Thursday, July 24, 2008

The Xhiro gets inverted

Albanian culture lesson- the xhiro (pronounced like giro). Xhiro, literally means to walk around. During the spring, summer and fall, everyone in every Albanian town walks around in the evening as a main source of entertainment. Usually this walking takes place on the main street of the town or in the town square. Often, the city government will block off traffic to the main xhiro street in the evening so that people can walk. People walk up and down the street, meeting neighbors, talking, stopping at cafes, etc. For the young, the xhiro turns into a sort of mating ritual- the young women wear their most scandalous outfits and strut to attract a good husband; the young men sit at cafes and watch the scantily clad women walk by. Every town is proud of their xhiro. Cerrik had a good xhiro because of the park. Elbasan’s xhiro is ok, made better by the recent completion of the renovation of the castle street. Peshkopi’s xhiro is nice because the Boulevard is so beautiful with the trees.

I have to say that the definition of xhiro was stretched to its limits last weekend in Durres (is it still walking around if you are upside down?).

Durres has kind of a double xhiro- there is the main street leading up to the mosque, but there is also the sea front. After 8 PM (when it is finally cool enough to go outside) both of these areas are packed with people. Some entrepreneurial souls have made the sea front into a sort of carnival, by setting up various rides along the way. There is a carousel and several inflatable bouncy castles and a flying Dumbo machine. And then there is the inverter. When we first came upon it, I didn’t really know what to think. It’s one of those rides in which you sit strapped in and swings back and forth until you are upside down. At one point you get stuck upside down for a few seconds. I’ve seen similar rides to this, but never this particular model (it kind of reminds me of a mix between the Avalanche (which I think is called something else now) and the Skyflyer at Elitch’s). Either way, I knew that riding of that thing in Albania, I was taking my life into my own hands. I was in!

Why are amusement parks and carnival rides scary? Well part of it is the stomach sinking feeling you get when you go upside down, but there is something else. I believe that the scariest (and usually most fun) rides are when you feel like you might actually die. This a theory that I developed during a visit to Lakeside- the other amusement park in Denver. Denver natives know all about both Elitch’s and Lakeside. When I was young, they were very similar in many ways- they were even rather close together (the old Elich’s was only about 15 blocks from Lakeside). They had basically the same rides- each with a good wooden roller coaster, ferris wheel, carrousel, tilt-a-wirl, etc. Elitch’s was always a little bit bigger and better, but not much. But then their fortunes changed. Elitch’s got a big infusion of money and started to build new rides and then eventually moved to their present downtown location- complete with three big metal upside down roller coasters and a water park. Lakeside has remained unchanged for years. A few years ago when I went to Lakeside for the first time in years for a fundraiser, I realized what I had been missing. Lakeside was great. I had the best time. It was old fashioned and a little run down, but Lakeside was awesome. Part of that fun factor was something that Elitch’s, with its fancy roller coasters and safety rules, lost a long time ago- fear. I never really felt afraid at Elitch’s (except that one time when the kid forgot to close the cage on the ride and me and Mae almost fell 50 feet to our death, but that’s another story). But at Lakeside, there was still that fear- that something would go wrong, that the seatbelt would brake, that the guy running the machine would be drunk (although after knowing a lot of people that worked at Elitch’s this was a problem there too, I’m sure) etc. There was the same fear on Saturday night on the seaside at Durres- I don’t know where the ride came from or what kind of maintenance has been done on it. So it was a matter of putting my faith in an Albanian ride owner, closing my eyes and going along for the ride. Xhiro- to the extreme.

Beam me up Scotty, I’m ready to nerd out

When Kenji told me last week that he was going to go to Durres for the weekend to watch Star Trek, I thought it sounded just nerdy enough to be fun, and hey, I hadn’t been to Durres yet. Before I could go, he asked that I prove my worthiness. After some Vulcan had signs and a few ST:TNG episode references, I was approved. I’m not afraid to admit it; I’ve been watching Star Trek my whole life. It’s my dad’s fault of course. When I was a kid, my dad worked kind of strange hours that meant that I didn’t see a lot of him during the week. During the week, my mom controlled the TV. But on Sunday, it was my dad- 60 minutes and Star Trek. I imagine that I have probably seen almost every episode of TNG and most of the first 5 or so seasons of DS9. After that, my TV interests changed a bit and I started in on Buffy and other such things, but 12-13 years of Star Trek made an impression. It means that I can at least keep up with the real nerds (Matt and Kenji). The weekend was fun- Matt N. made paper maché Klingon hats, Denise (the only non-Trekkie among us) made Romulan ale and French Toast (not Star Trek related, but really good anyway) and we watched several good episodes from the best of Picard set and the best of Q set. The only disappointment with the weekend was that somehow the best of Picard doesn’t include “Best of Both Worlds”- the one where Picard is assimilated by the Borg- and Kenji’s favorite episode. Looks like we are going to have to have another nerd fest soon . . .

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

It's the Cheese

In the words of Pat, a recent RPCV (returned Peace Corps Volunteer) that returned to the USA (and all the good cheese) last week:
"When the choice is between cheese and no cheese, the answer is always CHEESE. When the choice is between cheese and more cheese, the answer is always MORE CHEESE."

After being here for four months, when someone asks me what I miss the most about home, it’s the cheese. Ok, so maybe my family and friends and then the cheese. But I really miss the cheese. Cheese is not something that I have ever really thought about before; it has just always been a part of my life. When I was three, I threw a cheese sandwich across the room because it wasn’t made how I liked it. That’s how strongly I feel about cheese. I have been known to enjoy hunks of cheddar, parmesan, mozzarella, swiss and gouda all by themselves (or with the help of a cracker or two). My favorite kind of pizza: cheese. I always get extra cheese on my burritos at Chipotle. I’ve never met a macaroni and cheese that I didn’t like. Nachos. Quesadillas. Anyway, you get the idea.

The most common type of cheese here is djath i barth (white cheese), basically a really salty feta. The other kind of cheese is kaçkaval (no translation- pronounced kach-ka-val) which tries to describe any kind of cheese that isn’t white cheese. I think of it as catch for all, but it doesn’t even come close. I have found versions of kaçkaval that I don’t hate, but not yet any that I could say I truly like. Closer to the coast and in Tirana, you can find other kinds of cheese, including actual mozzarella for decent pizza, but in Peshkopi, no such luck. Even the “Mexican” food I had in Tirana was just ok, why? The cheese! (the salsa wasn’t very good either, but they did do good tortillas). Maybe it is because the cheese that they have here tends to be “fresh” and I actually tend to like some artificial cheeses better than natural ones (Tostitos queso sauce, Kraft in the blue box). Or maybe they just don’t have good cheese. Yeah, I think that’s it.

The point? Enjoy it while you’ve got it and sometimes the things you miss the most are the things you thought about the least . . . and send me some good cheese ☺ .

Saturday, July 12, 2008

One month . . .
I have been at my site now for one month. Or rather, I have been a volunteer for one month but I’ve only actually spent two weeks at my site. Almost right away after getting here, I found myself traveling. I was invited by World Vision to attend a youth conference in Vlore, a lovely town on the coast. Hmmmm . . . free trip to the beach? Let me think . . . OK! The conference was about peer educating and about 150 kids from 5 cities came to get trained to be peer educators. There were no kids from my area because we haven’t actually started working with kids yet, but it was good to see what groups in other cities were doing. The other volunteers and I didn’t really have a lot to do except observe the conference (and help out when we could) and enjoy the beach. The beach was great. It was a rock beach and it was actually pretty clean (cleaner than I had expected). The beach we went to was a little bit south of the city. During communism, it was the private beach of the party bigwigs and in fact, Enver Hoxha’s (communist dictator) summer home is still there. It has basically been gutted and all that stands is a shell with a few walls. The walls that are left are covered with the most pornographic graffiti that I have ever seen. During communism, the whole area was off limits to the common folk, now all the teenage boys use parts of the house that hang over the sea as diving platforms.

The day I returned home from Vlore, I went into my office and my supervisor says, “Guess what, we’re going to Tirana on Wednesday!” So I had one full day in Peshkopi before going out on the road again. I was already planning to be in Tirana for the weekend, but this meant that I would get to spend two more days there and have my travel paid for. So on Wed. morning we got on the furgon to Tirana and endured the bumpiest ride I’ve had yet. On Friday evening I went up to Lezhe to visit some friends and have a 4th of July party, Albanian style. Winifred went a little wild with cooking: hamburgers, hot dogs, potato chips (fresh), salad, and like 6 kinds of dessert (brownies, cookies, carrot cake and cheesecake- otherwise known as heaven). The best part of the party was probably our special guests- real live Brits! What better way to celebrate the end of British colonial rule in America than with actual British people! Kris and Alison are two lovely Brits that are bicycling across Europe from France to Istanbul. They happened to be in Lezhe trying to figure out how much Albanian money was worth and how much to take out the ATM and heard two volunteers walking down the street speaking English. The volunteers graciously helped them out and then invited them to come to our little British-bashing shindig. They hung out and ended up sleeping on the floor of Leslie’s house. In the morning they left for Tirana and the rest of their journey. They are doing the trip as a fundraiser for cancer research- check out their website for more info. Good luck guys!

The last part of my two weeks of travel was the US Embassy 4th of July party. This time, 4th of July the American way! The party was held at the Ambassadors recidence complex- The Ridge. The Ridge is like a little piece of America plopped down in the middle of Tirana. If you don’t look too far past the houses, you would think that you were in any American suburb- green lawns, split level houses, two car garages. The party itself was nice- bbq, beer, games for the kids, and my favorite part- apple pie. After the party, all the volunteers went out on the town in Tirana. Tirana actually has a pretty hopping night life- good bars, live music, fun atmosphere. We hung out with a few people from the embassy (mmmmm marines. . . ) and partied until the wee hours. At one bar we found a pretty good live band that played a pretty random mix of Albanian and English music. My favorite moment was when they played “La Bamba.” Now that’s a cultural exchange- a Mexican song played by a Kosovar band in a Tirana night club. Fun.

Anyway, after all my partying and traveling, I think that I’ll be sticking around Peshkopi for at least a few weeks now . . . or at least until I get invited to travel for free again!

PS- I now have very slow dial-up internet at home and work, which is fine for checking e-mails and posting, but sucks for uploading pictures, so bear with me a bit. I will upload pics when I have the chance or can get to a faster connection!

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Have oven, will bake
One of the first necessary purchases for my new apartment was an oven. I have a gas burner and a wood stove, which is fine for some things (like making pasta and keeping my house warm), but I figured that if I wanted to bake cookies, I would need something else. Mike survived in this house for two years without an oven, but Mike obviously wasn’t a baker. So far, my strategy for buying things for my house goes like this: I have a craving and then I go buy everything that I will need to fulfill that craving. Last week it was pancakes. To make pancakes I needed: basic ingredients (milk, butter, sugar, etc), a frying pan, a spoon (for scooping) and a spatula (for flipping). Mike had a frying pan and spoon, but lacked the spatula. Yesterday I had a hankering for cinnamon buns. Supplies needed: ingredients, rolling pin, mixing bowl (this would have been nice for the pancakes too- I just used a pot), oh and of course and oven. This is my oven- it looks a little like a space ship, but it seems to work pretty well (although I have to guess on temps because it just has “warm” “hotter” and “hottest” settings. Oven thermometer might be nice- hint, hint mom). The oven also came equipped with a pan that fits nicely inside and when I bought it from the shop, the owner carried it two blocks home for me. And here are my cinnamon buns. Yum.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Exactly what I needed

Since I was in Tirana this week (more on that later) I decided to go and see a movie last night. I tried my hardest to convince everyone that I was with to come with me, but I was not going to be discouraged by the prospect of going alone. I wanted to see a movie and no one was going to stop me! It's not the first time that I've gone to a movie alone. It's not even the first time I've seen a movie alone in a foreign country. I don't really mind seeing movies alone, although I would of course rather see them with people. Mostly, I just want to be able to talk about the movie with people afterwards (and since no one else I know here has seen it yet, I won't be able to do that for several days). There are two theaters in Tirana. The one that I went to is the nicer, smaller theater inside the Sheraton hotel. The auditorium that I was in was tiny, only about 25 seats, but the seats were not just regular movie theater seats, but in fact easy chairs! It was definitely one of the most comfortable theaters I've ever been in.

The movie itself (Indiana Jones) was exactly what the film doctor ordered. Just enough silly and fun, almost believable (but not quite), Harrison Ford, good action, double crossing, bad accents and even aliens! I've been a bit disappointed with some recent similar style movies (particularly National Treasure- Nicholas Cage is no Harrison Ford, no way!), but the return of Indy was great and lived up to my action/adventure expectations (which are, truth be told, rather low- does it keep me entertained for two hours, did I laugh, smile and cringe a few times, did I leave the theater without a lot of lingering questions about the nonsensical plot?).

Anyway, I'm glad I finally saw a movie here and I enjoyed it, even if I was "All by Myself "(which actually came on the theater tunes while I was waiting . . . maybe they knew . . . )

I also got to eat Chinese food today in Tirana, which is another thing that was exactly what I needed. Sweet and sour . . .mmmmmmmmm.