Wednesday, April 28, 2010

One month and counting

My countdown begins.

I leave Peace Corps in exactly one month (although I will be in Albania still for about two weeks after that). As I approach this date, I am, of course, filled with a lot of mixed emotions. I will be sad to leave, I have come to love this beautiful country and especially my little mountain town. I started to make a list (I really like making lists) of some of the (sometimes very unexpected) things that I will miss and not miss about my two years here:

Things I won't miss:

1. Furgons

2. The weird noise my toilet makes when I flush it, dubbed by my dad "the climaxing buffalo"

3. Frozen pipes

4. Trying to light my wood stove with frozen hands

5. Parties in the bar next door to my house that go till 2am when I'm wanting to go to sleep

6. Furgons

7. Hand washing my clothes and waiting for days for them to dry

8. Having too much time to knit, read and watch movies (alone).

9. The small town of Peshkopi. It is hard every time you walk into the post office or store and everyone knows everything about you and is all up in your business.

10. Mentaliteti Shipatar (the Albanian Mentality) and "avash, avash" (slowly, slowly or step by step). The idea that things will never change is that everything here takes sooooooooooo long. You get beat down when people keep telling you that nothing will ever change and that nothing we do will make a difference. I swear, the next person to tell me, "Mos e merzit, avash avash" (Don't worry, step by step) will get slapped.

Things I'll miss:

1. Getting plenty of sleep- never in my life have I been this well rested. Part of the charm of living in a small boring place is the ability (nay, luxury) of going to bed early and waking up without an alarm. I probably sleep an average of 9 hours a night here, something that I don't think I'd done in America since middle school and something that I don't expect to be able to do in America ever again (being a teacher means getting up at 5!)

2. The view out my kitchen window- pictures say it better than words, but pictures can't capture the beauty of the fog rolling down the hill and engulfing the town or the smell of the apple blossoms . . .

3. The horrible translations on the bottom of the News 24 screen "The president felicitated the country on independence." It may be a real word in English, but no one talks like that. Seriously. Seriously funny.

4. My wood stove

5. The small town of Peshkopi- it's amazing how nice it feels to walk into the post office or grocery store and have everyone know you, ask about your family, your work, and how you've been.

6. Having the time to knit and read and listen to news and watch movies.

7. Cooking dinner with Dylan.

8. 50 lek pilaf.

9. Circle dancing.

10. My students in MUN and OA. They give me hope for the future of this country. When things are going just avash avash, they encourage me and make me believe that change is possible and Shqiperia po ndryshon (Albania is changing- this was the slogan of the Democratic Party in the election last year, but despite that connotation, it is something to believe in!).

Friday, April 23, 2010

My last call for funding help . . . from Albania at least

As a generally "do-gooder" type, I feel like I am always asking for money from my friends and family. Help me with this project! Support this great organization! The only thing that makes me feel better about this is that when my other do-gooder friends ask, I usually try my best to help them out with their causes (I haven't much for the past two years . . . it is a bit hard when living on $200 a month, but I promise to start giving again when I get home . . .).

Anyway, I have one last call for help before I leave Albania. I have been working for the past year with a group of kids called Outdoor Ambassadors. Last summer I took 6 kids from Peshkopi to a camp in the south of the country for a week. At that camp, the idea came up to try to send some of the best kids from all around the country to a program in the states. Outdoor Ambassadors works with about 200 youth spread throughout the country and a lucky eight of these kids have been selected to attend camp at the Wolf-Ridge Environmental Learning Center in northern Minnesota and to participate in two weeks of home-stays with American families. These youth are the leaders of a new movement toward a cleaner and more environmentally friendly Albania. One of my kids (17 year old Fatjon) was selected along with 7 other students from 4 cities. Right now, Albania is considered by the EU to be the most polluted country in Europe. The young people in Albania have never seen a landscape free of plastic bags, bottles, pop cans, and other garbage. The drinking water is severely toxic due to the highly polluted rivers, lakes, and seas. As the infrastructure in Albania slowly develops, the means to take care of these problems begin to appear, but cannot be utilized until the mentality surrounding these issues also begins to change. It was only thirty to forty years ago that America was dealing with some of these very same issues and showing these students one of our most beautiful national forests, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, will give them a great vision of how the most protected areas in nature can be preserved and protected.

We had a great idea- send 8 great kids to a once in a lifetime experience in America, now we just needed to get it paid for. These types of projects can be really difficult to get off the ground since the cost is so high, but we looked at many different funding sources and decided that if we all worked together (the 8 kids, and volunteers from all around the country) that we could get it done. We found a great camp in Minnesota and with the help of some Minnesotan PCVs found families to host the kids before and after the camp. Then we applied to the US Embassy here in Albania for the airfare. They like to encourage cultural exchange between the two countries and they were happy to help, now we just needed the camp tuition. This is where you come in . . .

More about our project and instructions for donating can be found at:

The kids are working their butts off doing local fundraising, but we still have a long way to go. Any little bit helps! Thank you for your support over the past two years and I promise that this is the last time I will ask for money from Albania . . . until I get a job back in America with some other do-gooder type group . . .

Monday, April 19, 2010

Site Mate Roulette

A year ago at this time, I was anxiously awaiting the announcement of the site placements for Group 12 because one of those lucky kids would be my future site mate. A site mate makes a big difference in your service. A good site mate is someone who you can spend time with, relax with, work with and puts up with all of your crazy. A site mate is the closest thing that many volunteers get to a spouse- it is not uncommon to hear "you guys act like an old married couple." The site selection process can throw together people that would never be friends in any other life than Peace Corps and this random throwing together of people can create some interesting relationships. I have seen site mate pairings that started out great only to disintegrate into silent feud (or all out war) within a few months (two examples that I can think of involve three women placed in one site- this can be a deadly combination as usually it will end up being two against one as two of the girls become close and leave the other one out). I have seen people that you would think never would get along end up the best of friends.

I remember two years ago how nervous I was that I would get to Peshkopi and Kenji and I wouldn't get along. What would I do if he hated me? What would I do if he never wanted to hang out? The only thing I put on my site placement form was that I wanted a site mate (I didn't care if I was in a big or small place, if I was far or close to Tirana) but what I really meant is that I wanted a COOL sitemate. Of course the Peace Corps staff tries their best with placements- looking to work compatibility the most, but they can't predict who will get along. My fears were completely unfounded, of course, and Kenji and I got along great. I was almost just as nervous about the site placements last year. I was so lucky with Kenji, could lightning really strike twice? I was hoping for a girl actually. Kenji was great, but sometimes you just need some girl time, right? The odds were in my favor- like my group, G12 was more girls than guys. I didn't get a girl, I got Dylan. And I was terrified again. He seemed like an alright guy, but what if he hated me? Dylan has turned out to be great too. We have a different relationship than I had with Kenji, which makes sense. They are very different people, but I love them both. Kenji and I became very good friends, Dylan and I are almost like brother and sister (some of the kids here even thought that early on- they were very confused by the fact that we have different last names) meaning that we fight and sometimes drive each other crazy, but in the end we know that there is love . . .
Today, the site placements are announced for the new group, G13. I have only met a few of them as I have been busy here and have not made it down to Elbasan for any training. They are a big group, 50 people, the biggest group ever in Albania. Today they are going to go through the incredible range of emotions that come with site placement- excitement, fear, hope and happiness. Hopefully, whoever comes up to Peshkopi will appreciate the simple beauty of this quiet town and will take care of Dylan for me. . .

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

No one can warn you

I would like to preface this post by saying a few things. I don't want people reading this blog to worry too much about my mental health, but I think that it is important for me to share all parts of my service, not just the shiny happy parts like going to Italy for Christmas. This is something that I have been thinking about for a long time, but I was nervous to write about it because I was afraid that it would make everyone worried. Please don't worry, I am good, but this is part of my experience and I have learned a lot from being alone . . .

During Peace Corps training, they tell you that you will be lonely. This is one of the major dangers of Peace Corps. Sometimes you are the only American or other foreigner in your town or village or maybe one of a few (in Peshkopi there are now 2- me, Dylan. The Canadian guy married to an Albanian has now left). They tell you that there may be times when you don't have a lot of work to do when you will spend a lot of time alone. They tell you to be careful and that making friends and being integrated into the community will help. They tell you that it will be lonely, but no one can really warn you.

A lot of my ideas about Peace Corps came from my parents- I have been hearing their PC stories forever. When I think about the difference between my parent's service and mine, there are many differences; internet and other technology (cell phones, ipods, laptops etc.) but also differences that come from the cultures and positions we have. But the biggest difference I can see between my parent's service and mine is that they had each other and so they couldn't warn me because although I'm sure they felt loneliness, it is very different from the loneliness I feel.

No one can really warn you about the loneliness because it is a different kind of lonely than any I have ever been before. I have lived "alone" for short periods of time in my life, but I have always had a support system in place so that my "alone" was never really alone. When I moved to college, I moved about 2 miles away. I had a roommate. I went home on the weekends and did laundry. The first time I was really away from my parents, I lived for a semester in Prague. For that experience, I also had a roommate and 100 other foreign students. Even though I didn't really know anyone, I made friends fast and only felt really lonely a few times.

Peace Corps is different. It is a different kind of alone than I have ever been. During training, things were kind of similar to when I studied abroad. I saw people every day and I was too busy to really feel too lonely. But once I got to site I had to learn to be alone. A lot. It's not that I haven't made friends, because I have, some great ones. It's not that I don't see people, because I do, all the time. It is not only that you are meeting new people and having to create all new relationships, you also have to do it in another language and another culture. I get up, I go to the office, I have meetings, I have coffee, I have lunch (although, often I go home and eat alone), I say hi to people on the streets, and I go to dinner at friend's houses. But I spend more time alone here than I have ever before. Usually at least a few nights a week (especially in the winter) I am at home alone in the evenings. When I'm not traveling, I'm usually home on the weekends too.

For as long as I can remember, my dad has talked to himself. We all would hear him in his office or darkroom or out back working on the car having full on conversations with himself, sometimes in more than one language. I have finally developed my own running dialogue that would rival my father's. I have started talking to myself. I have always had an internal voice over, but for the first time in my life, I find myself vocalizing all the time. I fill the silence with podcasts I download of news or radio and TV programs. I listen while I wash the dishes and cook dinner. I fill the time with baking and knitting and reading and playing solitare on my computer. I think a lot.

When I see people, for example when I travel to Peace Corps training, it is a treat. In Albania we are lucky because even as one of the most isolated volunteers, I am only 4-5 hours away from the capital and other volunteers. I have made some really strong bonds with some of the other volunteers and I see myself staying friends with some for life. But (except for my wonderful sitemate) they are not here and do not ease the solitude. It can be a very solitary existence and even though they try, no one can really warn you.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Is this kosher for Passover?

Who knew that probably my most orthodox (religiously) Passover celebration would be celebrated in Albania, making it quite an unorthodox event indeed . . .
I'm not religious, not even really a little bit. But I love culture, tradition, customs, holidays and food, so last year when I happened to be in Elbasan during the week of Passover and was roped in to helping throw together a Seder at the last minute by Molly, a G12 PCV who is much more observant. This thrown together Seder was lots of fun, with a few other trainees and some Albanian PC staff, but it was not really like any Seder that Molly or I had had in the past (we tried to make our own matzo, it was interesting . . . ). This year, Molly decided months ago that she would host a Seder at her house in Vlore and started making plans.

The first thing that she did was call the Chabad Center in Thessaloniki. Chabad is a sect of Hasidim that has centers all over the world and does outreach to Jews. Molly called them hoping to get some kosher meat (she has been vegetarian since she arrived here since kosher meat isn't available). It turns out the kosher meat was really the least they could do. The rabbi in Thessaloniki arranged for two huge boxes of meat, a very large box of kosher for passover stuff and enough matzo to last for weeks to be sent with two traveling rabbis. Basically, Molly mail ordered rabbis. Seriously. Who knew that you could mail order a rabbi? Or two?
Before the rabbis arrived with their massive amounts of food, we had to prepare Molly's house. Not being observant in my house, I had the vague idea that you had to get rid of the bread in the house before passover, but we never really did that. But with the rabbis coming we had to be serious about clearing out the bread (and everything else not kosher) and then cleaning the house. For starters, Molly had an incredible amount of food that had to be cleared out and taken to another volunteers house, like more food than I have ever had in my house, more food than I probably ever had in my house in America. Since nothing in Albania is officially koser (and even less is kosher for passover) we basically cleaned out her entire kitchen. We then proceeded to scrub everything down. Even with all the scrubbing and clearing out, when the rabbis arrived they covered every available space in tin foil, just to make sure. We also took all of the utensils and dishes to be used and dipped them in a spring nearby to make them kosher. This was a bit weird, and the Albanians filling up their water bottles at the spring thought we were nuts. For once I agreed with them . . .

The rabbis, Ari and Mendel from Brooklyn, are "young rabbis" (unmarried) of the Chabad sect. They went to religious school their whole lives and started to study to be rabbis when they were very young. It was very interesting to talk to them since I don't think that I have ever had (or probably will ever have again) the chance to meet and talk to a Hasidic rabbi (or man for that matter), since there is generally separation of the sexes in the orthodox Jewish groups and not much interaction with other groups. Chabad, however, is a really interesting group. With a philosophy of outreach, there are Chabad centers all around the world serving Jewish communities. They actually compare themselves a little bit to Peace Corps and their leader often reference Peace Corps as a model for their outreach missions. The mission as I understand it is for the rabbis to help moderately observant Jews (Molly) become closer to their faith and secular or nonobservant Jews (me) come back to the faith. I don't think I'm going to go out and join an orthodox community anytime soon, but it was still interesting to talk to them.

After two days cleaning, we then spent two days cooking. We made all the passover staples- tzimes, brisket and matzo ball soup. I also experimented a little with the random ingredients I had and made apple matzo meal muffins (similar to the vegetable kugel that I would make at home, but without the sweet potatoes). Travis (the other lapsed Jew living in Vlore) came over and helped by creating a wonderful potato apple matzo stuffed chicken. With limited oven space and random ingredients I think that we came up with two really fantastic meals. For the two Seder dinners we had 11 guests at each (including me, Molly, Travis and the rabbis) some Albanians, one Kosovar Jew, a random Israeli guy living in Kosovo and of course some Jewish and some non-Jewish volunteers.
The day after the second dinner I stayed in Vlore to be part of a panel discussion in one of Amy's classes about culture in different parts of the US. The rabbis, restricted from work (including travel) for the first two full days of passover, stayed until sundown after the second day and then raced back to Thessaloniki to get a flight back to the US before the Sabbath set in . . .

This was definately one of the more interesting passover celebrations I have had in my life . . . all I can think now is . . . next year in ?????

PS- because the rabbis kept a pretty strict level of kosher and observed the "no work" rule for the first two days, we also tried to observe this, so there are not many pictures (taking a picture is work too!) all of these pics were snapped before sundown on the first day.