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.