Monday, July 10, 2017

I Have Heat

The Church of St. Thomas the Apostle, Berat

Is it climate change, menopause or Balkan summers? Is it sweat beads, a renegade hair or a bug crawling on some patch of exposed skin? One can never truly discern the true etiology of being bloody hot all the time. I am starting to perfect my Albanian language skills and small talk surrounding expressing my extreme displeasure at sweating like a pig all the time. Apparently, “ I am hot” is not the correct way to convey what you are feeling in terms of temperature, one must say “I have heat,” which is interesting and somewhat hopeful, because I am not hot, I have heat, I can give it away. 

The heat is exacerbated by the constant feasting that is happening on my limbs by mosquitoes. I am finding that ice is the best way to take away the itch, so I have several small plastic bottles in the freezer at all times to help relieve the agonizing feeling. I am also considering how to make my abode less hospitable to mosquitoes without dowsing everything in DDT. As the available areas on my body for new bites is getting smaller and smaller and the red lumps become more numerous, the choice between liver cancer and betting bitten is now quite a tough call. As I was exploring the chain grocery store near my house, I stumbled upon a bag of citronella candles with the label “ZZZZZZZZZZzzstop” Oh joy, I can avoid cancer and also stop the critters, all while smelling like Avon’s skin so soft.

It is interesting to talk to locals about the heat. Apparently, the Balkans sort of skipped summer for several years, having instead so much rain that there was flooding in numerous regions. This past Winter in Albania was the coldest in 35 years, forcing the closure of the nations schools for several weeks. Some volunteers in the northern mountains simply lived in their sleeping bags with hot water bottles for several months, venturing out to quickly use the toilet only when it was absolutely necessary. In times past, August was usually the hottest month, but this year the heat started in May. I am no longer retaining water in my ankles, I sweat constantly, so nothing collects on the inside, only all over my body. Antonio and I were realizing we had begun to live like vampires, closing up our living spaces so no light could penetrate and simply lying in the dark until the sun set so as to avoid the heat.

This morning, Sunday, I ventured out of my garden abode to try  and attend another historic church. Today’s destination was St. Thomas the Apostle, a sweet church with a bell tower in the Gorica side of Berat. The gates to the church were open, revealing a steep cobble stone walk to the courtyard surrounded by lush green gardens. As I began my ascent to the church, I was greeted by a man who was filling bottles of water from a hose, he told me the water came from the snow of the local mountains. He insisted on taking me into the church, and everytime I tried to say something, he would say, “wait” and then continue his monologue about various statistics on the mountains, how many people lived in this section of Berat and various landmarks. All I wanted to do was light some candels, and attend services. I did manage to get in a question even though I was told to wait as I started to ask it, and was told mid sentence on some Icon description, that the only services in this particular church were during Easter. He kept encouraging me to go up flights of stairs to get a view, and the more I did as he bid, the more I started to sweat all over my body. I was thinking to myself, I was all clean and dry when I came, now I am soaking through my dress and my bra is completely drenched. Vasili, as he told me his name, then wanted to hike to the top of the village so I could get the best view. As we started to ascend the 45 degree road, and I became increasingly more drenched, I started to understand what exactly was going on. This kind, informative and enthusiastic man was basically giving me a tour and would expect payment for his service. I told him I was a Peace Corps Volunteer and wanted to go to Mass. He told me he had a family business to maintain. I thanked him, gave him a modest tip which I felt compensated for his 10 minutes of church cobble stone inspired step aerobics and made my way down to the main church in the center of town, next to my school.
Icons and Altar of the Church of St Thomas, Berat

Shën Tomari as it is called in Albanian was built in the 18th Century but was razed as part of Hoxha forced atheism campaign. When Albania ended communism, the church was rebuilt in the 1990’s in a joint project between Orthodox and Catholic donors. One of the original St. Thomas Icons remains. I found the 12 pointed star mosaic in the center of the sanctuary the most interesting, mainly because it was from the original church. I would like to go back and simply sit in the gardens and relax. I hope to make it there for services next Easter, I am sure they are quite beautiful.

The Orthodox Church in the new part of Berat it seems is where services are held regularly. It is across the street from the the main mosque. I can not for the life of me remember the name, and finding basic tourist information on the web seems beyond my ability. I do know it is a relatively new church, while most of the smaller churches date from the 10th - 15th century. What is particularly interesting about this large central church is the quality of the cantors. If you are lucky enough to make it to Sunday Liturgy, it is like one is entering heaven or an ancient historic rite. I watched intently, wondering  how many centuries these rituals have been performed in this 2000 year old city. It also was apparent that the main church is served an arch priest or patriarch. Mostly men participate in the services, which is unique, back in the states, it is usually women who dominate the pews. I found it touching to watch people make the rounds to the Icons with flowers. As I watched the elderly congregants hobble to kiss the priests hands and the icons, I pondered what each of them endured when atheism was enforced as state law.

We, (the children of my school, my A20 fellow Peace Corps Volunteer Antonio and I) are nearing the mid point of our summer camp offerings. From what I am observing from other volunteers throughout Albania, is that Antonio and I have the most ambitious summer camps. We started the Monday after school was out and will continue through the first week of August. At the very first day of camp we had two children, the next day attendance went to 40. Now we have a steady stream of 20 - 30 children per day. Antonio is a seasoned English teacher fresh from a three year stint in Japan. I have learned quite a bit from him as he teaches language games and exercises. The camps are from 8 - 10 am . The first hour has some sort of activity or lesson, the second hour focuses more on games and sports, mostly by the grace of Antonio’s 20 something energy level and physique. I am more of an arts and crafts sort of person sitting on cool marble steps. I justify my lack of motion as trying to keep my bodily fluids inside my sweat glands and not pouring out copiously for all the world to see.

Summer Camp, Berat

We started the camps with a “sampler week,” meaning one theme per day as an intro for the upcoming camps in the following weeks. We had an English Language Camp, obviously led by Antonio. The children were really adept at all the games Antonio presented. Everything from Simon Says to variation on the theme for pictionary and charades. One week was “Food Camp” as a dry run for starting Slow Food in School at my site. This week was all about Honey and Bees. We tasted several local honeys and had the children describe the different flavors. I made them honey ice cream (Akullore me mjaltë) which was so fun to watch the childrens faces as they ate it, as they realized the ice cream had no sugar in it. It was also fun to listen to them describe the quality of the honey; floral. Antonio thought my freezer creation tasted like flan. The week was rounded out by a visit from a local bee keeper who talked about his craft, and a local apple farmer who talked about his orchards. I was truly impressed that the children sat still and asked questions of both guests. 

We then had Science or shkencë as it is called here. I would say what I thought was Shkencë only to have the children say it, with a helpful extra  “sh-k - ee- n-s” pronunciation lesson which resulted in them grinning due to how the mouth needs to be positioned to get the proper sound. Adorable simply isn’t descriptive enough in terms of what they all look like when making sure I say things properly. We did three days of really cheap science experiments illustrating different states of matter, water cycles and mathematical patterns in nature. 

Next week is the All Volunteer conference in Tirana, with an extra treat of celebrating a “After Fourth of July Celebration” at the American Ambassadors Residence. Yours truly volunteered to help with the food prep, so I will be driven by private car to the residence with several other volunteers to help set up tables and grill burgers and hot dogs. 

Summer Camp, Berat

After the conference, Antonio and I will then continue our camps with one week dedicated to “outdoor ambassadors,” one week to arts and crafts and our final week will feature health. 

There is a current phenomena on the internet called “blue whale” a sort of game where an on line animated blue whale dares players to do scary and ultimate deadly tasks such as jump off the side of a building. I saw a segment on the nightly Albanian news about the phenomena. Parents, teachers and health officials were voicing concern over how this newest computer game was a danger to the youth of Albania. On numerous occasions when talking with older children, I was asked what I thought of the ‘blue whale” Inspired by this, I have decided to do a game - scavenger hunt  activity where the children are “dared” to do healthy things, like drink a glass of water, floss their teeth, find out where fruits and vegetables are sold, do a healthy exercise like situps and so on. I discussed this with a few of my older girls, one said immediately “Oh that will be the antidote to blue whale” This girl admitted to me earlier that she watches science experiments on you tube all day long. We had a vote, and it was decided that the color should be purple and the ocean mammal will be a dolphin. So the last week of camp will end with a rousing game of purple dolphin. I have invited other health sector volunteers to join in on the fun, and hope we can start a movement to invite children to healthy life affirming activities prompted by an imaginary internet creature.

Tonight, Antonio and I will be scouting out a hike we will be taking the children on for an upcoming camp. We will be doing this on the way to a supper at a restaurant in the mountains featuring regional specialties from an organic farm. One must couple tasks you know, all in the name of research. When learning of the upcoming hike, the children of course asked what sort of food I would bring them. Spoiled these children already, I have, as Yoda would say. I was able to find the ingredients for oatmeal raisin cookies, we shall see how they turn out considering my baking temperature challenges. The children were told to wear athletic këpucët (shoes) a kapelē (hat) and bring ujë (water) for the hike, which will only last for about an hour. What is the most darling is that the children are upset we do not have camp on the weekends. 

So we are making inroads, trying to be good examples of Americans to the community as well as these children. For myself, I am having a blast and basking in the glow of adoration one can only experience in the presence of children who feel appreciated and encouraged. I am particularly touched by the young boys. Boys these days, and yes I understand everything surrounding girls, sexism and such, and am actively encouraging girls, but boys are getting lost in the shuffle of gender role changes and a more specialized labor market. I am finding that being attentive to boys in positive ways to be quite amazing. 

One young boy who is big as well as plump gets teased by the other children on a regular basis. As a chubby person myself who was tortured my entire childhood for taking up too much space, I do not tolerate this sort of bullying at all. One of the taunting children told me the recipient of their attacks was ugly. I loudly disagreed, holding the target of the abuse close too me. Later I sat the humiliated boy down, who to be honest is not the most handsome person ever, and told him in my best Albanian, that he was beautiful. I kept saying it, over and over, holding his chubby face in my hands and looking into his eyes until he accepted my statement. The next day, this boy ran up to me, took my bags and gave me a hug and a kiss. He tries to help out with tasks and pays attention to the more mundane aspects of lessons with a new vigor I had not noticed before.

I think this is what we are here for, to affirm the dignity of each person we meet. The ramifications are enormous. One wonders if the children who are strapping on bomb jackets and detonating them in outdoor concerts or vegetable markets would do such things if someone took the time to look them in the eye and tell them they were important and beautiful. It seems that the Peace Corps may be preventing terrorism by sending volunteers out to the edges of the earth to simply love children in developing nations. It is much cheaper and more effective than building walls or dropping mega ton bombs on villages. 

Gifts from the Kitchen

It is these experiences and the knowledge that the seeds are being planted for future peace and collaboration, that more than make up for my constant sweating and scratching from the latest evidence of my involuntary blood donation to the local mosquito population. Here is hoping the citronella candles stop the munching.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Random Observations

Abraham and Sarah enjoying Kaliforniperi fusion cuisine on their deck

About a week ago, I found a newspaper ad from a local grocery store chain promoting a seven day sale. There were several items I had been wanting for my kitchen, prominently displayed on the front page. I had my site mate and amazing Summer Camp co-director Antonio show me were the store was located, and made the pilgrimage to an area of Berat I had never visited before. I was also able to finally arrive at the old town kitchen supply store when it was open, so I could purchase the whisk I had been lusting after for several weeks. Regular business hours vary here depending on the owner, who was obviously away for several weeks after I arrived. 

 There was something about having a couple of pots to cook in and a whisk that heralded my arrival in Berat. No longer subject to lumpy sauces and having a large fry pan for me meant I have fully entered the city and will stay for a while. Also enjoying small jars of various local pickle delicacies such as cheese stuffed peppers and olives, removing the labels and using them for spice containers instead of sprinkling cumin etc from plastic bags is also a sign I am now a resident of this charming city. 

I walk everywhere, rarely taking the local buses, so I observe quite a bit. It is hard to put my observations into a cohesive essay following the rules of grammar and language, hence the title of this segment. 

I have come to the conclusion that Albania is like an artichoke heart. We were told during our training that Albania is like an onion, with many layers to be peeled. But I disagree, peeling an onion means many tears coupled with the ultimate outcome of nothing but a hollow interior. To me the artichoke heart is more descriptive of this beautiful country and her people: a flower yet to bloom, tough outer leaves with creamy delicious inner coating leading to the soft inner heart.

So here are my random observations……..

Albanians are adept and stacking things on cars, vespas and bikes. One can see cars with hay bales piled on the roof, and sticking out of the windows. No red flags necessary here, and miraculously everything arrives at the destination intact.

Local pizza delivery is a cooler in an egg cart strapped to the back of a Vespa, and I can report the pizza is fresh, hot and delicious, delivered in a timely manner.

Everyone is extremely observant. Each and every time I take out my camera to capture a particularly amusing and interesting phenomena, like a man riding a bike with a 5 foot wide - three foot tall coil of plastic piping surrounding him like an inner tube, I get yelled at by someone who then shakes their fingers “no.” I am not sure if these images are part of national security and forbidden to tourists, therefore the prohibition on preserving them on film,  but it is interesting to me that I will be yelled at by someone in a third story window or across the street, once across the river to not take a picture of an amusing event. This does not happen if I am taking a picture of say, the mountains or some flowers. I must say I am missing a lot of really great shots, but I comply because I want to be seen as a good guest in the country.

I am constantly being asked how I like Berat, by complete strangers, everywhere I go. I guess my hat, sunglasses and purple tennis shoes with bright pink laces are a dead give away that I am not from here. Especially the shoes, my ankles simply can not do anything but flats and tennis shoes on the cobblestone roads, while the women of Berat sport stilettos and nimbly scale the crevices. I may never “belong” here, oh well.

The second most common question I get, again from random complete strangers on the street is, if I am Orthodox pronounced “or -to- dox.” I guess it is in my eyes or something, since I come from a long line of Orthodox priests. In fact my name should be Popov (which in Bulgarian and Macedonian means priest) but the American immigration agents on Ellis Island in 1914 told my grandfather his name was too long and erased the Popov, leaving just the Georgieff. Maybe the people in Berat can see my original name hovering above me when I stop to admire one of the many beautiful churches here.

I have discovered the primitive Albanian internet: Gushas (Grandmas) with telephones. It could also be called the primitive Albanian GPS (Gusha Positioning System) My 70 something house mother reports to me on a regular basis, my whereabouts at the end of the day. Various friends  are obviously informing her on my activities. So far I have been told of my swatting away bees while shopping for fruit, the various places I purchase things. These reports are always followed by helpful suggestions on cheaper alternatives. In the Peace Corps, there is special attention paid to safety and security, we receive hours and hours of trainings and when we are placed at our permanent site, we have to fill out forms identifying the location of hospitals, police stations and give our coordinates so that in case of an emergency the Peace Corps can locate us. I think this could be simplified by giving the phone numbers of the local Gushas, because they obviously know where everyone is at all times.

Tow trucks seem non-existent here, but cars joined with ropes going the speed limit are everywhere.

The Berat version of Jiffy Lube, while you wait on the road oil changes

Albanians make use of unusual spaces. A small cave in the Castle Mountain has an oil change shop in it. This is on a blind curve of the main two lane road that goes in and out of the city. The doors periodically open, and I watch as customers get oil changes on the street, with a miraculous absence of car crashes during the process.

Albanians do not like making change. I am not sure how the larger markets do their cash drawers at the end of the day. In the States we would get fired for discrepancies. The unit of money is the Lek, which is around 120 Lek to the Dollar. Usually items cost in units of ten or a hundred, meaning stuff costs 50 Lek or 200 Lek. Every once in a while, if one is purchasing according to a weight, say cheese or fruit, the price ends in a number other than zero. If you offer to make the difference with a 5 Lek coin, the sales person refuses and the customer usually benefits with a “ska zha” meaning “it’s nothing.” The independent sellers in small stores and fruit stands, if you do not have small or exact change, simply tell you “nesser” meaning, you can bring the 50 or 70 Lek by tomorrow. So if your bill is 270 Lek, and  all you have a 200 and a 1000 bill, the seller simply takes the 200 bill and tells you to come back tomorrow with the 70 Lek. This customer always comes back.

My air conditioning system

A combination of climate change and traditional Balkan summers is making Berat extremely hot. There are few places that offer air conditioning. The situation has created my own version of low tech cooling systems. In a reverse to the hot water bottle practice, I am freezing bottles of water and putting them in the bed with me. It works like a charm, and I have burnt little ozone, just from the fridge.

I am doing my part to keep the local mosquito population well fed. I feel almost a sexual pleasure when I kill one. They are completely brazen and seem to be immune to my bug repellent spray. I am wondering if they are listening in on the Gushas with phones and spread the word as to new and different tasting residents to feast upon. I was sitting next to one of my Summer Camp children while  she was coloring on the front porch of the school. I successfully swatted a mosquito during it’s snack on my calf. The girl looked at me and said, “I hate them,” in perfect English. I heartily agreed in both English and Albanian. I have no compassion for mosquitoes and fail to see the purpose of them.

Trying to cook for myself is like being on an endless scavenger hunt. One can find almost anything one needs, you just have to “hunt.” Antonio and I are constantly reporting to one another on sightings of things like rolls, condiments, black beans and cheeses other than Feta.

Measurements are also a mystery to me here. Besides everything being in metric, the concept of measuring cups and spoons seems to be unnecessary for the cooks of Albania. They obviously simply know things and can measure out without the crude assistance of gadgets, because the food is always perfect. I have yet to master the baking powder conundrum, and some of my baked goods have been rather dense as a result. I am also being confounded by the Celsius ovens, even with the conversion site on Google, I am still not quite getting it.

My host family lives on the side of the Castle mountain. The garden is this terraced miracle, lush with numerous fruit trees, grape arbors, flowers, herbs and various vegetables. The most entertaining for me personally is what I am calling "air squash" They are taking vertical gardening to a whole new level by growing pumpkins ( I am told the buyrek from these is especially delicious) and large squashes mid air. As with most things in Albania, I will simply wait and see how it is done. 

I miss cilantro.

Other than mosquitoes, I am quite captivated by the insects here in Berat. Some exquisite wasps, bees, beetles and something I can barely describe, a dragon fly grass hopper sort of creature, along with ants that are so different from what I am used to, simply mesmerize me. The butterflies are also quite ubiquitous and delightful.

The word for to sell or for sale is "shitet" which amuses me to no end. I found that near my house, "shitet control" is located. Yes it is juvenile but I find it amusing, yet oddly comforting that someone is at least trying to control, well you know..........

Teaching Aids for Summer Camp

Today at Summer Camp, we did an exercise on the Fibonacci Sequence. For you non math geeks, this is a sequence that describes how nature expresses herself, from the spiral on a human head to DNA to the galaxies. It is also the foundation for what is called the Golden Ratio, which is a measurement found in great works of art and architecture. We drew on graph paper the sequence, found the spiral and then went into the park looking at how different plants, trees and flowers had spirals or “spiralee” as it is called in Albanian. As we went into the rose garden to look at how roses spiral, we got yelled at from a gardener across the street to not pick the flowers, and the children promptly informed him, yelling at him across the street, that we were looking for “spiralees” This satisfied the gardener, who relaxed and continued watering his lawn with a hose (another random observation, no sprinklers here, only men and women with hoses) This activity of searching for spirals seemed to completely captivate the group of children I was with, they kept bringing me examples of spirals (Leaves, grass, stems) or grabbing my hand so they could show me a discovery of a spiral. 

Fibonacci Sequence Craft 

When we came back to the school yard, some of the children continued to draw on the graph paper the Fibonacci Sequence. The security guard, a sweet elderly man who is basically the gate keeper for the school yard, came by to look at what we were doing, since we were coloring on the cool marble steps, the school  building being too hot for our tastes. The guard informed me after observing our drawings, that Berat is designed on the sequence, the Golden Ratio. This geek (me) feels completely rich and satisfied at the mathematical correlations made manifest to the children of Tetori 22 Shkollë today. While not all the children were as into the activity as others, the ones who were, I truly feel have a new appreciation for the beauty and mystery of creation. Not bad for a woman with rudimentary language skills in a one hour lesson with graph paper and colored pencils. The guards comment was the cherry on the cake for me. A wonderful example of the artichoke heart nature of Albania that I am observing on a regular basis.