Tuesday, June 30, 2009


It’s never been any secret that I like to sleep. One of the major issues that I had with my job as a substitute teacher was the fact that I had to wake up at 5:30 every morning. I just think that is cruel, and studies have shown that teenagers do not function as well that early in the morning (and neither do I). One more of the unexpected perks of Peace Corps is the amount of sleep that I have gotten over the past year. I think that if you were to take a poll, you would find that PCVs as a group (at least in Albania, but I hypothesize that it is similar in other places) are very well rested compared to our counterparts in America (or even our previous selves). I just sleep more here. I go to bed early (not much of a night life to speak of) and I wake up later (work starts at 9:00) and I often take an afternoon nap. I don’t think that I’ve been this well rested since elementary school. This has a lot to do, of course, with the slower pace of life in countries like Albania. Naptime is part of the culture here. The first question that is always asked is “are you tired?” (the correct answer is usually ‘a little’). You don’t hear about sleep deprivation here like you do in the US. I think this is something that we can learn from the rest of the world . . . and now it’s naptime!

Saturday, June 13, 2009

It’s All Greek to me

It’s a cliché, but it’s true. I don’t understand a word of Greek. It has been a really long time since I arrived in a country without any knowledge of the language. In Peace Corps, I think we take it for granted a little bit that our language training starts right away so that even by the time we get to our host families we can mumble a few key phrases. Unlike Athens, where at every turn you heard people speaking any one of ten or more different languages (my mom described the crowds at the Acropolis as the Tower of Babel), in Thessaloniki, you hear Greek. I know that many people speak English and I have so far had no problems getting directions, ordering food or finding a place to stay, but the people on the street are speaking Greek and I’m not understanding a word of it.

I also realized that this may be the first time that I am traveling alone in a country where I don’t speak the language (my parents got back on a plane to the states this morning and I took a train to Thessaloniki). This evening I went out in the city to find some food and found the life of the town. This is a young city with several universities; at 10:00 many of the streets were still buzzing with people and I could tell that the night was only just getting started. As I walked with my sandwich towards the seaside, I thought about traveling alone. Tonight, I am staying with a couch surfer host. They are a Spanish girl and a German girl, my age, living here and going to school. I get the feeling that normally, these girls would be all about showing me around and hanging out, but this week happens to be exams and they are both justifiably busy. It is lovely that couch surfing exists, I’m glad I found it and it makes traveling much easier, cheaper and I think more interesting. But at the same time, there is strangeness in couch surfing- you enter someone’s home and life. When I am a host, I often feel the need to make my guests feel comfortable, but when I am a guest, I never want to impose on my host. I guess I make a good guest and a good host . . .

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Out of Albania

And into Greece.

From Kruja last week we headed down south to the touristy heartland of Albania- Gjirokaster and Saranda. I spent nearly a week in Gjiro for this past Christmas, so I already knew about its cobble-stoned charms. But as it is the beginning of summer and the busy tourist season and I was traveling with my parents, this was a completely different visit. First, I noticed how many tourists there are. I mean, we get a few way word souls that decide to get off the beaten path and go to Peshkopi, but nothing like the south. When we went to Saranda and Burtrint (ancient Greek ruins- really cool), there were even more.

And then we came to Greece. I won’t even talk about the touristy-ness of Greece- you already know all that. I’m joining in on it- doing a double-decker bus tour with my parents, climbing up to the Parthenon, wandering through museums with my nose stuck in a guidebook.

What I’ve been thinking about a lot since I got here is the contrasts. You hear a lot about how Greece is a county of contrast- old and new- but for me, I see the contrast in another way. I see Greece as a major contrast to Albania. Albania has the old-new contrast too, but the new has been hard to come by and isn’t really working yet. Greece on the other hand is truly modern (at least the little bit of it that I’ve seen- Corfu (directly across a short channel from Albania) and Athens.) Athens is this crazy, busy, full city of course with amazing history. And it is so very different than anything in Albania. The thing is, that it is easy to imagine that 1000 years ago, 500 years ago, even 100 years ago, that wasn’t really the case. The Greeks and the Albanians have a lot in common historically and culturally (more than most Greeks would probably be willing to admit, probably). Maybe it’s not fair to compare modern Albania and Athens (for one, the city of Athens has more people in it than the whole country of Albania). Maybe I need to go out into the Greek country side to find the “real Greece” of villages and small towns and maybe these are still not so far removed from modern day Albania, but at the moment I’m really struck by the contrast between these two neighboring countries and amazed at the effect that some choices can make on a whole society (like what if Albania had gone in a different direction after WWII?).

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Shi, Shi, Largoheni

(rain, rain, go away)

Today was another rainy, cloudy day. It was actually not bad because we were inside the museums in the Kruja citadel for most of the day and the clouds and fog were really beautiful for all the pictures that we took at the top of the mountain. Kruja is the one place that I have been to in Albania that really has it together as far as touristy things. The history museum is very well done (very Skanderbeg-y, shume mire!), and the ethnographic museum was great. The man running the ethnographic museum is simply adorable. Kruja also really has it together for souvenir shopping. I decided to go ahead and spend some money while my parents are here and buy some things that they can take home with them, so I bought a nice hand woven rug. I also bought myself a necklace and my mom bought me some hand made silver earrings (did I mention it's my birthday?). I really can't imagine a better birthday then exploring a castle in Albania with my parents . . .

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Parents in the country

My parents have come to Albania!

Albania was one of the few countries that they missed on their way home from their own Peace Corps service in the Philippines over 30 years ago. At that time, Albania was completely closed to the outside world (they also missed Greece because of a war going on in Cyprus), so they were really excited to be able to come and visit me (oh, and they also maybe wanted to see me a little bit). Being good parents that they are, they brought me lots of presents, including a 5lb block of cheddar cheese and huge jar of peanut butter. Because my mom is currently working for an airline, they were able to fly for very cheap.

After they arrived (only 12 hours later than we had hoped- oh the joys of flying standby), we headed up to Peshkopi to meet my friends and see my place. It was a bit of a whirlwind of a few days with lots of coffees and lots of people. Dylan, my new sitemate came up the next day; Kenji, my current sitemate is still around for a few weeks; and Meredith, our closest neighbor right over the border in Macedonia came for a visit. The three days we spent in Peshkopi would have been perfect if it wasn't for the rain. Now, I have to be careful here, because in general I would say that rain in Albania in the spring and summer is a good thing- it means 24 hour power and cool temperatures that are not unbearable to live in. Unfortunately it also makes it a little hard to really explore town and means that the hike I had planned with the Outdoor Ambassadors kids was not a roaring success (we had 3 kids show up and went out in the rain anyway, by the end of the hike, the weather had cleared up and it was lovely). Even with the rain, we had a good time and my parents got to meet most of my friends and coworkers, if only briefly.

The next part of the trip is what I like to call the "Albanian travel experience." Now first, I really wanted to go on this boat trip in the north that goes down a river/lake from the town of Fierza to Koman (or more usually from Koman to Fierza). I tried for weeks with some of the volunteers in that region to figure out a way to do it in two days from Peshkopi. For the life of me, I believe now that it is not possible. Because the ferry leaves at 7am from Fierza and it is not possible to get to Fierza before then without spending the night there and it is also not possible to get from Pehskopi to Fierza in one day . . . Anyway, so we gave up on the boat trip. I guess I will just have to try to do that before I leave when I have more time (3 days instead of 2). Even though we couldn't get on the boat, we went up north anyway, over the mountains to Kukes. The road between Peshkopi and Kukes is only 88 km-about 55 miles- for those of you in CO, think Denver to Fort Collins. Normally the drive from Denver to Fort Collins takes about an hour, maybe and hour and a half if you have traffic leaving town. Ok, now imagine that road is unpaved and goes winding through some crazy mountain peaks and valleys full of switchback turns . . . the drive takes about 4 hours and you get out of the car (or in this case an old van with almost no shocks or suspension). My parents are tough travelers (former PC and all), but I may have overestimated them on this one.

Once we got to Kukes, the plan was to continue on down the road a bit, but the volunteers there convinced us to stay the night there (which I am really happy we did). We got to hang out with the truly cool PCVs of Kukes (who are now my new neighbors) and got to see a children's day festival in the morning. Think combination field day, talent show, dance team performance, and three ring circus . . . it was fun.

We are now in Tirana, staying with Jan. Today we did the grand Tirana tour including the history museum (not bad, but not great- it helps if you speak Albanian because not everything is translated). Tomorrow we are headed up to Kruja to see Skanderbeg's castle. Then it's on to Gjirokaster, Saranda and Burtrint before heading to Corfu and Athens in Greece. Happy travels!