Saturday, December 4, 2010


This is one of my favorite pictures as of late. ...why?? Just because it describes this country SO perfectly!! ....natural beauty next to man-made trash next to deconstruction.....scrap metal yards next to gorgeous Mediterranean-style brightly-colored villa homes.....pristine interior of homes with trash thrown outside the window into communal courtyards....unconcern to walk quickly when late but habit of driving recklessly to- ???- be somewhere on time-???-....concern for the 'clan' but lack of concern for the community....donkey-drawn carts speeding down the highway next to Mercedes SUVs....bad roads leading to breath-taking views.... it's in the title!

Monday, November 8, 2010

Skinny Asses!

In front of the Parthenon

SO…I finally ventured into Greece for my first time since I’ve been in Albania! Some of you might find this odd since Albania is so close to Greece! …others of you might need to google map Albania again before you realize that it shares its southern border with Greece. I can’t really say why it’s taken me so long to get to Greece…I just really hadn’t had the desire and I hadn’t studied up on it enough (unless you consider 6th grade English lessons on mythology as counting…thanks worst year of my life for teaching me something I would eventually use! :D ). Perhaps it is also that generally Greeks treat Albanians pretty poorly since they are the largest (and often most illegal) menial labor force within Greece…so I was supporting my Albanian compatriots by being anti-Greek.
Roman Agora and Tower of the Winds (served as clock tower)

Anyways, what eventually got me to Greece was YOGA! [not the 2500 anniversary of the marathon that was going on the same weekend that I had no idea was happening until I got there!] But I was thinking that I needed a bit of a personal retreat…and that got me thinking to yoga retreat…and that got me thinking to greek islands….and that got me to thinking YOGA RETREAT ON A GREEK ISLAND! …why yes, in case you forgot for a moment, I am in the Peace Corps. Sadly, the months of dazzlingly blue Mykonos skies shining on meditating yogis are over for the year…it’s a bit too cold for those. But luckily instead, I was able to find a yoga conference that was going on in Athens. AND it was an Acro-Yoga conference (acrobatics+yoga+thai massage principles….recently started developing in the 90s, google it for more info, but it’s basically a type of partner yoga). So I was able to include 3 days of yoga during my stay in Athens!!!

Our instructors for the conference demonstrating postures [1 is from Spain, the other from Mexico]

Straddle handstand with a partner! if it weren't hard enough on the ground!

Not shockingly, what I enjoyed the most while there was eating! [seems to be a theme for all of my trips outside of Albania!] When I arrived at my hostel I asked the guy at the front desk what he recommended for vegetarians to try. And what did he say?? …a FREAKIN GREEK SALAD!!!! For those of you living in America, this might sound tasty! But for those of us who have been living in Albania for 1.5 years (and who are vegetarian), this is about 1 of 3 options to eat when eating ‘out’ at a restaurant. Luckily…I am probably the only person visiting Greece who didn’t necessarily want to eat Greek food (I live in a culture influenced by Greek and Turkish cuisine). So I found the Asian restaurants and ate some tasty sushi, Thai food, and I found an awesome noodle bar that served an eclectic array of noodley goodness! However, for those of you that would require a more culturally sensitive venture into Greek cuisine, I did eat the occasional veggie gyros, I tried the Greek version of mousaka (arguably Turkish cuisine depending on who you’re talking to), ate some great fish, tried various types of cheeses from various types of animals, sipped the occasional glass of ouzo (liquor made from black licorice), ate some fish roe (fish eggs that look like strawberry yogurt), drank salep (a pudding-consistency drink made from orchid root), and ate LOTS and LOTS of Greek yogurt and honey!

Part of the Acropolis seen through Hadrian's Arch [entrance into the ancient city of Athens]

For those of you that aren’t foodies, I will also let you know that the other amazing thing about my trip was being back in communities that don’t exist in Albania….the community of backpackers and the community of yogis. Both are communities where people are generally very welcoming and accepting as well as trusting. It was amazing getting to travel and meet people with the same passion and share travel stories and travel dreams. Staying in a hostel you always meet interesting people....I met people there for the marathon, people there taking a year break from work, students, Australians! (really, those Aussies know how to travel…considering it takes about 24 hours just to get out of their country anywhere, can’t blame them!), etc. And it was great getting to go to the yoga conference and meet many Greeks…and many Greek yogis (..makes me hungry for more Greek yogurt!). It was nice to actually take a yoga class and I’m hoping some of the partner yoga that I learned I will be able to bring back and do a session with the university dance students I teach in Tirana. Overall though, everyone was super friendly and it was fun to be part of a different sort of community again!!

Zeus' Temple and the Acropolis behind

Lastly, Stini yiamas!!! I was told by a Greek-American that in order to remember this Greek expression meaning “to your health” to think of “skinny asses!” It does make it quite a bit easier. And if nothing else, you can at least cheers towards having a skinnier ass!

Change of guards by the tomb of the unknown soldier at parliament building [I do love a man in a skirt!]

I won’t bore you with the billions of descriptions and pictures of temples and ruins and history [sorry to disappoint you if that’s what you were looking forward to!]….but if you need a crash course go find your 6th grade teacher! I have included a few pics for you to get the idea….enjoy!

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Save the Ta-Tas!

As most of you in America know, October was the month for Breast Cancer Awareness. However…here in the developing world, it is a new occurrence to have issue-focused events during a month and things that are common knowledge in the Western world are just now being made available and accessible to a larger population here. After perusing various slogans that I could have utilized for this post (‘feel your boobies,’ ‘hug your jugs,’ ‘caress the breasts’…that one gets a little too intimate I think), I decided my favorite awareness raising campaign in America has been the “Save the Ta-tas” venture. Perhaps this stems from a time in dance class in college when my dance professor was counting a combination ‘te-ah-ta-ta, te-ah-ta-ta, te-ah-ta-ta’ and she reminded us that we needed to ‘focus on the ta-tas!’ As all of you know, I have the sense of humor of a middle school boy and laughed out loud at being told to ‘focus on the ta-tas.’ But on a more serious note, having a grandmother that was a survivor of breast cancer and a double mastectomy, I am a strong advocate for education and awareness for women to prevent breast cancer in its earliest stages and to utilize preventive measures so it hopefully never occurs!

Here in Albania, women rarely talk about personal health as it relates to sexual health and preventive measures. Many topics are taboo to talk about amongst friends…let alone asking your doctor about them! Because then so-and-so would find out that you were asking about such-and-such and then word would get back to your relatives that you don’t know how to raise a baby/take care of yourself/take care of your baby maker, etc. In a world the size of a fishbowl, doctor-patient confidentiality doesn’t necessarily exist…let alone the other people that would gossip about you because they saw you at the hospital and question why you were there in the first place. So discussing the importance and how-tos of basic self-breast exams or breast exams that can be done by your doctor rarely ever happens. Most women don’t know how to do self-exams and are too ashamed to go to the doctor to have one done.

SO…as volunteers, we try and help encourage Albanians to help and encourage other Albanians! One of the best things about having American site mates is that we collaborate with each other and thereby encourage Albanians to collaborate with each other, other institutions, other organizations, etc. In a post-Communist country it is often hard to get people to work together…information is still power…and credit for a project is most often more important than the possibility to collaborate and develop a bigger and more effective project but having to share success with another organization. Since my site mate Bree works for the Center for Public Health here in Burrel it is her office’s job to promote various health issues in smaller communities that have been mandated by the Ministry of Public Health at the national level(mind you, this has really just started to be emphasized within the last 6 months-1 year).

High School Students with t-shirts and posters in front of the municipality building

Originally, we wanted to have a walk in order to gain attention that breast cancer is an important issue that people need to be educated about. Bree’s office at the Public Health Center went around promoting Breast Cancer awareness throughout the month and was able to contact various people in various fields to garner support in favor of raising awareness. On the day of the walk when Bree and I arrived, we arrived to the 3 women in her office waiting by themselves (we always keep our expectations flexible here…otherwise disappointment is generally in the mix!). However, after 10 more minutes, there ended up being over 100 people there to walk!

Nurses, doctors, women from Public Health Center walking from museum

We were able to bring together people from the Alternative School where I teach, students from the high school where Kristen helps with a community projects class/teaches English, doctors and nurses from the hospital and from the Public Health Center, and teachers from a nursing school and other schools in Burrel.

It was one of those really inspiring experiences where it is amazing to see people coming together for a cause and combining forces instead of trying to take credit. Albanian nurses were able to hand out basic informational flyers on breast cancer on the street to women as well as flyers for a meeting scheduled the following week at the Alternative School.

Students from Alternative School preparing to sell cookies

We also had cooking students from the Alternative School bake cookies in order to sell to raise money for a ‘mammogram fund.’ There is no mammogram machine in Burrel and the closest one is 2.5 hours away in Tirana…many women can’t afford the transportation costs as well as the mammogram fees, so we are trying to make it possible for a few extra women to be screened.

This month also provided a great opportunity for me to start helping the Alternative School where I teach focus on women’s issues. While the school is specifically set up as a vocational school to teach students cooking and sewing, it is also part of a larger women’s NGO with headquarters based in the capital in Tirana [Useful to Albanian Women]. However, currently, not much attention is given to women’s issues….most of the focus is on the school. This month (with the now available resource of Bree working in the health field), we were finally able to start focusing on distributing important information to women who most often do not have the opportunity to find or receive it. We were able to hold a couple of meetings on breast cancer at the Center. I think that this will provide a trend whereby the Center will start focusing on 1 issue per month to raise awareness and educate women on a specific topic. I am excited because the new assistant director is on board and really excited to get involved with any projects that we can develop together!

Lastly…if you haven’t, check your ta-tas! And tell a friend to check their ta-tas!! …though only help your friend check their ta-tas if you are a certified nurse or doctor! :)

Students making sugar cookies to sell for 'mammogram fund' [they were super excited about cookie cutters!]

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

…..I guess you know you’ve integrated when…

At a friend's birthday with some other PCVs.

1. You can do a traditional circle dance that most Albanians don’t know

2. You can have a newly-met middle-aged woman flash you her panties and you aren’t shocked by it

3. You now find yourself strangely attracted to traditional Albanian ‘looks like you shat your pants’ man attire

4. You can bust out the cabbage patch and running man at a work party where all of your colleagues (including the vice mayor) are present without any shame!

5. You can cry into your potato soup at school while eating with other teachers as your 30 students stare you down

**See below for stories!

So after being here for a year and a half, most days I still find it utterly amazing that I was sent to a Peace Corps country where 1) Every body LOVES to dance!, 2) They LOVE coffee and coffee culture, 3) They have the mountains and the beach! (best of both worlds!) 4) Most people tend to arrive more fashionably late to things than myself, and 5) They love fashion! I thought that I would be giving most of these things up when I joined the Peace Corps, so it is amazing that on a daily basis I encounter these things regularly! Needless to say, it is an odd and exciting encounter to feel like you have finally integrated into a community...though there are still many things I will never understand. So below are a few moments over the last couple of weeks where I just had to laugh at myself (and others) and look at my life as an outside observer for a moment to really grasp how much I have learned and grown over my time here.

Story 1. Last week at the vocational school where I teach we had a graduation party where students from the previous session (Jan-June 2010) received their diplomas. All of the students from previous and current sessions were there and it was fun to have them all together again and to celebrate. Many of them are now continuing on to higher education while others are working and sometimes providing the only source of income for their families…at the age of 18 or 19! In normal fashion, a dance party ensued after the ceremony. There are quite a few regional dances in this country, but most Albanians don’t know all of them. So it was extremely fun when they played a song from the region of Kukes (northern part of Albania bordering with Kosovo) and I and only about 6 other Albanians knew it. I always enjoy the shock factor!

Giving an impromptu teacher on left, student with microphone, director of children's center right.
Cooking and sewing students enrolled in the current session.

Story 2. I just started teaching yoga classes a couple of weeks ago for middle-aged women. The first day it was only my sitemate Bree with 3 of her colleagues from work that I was introduced to that day. After Bree telling them approximately 5-6 times to ‘wear athletic clothes,’ 2 of them showed up in dresses. Needless to say, this is Albania and clothing restrictions have never stopped most people from accomplishing anything!...let alone lifting and bending your legs into yoga positions. So as I was leading class facing everyone, let’s just say I had an amazing vantage point to see everything! I must commend her for persistence. Other highlights include me saying ‘merri kafshe’ about 4 times before being corrected that it is ‘merri kofshe.’ Something I already know, but momentarily forgot that it is inappropriate to ask someone to ‘grab your animal’ when really you mean ‘grab your thigh.’

Story 3. This past weekend the National Albanian Folk Dancing group came to our cultural palace in Burrel. They were really amazing! It’s always nice to see dance and music that is codified after experiencing the popular evolution of it in what you witness at parties and weddings, etc. I still hold that traditional Albanian man pants do look like they shat themselves. However, considering that I’ve sharted myself twice this year, perhaps it’s time I invest in a pair (thankfully, these occasions have made my New Year’s resolution pretty easy to figure out this year….Goal 1: don’t shart yourself!...let’s hope for a successful year!).

Traditional Albanian man attire with traditional instruments.
National Albanian Folk Group performing in Burrel

Story 4. As I said, people here LOVE to dance. ALL people. Including the young to the old; the small to the large; the sweaty sweaters to the shakers; and the lowest secretary to the highest supervisor. Meaning…my best friend and colleague Ilda threw a going away party for everybody that works at city hall. If you have never experienced your professional work colleagues club dancing at 3 in the afternoon, perhaps you should move to Albania for a little while because it is quite a fun occurrence. There was an assortment of circle dancing, awkward Albanian shimmying couple dancing (again, this goes without saying, but if you’ve never seen a 50 year old man shimmying with a frilly handkerchief in his hand, it’s high time you pick things up and head on over here), waltzing, and club dancing. So I thought it was an appropriate occasion to introduce everyone to really cliché old-school American dances…the cabbage patch, the running man, the sprinkler…. Don’t worry, I sometimes share the better parts of our culture as well. …so next time I’ll try to remember the shopping cart and lawnmower (though they don’t have quite as much relevance here because people don’t use either of these things).
Nothing like rocking out to the political jingle of last year's election!
Club dancing with the colleagues at 3 in the afternoon.
Something you will never see in America on the dance floor...

Story 5. As I said, there was a going away party for Ilda, one of my best friends here in Burrel. She is going to England for 9 months to study English to improve her conversational and writing skills and just to experience another culture and way of thinking. I am super excited for her!!! This is the first time that she will be living out of Albania, and I can only imagine how much she will learn and grow! However…as she stopped by school on Friday to say a final goodbye before she flew out that night, the tears I had been holding back finally came! After she left, I went to eat lunch with all of the teachers and students in the kitchen/dining area. About halfway through my meal, I started crying again…into my bowl of potato soup. Most people probably would think I’m a nut-job, but the sewing teaching grabbed me a stack of napkins to use and the cooking teacher just said to me ‘oh, you’re one of us now.’ I think Albanians typically do cry about things more than Americans (i.e. weddings, people going away, etc), but also he was implying that most Albanians have someone very close to them that live or work abroad and they are sad that the person can’t be close to them anymore. And I must admit it is quite a strange experience to be in a foreign country and have someone I love leave me….usually this job is accomplished by me when I leave my friends and family in America and go across the world…. So now I guess I know what it feels like! ….I just hope none of you are crying into your potato soup over me!

Me and Ilda

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Summer Highlights [more of a photo essay…you get the picture :) ]

Seeing my host sister from the village get married! …and getting to see all of my host family together celebrating!

*Host dad, host sister who just got married, and host mom

4th of July camping at the beach…sparklers, seed-spitting contests, thunderstorms, creepy lagoons and impossibly large-sized bone found on the beach [I’m talking dinosaur-sized!]….and going to a restaurant where amongst other things, a guy serves you from a HORSE!! [health code violations, I laugh in your face!].
**our sand painting of our tribute to America!

*seed-spitting contest for 4th of July

A SURPRISE birthday party that my sitemates threw me after I had already thrown my own birthday party (awesome for my Albanian friends because in Albania you always treat your friends to coffee/desserts instead of everyone treating you…so it’s kind of hard to throw yourself a surprise party….unless, of course you have American friends to do so!)

….and make-shift slip ‘n slides! rain tarps for tents make for a good alternative, in case you are ever in need....we are resourceful in the Peace Corps!

Having a 2-week summer camp in Burrel for 80 kids aged 7-13 and having fellow volunteers come and teach subjects from dance, Karate, art, theater, English, and outdoor adventure activities!

*paper bag puppets were a huge hit!
*he might win as most adorable kid in Albania!
*in the dance studio at the cultural palace

Getting to see YOUR LOVELY FACES in America!!! And getting to see one of my best friends Morgan get married to the person she’s in love with!
*Rehearsal dinner...bride + bridesmaids!

* 7 am wake up surprise from the college roomies after my first day back in America!

Having my mom and sister come visit in a whirlwind tour of Albania in 5 days! […and I’m sure they will never forget that whirlwind either!]

**Mom and sister with 2 of my best friends/colleagues in front of the city hall where I work in Burrel**

A birthday hike through the mountains from Burrel to Kruje and spending the night in a thunderstorm on top of a gorgeous mountain!

*one more reason why Albania is awesome? ...because we weren't expecting any cafes on the top of this mountain...and of course, there were! AND we had planned on cooking our own food over the camp fire, but when we realized they had food at the cafe but no french fries, we offered them the potatoes we had brought and they cooked them for us!!

Going tubing on our river in Burrel every day for 2 weeks in August. …sometimes in a child-sized inner-tube. [below: my sitemates Kristen and Bree in the river by, contrary to what you might believe, they are not getting baptized...]

Meeting Walker Texas Ranger’s side-kick [Clarence] in Tirana randomly (he was here on a Fulbright Senior Specialist program with the National Theatre of Albania) …talking my way into a dress rehearsal of a play he was directing/lead actor in….and going to coffee afterwards to discuss the adventures and downfalls of life in Albania (who says no one famous ever comes to Albania!?).

Having one of my best friends Jess come visit in May and getting to travel around Albania/Montenegro and having her teach TANGO lessons to my dance students at my site (my class of teenagers around 11-13 years old) and the university dance students that I work with in Tirana.

*Jess + me with dance students at the art academy in Tirana where I sometimes teach modern dance and composition classes

All-in-all, an amazing summer full of awesome activities and fond memories of Albania! (and America!)

Back from hiatus!....[a really loooong hiatus!...]

SO…I am sure that many of you out there are thinking that you would never be able stalk me from across the world on the interwebs again while I’m in Albania! [unlike my Albanian neighbors who stalk me on a daily basis ….telling me that they saw my inside light come on at 8 pm….or saw that I was up late until 11:30(!) because my light was on….or wonder why I only bought 1 tomato at the store….or wonder why I was wearing flip-flops because it’s freezing outside (…in September?...) …or know that one of my sitemates walked past in the opposite direction from me….so clearly I must be informed of my mistaken direction…because I could NEVER be going to a different place than the OTHER Americans!]

And perhaps you also thought that maybe I had just been in the country long enough and life wasn’t very interesting here anymore. …which is NEVER true here….most every day has SOME ridiculous and enthralling story to divulge (from waking up to exploding water heaters, to tubing down our river in child-size inner- tubes, to seeing a barfing grandmother in traditional attire TIED ON to someone on a motorcycle in order to keep her from falling off, to starting new activities like yoga classes and having many stories from it…)

It’s not that I didn’t want to keep you all informed either, it’s just hard to do when not connected to the world wide web on a regular basis. And finally after being told my city was “out of the internet” with no end in site of how long our internet needs would go untreated, I finally was able to get the equivalent of slow dial-up at my apartment.

Anyways… I had to even check for myself when my last post had been…and it had been from a year ago! And it’s crazy to think how fast time does go by….and how little time I have left here! [of course, that’s relative for those of you that are waiting for me to come home…]

As there is much that has happened in a year…I will just reacquaint you with my more recent life… and I will do it in another post, so check for it later!

And on a sad note…. I have changed apartments and I now have a normal Western toilet…so you will have to find your fill of awesome Turkish toilet stories from some other source…

oh....and's one of my favorite places to walk to that is 10 minutes outside of Burrel. It's a memorial to veterans/war heroes that was built during Communism.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Back in Albania...

A little side note about my re-entry back into Albania coming back from Turkey. After my stint out of the country, it was only appropriate that I should have a typical Albanian welcome back into the country. As I was headed back to the capital of Macedonia [Skopje], I assumed there would be pretty frequent buses between it and Tirana…seeing as they’re both capital cities and all. However, when I arrived at 7 am to Skopje, the bus to Tirana wasn’t until 7:30 pm that night. So I ended up on a bus headed for another border crossing closer to Lake Ohrid. I ended up getting dropped off close to the border with 2 polish backpackers also trying to cross into Albania. The 3 of us got a taxi to get across the border.

The drive was only 5 km and should have only taken about 5 minutes. About 2 minutes into the trip, our driver hits dead-on a stray dog running towards our car [not even an attempt to swerve as to try and miss it]. Sadly, I’m used to this occurrence…but the 2 Polish guys in the back yelled “ohhhh fuck man!! …what are you doing!?” They were certainly shocked! About 30 seconds after this, our engine starts smoking. The driver pulls over and realizes that his car is overheating. So he proceeds to grab a plastic bottle from his car and fill it with ditch water and dump it inside the steaming engine. We start going again, but about 50 yards down the road he stops again to dump water on the engine. We do this about 4 more times [by now we’ve been in the car 20 minutes], until finally all of us get out on the side of the road and try to stop any car that’s going past us headed to the border. Finally, another taxi returns from the border and our driver gets him to take us there.

After getting there and crossing over to the Albanian side of the border, I used the most disgusting Turkish toilet I have yet to use in this country! Think unmaintained Turkish toilet…upwards of at least 6 months! It was disgusting!!...and smelled like dead babies! Ugh!
After this, we’re pretty much stranded on the Albanian side of the border waiting for anyone to drive by us headed in our direction. The 2 Polish guys were ridiculous (and very funny) and proceeded to try and hitchhike for us with the most ridiculous poses…think cheerleaders…or yogis…but instead 2 Polish guys with beards hoisting out their thumbs. Most Albanians drove past us laughing…and a few gave us thumbs-up for looking like fools! Finally, a mini-bus came by and got us on the right track. I parted with the 2 Polish guys as they were headed a different way and I continued my 7 hour journey down towards Gjirokaster in the south of the country to experience part of the folk festival!

However, I couldn’t help but laugh about my cliché arrival back into the country…broken down cars, awful toilets, wild animals, and a considerable amount of waiting on the side of a road [story of my life in Albania]. Mire se vini ne Shqiperia!!