Hear those church bells ring

I think Shkodra is one of the only cities in this beautiful country where you hear the Muslim call to pray and Catholic church bells back-to-back.

Apparently just 20 years ago the city was rife with a sort of “civil war” that pitted the Muslims against the Catholics. The city was divided down the middle with the Muslims on one side and the Catholics on the other. Now, tensions have cooled and it seems that no one still harbors hard feelings. But the evidence is definitely all around me.

ImageI live in the historic district (above is a picture of our mosque), so it’s pretty much smack dab in the middle of Shkodra. That means I hear church bells chiming every30 minutes to mark the time, and in between I hear the call to prayer. My favorite time of day is when they overlap and there are duel for air space, deafening us all. No, its actually quite beautiful though. I never thought I’d live in a place where you hear the call to prayer. It’s just not that common in the US so it never even ocurred to me. It’s definitely growing on me, even though every time the voice starts over the loud speaker I’m jerked back to reality with that “wow you are not in the US anymore” realization. It may be noisy all the time, but I think I’m pretty lucky to be in a place where both church bells and the call to prayer can ring in peace.

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

Blonde hair and garlic cloves

ImageMany people told me that they use a lot of garlic in Albania, and I thought they were referring to the food. And for all intents and purposes, they probably were; but they couldn’t have been more wrong. Yes, there is lots of garlic in this country, but I’m pretty sure none of it makes it into the kitchen for cooking (which is unfortunate because Albanian cooking is incredibly bland most of the time and could really use it). Nope, instead garlic here is used to ward off the curse of the “blue eye” (or “evil eye” as they like to translate it for Americans so we are less insulted). Hanging outside of doorways and from the rearview mirror of cars you can often find a string of garlic bulbs.

One of my language teachers tried to explain that this is done to ward off bad luck from blonde-haired and blue-eyed people. The old superstition is that garlic or salt in your pocket will keep you beautiful and prevent you from being cursed by the beautiful blue-eyed people that pass you by. And you have to hang garlic or weird stuffed animals/dolls from any new building before you can finish it or live in it so that it is not cursed by the evil eye either. Just another one of those times when I’m thankful to be a brunette…but I’m definitely buying garlic for my apartment when I move to Shkoder just to be safe.

 

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

Big Brother Albania

This is probably not going to be what you were expecting with a title like “Big Brother” in a country known for its harsh, controlling dictators. But the Big Brother I’m reffering to is just as bad and has just as tight of a hold over this country. And sadly, that’s a reality television shows.

The best parts of reality tv in the US are the scandalous, outragious and mildly offensive things people do or say. But here in Albania (an extremely conservative, post-communist country), reality TV is more like watching Golden Girls than Jersey Shore. There is no smush room, no confessional camera, no shots of them out clubbing (or even having a drink for that matter), no fist fights or street brawls, and for sure no PDA on camerca (they barely even touch).

So what’s reality TV without hooking up and drinking, you ask? Very boring. It’s just 10ish people sitting in a house arguing, walking around, smoking cigareets, drinking red bulls (all at the rage here), and voting each other out of the house. And they do this 24/7 while the entire country watches in rapture. Today we watched them sunbathe for 30 minutes while no one moved or spoke a word. It’s like The Truman Shows, but for real. People here don’t just tune in for the interesting parts; they spend the whole day glued to their couches…watching other people sit on their couches.

I can only stand so much before I have to leave the room. I just shake my head and laugh as I think about the looks of terror that would be on my host parents’ face if they saw just 5 minutes of Keeping up With the Kardashians or Real Housewives.

 

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

My 10 week camping trip

I have taken to comparing my Peace Corps Training experience with my host family in Bishqem to a 10 week long camping trip. And for good reason. For the first few weeks it was so frigid, even inside my house (beautifully constructed out of concrete, only the most porous building material possible), so I slept in my sleeping bag under as many blankets as I could scrounge up.

If I ask for a glass of milk in the morning, I just have to wait for my host mother to go out to the cow and milk it for me. And if we’re lucky enough to have eggs with dinner its because I went to the chicken coup with my host sister and gathered them.

There is rarely enough water pressure to take a proper shower, and the water is only hot at night so if I want to shower in the morning I usually fill my water filter the night before then dump it over my head the next morning. Quite an excellent way to start the day if I do say so myself.

9 times out of 10 I’m squatting over a whole in the ground to pee. And if I’m lucky enough to find a western toilet, I can’t flush the toilette paper (if there is any available) for fear of overflowing the pipes. So instead we just put all the toilet paper in a bin next to the toilet and run for it as we flush (skip washing your hands and go straight for the hand sanitizer because there is no soap and definitely no paper towels).

We do have electricity like most modern campsites, but it’s unreliable and often flickers or goes out for hours on end. That, and most of the outlets in my room are loose so if I need to charge my cell phone I have to stand by the plug and press the chord into the wall for hours on end until there is enough of a charge to last me until tomorrow. Thank goodness I don’t need to be anywhere quickly most days of the week.

There is also just as much to entertain you here as a typical campsite. That being nothing. So I spend most of my days off wandering through the hills finding new paths to hike or reading an entire book a day while sitting on the patio waiting for dinner since the last thing I had to look forward to was waiting for lunch (what I wouldn’t give for playdo and coloring books like my mom used to bring on camping trips). I do really wish we could have campfires out here because that would at least give us something to do after the sun goes down and we wouldn’t have to go to bed out of boredom. Can you imagine the pure ecstasy of introducing s’mores to this country? Hold me back. 

But there is just as much natural beauty and serenity in Bishqem as you would find at any campground as well. The people are so at peace and content; everyone says hello (or rather Përshëdetije) as you walk by. There are definitely more farm animals and people on horseback than cars. And the moment I feel myself start to get sick of this or frustrated, I just have to step outside and look around. I can breathe in deeply without inhaling car exhaust or smog. There are mountains for miles in every direction and blooming gardens all around. Bishqem is an amazing place to be, don’t get me wrong. I’m just happy that the end of my 10 week camping trip is in sight. Shkoder here I come!

 

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

 

Finding a Furgon

For all the information sessions we get from the Peace Corps in Albania, I’ve realized the one they are definitely missing is how to catch a furgon. Furgons are the foundation of the transportation system here (even though there is a serious lack of a “system” involved). I’m honestly not sure how this business started, but from what I’ve gathered a furgon is a privately owned van that goes all over Albania whenever and wherever the driver feels like going. There are no official stops, no set prices, no schedules, and no standard hours of operation…its pretty much catch as catch can. For the most part drivers leave their house when the sun comes up and make their last drop off when the sun goes down; but you really never know. 

I sit on a furgon four times a week going to and from Elbasan for classes..and I usually closing my eyes and praying that I will make it home alive. Okay, that’s an exaggeration. But as the driver weaves in and out of traffic on the wrong side of the road while going 60 mph around a blind corner, I can’t help but wonder if he chased his morning espresso with a shot of raki (apparently that’s the standard daily ritual for men here).

The good thing is that I’m pretty convinced there is only one road in Albania. Okay, maybe there are more like 5, but seriously. I don’t think I could get lost here if I tried! And that’s saying a lot if you know my track record for getting lost 10 minutes from my house in the U.S. There are no intersections, no turns, no stoplights, no stop signs, and no alternate roads. Every town or city you need to go to is basically on the same main road that runs from the north to the south of the country. I swear, it seems like there are actually no cities off of this main road…they just don’t exist. What came first, the cities or the road? No one will ever know. So need to worry that you will get lost or take the wrong furgon. Regardless of the end destination advertised on the piece of paper on the dashboard, as long as the furgon is headed in the right direction—north or south—you will make it there. For someone like me who’s biggest fear is being lost, I couldn’t be happier. As long as you don’t mind waiting, the system is pretty easy to figure out. No complicated maps or schedules or stations. Just walk outside and wait. A furgon will be there sooner or later and eventually you’ll end up where you’re trying to go (whether it’s all in one piece is still questionable). And now I always have a permanent excuse if I’m running late—“sorry, I had to catch a furgon.” So lets just say furgons are both the bane of my existence and my saving grace these days. 

 

 

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

Clubbing in the afternoon

There are certain things in life that people all over the world consider to be essentials. You know, things they just can’t live without. You may be thinking I’m referring to food or shelter or water, but you’re wrong. I’m talking about clubbing. The essential human activity of turning off the lights, drinking cheap beer, and dancing your heart out.

Albania may be a conservative society with very strict rules about what to wear and how much to drink and when females shouldn’t be out in public. Instead of letting that hinder the fun of teenage angst, the youth here just work around the rules and go clubbing in the afternoon. The bar below the Peace Corps Office in Elbasan literally becomes a disco/night club starting at noon every single day. After spenind an entire language class listening to a thumping base beat, I decided I needed to check it out. So during our coffee break some volunteers and I ventured downstairs to Kupid  Bar. When we opened the door it looked like any other American night club. The lights were out, a disco strobe light was spinning, and cigarette smoke filled the air. The only stark difference was that the people were no more than 16 years old, and they were circle dancing. For anyone who doesn’t know what Albanian circle dancing looks like, it’s kind of like their version of the Jewish horrah. The hold hands and grapevine in circles…for hooouuurs. I’m not exaggerating. So imagine my surprise when I opened the door and found the most scandalous part of Albanian culture…to actually be the most innocent dance party I could have ever imagined. Love it. All I know is I’m for sure bringing circle dancing back to the U.S., it would greatly improve a Friday night at Hawk n’ Dove or The Guards. 

 

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