Sunday, November 3, 2013

Insight to My Life and Albanian Culture: Fall Edition

I know I am not doing the best job at updating this blog, but on the bright side, I've been really busy with work.
Here we go with today’s categories: 1) Daily life and schedule 2) The bluntness of Albanians 3) Concept of time 4) A weekend in Fushe Arrez

1) Daily Life and Schedule

I have finally established routine. I wake up at 6am every morning, I do some Yoga and I fix myself a breakfast off hard boiled eggs, Turkish coffee with Allspice and cinnamon, and a fruit of the season (which happens to be pomegranate right now). I live a hop skip and a jump away from the school, and school begins at 7:50, but I feel the need to wake up extra early because I am not a morning person. I need the time to stop being angry at the world and also to get my mind in gear to speak Albanian. My Counterpart and I teach 4 classes on Mondays, 6 on Tuesdays, 6 on Wednesdays, no school on Thursdays, and 6 classes on Fridays. Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays I stay after school for an hour. On Mondays I help students who are behind and want to catch up. On Tuesdays, I teach the teachers English. One Thursdays I come for 1 hour after school to work with the Advanced English students—we do leadership activities and Model UN. There is a short break after 3 classes, and the other teachers and I always go for a coffee and a student usually brings us some byrek. We take turns paying for each others’ coffees.  Once I get home from school I prepare a lunch and work on extra school stuff such as grading papers, lesson planning, and test making. After, I go down to the lokal (café) downstairs and hang out with my landlord’s sons who are like my little brothers here, Eli (21) and Kristi (16). I usually stay there until closing at 7:30. After that, I go back home, eat dinner, sometimes work out, and pretty immediately pass out.

2) The bluntness of Albanians

Have a pimple? Gained or lost some weight? Wearing ugly or non-flattering clothes? Looking tired or more energetic than usual? Albanians will let you know. There is no tip-toeing around the situation. I can’t quite decide how to deal with this aspect of Albanian culture yet. In some senses, I kind of like it. It’s nice to not have to guess what people are thinking. Americans are white lying champions, and sometimes I really want to know… “Do I look fat in this dress?” The American answer is always “No, oh my god you don’t ever look fat!” The Albanian response… “Yes. You should wear the other dress because it makes you look more beautiful.” I appreciate the honesty, but sometimes the blows are brutal and I have to thank my stars that I have a healthy self-esteem. As an American, my first instinct is to perceive this bluntness as rude, but now that I am getting accustomed to it, I just find it normal. In some ways it makes me more comfortable.  It’s like..okay all my flaws are on the table, and now we can move on. For example, “Miranda, you have a pimple. It is pretty big and it makes you look like a teenager, but don’t worry because you still have a beautiful face.” Or “Oh Miss, please wear contact lenses. You are so much more beautiful without glasses.” These are phrases I hear pretty often. Backhanded compliments? Honesty? Tough love? I don't really know what this all is, but whatever the case, I am getting used to it. Another thing is the comparisons. Without fail Albanians are the first to point out who is better at what. They let you know who speaks better Albanian and who is dressed the best out of you and your friends. I can take the personal hits, but when I have to watch it happen to a fellow friend or volunteer, I get extra uncomfortable!

3) Concept of time

     It’s already November?! Woahhh..New volunteers are coming in only 4 months, I’m going on my first out-of-country holiday next month, and language refresher is this month. Where is all the time going?! My concept of time is off. I seem to think of myself as only being here for a few months, but I’m on the latter half of finishing up my 1st year. I am curious to see how my concept of time will change throughout my service here, and that is why I am documenting now.

4)  A weekend in Fushe Arrez

     I went to visit (in my opinion) the most isolated volunteer this weekend in a city called Fushe Arrez. The ride there is a crazy twisty turny road up the mountains. However, it was worth the effort to get there. I was really pleased to see all the work that my friend James is doing there. He has an impressive amount of kids that he does outdoor activities with every weekend. This particular weekend we played basketball, sharks and minnows, hiked up a mountain, and then played American football. It was easy to tell the kids loved James and really appreciated his time and dedication to them. They also spoke English extremely well and were very fun, sweet kids to be around. Fushe Arrez itself is a beautiful town surrounded by nature. It’s a perfect fit for James who is from Montana. 

James and one of his students picking up trash after the activity:
 The kids of Fushe Arrez:
 Me and the girls in Fushe Arrez:
 The hike!
 An 8 year old made me into a cat for Halloween :)
 My "little brother" Kristi:
 My neighbor teaching me how to make pumpkin byrek:
 My Albanian Jack-O-Lantern!
 Making Raki and roasting chestnuts with my host family in Milot:
 My wonderful counterpart serving me dinner for Bajram at her house:

Thursday, September 26, 2013

The many things that have happened in Milot

A lot of things have happened and I’ve been really lazy with the updates. Here are the topics: 1-Milot’s Health Fair, 2-My host sister’s wedding,  3- My 1st experience with couchsurfers,  4-The night I was kidnapped by my host family, 5-World Vision partnership, Impromptu speech, and youth leadership conference in Pogradec, 6-The start of school

1)      Milot’s Health Fair

I wanted to get going with a community project, and I saw that there was a lack of knowledge about basic health information in Milot--thus I began to plan a Health Fair. I took a tooth model, a scale, and some pens from the Peace Corps office, tables and chairs from my school, a Blood pressure cuff from Milot’s Health Center, and used other volunteers as resources. It was a true collaboration of efforts to make this fair happen. Originally, the Health Center did not want to lend me a BP cuff because they thought that nobody would be interested in the fair, and they did not want their name attached to failure. They eventually caved, but decided that no nurses would come to help this time around. I planned to have the fair at Milot’s weekly market, and I wasn’t quite sure if I could claim a space. Things seemed a little fuzzy for a while, and I have to admit I was pretty nervous about its turnout. However, the day came, and the fair was a success. I had created 300 little certificates for people to record their weight and blood pressure, and almost all of them were gone by the end. People were excited to see what was going on at our table, and they were truly interested in furthering their knowledge of health. I spoke with a nurse from the Health Center after, and she told me she heard the fair was wonderful.  She would like to work with me to plan another health fair for the school.

2)      My host sister’s (Bana’s) wedding

 The wedding was say the least. It began with a “bachelorette party” that consisted of going to my family’s local (café), getting fake nails with a bunch of other young women, and dancing around to traditional Albanian and modern Albanian and American music. I didn’t really want the fake nails, but all the other women were doing it and it felt like the right thing to do (NOTE TO SELF – that was a bad choice. They took me forever to pry off my fingers and they damaged my nails. Not to mention they were completely useless and impractical. I couldn’t even type on my phone). We stayed out pretty late… just us ladies dancing around and talking about what we would wear to the wedding for THE NEXT 3 DAYS!
The next day was day 1 of the wedding. It began during the early hours of the evening and lasted until 2am. The whole Milot community (Only the bride’s community members) attended the party. It consisted of one of my xhaxhi’s (Uncle’s) feeding me and another volunteer, Kate, a lot of beer and us dancing around to traditional Albanian music for hours on end in the school yard in front of my host family’s house. Most dances were Albanian circle dancing which is a series of steps repeated over and over again while holding hands and moving in a circle – It is EXTREMELY fun! Kate and I stumbled home (starving – We only drank beer. There was no food) and ate whatever was in my fridge at the time. The next day we went to my host family’s house around 3pm. My host sister sat in the family lokal in her gigantic white wedding dress. She sat on a chair in the corner, make up in full forced, and dress sprawled out across the floor. My other host sisters fed her by hand. Her only job for the day was to sit and look pretty while community members came by to wish her congratulations and good luck. While she sat there, other family members handed out candies and sweets that were beautifully wrapped. Later on that that night, there was a huge dinner at Milot’s only restaurant, Barcelona. The place was decked out with ribbons, bows and confetti. Kate and I scored ourselves a spot at the “Family” Table which was very flattering, but super awkward! We were served plates and plates of meet, pickled vegetable, other traditional Albanian treats, and of course…beer. There was a lot of dancing, but mostly for the family of the bride. The husband made an entrance late into the dinner with all of his close family members, and then he sat with Bana for the rest of the night. This party went until 3am. Once again, Kate and I stumbled home feeling absolutely exhausted.

The next morning Kate had to leave pretty early, and I had to be at my host family’s house for the last bit of the wedding. It was so early, and I was super tuckered out. I waited for what seemed like hours for something to happen. The whole community just waited and waited in front of my host family’s house and there were a lot of decorated cars in the school yard. Finally, the husband’s side of the family arrived dressed in ball gowns and tuxedos. They greeted everyone in my host family and then went into my host family’s lokal for lunch and their own private party. Half an hour later, my sister emerged from the house (practically falling out of the door) bawling her eyes out. My host family followed close behind crying as well. Why was she crying? This is an Albanian tradition for the bride. She leaves the house upset because she will never live there again—essentially she is giving up her family to join another family. As she walked to her new husband’s car she kept crying, and the whole Milot community followed behind her. I oddly found myself crying as well. I don’t know if it was because I was tired or because I knew I would miss Bana, but for whatever reason, I was caught up in the emotion of it all.
Kate has an awesome blog post about the wedding as well so I encourage you to check her site out at:

3)      My 1st experience with couchsurfers

Two Polish doctors came to visit Milot because they wanted to see “The real” Albania. They could not have chosen a better place. When they arrived, the community wanted to meet them, as usual. My school director saw them and decided to invite them to see his village in Fushe Milot. My director is in his mid 30’s, but he is unmarried so he still lives with his mother. His mom cooked us a gigantic meal all made from fresh items from the village. It was delicious! The couchsurfers and my director exchanged Polish and Albanian flags. It was a really nice gesture on both parts. When we returned to Milot, Max and Ola (my CSers) wanted to see the Health Center. I took them to see the center, and they asked to see how the nurses there check hemoglobin and glucose levels. The equipment turned out to be 40 years outdated, so Mat and Ola took a video to take back to their University in Poland to raise awareness of the poor medical conditions in Milot. With any luck, they can raise some money to buy new equipment for the Health Center here. Having couchsurfers made me realize how integrated I have become in the community. I was able to translate for the surfers, and really show them around my city. I also realized  how difficult it would be to be a tourist here without knowing somebody who lived here. Taking a furgon on your own is difficult because you have no idea where to go or how much money to pay. There also are not any official stations. The difference between old and new lek really threw my surfers off as well. Albanians tend to speak in old lek (adding an extra 0 onto the price and making items seem 10 times as expensive). My surfers thought the shopkeepers here were trying to cheat them. Despite the little bits of confusion, it was cool to have them here, and because my 1st experience was good, I will likely continue to take in more couchsurfers.

4)      The night I was kidnapped by my host family

A week after the wedding, I was in my house just relaxing. I had half a bottle of wine left from a “wine and cheese” night that I had with another volunteer, Amber. This particular day while relaxing, I decided to finish the wine. I was also simultaneously watching a Chinese film in Italian. Needless to say, I was a little out of it. I was still tired from the wedding and a little overwhelmed with preparing for the school year to start. I had anticipated going to sleep early when all of the sudden I got a call from my host sister, Ina. “Come downstairs now!  Mom and Dad are waiting for you!” I didn’t know what the hell was going on or why my host parents were waiting for me, but I threw on some pants and ran downstairs. It was after I got downstairs that I realized I was a little tipsy. I stepped on a loose tile and almost fell down only to look up at my 16 year old Albanian language tutor (Kristi) who was staring at me very puzzled. I looked back at him and in English (which he can’t understand) “Uhhh..I’m lost. Where are my host parents?” Before he could say anything, my host parents yelled my name, directed me into their vehicle and we took off.  When we arrived, there was a gigantic dinner waiting for us with a huge baby goat in the middle – and yes, the head was served as well. There was a man playing a traditional Albanian instrument (like a mini 2 string guitar) and singing about…well he was actually singing about drinking Raki and putting pictures on Facebook. It was odd, but awesome at the same time. He just made up the song as he went. I even got a shout out. So what was this dinner for?! It was very the husband’s side of the family to celebrate the recent wedding of my host sister. Bana had requested that I come to meet them. We watched the wedding video, ate a lot of food, and of course… drank a lot of beer (Yes, I was hammered). Bana showed me her new room and gave me a photo of her from her husband’s wedding because they have 2 different weddings. She looked so beautiful! She was dressed in a dress and looked like the queen of hearts. I asked Bana if she was happy, and she smiled at me, holding back some tears and only shook her head no. It was then that I realized why I had cried the day she left. She is only 19 years old, and she had been taken away from her family to live with a 26 year old man. The entire dinner she did not get to sit down and eat with us. She only served everyone else at the table. I hope she will become happier as time goes on. I miss her a lot already.

5)      World Vision partnership, Impromptu speech, and youth leadership conference in Pogradec

One day my school director asked me to stay after school preparation hours, and I was really confused why. Trend—I am always confused. When I arrived he explained that I would be meeting with 2 World Vision Representatives. They came in and to my surprise, they could speak English! They discussed the types of activities and clubs I wanted to start, and told them about my ideas for a Girl’s, Model UN, Reading, and Outdoor Ambassador’s club, and they thought they were great. They offered the school a partnership and we agreed to share resources.  Their first request was that I lead a workshop at a conference for the leaders of Kurbin (the district that Milot is in). After the meeting with the WV reps, the next day there was a WV teacher’s training for Kurbin. I went with all my colleagues, and we had lunch and discussed experiences that we’ve had as teachers. It was a little hard for me to follow along because the training was all in Albanian. I kept turning to my colleagues and saying in Albanian “I want ice cream.” They just smiled back and said “Me too.” At the end of the training, when we were all ready to go home, 1 WV rep asked me to give a quick speech about gender equality. She had noticed that all the men only sat with other men and the women with other women, and she wanted me to point it out and say something. Luckily, my counterpart was there to translate for me, but after my little impromptu speech, chaos erupted. Some teachers were very against my desire to empower women. My colleagues stood by my opinion, but it was a very stressful time, and a lot of arguing occurred. The training ended with my colleagues taking me out for a big ice cream. They are great!

A week later, I attended the youth leadership conference in Pogradec. I went with Kate (same volunteer who came to the wedding J ). We gave presentations on Public Speaking and Relationship Building. Pogradec was beautiful. It is right along the border of Albania and Macedonia and has a beautiful lake named Ohrid. The workshop went really well, and the students did a great job. However, they had a little bit of a hard time taking criticism. It was a lot of their first times speaking in Public and although they were nervous, they gave it their best. It’s students like these who lead me to believe Albania will have a bright future!

6)      The Start of School

The start of school finally arrived after a long Summer. I would be lying if I told you I wasn’t pretty nervous. My counterpart and I decided to come off aggressive and clear. I am already very young for a teacher, and my counterpart is even younger than I am. We decided it’s better to act tough and not be walked all over. We have a strict no cell phone policy and a homework point system. If we see a cell phone in class, it goes right into a bucket. If students don’t do their homework, they must write their name in a book and they receive a minus for the day. 3 minuses = a full # grade down for the entire year. They can earn back a minus for the day if they participate a lot. Albanian students have much worse behavior than American students as a whole. They tend to shout a lot, leave the classroom, and talk back. A lot of times I can hear my students telling my counterpart that they won’t respond to me because I don’t speak Albanian and won’t understand. Some days, we teach 6 hours in a row. Some days, I want to scream at my students for being so disrespectful. However, there are times that the “poor” student will speak up and try his best. There are times students thank me and my counterpart after class, and there are times they tell us we are their favorite teacher’s and that English is their favorite class. It is times like these that make it all worth it. My colleagues have also asked me to teach them English 1 day a week for an hour after school so I will be doing that too. Also, Model UN applications were due, so now we wait until Oct 1st to see if Milot gets to participate in this year’s conference. Fingers crossed.

Here’s to a good school year!

Here are some photos from my recent endeavors: 

Goat dinner:
 Goat head:
 Health Fair:

 Little Village by Pogradec:
 Bana's Wedding:

 Lake Ohrid:

 Public Speaking Workshop:

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

My Albanian Coffee Cup Fortune

Today I met a villager from Fushe Milot (Field Milot) which is a little village right outside of Milot. His profession is painting, and I have never met or seen him before. After exchanging greetings, he asked me if I would let him read my fortune. In Albania, because we drink Turkish coffee here, there is always residue left in the cup, and from your residue, Albanians believe you can read fortunes. Corny, I know. However, I was in the mood today for some mystical fortune action. I mean...pse jo? (Why not?)

After I finished my coffee, swirling and smudging took place, and then it was time for me to hear about my future.Here is what Zhela said:

I have a beautiful future. Someone in my home is very sick and it seems there is nothing they can do to get better, but they will. I will not be happy with my next job because I will be too busy thinking of somebody else. I am accepting of every type of people, and in my future that will lead me to happiness. I am meant to take a long journey in order to figure myself out. Someone in my extended family will prove not to be such a great person, but they will not cause me any problems. I will have a wonderful meal with my family sometime in Albania in my house. I will eventually light a candle for someone and it will have a very special meaning. I will affect many people positively in my lifetime.

It was an interesting fortune reading. I was really expecting him to tell me I would get married to a fine Albanian man and have 9 children, but his fortune for me involved travel and acceptance of other cultures. Because I don't believe in fortune reading, I was really impressed with his ability to come up with these predictions. In a way, I felt it showed growth for Albania--movement in the right direction.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Cutting around the mold and bucket showers

Hello readers! Here are today's topics: Adjustments, Albanian Expectations, and RPB. Warning, this entry contains bitching and complaining..

The 2 big ones are a non-working fridge and a lack of hot water. When you don't have a lot of money, there is nothing more discouraging than opening a fridge to find spoiled, ant-infested food. If I were in the States, I would demand for my landlord to fix the fridge, and I would immediately discard the rotten food covered in ants. However, this is Albania, and I am poor, and there is no way my landlord could fix/afford a new fridge. So.. what do I do? I cut off all the spoiled parts of the food, rinse off the ants, and eat the remains. Yum. Hot water heater is very small so it only heats enough water for about 1 minute's worth of shower. Here is my solution: The water comes out piping hot, so I fill up half a bucket with the hot water (30 seconds worth) and the other half with cold water. I use this bucket and a sponge for body washing and shaving, and then I have enough warm water left in the shower head to rinse my hair. Voila! Only issue is all the wiring for my water heater is on the outside of the wall so there is a higher chance of electrocution, and recently it has started dripping water all over the wires so I am afraid to plug it in. But anyway... let's talk about coffee :) I can't leave my house without being invited to several coffees. Due to my recent struggles with boredom, I've been accepting almost all my coffee invites, and I stupidly have been drinking coffee every time. WIRED. DEHYDRATED. Coffee problems.. Ok, this problem has an easy solution: stop ordering coffee. However, sometimes I find myself unsure what to order, and before I can say anything an espresso is being placed right in front of me. Oh well.. guess it's better than raki.

Albanian Expectations-
Mostly regarding time... I go from 0 to 60 in a matter of seconds. For example, I'll be sitting on my couch staring at my Yoga mat when all the sudden I get a call from my director telling me I need to begin several fundraising projects all before school starts in September. Oh yeah, and my school director doesn't speak English which always makes it a fun conversation, especially on the phone where I can't use visual aids to communicate. We are on the same page with our desired projects, but the time part is the issue. Also, if I was supposed to raise all this money before school started, shouldn't we have discussed the projects a little earlier? Mehh

If you weren't aware, there is A LOT of free time for volunteers during the Summer months in Peace Corps. It is difficult to start school projects and/or camps in the Summer because we have not met our students yet, and everyone is gone on vacation. Anyway -- free time. When you have a lot of free time, you have a lot of time to think, watch movies, work out (or at least think about the idea of working out), study, have coffee, blog, Skype, start hobbies, read, cook...pinterest, yeah you get the point. I am struggling to find a hobby that I enjoy. I have tried drawing, crafting, dancing, singing, but nothing seems to stick. I get bored pretty easily. There was a series of 4 days where I just went to the beach with my host family, but that quickly led to serious dehydration and possible skin damage. Happy side note--My (almost) sitemate, Mark, celebrated his birthday and it was a lot of fun. His sister came into town with her friend, and it was cool to have some non-PCV Americans to hang out with. It was also nice to see Mark so happy on his birthday, and I was happy to take part in the celebration! It made me really excited for when people from America come to visit me :) --  I think the most difficult part of having too much free time lies in 2 things: 1. Feeling like you're not accomplishing anything and 2. Too much thinking time. Seriously, I think so much these days. I over analyze every part of my life, and it gets exhausting. There is nothing more sad than getting tired from sitting in your house, on your couch doing nothing but thinking.

On the brighter side, I am getting really excited for my host sister's wedding September 1st, and for school to start! It will be nice to be on a schedule and to finally feel like I am doing consistent work. It will also be nice to have my counterpart back to translate for me! I have been practicing my shqip by reading books, the newspaper, and by chatting with my community members over coffee.

Ok, picture time!

My host mom helping me put on the traditional Albanian dress that I'll wear to my sister's wedding:
 Me and my host dad:
 My most-visited shopkeeper, Vera.
 Hanging with the girls:
 Days of having a washing machine are long gone!

Friday, July 26, 2013

What have I been up to?

Today's categories: 1) New Apartment 2) Shkoder Camp 3) The Power of Friendship 4) 4th of July in Ksamil 5) Random Panda Banter (RPB)

1) New Apartment
So the day finally came. I have my own lovely apartment, and it feels AWESOME! I think it's important to have space to just lay around and be disgusting. The only rough part was I had to pay full price for my host family rent as well as 1/3 rent for my new place so I am slightly broke, but that's Peace Corps. I have had a lot of help moving in and gaining things/furniture for my house from fellow volunteers, and from my host family. I will go on to speak more about this in my Power of Friendship section :) I have a giant balcony, a living room/kitchen, a bathroom, and a bedroom. I have a stove that electrocutes me if I don't wear shower shoes while cooking, a refrigerator, and a water heater that heats water for only 1 minute, but really it's no problem! I kind of enjoy living like this. I am so grateful to have my own place, and to be living the life of others around me. I am learning a lot about conservation of all, water, electricity etc. They are lessons I really needed to learn. My neighbors, and really the whole Milot community really look out for me. They care about me a lot and insist I call them family. It's a nice feeling, and I am happy to be placed in such a cozy site. The people here motivate me to do great things.

2) Shkoder Camp
The Shkoder camp was/is being held in a beach town called Velipoje. It is run by a volunteer named Danielle and her counterpart, Orida. I have to say, I was really pleased with the camp. The girls were very well-spoken and very sweet. They were an impressive bunch of girls, who had a very progressive and caring teacher. Orida stressed how Danielle made her dream of having this camp come true, and it was great for me to see their relationship. I hope my relationship with my counterpart will be as strong. Amber (another PCV and now a best friend of mine) and I volunteered at the camp as counselors, and we taught the girls about eating healthy, exercise, and healthy body image. It felt really nice to lead the girls in exercises, and have them participate in conversation.

3) The Power of Friendship
I have always relied somewhat on having friendships to carry me through life. Friendship is so so important..everywhere in the world. Here in Albania, I rely on my friends in Milot as well as on other volunteers. Amber, Mark, and April (in particular) have helped out financially through this month. Without them, it would have been a much bigger struggle. Amber helped me decorate and have a smooth transition into my new place, Mark (the closest PCV in proximity to me) brought me blankets, silverware, and Tupperware, and April lent me some money. Along with the volunteers, the community has been buying me coffee and food, and inviting me into their homes. Friends and family back home have also been wonderful. They keep me connected to the States, and make me feel missed and loved.

4) The 4th of July in Ksamil
A lot of volunteers went to the deeeep south for the 4th. We camped out on the beach and went to see the ancient ruins of Butrint. It was so nice to see some friendly faces, including my best friend from PST, Tyler. A bunch of us went to this restaurant where they served delicious burgers (which are almost impossible to find in Albania!). We had a great time getting our tan on and enjoying each other's company while celebrating our home country.

5) RPB
It's funny to hear volunteers talk about their site placement. We all try so hard to justify why we were placed where we were. We also become defensive of our sites. For example, volunteers in the North tend to think the North is for more rugged and integrated volunteers, while Southerners feel their sites are more beautiful and fun (these are all generalizations). Small-town volunteers complain about not having things like supermarkets and/or banks, while large city volunteers complain about having difficulties finding identity and recognition in their community. Small town volunteers preach integration and large city volunteers can boast about fun tourist attractions and well-educated students. Beach towns have awesome summers and terrible lonely winters, while mountainous/valley towns may have ghost towns for the Summer, but busy winters. The truth is we all have pluses and minuses to our sites. We were placed based on need, and each volunteer has something to offer their community. Sometimes I find myself getting bitter when I visit a big site; I admittedly have complained about Milot. I have to stop myself because Milot has a lot of great things to offer. It's annoying and not really helpful to complain. Also, I think it's disrespectful to other volunteers who are facing their own challenges at site. Well, that's all I have to say about that. If you want mail/post cards from Albania, send me your address! It's nice to have people to write to :))

Decided I'd start posting pics: Most of the photo cred goes to Amber!

US Ksamil crew:
 Some basketball in Bajram Curri: (surprise trip to celebrate Jenny's birthday!)
 Cold in the "Blue Eye":
 Shkoder camp:
 Ice cream in Ksamil:
 Marta, my corn lady in Milot:
 My city :) :
 Coffee with the locals and Marku and Amber:
 Partners in Crime (Amber and Kat):

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Counting the Small Successes

Counting the Small Successes 

For a TEFL (English teacher) volunteer, the 1st couple months at site are not necessarily about the successes you have in the work place. Because it is Summer, and we are out of school, the 1st months are really dedicated to settling into your community. Today's blog is a reflection on how I've been doing settling in, and it really focuses on what I've done well..because this is my blog and that is what I want to talk about :) You may find some of the things I consider "a success" to be funny, but I guess it's all a matter of perspective. When you are far away from home in a developing country, surrounded by people who don't speak your native language, you really have to find different ways to look at yourself and what you are doing. Let go of a grading scale or resume, or even what tangible things you accomplish day by day and step into my little PC Albania world.

Keeping in contact with friends and family - definitely a success. It keeps me sane, and helps me establish a routine

Working out every day - Maintaining my health, keeping me sane, and also part of my routine (routine, routine, routine--can you tell I was a gymnast?)

Pushing myself to start speaking and listening to shqip when more than 1 Albanian person is present -- SO difficult, but I am hanging in there. Go me!

Forming better and more personal relationships with my family -- Flavio finally speaks to me and respects me more, my host mom really adores me, my dad respects me, and my sisters and I have finally found some common ground.

I have curtains for my bedroom! No more school students watching me do Yoga in my underwear! :)

I go hiking almost daily to get fresh water from the mountains.

Started showing people gymnastics videos so they could learn more about the life I came from

My host fam described me to Peace Corps as being extremely low maintenance, polite, and kind..their biggest worry for me moving out was my safety and if I would still come to my sister's wedding in September

Working with Peace Corps, my host fam, and the community to get another apartment! -- I believe I am almost there. I am going to look at one today, and my fingers are crossed.

Walking around my community, and having a lot of people say "hi"to me and call me by my name! -- So exciting. The community knows and likes me.

Yesterday my 19 year old sister was crying because some wedding plans went wrong. I was able to say to her in shqip "Wedding planning is crazy in every country. I understand" and she and the rest of the family all started smiling and laughing 

Now that I've patted myself on the back for minor things that make me feel awesome, I think I should share with you loyal readers, that I have been somewhat of a complaining bitch throughout this month. While I like to sit behind this blog, presenting myself as optimistic and stoic, I really have been just a stressed out, whiny girl, constantly searching for ways to get out of this situation. You should've seen me the day my host fam used up all my conditioner and hid my razor <-- PISSED. Or the time they tried to set me up on a date<--Ultra mega pissed. I complained to just about everyone I knew..other volunteers, PC Staff, friends and family back home, my counterpart etc. Everyone was really supportive, so thanks for that (Another success! hah). It helped me. It helped me to see that people care about me, and that things get better.  There were days where I stayed in my room for the entire day and pouted, and there were days when I went to neighbors houses and got coffee with new friends. I have formed relationships with various shop owners and cousins (everyone in Milot is a cousin of a cousin--I am not quite sure how they find people to marry here). I guess what I am saying is that I have had ups and downs, as everyone does in life. My time here just feels magnified. 

The cool thing is that I am doing it. I am here. I am present in Albania as a Peace Corps volunteer. I am surrounded by a culture that is not of my own, and I am slowly but surely sharing my life with a new community. 

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Comfort VS Integration

American Girl Problems

Integration. Integration is a funny thing. When representing yourself as an American PCV, how strongly do you hold onto your American ways of living VS adapting to a new way of life? How much of your personal comfort should be sacrificed to make host country nationals like you more?

Living with a host family forces me to face these problems every day.

American Girl Problems: 
1) The curtains in my room are see through and my window faces the school yard.
2) I have thought I was going to coffee with my sister only to find out I've been tricked into having a date with a potential husband-to-be. The family had already set me up for a 2nd date at the beach the next day.. I obviously didn't go.
3) When nobody is home, they send one of my student's to come babysit me because they feel I would be too scared to stay home alone
4) I am expected to do their laundry and clean their dishes
5) They serve me goat head on the reg, but also call me a vegetarian
6) My host brother is allowed to drink straight from the bottles in the fridge. He is also allowed to treat me terribly, and my family just laughs when he gives me the finger
7) People touch me all the time, and people constantly come into my room. No privacy here
8) I am not allowed to have any male guests over

So some of these things are easier to fix than others, but the point of my blog today is to discuss the issue that keeps reoccurring in my Peace Corps life which is: When it comes to integrating, when do I put my foot down?

Peace Corps constantly reminds us that we agreed to be flexible and adaptable. We need to hold true to these commitments unless they affect our safety. Does doing other people's laundry affect my safety? No. It just pisses me off. Does eating brain compromise my health? I suppose it could, but probably not. My issues are not exactly things that are dangerous, they are more things that affect my level of comfort and sanity.

Also, I did not come here to be Albanian. I am an American. I don't marry someone after just meeting them. I am not scared of being alone in the house for a couple of hours. I like personal space. I like having the company of plutonic male friends. And I definitely do not like doing other people's laundry. 

It would be easy to say "Eff this S" and give them a piece of my mind, but then I would not be doing a good job of integrating. There are always 2 sides to a story. They probably think they're being sweet by treating me like a family member. I guess they think I'm good enough to marry one of their men..which is flattering in a weird way. They are trying to make me feel more comfortable by constantly sending people to check out me. What they don't realize is that I don't work like them.

If only I could smooth talk my way into explaining all this to them, but oh yeah.. we don't speak the same language! And trust me, Google Translate does not make that smooth of a translation. I can see it now, I type in: "Please knock before you come into my room because I am American, and I am used to this act of privacy." would translate to "Knock when in my room, before I am American and I use privately" ...confusing and useless.

I am currently searching for my own apartment, but I don't know that one will be available. Milot is a very small city, and everyone thinks it is very strange that an unmarried girl like me would want to live alone.

Summer in Milot is weird because everyone leaves to the nearest beach towns. It kind of turns into a ghost town. There is no school, so I do not have regular work. It is really hot, and I spend most of my time indoors in my room. The good news is, Milot has mountains in the back of the city, and I often hike there to find hidden little treasures. I also have formed relationships with various families and shop owners, and am starting to feel a part of the community. The boys in the city all know me as "The running girl from America" because I was running every night in the school yard (often with my host dad and my students). I currently am not running or hiking because I tripped over a giant rock while running. I didn't see it because it was pretty late and dark out. I think it's just a sprain so hopefully some RICE will get me back out there in 2 weeks. 

Some things I am looking forward to:
-Launching my Youth Center project --I've started the ground work for the grant
-My ankle getting better so I can keep running with my students and make Miranda's Milot Running club a big thing--It's good for the community to get out of their houses, spend time together, and exercise! 
-4th of July! --so I can see my awesome volunteer friends
-Next week--the results of the election in Albania
-Camp in Shkoder!

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Wrapping up PST and my first days as a volunteer!

Hey guys, I'm sorry I haven't written for a while. I've been crazy busy, but I have a lot of good stuff to fill you in on! Today's categories are: 1) Counterpart (CP) Conference 2) My life in Milot 3) Escape to Tirana 4) Birthday! 5) End of PST and Swearing in Ceremony 6) Where I am now and RPB

1) CP conference
We went to Durres and stayed at this amazing hotel resort called the Tropikal. It was an interesting moment because we all met our co-worker for the next 2 years. It was a gamble with some CP's being old, some young, some with a lot of experience, some with none, some who spoke english, and some who didn't. My CP is a lovely girl named Elsona. She is 21 years old (by far the youngest Cap), and a student at the Tirana University. she stays in Tirana, but works in Milot, and she is very welcoming and kind! We get along great, and we are already friends. During the conference we had a session on how to work with our CP's, which I found to be useful, and a good way to better bond with our new CPs.

2) My life in Milot
I live with a host family right next to the school. When I say right next to the school I mean...I open the gate from my house, step forward, and I'm at the high school (gjimnazi). The location is great, and the family is really nice. However, I definitely feel a lack of privacy, and I took over my new host brother's room so he hates me. When I say he hates me, I mean he locked me out of my room, threw my bags out the door, and gave me the finger! He also licked the top of the bottle we were drinking from when only I was looking just to spite me (charming little guy). However, I understand that he is only 10, and I stole his room so I understand the animosity. My new sister's are 19 and 21. They are both getting married very soon. The 19 year old will marry a 28 year old, and the 21 year old will marry a 33 year old whom she decided to marry after only 2 hours--after being introduced by an uncle. He lives in New Jersey so she will be moving soon :(. She is the only one in the house who speak a little English. 
     Milot is very small; it's pretty much one street. Everyone there acts like they've never seen an American before, so they all like to come up and touch me. I get a lot of coffee invites which is nice, and it's a good way to get to know the community. Everyone is pretty much Catholic, and a lot of the residents go to the city over, Laç (pronounced "lotch"), for church.  I went with my family to check it out. English is the 2nd foreign language in Milot, so it is extremely difficult to find an english speaker... My shqip will be VERY good in 2 years! I have a lot of work to do there, but luckily my school director is very progressive and willing to work with me. One more thing about Milot: Women don't go out by themselves EVER. They don't xhiro (Albanian tradition to walk back and forth in the city center in the evenings) or go out in the open for coffees without the presence of a man.

3) Escape to Tirana
During my visit I got pretty sad. I was missing the other volunteers, and I was tired of not understand what anyone was saying. I felt like I didn't have any privacy, and I have to admit I was jealous of everyone else who got their own apartments, and who had their CPs there with them at their site. Luckily, my CP called me, and asked me to come stay with her for a night in Tirana. The next day I was there, and I got to see what Albanian University was like.  I went out for ice cream and milkshakes with her and her awesome roommates, and then got to stay in the dorms. It was a cool experience, and Tirana is an awesome city. It made me really happy to know I have a CP who cares about me, and a place to escape to when Milot gets to be too taxing.

4) Birthday! 
My birthday started the day before my actual birthday. I hitch-hiked to Pajove with Tyler, and we met some really awesome people on the way! When we got to Pajove, there was a cake waiting for me along with most of my favorite volunteers. We were also celebrating Josh's birthday and Paul and Susan's 10th anniversary. We went to the field and played games, but then I got stung by a bee. It occurred because  I was skipping through a grassy field with Kat to country music. Anyway, it was a great time. the next day I woke up to a table full of presents from my host family! They gave me a cake, a card, a perfume set, and a saucy shirt that was spandex, red, rhinestoned, and it had a cleavage slit. I of course sported the shirt for my party which was at one of the lokals. A bunch of volunteers, some Albanians, and one of my shqip teachers, came to my party and we danced for about 3 hours straight. At the end everyone sang this really funny birthday song to me, and zi took a shot of raki --disgusting. It was suchhh a fun birthday, and I am so grateful to everyone who was a part of it. I'm now 23!

5) End of PST and Swearing in Ceremony
Well it had to come eventually.. Our days as trainees came to an end. Most volunteers were really pumped to get to site, but I was a little bummed to be leaving everyone. A lot of people were psyched to start cooking for themselves and to have some privacy, but I couldn't help but feel like I was moving into the exact same circumstances as PST...minus having the company of other volunteers. Anyway, on a brighter note, I was ecstatic to finally have the honor of becoming an official PCV. I also was really excited because the teachers and Volunteers voted for me and another male volunteer, Mito, to do a speech in shqip at the swearing in ceremony. I was very excited, and it went really well :) The US ambassador was there as well as the mayor of Elbasan, all the Trainees, PC staff, and our host families. It was a great moment for me, and all of the volunteers! After the ceremony, we all began to say our goodbyes. It was a strange feeling.

6) Where I am now and RPB
Well, one would think I would be in Milot at my host family's house right now, but the thing is I am actually in Has with Kat. I went to Tirana with other volunteers going up North, and the night before I was supposed to leave for my site, I got a text from my host sister telling me not to come until wednesday the family wouldn't be in the house. Since I was with the group of Northies, they suggested I with them to their sites until Wednesday so I called PC staff and they said OK! I got the chance to see Bajram Curri and Has (A great opportunity)! I am waiting to hear from PC to see what will happen next, but I believe I will go to Tirana today, and then I will head to Burrel for a TEFL conference. After that PC will drive me to Milot so that they can help me with communication with my family and/or help me find some new housing. I have really enjoyed the chance to travel around Albania, but I would like to settle in to my new home and site. 
     I don't want to banter on too much today because this post was long and played a lo of catch up. I scored and Intermediate-High level in shqip on my language placement exam, and I was very happy about that, seeing as PC only required an Intermediate-Low. I realize now how important all the volunteers are to me. They are my friends, resources, and support system. I also have realized how important people back home are to me. It's easy to forget what home is when you're so far away, but being able to talk to friends and family keeps me connected with a very big piece of my life-- a piece that gives me a lot of peace of mind and makes me very happy :))

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Birthday Month Update :)

May 8, 2013

Hey guys! Just so you's my BIRTHDAY MONTH!!! Sorry for not writing so often. I plan to form a routine for writing in my blog once I get to my site, but for now...since it's still PST (pre service training), my blogs reflect the life of a trainee: unorganized, confusing, and slightly chaotic. Ok, today's categories are: 1) Site Visit and Counterpart Conference 2) Fake it 'til you make it 3) How to cope with stress 4) Funny Things 5) A day in Thanë 6) Random Panda Banter (RPB)

1) Site Visit and CPC
This weekend (and I say this weekend meaning sometime within the next 5 days because I never have any clue when things are actually happening..or for that fact what day it is) we are going to Tirana, Durres, and our site. We are going to Tirana to explore the capital, to Durres to meet our counterpart, and to our site to see where we will be living and working for the next 2 years. It's really an exciting time because Tirana is supposed to be really cool, and if you come visit me that's where you will fly into ;). Meeting our counterparts will be pretty awesome as well because that is who we will be working with for the next 2 years, and obviously seeing our site is the most exciting thing! I believe I will be living in a villa with a family close to the school in Milot, but I am not expecting much. I think it is better to set my hopes very low so that I can only be pleasantly surprised. Also, the site gives us a chance to move half of our bags there so we don't have to carry so many things when we actually move. I am excited to tell you all about Tirana, my counterpart, and my site when I come back!

2) Fake it 'til you make it
There are a lot of things to fake/lie about here in Albania that make living here easier. For example.. When taking the Language placement test, if you're asked about your favorite genre of book, and you don't know how to say "fiction" in shqip, just say any genre you do know. If single, creepy men want to know if you're single and you don't feel like being harassed..tell them you're married! PS. Another volunteer and I may be having a fake wedding in the near future...I'll keep you posted. If you're teaching English, and you write a mistake on the board and a student points it out...just tell them it's British English instead of American (that one is my favorite). Happen to hate a certain type of food in Albania (sheep brain..and/or cos)? No worries! Tell whomever is serving you that you have an allergy to this food, or that Peace Corps recommended not to eat this particular food product. Can't drink any more Raki, but a friendly uncle keeps filling up your glass every time you finish? Pour water in that glass!

3) How to cope with stress
My methods are pretty simple: activities. I go to the river, play frisbee and whiffle ball, and do Insanity in my room. I also write in a personal journal, Skype with friends, and watch movies/listen to music on my computer. I also think my friends here in Albania are very important. I often go to coffee or lunch with volunteers, and spending time with them makes me happy. I also have a few really close friends here who help keep me sane :)).  

4) Funny Things
-One of the volunteers shaves her legs on the bidet. Resourceful. Hilarious. And Awesome.
-My host dad always puts Pokemon on the television for me and then leaves..I can't tell if it's because he thinks I'm really young or that I'll like it because I'm Asian...maybe both?
-One volunteer tried to write "badminton" up on the board during Practicum, but she forgot the correct spelling of it and wrote "bad mitten" instead.
-The volunteers going up north have decided to put on a "Mr. Northern Albania" competition which will include a wood chopping contest, an animal skinning contest, and my favorite...a beard dance (dance with incorporated beard showing off-ness) 
-When I say "I'm full" my mom always sneaks 2 more things on my plate

5) A day in Thanë
Every Sunday we try to visit one PST site. Last Sunday, all the Volunteers went to Thanë. Thanë is a small village not too far away from Elbasan. The volunteers there put on a "Community Gathering" day when we visited, and it was very successful! My host sister came, and she was awesome! She decided to MC the event, and she really rallied up the children, and led them to do fun games and dances with each other and the volunteers. It was a lot of fun, and all the kids were really cute. 

6) RPB
To begin.. There is a strange noise coming from my closet. A type of scratching, crawling sound. At night, I picture a giant tarantula with boots and sharp fangs sitting in my closet, preparing to eat me. However, alas I have discovered what/where the noise is coming from. It's... Wood worms! Ew. To continue with the theme of creepy crawlies..there are water snakes in the river! Yep, not cool at all. Also, it's puppy/kitten season. 2 volunteers have already found newborn baby animals that have been abandoned. It's pretty sad, but there's not much you can do about it here. As PST goes on, I get more and more bored and restless with my free time. I think it gives me a lot of self -reflection time which I try to use to my advantage, but sometimes, it's just too much time. A lot of volunteers are having a difficult time staying on budget. I spend most of my money on coffee, ice cream, furgon rides, and chocolate, hah. I never knew how much I liked Snickers until now. Damn you, Snickers. may is an awesome month because not only is it going to be my birthday, but my mom will also have a birthday (happy birthday mommy Der) and it's mother's day. I love you mom! 

Hope you've enjoyed this entry! Sorry I'm not sorry that I don't spell check or edit this blog :))