Friday, December 25, 2009

Roman Holiday

Italy was the only place left on my list that I felt like I just had to visit before I left Albania . . . it is just across the water! I started asking around my group to see if anyone wanted to come along for the holidays. I knew that I wanted to go to Italy and I also knew that I did not want to go by myself, especially for Christmas. I was lucky that Connie, one of the volunteers in the more recent group thought Chrismas in Rome was a great idea and we started the plans for the trip.

Our plan for the week: squeeze as much culture as possible into 10 days without actually killing ourselves. This started with seeing La Traviata on Wednesday night just a few hours after landing. You know the best part about only going an hour and a half away for vacation? No jet lag! We also had tickets for The Nutcracker on Christmas Eve. Opera, ballet, now we needed some religion! After the ballet we headed over to the Vatican, but found that they closed early for the holiday. After much discussion we decided to forgo the craziness of the Papal visit on Christmas and instead did a much calmer and very beautiful midnight mass at the basillica near our hostel (which happens to be the second largest in the city and seriously amazing!). It was all in Latin and Italian and I didn't really get much of it, but Connie was raised Catholic, so really understood what was going on.

For Christmas, we decided to go another rought- we did Catholic, now lets get some Jewish in there! Rome has the largest Jewish population in Italy and has an excellent Jewish museum and Jewish quarter, which was perfect to visit on Christmas since most everything else in the city was closed. I was able to get one of my long time cravings- falafel (not so Italian, but you really can only eat so much pasta and pizza!). We also had Chinese food for dinner (the only other thing open!).

Our plans for the next few days include a trip back to the Vatican and lots of art, then on to Florence!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Let it snow . . .

Winter has arrived in Peshkopi. I know that some of you in Denver have had a pretty harsh, cold and snowy winter already, but here in Albania, the winter so far has actually been pretty mild. This is of course mostly good news because when it gets cold here, it gets really cold because there is no insulation or central heating. This week, however, the winter has arrived. On Friday night I was lucky enough to be out to dinner with Dylan, Turi and Dylan's counterpart Habibi when it started snowing for the first time this winter. I say I was lucky because it was beautiful and also because by the morning there was barely a dusting and by the next afternoon the snow was gone. Driving home from dinner as the big, wet flakes fell on the lit city . . . gorgeous. I wish that I could have effectively captured it on film, but I'm afraid that I couldn't. Over the weekend it continued to snow off and on and I snuggled into my wood-stove heated room. Up until this point, I've felt pangs every time I started up my stove- is it really cold enough? Do I want to waste this wood? (not to mention the pollution pangs I always get), but when it is really cold, I feel less bad about using the wood for some reason. Anyway, don't ask me . . .

Next week I'll be going to Italy for Christmas and New Years with Connie, another PCV. When I get home, hopefully I won't have frozen pipes like I did after my vacation last year.

Happy holidays and let it snow!!!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

After living in Albania for nearly two years now, I think that I have become (as much as you can be) somewhat of an expert in Albanian transportation. There are some ways that Albania seems to really be coming along in terms of development and as far as being a PCV here, it is definitely the Posh Corps in many ways, but in terms of transportation, it is clear that Albania still has a long way to go and I'm entirely convinced that this country will not be considered "developed" until major changes are made in many areas of transportation.

For most foreigners, Albania's public transport system is a mystery at best and can be a frustrating experience. First, to be a tourist here, you really have to mean it. It is not that easy to get to Albania. Since it is the one European country not connected to the rest of the continent by rail lines, it is impossible to be sitting in a train station in Vienna wondering where to go and hop on a train to Tirana (like you could with basically every other capital city). This lack of effective train system also makes in country travel more difficult than in the rest of Europe. There are a few train lines going in between a few of the major cities, but the trains are run down and slow and very few people use them. In the summer when I was traveling with a few volunteers from Macedonia (which has an incredibly advanced transportation network compared to Albania) what the Albanian word for "platform" was, I couldn't tell them, because I realized that I had never used that word!

So, without trains, you are left with buses, taxis and mini-buses (furgons). I was contacted a few days ago by a guy that is in the process of updating a guide book for Tirana and is wanting to add in a bus schedule to his guide. He was hoping that he could help with the bus schedule for Peshkopi. The problem with this is of course that a schedule doesn't really exist as far as I have been able to figure out. There are a few buses, I think two that leave at 7 and 8 in the morning, and maybe another one later in the day, but it is not as if they sit at any sort of "station" or that there are "tickets." I have only taken the bus twice in my time here. Usually I take a furgon, which is kind of like a combination of a bus and taxi. Usually a mini-van or mini-bus size (with 8-15 seats), they circle the town until they find enough people and leave when they are full. There is no schedule, but I have been able to figure out that certain drivers like to leave at certain times of the day and that if you can call these drivers and reserve a seat the day before. Even so, if I call a driver and he says he is leaving at 7AM, we will only leave when the furgon is full, so if he doesn't have enough reservations it may still be a while before we are on the road.

Travel is easier for some other parts of the country, particularly the larger cities in the south and close to Tirana. For many sites, there are scheduled buses and there is even a "bus station" that serves many cities in the south (but even this "station" is a challenge to find in Tirana- there is no sign outside, you just have to know it is there . . . ). But for the rest of us, the "stations" are spread out at rather random spots along the side of the road and parking lots of Tirana. I honestly think that a major tourism development priority for the Albanian national government should be a central bus station- how can they expect tourist to find their way to Peshkopi when the "station" is an unmarked strip mall parking lot on the road out of town?!

Once you find your furgon or bus, that is usually not the end of your challenges. On my way to Rreshen last week, we were talking about all of the things that might delay your journey . . .

Top 10 best reasons your trip might be delayed when traveling in Albania-

10. Road Construction
9. Sheep
8. Overloaded Donkey
7. Overloaded gjushe (grandmother)
6. Someone in the furgon wants to buy fruit
5. Pilaf/kafe/cigarette stop
4. Stopped by the police (for a bribe?)
3. Someone in the furgon gets sick (although to be honest, this usually doesn't mean the furgon stops- just throw the bag out the window and keep going!)
2. Driver stops in the middle of the road to say hi to friend in furgon traveling in the other direction.

And the number one best reason that you might be delayed . . .

1. Driver stops to test drive a new truck! (not kidding this happened on our way to Rreshen last week- we stopped for about 15 minutes while the driver negotiated the purchase of a truck.)

Happy travels!

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

District XI: Beso tek Une!

Last week I was invited by another volunteer to come to her site and help her in putting on a musical extravaganza with 45 Albanian students and 5 other volunteers. It was a show that her and some of her students worked on last summer when she took them to a theater camp in Texas and then adapted slightly for Albania. The show included singing and dancing as well as small scenes of school life and I have to say it was pretty amazing. The kids worked incredibly hard on it as well as an amazing amount of effort by Sarah, Tauchia and Travis to get the kids ready. Amanda and I came in to play the role of teachers in the show and to help corral the kids as well as joining in on the singing and dancing. The show had the potential to be cheesy or bad and I have to admit that when I first came up two weeks before I was a bit worried. But as these things often do, it all came together in the end and we had three really great shows.

The shows took me back to my days in theater in school and made me realize again what many students here are missing out on when these programs are not available to them. It was great that Sarah has formed a theater group in Rreshen, but this is something that doesn't happen in every town and it is likely that unless the next volunteer to come to Rreshen is interested in theater that the program will not continue after Sarah leaves next year. This is one of the real challenges to being a volunteer- finding ways for the projects you start to continue on after you leave. It has to be a perfect storm of circumstances- a local person that is committed to the cause or other foreigners willing to take it on. But we can only start something and try to build the right conditions, we can't be here forever.

Anyway, even though they were a pain in the butt sometimes, the kids in Rreshen were great and I am really proud of all of them and really proud to have worked with them. Congrats to all the kids that participated on a job well done. Together we can!

Thanksgiving part two: Peshkopi style

The town I live in is in the northeast of Albania near the Macedonian border. The road to get there takes about 5 hours from the capital and the road (which is not that great, but getting better all the time) winds through the mountains. The trip is beautiful, but long and many Albanians and PCVs have this idea that Peshkopi is really far away, so not many people visit us. It is far away, but it is not really THAT far away, anyway, that is what I keep trying to tell people. . .

So, American Thanksgiving falls at a great time in Albania because usually it coincides with two (and this year three) holidays that are celebrated here. Meaning that we actually get a long weekend- longer than we would have in the US. Most people here had a full five days off- Friday to the following Tuesday and the Americans went ahead and took Wednesday and Thursday off, so basically it was a full week . . .

Taking advantage of this big holiday weekend, I invited some people to come up and extend the eating frenzy. Since they didn't have to be back to work on Monday it worked out. It was also Dylan's birthday this week, so we celebrated that as well and invited some of our Albanian friends to join us. My second Thanksgiving was almost as good as the first, if a bit more Albanian.
We still had all the standards (thanks to a care package or two- thanks Kenji!), but decided to go the slightly lazy rout and get some rotisserie chicken instead of cooking (and killing) our own turkey. We even stuck some sparklers in a pumpkin pie for Dylan . . .

It's funny, I don't think that many people in America have two Thanksgiving dinners, but for some reason I have had successive Thanksgiving dinner repeats for the past two years. Since we are so far away from the normal traditional things and our families, we unapologetically extend Thanksgiving into a full weekend with multiple meetings of different groups in several locations. I know some volunteers that went to as many as three dinners this year. We have a lot to be thankful for and I'm glad that I got to share this with so many good friends.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Diten e Falenderemeve

There are a few words in Albanian that I love to say like lulestrudhe (stawberry), infaktekisht (in fact) and diten e falenderemeve (Thanksgiving Day). I love saying it. Diten e Falenderemeve.

Anyway, Thanksgiving is probably my favorite holiday whether in America or Albania . . . I love that the point of it is taking time to think about the good things in our lives and reflect on the year. Plus there's the food. The people that work at the US Embassy here have made it a gracious tradition to invite Peace Corps Volunteers to their homes for Thanksgiving dinner. This year I was invited by Mark and Mary, a wonderful couple that works for the military at the Embassy. They live in a big house in Tirana with their dog and cat. Three of us came down on Wednesday night and helped with pie and other food- we made a pretty impressive three layer jello, pumpkin bread (with fresh pumpkin) and lots of goodies. The best thing about staying with expats is that they have a whole bunch of American food. When embassy employees come over from America, they get to bring with them an incredible amount of food. Their allowed amount of consumables (things like food, but also cleaning supplies and laundry detergent) for one year is more than the combined total of all the luggage that all 37 people in my group brought initially to Albania (we get 100lbs. of luggage each . . .), so yeah, it's a crap load of food. They also get to shop at the military commissary in Italy for all those "fresh" kinds of food, like cheddar cheese . . . so in addition to the normal Thanksgiving type things we also got to sample things like queso dip, dill pickles, Dr. Pepper, etc. There were six of us for dinner, plus a few other people from the embassy. I literally ate until I couldn't anymore. And then I ate some more. And then I had dessert. The other great thing about Mark and Mary's house is that they have the Armed Forces TV, so we were able to watch the Macy's parade and the football games. We also went to the "Ridge" (the American Ambassador's housing compound that is basically a small American suburban neighborhood in the middle of Tirana made up of modular houses . . . almost feels a bit Stepfordish . . .) to play touch football with the Marines and Embassy staff. In PC vs. Marines, the Marines kind of killed us . . . but I think I would have been a bit worried if they didn't :).

All in all it was a very American Thanksgiving, which is exactly what I wanted.