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 ShkollĂ« 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.


  1. Well said. You have summed up the last 11 years of visits in one post! As for the cooking, I love watching my mother-in-law (who is a Gusha) cook and is where I learn everything I know. Although no phone, she is often sitting on the patio steps talking (okay, gossiping) with all the other ladies (aunties, nieces, sisters etc).

    This artichoke heart is also a beautiful hidden gem.

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