Most nights when I take my solo xhiro around town, I see men and women enjoying their kafe at the bar and gathering their ingredients for that night’s dinner. Some nights I go out and hear or notice that a family is no longer out, and without mention of visiting family in Italy or other common reasons for absence I begin to wonder.
This interesting piece came out a while back, photo journaling a tradition that is still quite present in Albania. With increasing international attention as a hidden paradise and a top place to visit, Albania’s unique stories and traditions have come to attention too, like this article on the sworn virgins that I’ve shown before (whenever someone comments on my “un-ladylike” behavior, I typically respond with ‘jam burrnesh’ ‘I’m a strong female, leave me alone’, which is also the word they use for the sworn virgins).
There is always a push here to be modern, but there is still a large population of Albanians that cling to the old way of life; it’s the very reason why when I walk by the “parking lot” next to the biggest store in town, there is a brand new car parked next to a buggy and donkey, and why when walking down the road I pass three communist era homes before the construction on the new skyscraper (of six floors).
For other interesting tidbits on this place I call home, my fellow PCVs have done great work on identifying some. Learn more here, here and here.
As I put on my third layer and watch the rain come down I wonder where the summer went. My time in Albania has progressed enough to where I have things to do on a regular basis (things other than my own hobbies), which means I’m less inclined to count the days as they pass by.
This summer, as I’ve mentioned before, I worked with the public laboratory on a project to improve their safety and sanitation. Over the summer, during my work with the lab, I noticed a change in my attitude since being here. I noticed a change in the way I viewed Albania and it’s quirks. Everything here has become a little easier: understanding and communicating with people, knowing when and when not to check out, and knowing who and who not to work with.
There are days when I feel like I’ve accomplished enough in Albania and it’s time to go home or move on, but most days I feel like I’ve just begun my life here. I’ve found that balance, the half-and-half Albanian version of a balance between work-time and break-time, and am growing my network of Albanian friends and family every week.
I recently took a trip back to my ‘hometown’ of Librazhd to visit my host-family and see some friends. Even though Lezha is not that much bigger than Librazhd, I felt like it had shrunk a little; the same feeling you get when you return home after your first semester in college. My language has progressed enough so, when talking to Mama Xheni, I could express more of my humor and my genuine self instead of the usual smile and nod. That was a great feeling. And many more great feelings have come from my slow and steady integration into this culture. There are some things I will never understand, but I accept that and embrace my differences.
I forget what day it is, but I know it’s a school day and there will be a lesson to teach tomorrow. My summer with the lab has ended, and my school year with its many projects (both beginning and planning to begin) has begun. Before I know it, I’ll have to put on another layer.
Last night I got up after reading for a while under my fan to re-apply some anti-itch gel on my brutal mosquito bites before bed. Sporting my headlamp, the one “lamp” I have in Peace Corps, I crossed my room and headed to the bathroom only to be greeted by the spider, who normally lives behind my toilet, in mid-air furiously wrapping his fresh catch, which happened to be one of the longest centipedes I’ve seen in my house. I’m unfazed. And it’s moments like this that make me remember how long I’ve been here.
The air is so thick I can barely breathe, the sun beats down on me and my skin feels like it should be melting. I watch the heat waves rise as I walk to the furgon stop. As I hop in the furgon, getting the last (or so I thought) seat, I long for the small breezes that come seeping slowly through the open car door as we wait. We sit idly as the last passengers load their stuff in. With every shuffle of our growing mass of human-in-furgon, a new smell delightfully wafts up and I subtly place my sweaty handkerchief under my nose. No windows, it’s over 100F in the furgon and I cannot control the beads of sweat that start dripping from my forehead. I pop in my earbuds, and pray for a swift ride. Below is the soundtrack for smelly, stickyslippery, and very hot trips home (these might be repeats and older songs, but these are the times you want to hum along in your head):
It’s 5pm and I’m sitting on my roof, continually knocking off a gecko that wants to be my best friend. I’m outside because my room below is an easy-bake oven, easily 10F hotter than outside. I’m writing and watching as a pack of gjyshes in black apparel walk down my hill to join the nightly xhiro; I will never understand how they can wear long-sleeved wool clothing as I sit, stagnant, and sweat. Thank heavens I have my persimmon tree, with new blossoms, to give me shade.
Pretty consistently over the past month I’ve been traveling, both for pleasure and for work. I recently returned from my group’s Mid-Service Conference. It’s a little late; I’d say we have about 310 days to go, in counting. Every PC conference we have seems to leave me with a newfound motivation for my projects, and life, at site (not just because we have sing-alongs). Most likely this is due to the conversations among volunteers on their projects, progress, and successes in work and life. Here, more than ever before in my life, I’ve found the support of my coworkers and friends to be the most valuable. I returned to site feeling more refreshed than ever. After killing the critters that decided to move in (I no longer show mercy), I sat down and came up with my goals for the summer. Things are looking up.
As I’ve mentioned, I recently returned from a trip through Romania. Traveling by train from the West side all the way to the Southeastern corner of the capitol. Romania, as you may not know, is also a Peace Corps country. Or, at least, it is for the moment. It’s scheduled to close by the end of the year, with no more new volunteers and staff transitioning to other positions.
It was dark when I crossed the border between Hungary and Romania (I’m not so fond of the Passport Police wake-up call) but looking out the window as the sun began to rise I immediately noticed the similarities between the Albanian and Romanian countryside, rolling green hills and all, minus the trash piles. I was taken aback, my immediate recognition of a place reminiscent of home. After settling in and getting to know the city where I was staying, Brasov, I started comparing. Why was Peace Corps ever here? I thought to myself, Romania has such structure! It was easy for me to tell why the site was closing.
Since the beginning of my service, I’ve had this unrealistic impression that every Peace Corps country is the same, more or less; that every Peace Corps country is faced with the same characteristic poverty-stricken-country problems, like trash and poor governmental systems. But somewhere between drooling over all the wonderful things Romania has and proudly comparing how much rougher Albania is, I caught myself to think about how I perceived Albania when I first arrived.
Albania is a beautiful country, I am very grateful to live in such a beautiful place, but like all countries their success is produced on a much deeper level. The root of most problems does not linger on the surface, but rather dwells in the inner folds of the governmental, organizational, cultural, and other systems.
This thought of mine was even further realized when taking a train to my final destination in Bucharest. Somewhere between leaving the spotless Transylvanian Alps and entering the city, I got to know Stiv, a Romanian entrepreneur born and raised in Brasov. I told him what I do and where I live, he knew from personal experience what the Peace Corps is and what they do, and we talked the rest of the time on the comparisons between Albania and Romania. I told him of my struggles in Albania, the cultural barriers that sometimes prevent necessary change, the struggles with the language, the struggles with stigma. With each of my statements he would simply repeat the same struggles as he sees in Romania. I began to doubt my certainty on Romania closing their post. If he sees so many problems then why doesn’t Peace Corps see them?
As I continued to travel, mulling over this question in my head, I suddenly realized where I was - traveling on a functioning and active centralized transportation system. The roads outside were paved, and street signs were everywhere. I passed by signs advertising American fast-food chains while carrying groceries from a chain grocery store where I had bought packaged goods. And above all, I was speaking to a Romanian in fluent English and had been speaking English my entire trip. These are in no way international indicators of a successful thriving country, but they do represent aspects of a society far beyond where Albania is today. Some countries have it better, and other countries have it worse, but they all have problems. The purpose of Peace Corps is not to fix the problems but rather instill in communities the skills necessary for change. This, along with years of hard work, is seen in Romania’s rapid growth and success countrywide post-communism. And this is where I hope Albania will be twenty years in the future.
With the change in weather, there’s an entire new bundle of articles about how Albania is the place to visit, along with some opinion pieces on how strange the experience is: “’Albania?’ he repeats. It’s a country that always seems to come with a question. ‘That’s right,’ I say. ‘Albania’.” Welcome to my world. And then there’s this interesting article that takes a more historical perspective on a trip through Eagle Country.
In addition, here is a well written article about the K.L.A.’s alleged war crimes, and the processes of investigating parts of their history.
And now, Titra Shqip: a new project by fellow PCVs and students to spread the love of music between cultures. Too many times to count, kids of all ages shout English words from songs not really understand what they mean, and sometimes I find myself doing the same thing with Albanian songs. Check out some of the hits here.