So Many Chickens

Okay, I swear, Shickens are like the rats (or maybe squirrels?) of Albania. They are legitimately everywhere. I’ll be eating lunch or having a coffee at a nice little cafe, and all of the sudden a chicken will run across the patio in front of my chair. In the middle of town! Or I’ll be walking down the street as chickens scamper away from my footsteps just like the freaking rats in DC. Cracks me up everytime I draw the comparision. And if you see a pile of trash, there will actually be a million chicken picking at it in the gutter. Every time I wonder if they’ve escaped from someone’s farm or if someone is out looking for th em. But I actually think they just live in the streets? So Albania has street chickens instead of street rats (shout out to all the Alaadin lovers lol). It brings a wholenew meaning to “free range” chicken that’s for sure.

 

“It’s not better. It’s not worse. It’s just different.”

Fiks Fare

Being in Albania I have definitely been missing my nightly dose of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, but luckily they have their own version here- Fiks Fare. It’s this nightly newscast style show that talks about national politics infused with humor…aka just like Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart. So if you thought the U.S. had a lot of foder for political satire, try being in a post-communist, developing country. Dear god in heaven, it’s hystercial.

 

“It’s not better. It’s not worse. It’s just different.”

Looking good

One thing I definitely love about Albanian culture is their unwillingness to sacrifice looking good at all time. While walking to class today I saw my neighbor out working on the farm, looking quite styling in his sport coat and dress pants. I swear, Albanians do not sacrifice appearances for anything. In a country with so little resources sometimes, they still take such pride in what they do have. Even if you are a farmer or handyman, you are still expected to look your best at all times. 

So much of Albania is steeped with tradition and following the ways of the older generation In the small towns people still cook the same food; the women still stay in the home, and the farmers still harvest crops in the same way as their parents’ parents’ did. The only difference is that now they do it in style. They make their Turkish coffees over little Bunsen burners; women clean their houses while blasting American pop music on MTV; and the farmers wear full suits while tilling the land.Image

The fact that Albanians still hold fast to traditions and cultures of their ancestors makes this country beautiful inside and out. It’s what gives it character and flavor and makes me realize I will definitely miss their way of life when I return to the U.S. Life is much simpler, much healthier, and much slower here. 

The Albanian Lifestyle

For some reason all of my greatest stories seem to occur while running. That may have something to do with the fact that I spend most of my free time working out instead of drinking (if only I was a guy…). So today I was running through a small mountain village near Bishqem, alongside of blooming cherry tree farms and groves of orange trees (you can be jealous now). It was such an upgrade from staring at the same spot on the wall while jogging on a treadmill in the U.S., let me tell you. As I jogged by each house, it occured to me– these people have never had to work a 9-5 job in their lives. They have never had to spend 2 hours stuck in traffic commuting to a job they hate. They’ve never sat in a cubicle behind a computer screen working tirelessly for a boss they can’t stand. And what’s more, it’s never even crossed their minds as a possibility. There is no stress over paying bills or mortgagesl; no student loands to repay, and no fear of how y o ur children are going to make a living after you’re gone. I can’t even imagine what it would be like to wake up everyday and do exactly what you want, when you want to. In these small Albanian towns if you you want a day off, you take it. And if you want to sleep in, then the chickens will just have to wait for their breakfast.

Life here is just a little bit slower and lot less stressful. You work until there is enough food on the table, and then you call it a day– you go grab a bear or a shot of raki (Albania’s answer to Moonshine), site on the porch, and enjoy the company of your friends and family. Now that’s a life I could get used to. It’s amazing how much you don’t miss all of the “things” that come with an American-city lifestyle when you are surrounded by such sublime simplicity.

 

“It’s not better. It’s not worse. It’s just different.”            – Peace Corps Staff 2012 (probably said 10-20 times daily)

Posh Corps Albania

I think I’ve discovered the perfect analogy for development in Albania. It dawned on me while sitting at the café this afternoon (well, more like it appeared in front of my eyes while I was sitting at the café this afternoon, but whatever). As I was ordering my espresso I noticed a man driving his donkey cart down the only road in town. Now, this is not an atypical occurrence in Bishqem. The thing that caught my eye was as he passed in front of the cafe was that he was legitimately texting while driving…his donkey cart. I almost peed myself laughing. Apparently texting and driving isn’t as big of an issue here in Albania as it is in the U.S.

To the naked eye Albania looks like any other European country. Certain aspects of modernity have trickled down to the small towns like Bishqem (i.e. cell phones and ipods), but not necessarily in the order you would expect…or want. In the hope of meeting EU entry requirements in the future, development has skipped a few steps here. While there are now solar water heaters in every home and cell phones in every pocket, there is still no plumbing in most public buildings and the electricity goes off for random intervals throughout the day. The end result is that you end up using a Turkish toilet (aka hole in the ground) at the same restaurant where you can get wireless on your laptop.

We joke all the time that Peace Corps in Albania is more like “Posh Corps” because of the modern conveniences available here. Even though we may not be building bathrooms or schools houses for tiny villages, living in mud huts, or eating gruel, the obstacles we do face are even more difficult to trudge through sometimes. We can’t provide band-aid fixes like volunteers in other countries often do with new blackboards, books, and pencils. Instead, we have to work every day to chip away at the gap between the backwards ways of doing business and the modern conveniences here. So every time I get caught up in the American-like amenities around me and think that “Posh Corps Albania” is going to be easy, I’m slapped back to reality by a man on a driving a donkey cart down the road to bring his produce to market…while texting on his cell phone.

A weekend away

I spent this weekend in the city of Vlore visiting a current Peace Corps volunteer who is working at the regional Ministry of Education and doing teacher trainings all over the place. The volunteer I stayed with speaks Albanian beautifully and gives me hope that someday (probably right before I’m ready to leave of course) I will be speaking just as well. In a city of more than 200,000 people she stopped and had a conversation with someone she knew everywhere we went. I could go on, but let’s just say her experience in Vlore is so so so inspirational and leave it at that.

Each of the 44 volunteers in our group went to a different city this weekend to see what life is reeeaaally like as a volunteer and to get out of our little training bubble. For me, the weekend was more like the greatest vacation I could have asked for. Vlore is the second largest beach town in Albania, so it’s huge and beautiful and right on the Mediterranean. The buildings literally go out onto the ocean and butt up to the sand. After feeling sequestered and cooped up in the tiny town of Bishqem, it was so refreshing to be in a big city surrounded by mountains on one side and the ocean and palm trees on the other.

I basically spent three days working out at her gym (with actual exercise equipment!), taking 30 minutes hot showers with serious water pressure, sitting at cafes on the waterfront, going to English bookstores, stuffing my face with seafood and vegetables, surfing the internet, and shopping…with tears of joy in my eyes. Don’t laugh, I think it actually made my month to have a few days of American-style living, honestly. For the first time in 3 weeks I felt like a real person again; it was beautiful. We even stayed out passed midnight (my first time being out past 6pm in Albania) bar hoping from karaoke bars to cocktail lounges. I probably looked like an idiot because I couldn’t wipe the huge smile off my face. It was like living a dream.

The funny thing is, that by the end of the third day, I was actually missing Bishqem. Never thought I’d say that! I was picturing myself living here for the next two years, trying to make an impact while teaching at a local high school and realized just how hard it would be to put my American self away and try to integrate into the community. Vlore is a stunningly beautiful city with all the amenities of everyday life in America and I will definitely definitely definitely be coming back for vacation asap, but there’s something to be said for the serene simplicity of village life in Bishqem. It makes it easier to accept that you’re far from home and part of a different culture. I actually found myself thinking how nice it is to remove yourself from the crowds, the dusty streets, and the high prices of city living for a little. I always thought I was a city girl at heart, and I think I still am somewhere deep down; but now I know that I want to spend my two years of service away from all the lights and chaos. Who would’ve thought. 

My typical day in Bishqem

Bishqem is a small farm town (the bus driver told us its just a “spot on the highway”), so I wake up when the rooster crows, literally. As soon as the sunrises and light beams into my bedroom at 6:00am, I’m up and ready to go. It’s amazing how peaceful and easy it is to wake up in the morning without blaring an alarm clock and blinding your eyes by switching on the light. Then again, maybe it’s so easy to wake up at the crack of dawn because I go to bed shortly after the sun sets…but what else is there to do after dark on a farm besides go to bed? Hang out with the cows? There are no streetlights in Bishqem and there is no night life here. And I don’t just mean there are no clubs or bars, I mean there is actually nothing moving outside at night. When the sun starts setting everyone heads home, eats dinner, watches the news, and goes to bed. It’s a simple life, but a good one.

After breakfast I walk about half a mile to school where I have Albanian language classes for the next five hours. Don’t worry, we break for coffee and snacks about a million times so it flies by. We eat lunch at a place that supposedly sells “fast food” if you believe the sign, but by Albanian standards that means fresh-cut salads, yogurt, bread, souvlaki, rice with meatballs, and fruit. Huge upgrade from what I thought I would be getting at a fast food place, that’s for sure. When they described it at first, I was more than hesitant because this “fast food” place (and the hub of the social scene) in Bishqem is at the gas station. Imagine telling an American that they will be eating lunch at a fast food gas station restaurant every day- every one of our faces was marred with sheer panic until we got to town and saw it for ourselves. It’s actually pretty nice…and the cappuccinos are to die for.

Once class and lunch are over I usually just hang out at the café to study. Now, by 5:00pm I absolutely have to be home, or I will miss the highlight of my host sister’s day (and therefore mine by assimilation)- Menekshe ile Halil. It’s this intense Turkish soap opera that comes on every day at the same time. So you can imagine just how slow moving the plot is. It’s like daytime soaps in the U.S., just at night…that is if you factor in the language barrier and the culturally approved topics. Now in typical female fashion, I’ve gotten quite hooked (even only after a few day) and am genuinely excited for tomorrow so that I can see if Menekshe’s finance, Halil, will find her kidnapper and rescue her before the wedding is supposed to take place. What can I say, some things transcend all languages.

When dinner is over and my brain hurts from translating the captioning on the television, I go up to my room and pass out almost instantly. The day may feel like it takes forever at first, but I think I really could get used to this.