Monday, January 25, 2010

Heading into the home strech, but not heading home

Welcome to 2010!

2009 was my only full year in Albania, and it sure was a full year. Even though day to day it sometimes seemed like I wasn't getting much done, when I look back on the year, I can see that I have done a lot here. With World Vision, I helped the team do community meetings with over 900 community members in order to design two projects that are getting underway now- one about water, sanitation and hygiene and one about violence in the home and school. I've been working with several different groups of students- a successful Model United Nations team, a Girls Empowerment group (done in Albanian, a real challenge for me) and an Outdoor Ambassadors group (environmental education). I helped another volunteer put on a musical with 45 kids, I helped run a summer camp for 50 kids from all over the country, and I traveled to 6 new countries. I also spent a lot of time traveling around Albania and even more time in my beautiful town of Peshkopi . . .

Anyway, as I get ready to head into the final few months of my service here, I am starting to look forward to when I will leave Albania. I have decided to "take the long way home" and travel for about 6 months before I return to the states. Taking another example from my parent's life, I think that this is the best time for me to see the world. I have a very tentative itinerary below and I'm hoping that you, my friends and family, can help me out with a few things:

1. Take a look at this list. Do you know anyone in any of these places that just might open up their homes for a few nights to a backpacking RPCV (returned Peace Corps Volunteer). I'm traveling on a just got out of the Peace Corps budget, which is basically the same as a still in the Peace Corps budget, which is basically no money! I am hoping to stay with friends and couchsurf when I can. Please help me get connected to people!

2. Have you ever traveled to any of these places? What was the best thing? What should I avoid? These are all new places for me so I am open to all suggestions!

3. Do you want to get a postcard or two? I like sending them, so send me your address and you'll get something from my travels . . .

4. I am doing this trip, for the most part, alone. And so now I'm inviting you to join me! I know that not many people have the freedom to travel for 6 months, but maybe for two weeks? Look over my plan and think about it . . .

June 10- Close of Service in Albania
June- July
North Albania/Kosovo
Balkans (Montenegro, Croatia, Bosnia, Slovenia, Serbia)
Bulgaria, Romania,

Ukraine, Russia

Russia (train), Mongolia, China

S. Korea, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia

Indonesia, Philippines

Solomon Islands, Fiji, California, Home!

Serious Hibernation Mode

So far it has been a more mild winter than last year, meaning that we have only had a few light snows and my apartment is hovering around 40 degrees most of the time . . . until this weekend. I have now gone into serious hibernation mode. It is really hard to get out of bed in the cold and just as hard to leave the house once it is warmed up . . . I think I've been sleeping 10-12 hours a night just because it is warmer in bed.

It was bitterly cold on Saturday and so I did the sensible thing and stayed inside with my warm fire. I was all ready to get out and do something on Sunday, but it was still freezing and so I stayed in my pajamas one more day. When I decided that it might be good to do dishes or take a shower I turned on my water and found that this would not be possible . . . looks like my pipes are frozen. I didn't have water for nearly a month last year. I am hoping that this year it will be a much shorter period. I have some theories about my water problem- I live on the second floor of a house, below me is not another living space, but a garage and some storage rooms. My water pump (that normally keeps me in wonderful, hot water 24 hours) also lives below me. Now, because there is a general ignorance or misunderstanding of the concept of insulation here (basically every house is bare concrete/brick, with a plaster layer) I am not surprised that both my water pump and the pipes leading up into my house are frozen. I am expecting to be carrying up buckets of water from the unfrozen pipes in my landlords house for all my water needs for the next few days. All I can hope for is that the deep freeze won't last too long . . .

Friday, January 15, 2010

A very Wet New Year

I've always wanted to go to Venice. I've been dreaming about it for as long as I could remember. I knew that I was already too late to see the "real" Venice and that it was just a touristy amusement park, but I wanted to go anyway. Venice is unlike any place in the world. And it was basically just a touristy amusement park, but it was great anyway.

We arrived in town on the evening of the 30th and found our hostel- a big, real, hostel with dorm rooms and shared bathrooms and a cafeteria full of backpackers- set aside on an island just a few minutes by boat from St. Marks Square.

On New Years Eve, we decided that we were a bit museum-ed out and that we wanted to do something a little different so we planned a trip to Murano- the Venitian island famous for it's glass. I fell in love with Murano glass. If I was filthy rich, I would decorate my house with it and buy a full set of dishes. As it is that I'm not rich at all (filthy or otherwise) I had to make due with a few necklaces. We went to the glass museum and saw the progression of glass making in Italy from before the Roman period to modern day. Glass really is an amazing substance. Especially impressive were perfectly preserved blown glass bottles and jars over 2000 years old. We then wandered around the island a bit before having a rushed dinner and heading back to the main part of town to get ready for the evening.

New Years in Venice is WET. Winter in Venice is wet and the tide is highest in the middle of the night. When we got to the square it was full of people in gum boots and plastic bags splashing around in the high water. While my hiking boots are waterproof (the most waterproof boots I've ever had in fact) they only cover my feet and as soon as water goes over the top, it's all over. We found a place out of the water on some steps to watch the craziness. As midnight neared, the water rose, the excitement rose and we got ready to give the world a New Years kiss. At midnight I shared a few sips of champagne with an Italian (who was of course horrified that I lived in Albania) and then made a dash for the dock to get a glimpse of the fireworks. One thing that Venice doesn't have to worry about is the fire danger of the fireworks. With wet feet we made it back to the hostel (after a bone crushing crowd to get to the boats) and slept contently into the new year.

On New Years day I had planned on trying to go and see my friend Marcos who is stationed nearby in the Air Force, but the plan fell through and Connie and I decided to just wander around Venice instead. Walking around Venice was fantastic. We walked on raised walkways trying to avoid the now receding high water. We shopped for letter openers and necklaces. We walked over bridges and along canals and just wandered. We stopped for coffee and tiramisu. We got lost and then found ourselves. We saw a sign advertising a Vivaldi concert and found the church. We had a wonderful salad people watching in a small square. We went to the concert and sat with a couple from Oregon and enjoyed as beautiful violin music washed over us. We walked back to the hostel barely able to believe that it was our last night in Italy . . .

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Italian food

When I got back to Albania, Jan, my Peace Corps mom, asked me what the best food moment of my trip was. This really got me thinking about the food that I had in Italy and actually how disappointed I was. Here's the problem: while I know that there is truly incredible food in Italy, I just didn't get much of it because it was way out of my price range. As we've already established, everything was really expensive. First, unlike on other trips, I was unable to conference crash, couch surf or be a groupie on the tour bus, so we had to pay every night for a hostel. I am really proud of myself for my hostel finds, actually. They were all clean and well managed and none of them tripled in price for the holidays. But staying in the hostels meant that about half my daily budget went to that and that we had to eat out almost every meal (the hostel in Florence had a restaurant downstairs that we ate at once and the place in Venice served breakfast of a roll and juice/coffee). I found that there were basically two categories of food available to us that we could afford: sandwich/pizza/street food and mediocre sit-down fare. Of the two types, I actually enjoyed the fast food more in general- the sandwiches were made with really good fresh ingredients and the pizzas were really good (the cheese makes all the difference!). What I was most disappointed with was the standard sit down places. We went to several places in which a plate of pasta cost an average of 7-12 Euros ($11-18) and was no better (and sometimes worse) than what I could make at home. I worked in an Italian chain restaurant for 3 years in which the prices were pretty comparable - I didn't think I would ever say this, but the food at the MacShack was much better. Our biggest disappointment was in Venice on New Years Eve. We went to Murano Island to look at the glass there and by 4:00 were starving. It seemed that most of the places were closing down, so we ducked into the first place we saw that was open. The staff was anxious to get out and were not happy to have last minute customers and so hovered over us as we ate. On top of that, the food was terrible! I don't think I have ever paid more for a plate of bad spaghetti. I won't say that I love the food in Albania most of the time, but at least it's cheap!

I don't want to make it sound like we never ate well. I found several surprise moments of goodness, like falafel in the Jewish Quarter of Rome, Suppli (Roman rice balls sold for 1 Euro), wonderful salad at a cafe in Venice and the food highlight of the trip: wine tasting held at the hostel in Florence.

Since we only had a few days in Florence and knew we wouldn't have time to go into the wine country, when we saw that the hostel was having a wine tasting we decided to go for it. Both Connie and I were really glad that we did as it was one of the best parts of the trip. One of the hostel staff (who is in culinary school) and a wine maker from the nearby Chianti region were our hosts. We tasted 5 wines (all excellent) and paired with simple fresh foods like cheese, meat, bread, honey and olive oil. We learned how to smell the wine and taste it slowly, about the wine making process and the differences between the different varieties. It was great.

Like I said, I know that good food is available in Italy, but unfortunately most of the affordable places in touristy areas are overpriced and awful. I need to go back to Italy when I have the money to really enjoy the food there.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Florence is much more of a manageable city than Rome. In Rome, we spent 5 days, walked A LOT (and had lots of adventures on the metro and buses) and I still only feel like I scratched the surface. Florence, however, in just two days, I fell like I really got the feel of the city. Florence also seemed more calm and refined than Rome and had the art to go along with it. In addition to seeing David (you just have to, you know), we also had a truly wonderful intimate opera experience when we went to see Carmen performed in a small church. Unlike the giant opera house in Rome, this performance was simple and didn't have elaborate staging. The actors were literally just a few feet away from us.

We also had a bit of a scare in Florence when our hostel room was broken into in the middle of the night. We spent a rather sleepless night up with the hostel staff and the police, but we are happy to report that the intruder was caught thanks to the wonderful staff of the hostel and their superior security system. Caught on video! No doubt! Lesson learned- always lock up your stuff, even when you feel pretty safe . . .

Missed the Pope . . .

But still had a great time at the Vatican . . .

On Saturday (the day after Christmas) we got tickets to go to the Villa Borghese- one of the oldest art museums in the world. The art was fantastic, including several incredible Bernini sculptures, the only downside is that you only have exactly two hours to go through the whole gallery (and they are serious about it), so I didn't even get to part of the upstairs. After the museum, we walked around the mostly shuttered Rome with our new friend from the hostel, Sean. We went to the Spanish steps and to the designer shopping district. In America, the 26th of December is one of the busiest shopping days and we expected all of these stores to be open. To our surprise (and probably to the benefit of our wallets) the stores were all closed. We even had a hard time finding someplace open to eat that night!

On Sunday we got up early and headed to the Vatican. At least we thought it was early, when we got there we found out that early really means 6AM on free Sunday . . . and by 8:30, the line was already all the way around the outer walls and nearly spilling into St. Peter's Square. We got in line and got ready to wait. Some part of me loved all the lines in Italy, just because people in Albania don't really know how to line up. I did not relish standing in line for 3 hours only to have to rush through the museum (they close at 12:00 on Sundays), so when one of those annoying guys offering a guided tour and a chance to skip the line came by, we actually considered it. Maybe if I had been by myself, I would have just waited, but with Connie and the fact that we were already pretty tired from the last few days, we decided that the 20Euros to skip the line didn't sound like a bad deal. That is until we got near the entrance and got accosted by another tour guide! She railed at us for a few minutes about how these people pulling groups out of line were illegal and that no one had the right to skip the line and that the people in the front had been waiting since 6AM and that she was an "Official" guide and that she was going to call the police and . . . . .We were of course a little bit taken back, but our guide assured us that there was no problems and that we just needed to wait until she went inside with her group (she wasn't going to worry enough about us to miss out on her money) and then we could skip the line and go in as promised. We got inside and were put with a group and given very official feeling headsets and it felt mostly on the up and up to us, but who knows. I know that it is not uncommon for there to be guide groups that can skip the line at museums and I don't know the Italian or Vatican rules on the issue, but anyway . . . We were really happy that we got the tour as I think that the museum would have been very overwhelming without the guide. Even with the guide it was a bit overwhelming and I felt that I only really saw pieces . . . Of course, the Sistine Chapel was incredible, but so was the hall of maps and all of the ceilings and all of the statues and there is just too much! And that is not even counting St. Peter's Basilica, which was on just a whole other level. It seems that every Pope has felt the need to add something to the church, so every inch is covered in decoration- and there are a lot of inches to cover.

In the afternoon, we headed back out to stores that had been closed the days before and did some shopping. Let me tell you, it is hard to be in Italy on a Peace Corps budget! Just to give you an idea . . . in the 10 days, including accommodation and travel I spent almost 5 months of my living allowance! But is was worth every penny . . .