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.

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