Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Kampet Verore

Children Preparing for Balloon Games at Summer Camp

    Sorry I haven’t written in a while. A combination of 24 hour access to the internet combined with settling in to my permanent site and conducting “Kanpet Verore” aka Summer Camp here in Berat has taken all of my time. It is also hard to know exactly what to write, mainly because every day is a kaleidoscope of experiences on every level imaginable. What to point out without omitting something else. In a word; magic. I feel like I am in this magical existence where I imagine something and it comes to fruition in the most unexpected ways.

Last Day of School Party 

My primary assignment is at what are called Nine Year Schools, or as the locals call them - Shkolla 9 Veçare. As this years Peace Corps Volunteers in Albania arrived at their permanent site in mid May, it is a unique time to try to integrate into the community. After the coldest Winter in 30 years, Spring was more anticipated than ever. Longer warmer days coupled with end of the year jitters produced amusing scenarios as I watched the teachers try to contain their students as they were all counting the days to summer vacation. Testing, graduation and all that goes with end of year planning for the next school year filled the days. I was graciously introduced to all the classes, participated in a few impromptu nutrition lessons, and included in all activities pertaining to the teachers.

One of the new initiatives Albania is introducing to her citizens is the concept of community centers. In some towns, there is a separate building, in others the 9 Year Schools are assigned. In essence the centers are to provide a place for locals to educate themselves on various issues. The Center is to have 10 hours per week after school sessions available for community activities. My director went off to Tirana to participate in a nation wide training for this initiative and brought back the directive from the Ministry of Education to share with the teachers as they were struggling to review text books, test children and submit lesson plans for the coming year. To say it was not enthusiastically received is a bit of an understatement. But since my school has a volunteer, the initiative is not as overwhelming as it could be.

I submitted my plan for the coming school year, lesson suggestions for health classes along with taste and food education. I also submitted plans for several clubs I would like to lead at the school. The biggest project so far has been the Summer Camps. Personally, I wanted to physically veg this Summer, work on language and try to escape the heat dome that is Berat proper. My director is enthusiastic about the school being a community center, and asked if I could do Summer camps from 8 - 10 am daily because at 10:15 am the heat descends like a thick unpleasant blanket, suffocating man and beast. My site mate Antonio’s High School had plans more in tune with mine, meaning they told him not to worry and just relax over the Summer and get to work in September. I invited him to participate in my Summer Camps, and much to our mutual delight, he has been an integral part of the success of the initiative.

Simon Says in English

The first day of camp we had two children, who got our undivided attention in Frisbee instruction and were treated to ice cream due to their exclusive participation. The next day, we had about 50 children and I honestly do not know what I would have done had Antonio not been there. I planned a lesson in personal hygiene, all in Albanian mind you, complete with scenarios, an activity and such. We plowed through that in about 20 minutes. Antonio picked up the slack with various games, and the children seemed to enjoy themselves immensely. Since our second day, we consistently have between 20 and 40 children of various ages, all darling and all quite happy to do basically anything we ask them.

Taste Education

Antonio completed three years of teaching English in Japan before coming to the Peace Corps. It is fun watching him do English games with the children. It is also interesting to watch the children improve in Frisbee through the camps. I am preparing to launch a Slow Food initiative through the school, so the children are being exposed to taste education. One of the exercises was to have different tasting liquids for them to evaluate. Sweet, salty, sour, spicy and bitter liquids with labels to taste and report on. What I found most interesting is that they all liked bitter (it was pure cocoa powder in water) I do not think American children would like that flavor, but Albania has been a coffee culture long before the Starbucks phenomena, and Albanians do not drink the watered down flavored concoctions like Americans do, they drink what I would call coffee ground paste. We will have a lesson with a local bee keeper on honey, a session with a group I discovered at a cherry festival in a village outside of Berat (Women in Sustainable Agriculture) and a session on Ice Cream.

Drawing Leaves for Science Camp

During our Science camp, I had the children sit in the park in front of the library and draw leaves. One of the older girls told me during the exercise “Nature is so beautiful.” Today we had mostly games, ending in the very popular water balloon toss. It is so warm, that even if the children get wet, they dry off pretty quickly. I am so deeply touched by the beauty of the children. The youngest boys are particularly darling, and quite adept at the games we spring on them. My personal favorite is crab soccer where the children have to navigate on their hands and feet, and scooch on their bums while trying to make goals. I physically could not do this, but they took it in “stride.” I was laughing so hard at the sight, one of the children told me I would hurt my head by laughing to long. I must say, experiencing pure joy in the regular doses with these children is something I have missed in my life, and I am curious what I will do to fill this void when my service is over.

On Monday of next week, a national holiday celebrating the end of Ramadan means that camp is cancelled. It has been interesting witnessing Ramadan closely, the cafes are not as crowded and there seems to be a lot of activity after the sun sets near the Mosque by my flat. I would say that what I am experiencing here in term of inter religious coexistence is not “toleration.” It is mutual admiration and support. As the world seems to blow up with daily terror attacks on various houses of worship or in the name of some sort of religion, I am only aware of this because I see things on American or British news sites. On the Albanian evening news, we see the troubles, but they seem distant and actually insane. 

People are more interested in the upcoming elections here. The practice of having a six week election season I personally think is brilliant. As Peace Corps Volunteers, we maintain a strict code of non political engagement. We can not attend political rallies, and have a nationwide “stand down” during the election weekend. This means we are not to travel and basically are to stay in our homes during the entire election weekend. I have invited Antonio to stay with me to make stuffed grape leaves, buyrek and anything else we can think of to pass the time. As my flat is in the midst of a terraced garden over looking the local mountains, it will not seem like we are under house arrest.

One of my Peace Corps Albanian language teachers is working for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. This is the group one hears about when it comes to monitoring elections. She is helping to translate for international monitors in Elbasan and Tirana. The English teacher at my school is the translator and county director for Berat. He introduced me to the OSCE director who is a retired US Army Colonel who was also involved as a military advisor to the Albanian government during the aftermath of the governmental collapse in the late 90’s. The Colonel was a veteran of 16 international election monitoring assignments. It is fascinating to listen to these people talk about what goes on in terms of election monitoring. They coordinate with local police, hospitals, the Red Cross, municipalities and basically prepare for worst case scenarios. Democracy it seems is in direct conflict with the quest for power. The Colonel feels confident that the elections will be fair, but was visibly dismayed over the antics in the United States. We were having the most delightful and informative conversation until the US was brought up, his face immediately fell and all he said after shaking his head was that the administration was not uniting our people. As a career Army officer who has used his retirement to help emerging democracies have free and fair elections, I took his sentiment to heart.

Albania, like all Balkan countries, is trying to establish itself as a tourist destination. One aspect of this is developing its gastronomic offerings. I attended a first ever Cherry Festival in one of the small villages outside of Berat. Cherries are bursting forth everywhere filling the markets and keeping women busy in terms of making jam and preserves. The festival I attended was complete with an Albanian style barbecue, local handcrafts, stalls with raki, cherry preserves and olive oil. I met the director of Women in Sustainable Agriculture, whom I feel will be an invaluable counterpart in many of the initiatives I would like to launch. My personal favorite image was watching Mickey Mouse dance traditional Albanian circle dances, a sign of the mixing of local heritage with global media. 

I am working on several projects in addition to Summer Camp. I hope to initiate monthly health fairs at the school community center with the local hospital and Red Cross chapter. There are plans to open a community garden in the Castle, and I am currently gathering together counterparts through Slow Food in Albania, Women in Sustainable Agriculture, the Culinary School in Berat, my school and Antonio's school for this project. It will be interesting to see if the Edible School Yard can be spread to Albania. I feel it will.

My daily commute

A friend asked me what I do every day. So far, I seem to as I have for decades, wake before the sun, prepare for the day, walk down a cobble stoned road to a river walk along the castle walls to my school. I either work with the children or network with teachers and community members. I then walk back home, picking up produce at various vendors along the way, return to my flat, reading, writing and doing basic household chores. I top the evening off by watching Indian soap operas and the news with my host family. I exchange different food items with them and they with me. I managed to make some banana bread the other day, and am treated every once in a while to some sort of stew, soup or vegetable dish. My house mom is a darling and typical Albanian grandma who thinks she is helping me by re-arranging my clothing and shoes in my closets. I am told that I am being watched in town and given critiques on where I choose to buy produce and grocery items as she has friends who seem to be watching my every move in town. I am glad I have no vices, for I am sure they would be reported immediately. I often fall asleep in the afternoons due to the extreme heat. It will be interesting in this era of climate change how hot and cold the seasons will be during my tenure. My host mom rearranged my furniture putting my table out on the deck. This allows me to set outside and enjoy the nightly sunsets which I am sure were the inspiration for Maxfield Parish paintings. In the evenings, I hear the call to prayers throughout the night from the Mosque, at other times I can hear Church bells.

Clouds Gather near my flat

I miss my parents and the herb cilantro, the latter I am sure would simply add so much to local salads and sauces, but other than that I feel very at home here. Especially now that it is hot, feels just like home in so many ways, but at least there isn't the smog. It amuses me that I was placed in the hottest city in all of Albania, but I have resigned myself to being hot since I can not seem to escape the sensation no matter where I move in the world. The daily contact with the children fills my heart to the brim so that loneliness is not an issue. I am trying to improve my language so that I can be more conversant, but many of the children are fluent in English. 

So the Summer is off to a lovely start. I hope this Solstice is a beginning of a season of enjoyment and reflection for all. 

The Door to My Secret Garden

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