Monday, January 26, 2009

forced to cook

Like many children of my generation, I grew up in a packaged food household. Even though my mother was a member of a natural foods co-op when I was little, we still ate a lot of things from boxes. I know my mom knows how to cook, but she just never really liked it. Instead she is a baker- I think that nothing makes her happier than a good batch of cookies. I truly am my mother's daughter in this way; I love to bake, but I've never really liked to cook. (Don't ask me about this distinction- I don't really know why. Maybe it has something to do with cutting and chopping meat and vegetables- I don't like to do all that prep.)

A few years ago, some of my friends started a cooking club where every few weeks we would choose a fun theme and then get together and share our cooking interpretations of the theme. I had great fun with this group and was happy because it forced me to find new recipes, try new techniques and cook rather than bake all the time. I loved cooking club, not only because it was great food, but of course because it was a twice monthly get together with good friends. This is one thing that I am truly missing here in Albania.

But Albania is forcing me to cook. While I suppose that it would be possible to get by without cooking here (maybe if I lived in a bigger place with a few more restaurants), Albanian cuisine really is a meat and potatoes affair (with rice) and occasionally a few good vegetable dishes; if I want any variety in my diet, I have to provide it myself. While I have to admit that my diet does contain a lot of pasta, I have also started to branch out: tacos, tuna casserole, chicken parmesean, curry. Sometimes I have to get a little bit creative on ingredients, but for the most part I can find things that I need (or I brought them or had them sent from America). One of the most useful things that I brought with me in fact was an all purpose cook book (Fanny Farmer). The great thing about this book is that it has information (and drawings) about all different kinds of ingredients, as well as instructions on how to prepare all sorts of different things. The only difficulty I've found with the book is that it always assumes that you not only have access to all ingredients, but also to all kitchen utensils and appliances.

I don't think that I will ever be a master cook (and I will probably always bring cookies to pot-lucks like my mom does), when I get home I will have added a few more things to my basic repertoire of foods and I think I'll be able to get by with a few less things out of a box.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Japanese winter

This story was shared with me by my friend Ben. While I don't have the cool heated table thing, a lot of the rest of the story rings true with my current cold weather situation. All Albanians only heat one room of their house and go to bed with hot water bottles. The warm bath is only a dream at the moment though . . .

Even though I'm sometimes cold (and I complain about it a bit), really it is not that bad. I snuggle up in blankets and am just fine. I think that when I do return to the US I will probably have some different ideas about what it takes to stay comfortable. I am just one person and heating my whole apartment would just be silly and a waste of energy.

Also, if you haven't heard about it, No Impact Man is a cool site to check out. It chronicles the life of a family living in New York and trying to have no carbon footprint. I think that we could all find some good ideas for how to change our lives . . .

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The hardest part of my day

I've often joked that the hardest part of my day is getting out of bed. I love sleeping. Really I do. If I believed in an afterlife, my idea of heaven would be snuggling into a soft, warm bed with lots of blankets and pillow and sleeping. It has never been more difficult to get out of bed than in the past two weeks. My bed is not particularly comfortable (I sleep on a communist-era fold down couch), but compared to the rest of my house it is certainly warm. In fact, I think that if I didn't have the promise of internet at the office (plus a heater) I would probably just stay in bed all day. When I get home from work it is hard to do much but start the fire and crawl under my covers to get warm. Reading, knitting and watching tv or movies are pretty much how I'm filling my time (since these don't require that I get out from under the blankets).

The second hardest part of my day is when I contemplate taking a shower. In this case when I say "shower" think "pouring warm water out of a bucket over my head." This is because I have now been without running water for more than two weeks. Luckily, my landlord has been providing me buckets and bottles of water from his house every few days- enough for me to cook, drink and take an occasional "shower" with. I now realize, not only how lucky I was in the states to have hot and cold running water, but how lucky I have been for the last few months to have hot and cold running water here. I know that many volunteers in different parts of the country have to live by a city water schedule in which their water may run only for 4-6 hours a day (usually a few hours in the morning and a few hours in the evening). Because I have a water tank and pump I usually have water whenever I have electricity (which, since New Years, has actually been 24 hours). But two things seemed to have happened: when I was in Gjirokaster, it got cold enough that my pipes froze (and got colder after I got back) and it seems, my pump died. So, even though the past two days have been warmer (and a lot of the snow is melting, creating gross slush everywhere), I am still s'ka uji (without water).

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Let it snow (and be cold)

Seriously, I don’t want to be that girl who complains about how cold it is all the time, but man is it cold. I now understand how very lucky I was to grow up in a house with central heating. I have a weather ticker on my desktop that tells me the forecast and current temps for both Peshkopi and Denver (or anywhere else I would want). Over the past few weeks I’ve seen that Denver is actually a bit colder than Peshkopi in general, but I have never felt this cold all the time! The biggest difference of course, as I’ve mentioned before, is that the houses are not well insulated and they don’t have heating systems. While my wood stove works well to heat one room it leaves the rest of the house frigid (going to the bathroom feels like going on an arctic expedition). My biggest issue since I returned to p-town for New Years is that my pipes seem to be frozen and I have not had more than a trickle of water for more than a week. This makes washing clothes, dishes and myself pretty difficult.

On the bright side, it has been snowing a lot and I love the snow. It covers the whole city in a beautiful blanket of white and as long as I don’t have anywhere to go, I’m happy. In fact one of my favorite things is snuggling in front of my fire with a hot cup of coco and reading a good book. It’s just when I have to go outside (or to the other room) that there’s a problem.

For now, I can deal with the water issues and the cold. Let it snow!

Monday, January 5, 2009

New Years- Shpiperia style

New Years- Shpiperia style
For the almost 50 years on Communism in Albania, religion was basically eliminated and all religious holidays were not celebrated. Additionally, about 70% of the country and 99% of my area are Muslims (if they are anything), so Christmas is not exactly a big deal here. This doesn’t mean that you don’t see Santa (Babagjushi- literally father-grandfather) everywhere and there aren’t trees, decorations and lots of fireworks all over the place. The Albanians have adopted all of the things that we normally associate with the commercialization of Jesus’s birth for New Years.

I decided to spend the big holiday of New Years in Peshkopi, to see how a real Albanian New Years Eve would be. I was invited over for dinner to my friend Merita’s house to spend the night with her and her parents. She made way too much food; we had wine and counted down to midnight together. It was a lovely way to spend the holiday and I felt like it was a fitting way to finish what has really been an amazing year.

We could hear the fireworks going off all night, but I think that it was much calmer here than in the bigger cities. For a video of what a crazy NYE is like in Durres, check out my friend Matt's blog here.

A year ago I don’t really think I could have imagined what this year would be like. A year ago I had just accepted the invitation to come to Albania, but I really had no idea what I would be in for. A year ago I didn’t know a word of Albanian and now as my co-workers say I understand nje qind per qind (100%). A year ago I was partying with all my friends and cutting off Chronic’s long hair. A year ago I was a substitute teacher.

Last year my resolutions were a little bit open ended:

1. Be brave.
2. Follow through.
3. Go to yoga classes.
4. Get out of Denver.

Being brave and following through are things that I work on all my life, and I think that I have done a pretty good job of doing those things this year, but they will always be on my list. Getting out of Denver. Check. I think I’m about as far out of Denver as I can get right now . . . ok so the yoga . . .

So now for some New Year’s resolutions- Peace Corps style:

1. Always wash dishes and clothes when you have water, there is no telling when the water might cut out.
2. Remember to bring shopping bags whenever I go out so that I don’t have to use plastic.
3. Make visits to my landlord’s house more often for social calls and not just for business.
4. Get the Outdoor Ambassadors club started.
5. When it is warm enough again- start doing the pilates and workout videos again.

Gezuar Viten i Ri 2009!

Me and Merita (don't worry, she was actually happy, she just doesn't like to smile in pictures!)

I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas Week

This is my first Christmas ever outside of the US. I decided to go down to visit my friends Chris and Courtney in Gjirokaster in the very south of the country. Gjirokaster is a great old city and probably one of Albania’s most beautiful sites. It is an old city built onto the side of a mountain all out of stone. It is a trip that I’ve been meaning to take since the summer, but something about 12 hours on a bus kept making me put it off. From top to bottom, Albania is shorter than Colorado, but because of the conditions of the roads it takes more than twice as long to travel the same distance. I decided to do the trip strait through and take the night bus on the way down. Allan (another volunteer in Gjiro) was nice enough to pick me up from the bus when it arrived at 3AM.

The first bit of holiday spirit was found decorating Allan’s apartment and lighting an improvised Menorah (turns out I’m not the only Jew in Albania) made of beer bottles (Linus- one more for your collection).
We then met up with Chris and Courtney and Courtney’s Aunt and Uncle (visiting from America) for the beginning of the Christmas festivities. We had a nice traditional Albanian dinner on Christmas Eve and then on Christmas itself we banded together to make the best Christmas dinner that we could muster (and it was pretty good, if I do say so myself). My favorite part was my gingerbread cookies-

A note for my mom: I’ve been on the lookout ever since I arrived for cookie cutters. I know that you’ve been able to find them all over the world, but I think that Albania might be that one place with no cookie cutters.

So without cookie cutters, we improvised. Every person cut out at least one cookie and they ran the gamut: from palm tree to fighting pirate to stegosaurus. And they tasted pretty good too. We had dinner at Allan’s office- he works in an NGO that works for the conservation and restoration of Gjirokaster’s historical sites- and has a great office in a restored house on top of hill with a great view. We also had latkes and bread sticks and chicken and salad and I’m making myself hungry just talking about it! During dinner, we were all able to use the internet in the office and talk to our families at home on Skype. My sister finally got a webcam and microphone, so for the first time since I left I was able to see her and my nieces on video. After dinner we went back to C&C’s house where Cam and Donna (Court’s Uncle and Aunt) had put together stockings for all of us! Having Cam and Donna there really made the holiday. They adopted all of us like their own kids and took care of us the whole week.

After Christmas we spent the rest of the week exploring the beautiful city of Gjirokaster. What this really means is a lot of climbing up, up, up. We went up to the castle and one of the restored houses and stopped a lot for coffee. On Saturday it snowed. Apparently snow is a kind of rare occurrence in Gjirokaster, but the city covered in white was really beautiful and even with the snow it was not as cold down south as it has been up in Peshkopi (when I got home I found that it had snowed here too and has been snowing steadily ever since.) Overall it was a great Christmas/Hanukkah. Thanks a bunch to Chris, Courtney, Cam, Donna and everyone else down in Gjiro for making it a great holiday!