity of being a human being does not need words to be evident, in fact they shine through more strongly when there are none. Watching a family love one another, of a grandmothers delight in the dancing of her grandson, of watching a young couple relish in the newness of infatuation, searching for any excuse to touch one another, of a mother comforting an injured child, of a stranger helping me with my bags, knowing I am a foreigner, of the clerk putting extra care into wrapping pasteries into a box with a bow, so much is there, so much is conveyed without a sound.

I will miss the sound of the frogs and crickets, at night, and the roosters in the morning. I will miss the lilting song of the cow mooing in the barn. I often wonder what they are actually saying to one another. I will miss the simple warmth of the presence of another human being who can not talk with me, but cares deeply for my welfare anyways.  I will not say goodbye to this land and her ecology, I will not say goodbye to my host family, for they will always be a part of me, this experience of inclusion, of the beauty and dignity of being a human being actually will never end in my heart or in the valley of Bishqem.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Week Nine and a Half

It has finally arrived. This experience which could be considered  the diplomatic version of boot camp is nearly at an end. As I have said before, while I answer questions in language class about my life in the US, in many ways it seems like that was years ago and I have always been here in Albania. My esoteric nature wants to get philosophical,  who are we really, is there anything but the present, but my vocabulary can not express such deep insights, so I stick to answers such as my dad is 85 and a dentist, and the finer aspects of what Orange , California has to offer. Because we have been given our volunteer handbook in hard copy and are required to actually read it and become familiar with the various policies and procedures of Peace Corps, I need to once again make sure my readers are clear that this blog is comprised of my insights and opinions and in no way does it represent the Peace Corps or it’s mission. In other words, Stephanie në Shqiperi is not an official publication of the Peace Corps.

Other than missing Tabasco sauce and mustard, I have not really had many difficulties adjusting. Obviously the language is an issue, but I feel it will come with time and practice, in addition to not really feeling understood in my native tongue by my fellow citizens  in my home country anyways. As we enter the final aspects of training, we are being given massive amounts of last minute information that is designed to help us navigate our new lives. These well formulated trainings and manuals are really not sinking to my brain in the least due to overload and fatigue. 

For me the tipping point was clitics and being led around Tirana at break neck speed to show us where our buses would leave for our site assignments in the south. Our poor staff members were not informed that due to construction projects in Tirana, the transportation sites had been moved. My take home from the experience is that I have decided I will take a taxi to the bus station because I have absolutely no idea where we are supposed to go after being led in many different directions looking for the bus stops. The intent and effort of this exercises should have been useful, but the outcome was a two hour sprint through Tirana traffic and public transportation, which was basically a waste of time for me and frustrating since we kept whizzing by these really beautiful buildings, shops and restaurants and never actually found most of what we were supposed to locate without back tracking and changing directions several times.

I am simply going along with the flow, trusting things will work out and trying to remember simple past and present perfect verb conjugations so I can appear somewhat coherent and understandable during my language proficiency exam. If we do not pass, we then are required to work with a tutor for a minimum of three hours per week, which for me is not exactly a punishment. In fact, I am tempted to purposefully flub my interview just to get the service. I was planning to actually focus on language all summer so I could integrate more productively in the Fall. My site mate and I did a bit of planning on one of the lengthy bus rides through Tirana in search of the stations that had been moved. He is a foodie as am I and we talked about how we could coordinate our efforts for language, science and food education. I genuinely look forward to working with him. Whenever I mention the name of my site mate to other volunteers, the immediate response is always, “he is the best person,” which for me says something.

We toured the Peace Corps Office in Tirana, which unless you know what you are looking for, you would never know what is behind the walls of the compound. For security reasons, there are no identifying markers on the building. You know those terrorists, always trying to make their point by murdering aid workers and those actually helping the local population. I saw the supply of anti serin antidote in a glass covered wall unit that is part of the standard security measures all foreign US offices must have on hand. Good to know actually that our service personnel can mitigate such attacks. 

 The Peace Corps Albania headquarters is a beautiful three story house that has been transformed into an office building. There is a wing dedicated to the medical officers, and if we need it, where our care will be offered. The rest of the building is for staff. We will have mail boxes there, and are told eventually we will have meetings in the class room at several points in our service. To my surprise there was a power strip waiting for me in the mail room with my name on it. 

Our last language class was a mixed bag. We are all tired and distracted with the impending language exam and thoughts of moving. It is hard to believe we have been experiencing these classes for the last two months. I will miss the regular contact with the teachers. I do not think I am alone in the feeling that my site mates and I are basically at a saturation point for anything that resembles learning. Our language teacher today indulged two of my site mates desire to listen to Credence Clearwater Revival, which this generation calls CCR, (for me CCR reminds me of the Chemistry book we referred to during my labs in undergraduate classes but the twitter generation doesn’t indulge in long words apparently) during our drills on past tense sentence construction. It is amusing to me that all the music I grew up with is now quite popular with the 20 somethings. We have a couple of more presentations on culture and our practicums to go, and then we come to the big event: the swearing in ceremony. After the swearing in, we will have a meet and greet for the counterpart conference where we are introduced to the members of our new community who will be working with us on various projects. We have been given several more manuals to read about various policies and will be quizzed on this to see if we have read the material. 

Tonight one of the other health sector volunteers invited several of us to celebrate her birthday with her host family. I walked to the house which is in the next village over from my host village. There was a drenching rain this morning, which meant by the afternoon the valley was a lush vivid moist green. I took some pictures of my host mom gathering her chickens and the grandson, along with some pictures of the vineyards, flowers and animals of the valley. It was fun to sit with my fellow health sector volunteers and hear more about their lives. What was particularly interesting is that all of these volunteers are from the south, Georgia, West Virginia and Tennessee. One was a Vermont transplant who had lived most recently in Oklahoma and Texas. I found it interesting listening to them basically trash their states citizens for their zealous right wing hyper religious politics. It is easy to dismiss people from certain areas, but there are always exceptions to the rule, and these peoples stories need to be told as well.

It is a bit of a shame that we are being exposed to so much information in these last days, mainly because we are all saturated and much of what we are learning is so darned interesting. We had a session on a project that encourages youth from around the world to compete in writing contests. The Write On! Project was started by a Peace Corps volunteer in the country of Georgia and it spread, so that youth from all the Peace Corps service nations compete in regional, national and international competitions for creative writing. We were treated to a self defense training session, and for those moving to northern territories, a dialect class was offered. While I was looking forward to being in a mountain territory in the North, I was relieved that I was to be placed in the South where I would not have to learn new approaches to Albanian language. I am having a hard enough time with what I have been taught, to now throw yet another wrinkle into the mix might truly cause me to crack.

After the language exams, we go en mass to Tirana to stay in a hotel for our swearing in and the counter part conference. In the prep sessions for the logistical feat to happen for that, I was reminded of the true miracle of organization the Peace Corps staff arranges for us volunteers. In addition to letting us know all these logistics, we were given the details of our swearing in ceremony. Since Peace Corps has been in Albania for 20 years, my class Albania 20 swearing in is a special event. Usually it takes place in Elbasan at the Hub site. This year, we will be visited by the US Ambassador and nearly 300 guests will be present. One of our speakers will be a person who was a young child when his family hosted some of the first volunteers. Ambassador Lu will address our class. I am so looking forward to meeting, from what I have observed and how he is viewed by the Albanians, he seems to be quite extraordinary. I will write a separate post on the ceremony as it I am sure will be quite eventful. 

For now, I am trying to spend as much time as possible with my host family. I will miss them, and feel so grateful to have met them and enjoyed their kindness and hospitality. It is hard to imagine in so many ways going to a different site and getting to know a whole new set of people. Two years in many ways is a long time. We are told that the first year is the hardest, while the second year is the most fun. I personally want to get to the fun part earlier than that. So far, I really have been having quite a blast, so the fun part may come quicker to me. In any case, it is a rich experience I highly recommend.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Peace Table

During a session at hub at the beginning of our training, one of the volunteers presenting at a panel had stayed with my host family before me. I had heard about her, and knew she was in communication with my hosts during my stay. It was fun to meet her in person, and she said to me, “you know you won the lottery in terms of living with the best cook in the valley.” I agreed heartily, and have enjoyed this aspect of my stay much to the detriment of my waistline.

Living with both the “mother” and her youngest daughter has been an ongoing lesson in Albanian culinary traditions. While the plot of land the house is on, is but a small part of larger landholdings in the mountains where the olive groves are located, it is amazing the amount of food that is produced on about an acre of land. The family grows flowers for a culinary herb company, as well as chickens, ducks and turkeys. I have watched in shame and wonder how with out benefits of any sort of technology beyond a stick and an apron to carry the seeds, the mother planted an entire field of beans that were evenly spaced and perfectly in line. As I have been here a while I can see the seedlings bursting through the soil in perfect rows of uniformly separated plants. She has planted tomatoes, cucumbers, beans and corn. The fruit trees are lemon, mandarin and orange, in addition to pears, peaches and plums. We have been eating her canned peaches the entire time I have been here, since the pears and plums had been eaten before I arrived. She also has a couple of fig trees, and I have enjoyed that jam for breakfast, incorporating it into my steamed apple concoctions. The eggs produced by her chickens are absolutely luscious, producing an almost orange colored omelette due to the deep yellow yolks. I wonder if I will be able to get such quality eggs when I move to my permanent site. 

Every night we have a freshly picked lettuce salad with olive oil from the family groves. I learned that the olives from this valley make an oil that is listed on the Slow Food Ark of Taste directory for Elbasan. I can say that the oil I have been eating is a dark green, thick and fragrant liquid, unlike anything I have ever tasted. It cracks me up that this dark chartreuse viscous gold is stored in used liter soda bottles. The family also grows mint, spinach and green onions on the property, which are put together in a mixture that either goes into byrek or as a base for poached eggs. Bread is made every third day. The cow produces milk that is made into yogurt and or cheese, which is sort of a variant on feta or solid ricotta. We also enjoy pickled peppers from the garden and preserved olives from the groves in the mountains.

The only thing I can really offer them is to cook every once in a while, a sort of fusion cuisine since many of the ingredients I am used to cooking with from California and it’s many ethnic grocery stores, are simply not available. But I am finding that if one looks long enough, you can find quite a bit in smaller stores as well as the open air markets.

The large market in Elbasan is an absolute mecca for food. Barrels filled with different colored olives, bags of varying grades of paprika, cheese stores and mongers with wheels of different regional cheeses are stacked like blocks, as well as piles of seasonal vegetables meet the eye at every turn. To my utter delight, I found broccoli and red beets. I was disappointed that the greens had been taken off the latter, but I will take what I can get. I was also tickled to find one of the vegetable sellers had fresh ginger. Many people had small bundles of fresh dill and parsley. I decided to make my family some eggplant parmigiana and a roasted beet salad with walnuts and feta. I found a bottle of Balsamic Vinegar from Modena, so I felt that I had all I needed to make something amazing.

My host family had never eaten a beet before, as a clinician , I thought it appropriate to warn them their bathroom productions might be tinted pink or red, and not to worry, it was “normal.” They loved the salad, and I am curious if they will ever cook beets after I leave. I know my mixing of grated cucumbers with dill and yogurt is now a staple at supper, and my potato pancakes will also be regularly served, as will my eggy crepes with apples and figs.

When I was in Moscow in the early 90’s one of our cultural exchanges was to bring ingredients for a home nation regional dish, and all of us, about 30 Russians and 30 Western Europeans and North Americans, cooked together in a large industrial kitchen all at once. With no shared language and limited numbers of things like knives and pots, we had to navigate, negotiate, share and cooperate to cook 60 different dishes simultaneously. The Americans in our grand brash tradition loudly sang Broadway show tunes while tossing plates and utensils through the air, while the Russians stared at us in utter amazement with their backs up against the walls. It was chaotic bliss that produced one of the best potlucks I have ever attended. 

I thought of that experience while I was cooking for my host family. It is fun to be exposed to different tastes and ways of preparing foods. I am finding food words are some of the only vocabulary I can seem to remember on a consistent basis. And it also is a way of sharing culture in a deep and meaningful way.

In every religious tradition, there is some sort of sacrament which involves food. Being here so close to the land, my concept of experiencing what I feel humanity's main task, that of transforming matter, is evident through the work of those I see tilling the land and bringing forth food.

The rhythms that are involved in this lifestyle involve a dance between the animals, the human and the land. Watching this dance between my host mother and her chickens is particularly mesmerizing. She has two chicken houses in the front yard. She feeds her 80 birds of varying colors, sexes and ages twice a day by rounding them into the coops with a shusshing sound and a song of rolling “rrrs.” When a chicken gets out of it’s area of the farm, she shusshes and the chicken runs back to it’s assigned territory. I have tried calling out to them in a similar manner, and the chickens do not respond. Maybe my accent confuses them (ha ha ha) but they respond to her, her movements and her voice. What I find particularly amazing is that when she comes to the coop, shusshing and rolling her “r”s with a pail of prepared feed in one hand and a stick in the other, the birds all assemble in a circle spiral around the house till almost everyone is in the structure. There are always a few stragglers, and she simply shuts them out, sort of tough love for chickens committing curfew violations. 

Once I saw her gather the chickens in and one was not paying any attention to the great spiral gathering of the rest of the flock. My host mother bent over gracefully, grabbed the chicken who was obviously shocked by the experience, and tossed it over the fence, telling me it was her neighbors chicken. The fact that she has about 50 what I would call middle school chickens, meaning they are about 12 weeks old of various colors, that she would know that this particular one was not hers, mainly because it was not following directions and joining the spiral stampede to the feeding in the chicken house, was truly amazing to me. It was also a symbol of the relationship she has to the land, her animals and the workings of her farm.

One of our last assignment for a presentation is to report on our observations on the differences between town and city life. Given the fact that the presentation is only to be 7 minutes long, and the subject matter could take entire seminars to present, our group decided to illustrate one aspect of the difference through the experience of food. Each and every time I go to a market either in Bishqem or Elbasan, I am truly intrigued by the offerings. Whenever I travel, my main enjoyment is walking the aisles of the markets and just looking at what is on the shelves. Here in Albania, it seems that decades of global isolation through communism has produced a cuisine and native taste for simple food, meaning spice is not exactly in demand. The Americans are pining constantly for condiments of some sort. In the cities, there seems to be a market for such products, where in the towns, not so much. With the differing range in populations between city and towns, food is a stark representative of the transformation going on in Albania. 

While salty and bland in the countryside, the food is about as local and fresh as one can imagine. For part of the project we interviewed the owner of a local restaurant in Bishqem The bar/kafe/restaurant has a brick oven grill on the porch, and is over a butcher shop and machine shop. The meal we ate was a tomato, cucumber and onion salad, with what is called “sause kosa” an Albanian variant of Tzatziki , bread, olives, peppers and grilled beef fillets which the owner cooked in front of us. When I asked the owner where he purchased his food, his spontaneous response would give Slow Foodies in the USA cause to swoon. Every question was met with him pointing in a certian direction. The meat was from his neighbors. The olives were from his groves in the mountains that he and his wife had cured last Autumn while also making their own olive oil. The peppers were from his garden, canned by his wife, and the salad and sause kosa garlic and vegetables were also grown in their garden. He did say that they bought the yogurt to make the sause at the local market, but the extra ingredients in the appetizer they put in themselves. It was a completely delicious meal enjoyed on a roof top overlooking the river and mountains. 

Once a week there is a large what we would call in the States a farmers market/swap meet on an open field next to the river. One can buy eggs, vegetables and also things like seeds, coffee beans that the sellers will grind for you on the spot in these machines that look like they are from the 1890’s. My host mother brought a large bag of eggs she sold to a one of the sellers at the market, so this is what one would call “local.” The meat sold at the market is alive, literally, there are trays of chicks, ducks and turkeys that one can purchase and take home to grow and eventually eat or use as layers. Herders bring their sheep, goats and cows for purchase. In the midst of all of this, there are pop up cafes where you can enjoy a suflake, an Albanian rendition of fast food made of a pita, various yogurt based spreads, meat and french fries, and of course the beverage of choice is the thick rich coffee grounds and sugar mixture in small cups they call coffee. My own personal favorite (to watch mind you, not buy or taste) are the little old men sitting on lawn chairs under umbrellas with rows of Raki in recycled plastic soda bottles. I am sure that this clear liquid spirit could also be used in a pinch as a substitute for gas in a car or as nail polish remover.

Contrast these experiences with the cities I have experienced so far, Elbasan and Tirana, where the vegetable markets are quite large and daily, brought in from the surrounding farms, super markets open nearly 24 hours, specialty shops and restaurants serving food that is obviously imported (bananas on waffles with nutella and agave syrup for example) While the variety is a bit overwhelming, I can’t help wondering if there is a gas shortage, what would the people in the cities eat exactly? As I watch my host sister pick strawberries, lettuce, and onions from the garden for our supper, and witness the dwindling number of turkeys in the front yard that are sacrificed for our meal, eat the yogurt made from the milk from our cow and enjoy the deep yellow eggs from the chickens in the coop, it amazes me that there is a bit of shame or feelings of “less than” when it comes to the people in the villages versus the cities. 

How will the Albanians navigate modernization? When the trans national highways are finished, how will this affect the towns? With the youth seeking to leave the country side at the very least and the country at the most, where will the food come from? This issue is not specific to Albania. 

I was listening to an interview I conducted a couple of years ago with the producer of the documentary “The Symphony of the Soil” It was chosen by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization to promote the UN 2015 year of the soil. What the producer said struck a chord in me, in response to my question as to how the film was chosen, she listed all the things the research from the UN had revealed about food security, soil quality and production. Throughout the film, scientists from around the world were showing data on how small family farms growing a variety of fruits and vegetables were actually the key to solving climate change as well as the only way to feed the world in a sustainable manner. I hope to be able to show this documentary to my students at my permanent site. 

One of my current site mates who wants to be a career state department diplomat argues with me on a regular basis about how single family farming is not productive, how the US should not farm anymore, it is not a lucrative use of the land. While I listen to this intelligent educated young man articulate the talking points of Monsanto, my heart sinks. As I listen to the crickets and watch the fireflies, noticing the emerging greening of the farms as the vineyard leaves grow in size and the beans, tomatoes, corn and flowers getting taller, I wonder why he thinks all of this is a waste, inefficient, in need of industrialization? The data proves that small farming, mostly by women, has the capability to feed the world. The problem is warfare which interrupts the production of food. Now, due to man made climate change, extreme weather, flood or drought, cause other problems. Famine is rarely random, it is usually the result of human conflict. The women and men that I see here in the valley tilling the land with their hoes and sticks are actually the most powerful people on earth. They are storing carbon in the soil, preserving the top soil that takes thousands of years to build up, and affects water flow, air quality and the amount of nutrients in the food we are eating every night. How can we convey to these people that they are truly the guardians of the planet, more important than any politician or businessman?

While I am happy to go to my site, it is a city with about 60,000 people, I do have some concerns. With such a population, I will be able to enjoy consumer goods like spices and condiments not found in the small market in the country. But I will not be able to eat such fabulous eggs or have a freshly picked salad for supper anymore, unless my new host family has a garden. We shall see. It is interesting and heart breaking to witness the hyper drive to modernization. After a long day of working on the farm, my host family settles into a supper in front of the television, watching various game shows, the news or a novella. The Publicets as advertisements are called here,  show happy families eating frozen meat entrees, healthy looking children gobbling chocolate breakfast cereal given to them by beautiful calm mothers in designer kitchens, and various energy drinks are promoted by Albanian rap stars. The grandson of our family, a darling four year old, prefers chocolate and ice cream, and begs his mother to the point of screaming and crying to go to the local market to purchase these things, which are also extremely cheap. The school where I had my practicum has very sweet older women selling chips, cookies and ice cream to the children during their breaks. A volunteer from the next town told me her host mother offers to pack a lunch or snack for her children to eat when they are at school, they refuse and ask for money instead to buy the snacks, again demanding to the point of yelling. What is going on?

Can the best aspects of this culture survive in the rush to development? I wonder. Entire marketing campaigns and numerous NGO’s in the US are working tirelessly to encourage people to live and eat like I am doing right now here in Bishqem with my host family. In Napa, San Franciscans pay up to $500 a night to sleep in a farm house on the weekends, with locally grown eggs and fruit for breakfast. People pay $175 to eat a farm to table meal as a fund raiser in Sonoma County, whereas I am eating this way every day here during my training. It is a crazy world and insane modern culture we live in, in many respects. As I keep telling my counter parts about upcoming Slow Food conferences and events, I am met with responses of “well, lets see” and various other reasons they can not attend, I get blank stares when I start talking about the Slow Food structure in Albania. I have decided to be quiet, as it seems I am becoming a bit of a nag. As usual, I will just go ahead and go it alone, and enjoy myself immensely wishing others could experience the lushness and joy that I do because of the efforts of this organization. And as usual I will contemplate what exactly it takes to inspire people to live full, satisfyingly delicious healthy lives in harmony with nature in lieu of plastic profiting only the multinational corporations fake lives. It truly is the question of our times

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Week Eight

Oh my goodness, lordy lordy here we go! It has now been two months since I left California, and since for all intents and purposes I left my life. The (for back of better words) ordeal to get into the Peace Corps was in many ways a preparation for what was to come in terms of endurance to get through pre service training, which in turn is designed to prepare us for the path ahead. Week eight was basically tying up all of the different trainings, from safety and security, cultural understanding, language and our sector preparations. We spent one day this week presenting mini workshops from the Peace Corps Life Skills Training Manual. It really was like doing speed dating for encounter work in a TED talk format. I found it excruciatingly exhausting both to present and to participate. The Health Sector volunteers were troupers though, and we enthusiastically performed in 16 ice breaker activities. We were also preparing for our Language Proficiency Interviews, and in the spirit of completely and continuously to overwhelm us just when we think we are starting to get this ancient mysterious language, we  received  a grammar lesson on “clitics,” which just threw all of us off our game for some reason. I can not even begin to explain what they are, because there really isn’t an analog in English, other than it sort of explained why there are all these “i” & “ti”s and such in sentences when I am corrected, I have no idea how to use them but know I at least have a name for what I do not understand.

 The natives are restless so to speak, and getting a bit annoyed with the endless trainings and deadlines. I am witnessing personality clashes and such, which I am sure under normal circumstances would not occur, since everyone individually is quite delightful and kind. Most of the trainees, especially the younger ones, have not had the glories of graduate school, thesis preparation and board exams to contend with, because this really has been my experience of pre service training. The difference between PST and grad school/boards is the PST staff cares about our happiness and wants us to succeed, whereas grad school and boards do not care a whit about anything other than getting their checks, in fact they actually want you to fail so you have to give them more checks. It is hard to express to the younger ones how easy this all is compared to other things one has to endure in life without sounding condescending or patronizing. 

We were encouraged to pack our winter things into one bag and drop it off at the training center, where it will be delivered to us when we are visited by our director and sector coordinator later in the summer. I was hesitant at first to part with my things but the thought of lugging three bags, a water filter, sleeping bag and other paraphernalia around Albania soon illuminated me to the genius of this suggestion. I crammed my largest suitcase with as much as I could then I and my site mates braved the furgons with our bags to get to hub day. Of course the levity of purging was not to be enjoyed for long since we were given fire extinguishers and smoke alarms to take with us to our permanent sites. I am trusting the angels that I will be able to help get all this stuff to my destination.

I am still struggling in many respects with the language, but it never ceases to surprise me how I seem to be able to speak to random strangers in Albanian, but I can not spit out sentences to my host family and teachers. I was wandering the streets of Elbasan in search of an open market to buy some food, when I passed by a book store. Because I can barely read sentences, it never occurred to me to go into an Albanian book store before. I had walked past this store many times on the way to the market. Today I was looking in the window and spotted a book on “Mjeke Popullore” which is what natural medicine is called here in Albania. I had been made aware of the herbal knowledge and market here before I left the states, and my host family grows culinary herbs for a wholesaler. I can not seem to get names out of anyone about anything, and because I learned the Latin Binomials in Naturopathic School, this is how I identify herbs. When I spied the book, I knew that was what I would be spending my lunch money on later in the day. I went in during the break, picked out the book and the owner showed me an entire section of health books. I managed to tell her, and she understood me which is thrilling beyond belief, that I practice Mjeke Popullore nga Amerikë and will be going to teach health classes, she asked me if I was going to work or I was a volunteer…… oh my goodness, a conversation beyond “I had eggs for breakfast today and went to school…….”

What was particularly fun was I showed my host mom and sisters my books as a way to show them how I spent the day beyond saying “School was long and I am tired..” I hope to get them back before I leave they are so absorbed by them. I may buy a copy as a thank you gift. The family are all lost in reading the books, taking notes, asking questions. Because I know the Latin Binomials, I actually understood many of the herbs that were presented in the books. My host sister asked about Plantain, she wanted to use the herb after reading the description. I told her it is everywhere, which it is, and she said she had never seen it. I tried drawing a picture, then I had the bright idea to look on her iPhone to google a picture. When I showed it to her, she then expressed, “that is what that is?” I replied in Shqiplish “I told you it was everywhere, it is what your mom goes and picks in the fields and feeds the goats,” to which she replied, “and they are very healthy.” 

Our trainings on Friday were to prepare us for transitioning to our sites and working with counterparts. Our counterparts are the Albanian teachers we will be working with in our assigned schools. We were told they were as nervous about us arriving as we were going. I am to work with a biology teacher in a grade school, and hope to network with the biology teacher at the high school. Our stated purpose is to integrate into the community and try to initiate activities. For me personally, I plan to work with the Girl Scout Troupe leader and concentrate on language and getting to know the community rather than dive into creating clubs and so on. There is a private health science university where I will be going and I hope to network with the students there as well. 

On Friday we also received a training on the WASH project, which has to do with water and sanitation. When I was in grade school, I found the bathrooms disgusting, but I at least had running water, flushing sit toilets, trash cans, soap and towels. In many of the schools in Albania and around the world, this simply is not the case. Boys and Girls bathrooms are not a concept they have here, and often the stalls do not have doors. Children are forced to relieve them selves in teams, one in the stall and one guarding the open door. The WASH project encourages community involvement through grants and education curriculum to create restrooms with running water, doors on stalls, hand washing facilities and such to improve the health and hygiene of school children. 

Imagine if you will, how young girls experiencing menstruation would suffer in such facilities, and you can gather the importance of these projects. Peace Corps worked with the newly defunded Let Girls Learn project started by Michelle Obama and the Water Charity to get grants to build sanitary functioning restrooms for children where needed. With such facilities, bacteria and viruses are less likely to spread and children will be more healthy, not missing school because of illnesses spread by lack of adequate facilities during precious school time. It was inspiring to hear of the Albanian Health Sector’s experience of getting her community to rally to create a new bathroom for the children at the grade school.

Since this is the 20th anniversary of Peace Corps in Albania our swearing in will be in Tirana at the US Embassy, instead of at hub in Elbasan. The last time I had anything to do with a US Embassy was when I was in Bulgaria in the early 80’s. My American companion at the time was having issues with traveling out of the country, and the staff person said to me as if informing us of some deep dark secret only apparent to people with clairvoyant abilities ,”Well you know, this isn’t the states.” I replied that all the signs in Cyrillic were a dead give away on day one. 

My host mom has been formally invited to attend the ceremony, and it will be quite the big to do apparently. She is so sweet, I am truly sorry my language has been a barrier to getting to know her better. She seemed truly excited about the prospect of going to Tirana. I am her third volunteer, so it is fitting for her to be present at such a celebration. The safety officer warned us gals to avoid wearing heels to the ceremony as they might prove daunting while climbing up a grassy hill. We also need to bring ID with us so we can pass the security guards when entering the facility. We were told there are 300 guests coming to the event, where we will meet our counter parts at a reception afterwords. We will not be told who we will be living with until the day before the swearing in. It seems a bit more real to me,  this living in Albania as a volunteer, now I have a smoke detector, more manuals to read and a fire extinguisher, but it still feels like it is miles away in other respects.

The weather has been spectacular, warm breezes, big puffy clouds and everything is in full green. The vineyards are filling out and one can see the baby grapes jutting out, that will be ready in about four months. This evening, we had a thunder storm and rain at dusk, and now the crickets are singing their evening song. I will miss this valley, not sure when I will return, but for now, it is sweet to drink in the spring and enjoy the wamth of my family and the sun. The next week will be daunting to say the least, I am trying to enjoy the calm before the transition storm. So far, everything has been wonderful in terms of the people, so I am trusting this will be the case the the days to come.