I got to celebrate my first here holiday with my host family! Being a predominantly Muslim country, Albania celebrates a national holidays called Novruz Day on the 22nd. They make a huge plate of byrek (traditional pastry) and fill it will as many green foods as they can. My family just had a regular byrek so I was happy. Then they hide a coin in the middle, and whoever gets the piece of byrek with the coin will have good luck for the rest of the year. Sound familiar? I tried to explain to my family that a lot of people in the US do the same with king cake on Fat Tuesday before lent. It’s honestly surprising how similar our celebrations and holidays are all around the world…even between such different faiths as Catholicism and Islam. Albania is really not that different from the US.
Of course this got us all talking about religion (a big no-no in the unofficial peace corps handbook for being a successful volunteer) At first I got the obvious questions of, are you Christian or Muslim? I knew they wouldn’t care either way, that they were just curious; so I tried my best to explain that my family is Christian but I don’t practice any faith because I’m open to them all. Nicely played, I thought. Way to wiggle around the question so you don’t have to disclose information that could them judge me the wrong way. But no, I was wrong. What they understood was that I was an atheist who believes in nothing. Judging by the looks of disapproval and confusion on their faces, I quickly backtracked. I tried to explain that I do believe in faith, I just don’t identify with or practice anything. “Po, po, po” (Yes, yes, yes). Thinking I had eloquently cleared that hurdle, I smiled and continued eating. Not 5 seconds later, they turn to me and ask, so do you believe in aliens then? Now this I had no idea how to answer. This one was definitely not in the manual. How does being Christian or atheist mean I believe in alieans again? Someone remind me because for the life of me I could not figure out how I steered the conversation into this murky water. Ummm, when I see it, I’ll believe it! I joked. Finally she smiled and muttered, Shume mire, shume mire (very good very good). Hopefully this one won’t come back to haunt me later.
So I’ve been running in Bishqem every other day now, and I’ve earned the title of “the American volunteer who is always running.” Even though I got a lot of inquisitive looks along as I go, it’s always worth it. I just smile, wave, and shout “Miredtia!” (“Good day”) as I pass and suddenly everyone is waving and smiling back…at least on the third day in a row that I’ve run by that is. I think that may have something to do with the word on the street about “that American girl who is always running,” but whatever. But today was a little different. I came across what I can only describe as the West Side Story of Bishqem. Halfway up the hill there was a mob of children blocking the road. They couldn’t have been more than 8 years old, but suddenly I was terrified. The ring leader was holding their soccer ball under his arm and holding out his hand for me to stop. With a smile I tried out my best Albanian and asked their names, where they were from, and how they were doing. In return I got a million questions (of which I understood none), lots of laughter, and probably so obscene Albanian guestures I should’ve remembered from class. After a few moments I put my headphones back in and tried to keep running. But, when I turned around I saw they were chasing my all the way up the hill trying to talk to me. I felt like I had my own personal parade guiding me through Bishqem- awesome. Eventually they turned around and went back…that is, until I had to about face and head down the mountain to go home.
The best part of the whole run was on my way back home when I passed an old married couple riding their donkey cart down the street. They gave me the strangest look the first time I passed them, but I smiled and shouted Good Evening. I got nothing in return, just most stares. But then I guess it dawned on them who I was (aka I haaaad to be American because there’s no way an Albanian woman would be jogging down the street in the middle of the workday). So they stopped their cart, asked me my name, and begged me to get in the cart. Over and over they kept asking if I wanted a ride. I kept trying to explain that I was exercising and lived close by, but they wouldn’t accept it. Clearly, I must be in need of a ride back home. Why would you waaant to run down the street? I guess if you work in a field all day, there’s no need to go for a run to get exercise. After turning down the offer for a donkey ride back to my house for the fifth time, they finally smiled and continued on their way. Me, I made it safely home and decided that it was just the first of many runs through Bishqem to come.
In all the manuals it said that Albanian food is very similar to Greek food. After all, they are neighbors. I naturally assumed that meant it would be like all the food I’d eaten in Greek restaurants back in the states…mostly because I didn’t haven’t any other information to go on. But I couldn’t have been more wrong. The very first day in Elbasan we were served plates of cucumbers, tomatoes, cold cut meats, cheese, and bread…for breakfast. Being used to my cereal, yogurt, oatmeal, and fruit in the U.S., I was a little confused. Whatever, I thought, living abroad is all about adjustments. Don’t get me wrong, Albanian food is delicious, but it definitely takes some getting used to. The staple food item here is bread, bread, and more bread. Then the rest of the meal is whatever you were able to harvest that day. So if cucumbers are in seasons, you’re having cucumbers for breakfast, lunch and dinner. At first I was taken aback by being served things like rice and gravy with vegetables for breakfast, but then I realized how incredibly lucky I was to be eating food that was grown in my backyard. In the U.S. we’re all about going green, eating orangic, and buying fair trade food. That’s what they’ve been doing here in Bishqem for a thousand years. My host mother milks our cow, boils it, and pours me a glass for breakfast. Then she goes out back and turns half to cheese and the other half to yogurt. For lunch and dinner she grabs vegetables from the garden, slaughters a chicken, and has food for days. Sometimes after dinner, she walks out the back door to the garden and picks apples, oranges, and lemons for dessert. And yesterday she picked figs and made the most amazing marmalade I’ve ever eaten, no joke. The one thing Albanians in Bishqem don’t do is dessert, which is where I come in! As a novice baker I already promised my host family I’d show them how to make American style desserts with whatever I can scrounge up in the local super market. Pictures to come 🙂
But there is one thing the Albanians definitely got right: coffee! Coffee with breakfast seems natural enough, so I poured myself two mug-fulls (or rather wine glass-fulls since that’s what it was served in) before heading to class. Not even two hours later, apparently it was time for another cup of coffee. I was beginning to really like Albanian. Then and hour after lunch, we stopped class for yet another coffee break. Now THIS is my kind of place.
I’m staying with a host family in Bishqem that owns an amazing farm where we get the food for all of our meals. Here is the view from my veranda window.