Mos hidhni mbeturina

“Mos hidhni mbeturina.” This phrase is spray painted and written all over the city. It translates to “Don’t throw your trash here.”

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Trash is a huge problem in Albania because the country has yet to figure out how to organize and operate a national trash pick-up service. Yes, that’s right. There are no organized garbage men in Albania. There aren’t even trash cans scattered about the streets like you are used to seeing in every city in America. We have these dumpsters on a few different streets that people from our local government come and empty…lord knows where, because there are no landfills in Albania.

P.S. I've been trying to take a picture of a trash can for days but everytimg I walk by there are people digging through them and I didn't want to start any blood feuds over trash pics. That's the sad truth.

P.S. I’ve been trying to take a picture of this trash can near my house for days but every time I walk by, there are people digging through them and I didn’t want to start any blood feuds over trash pics. That’s the sad truth.

Interestingly enough, the government pays people 5 leke for every piece of glass or metal that they turn in. It’s sort of their take on recycling incentives. Mostly it just became a great way for the Roma population and the poor people of Albania to scrape by and make a living. That’s why you see them digging through trash cans and walking down the street with big bags of scraps screaming “Hekura! Hekura!” (which means “metal! metal!”)…so that people who want to save them the trouble of digging through the trash and don’t want to collect the 5 leke for themselves, can walk outside and hand over their scrap metal.

So what happens to all the garbage? It’s dumped in the rivers, lakes, off of mountains cliffs, anywhere that people don’t live.

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This is a picture of the river outside of Librazhd, Albania. It also happens to be a drinking water source for many people in that town.

Albania is known for its untouched natural beauty but it won’t be that way for long if this continues. As a hopelessly inspired and motivated Peace Corps Volunteer in this wonderful country, I have taken it upon myself not to leave a American sized carbon footprint in Shkodër.

All of the vegetable and fruit stands in this country have big stacks of plastic bags that they use to divide each kind of produce separately when you buy them. Each item has a different price so of course they need to be weighed separately. That makes sense. At first I was completely overwhelmed by all the plastic bags I’d accrued. Especially since there is no place to recycle them. Seriously, this is what the cabinet under my sink looks like.

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So instead of fighting the system by refusing the plastic bags, I simply save my bags and bring the same ones back each time. Now, the first time I did this, the lady selling produce gave me the strangest look. As she watched me pull the bags out of my purse she scowled and came over to me. “What are you doing? I have plenty of bags! Take one, take one, take one!” I didn’t mean to insult her, so I simply explained that I was recycling to save plastic and help the environment. I’m not quite sure she understood but she let me do my thing.

For the last few months I have been doing this every week when I go buy vegetables from her. Yesterday when I showed up and was about to start my usual routine of pulling plastic bags from my purse and choosing vegetables, I heard her whisper to the other customers “Watch this girl! She brings her own bags! Every time! She’s such a good girl. She’s saving the environment.” I laughed to myself and looked up from what I was doing to see her giving me a huge smile. Social change, success.

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

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Rain rain go away

Shkodër is a lot like Seattle. Okay not really because Seattle is in America and therefore infinitely more developed and yada yada yada but in all seriousness, when it comes to weather patterns, Seattle and Shkodër have a lot in common. That is to say, it rains a whole lot. As a matter of fact, did you know that one of the only temperate rainforests in North America is located just outside of Seattle? And did you know that the only temperate rainforest in all of Europe is the region of Shkodër, Albania? Hhmm…

Needless to say, the biggest lesson I’ve learned while living here is to never leave home without my umbrella. It may look sunny and gorgeous outside in the morning, but just give it a few hours and a huge storm will roll in. Guaranteed. And when it rains in Shkodër, it RAAIIINNSS. I’m talking the torrential downpours, soaked to the bone, puddles up to your ankles, might as well stay home kind of rain.

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For the last 5 days we’ve been blessed with one of Shkoder’s all too frequent week-long rain storms. What I wouldn’t give to see the sun. There’s an expression in Albania that says “Shkodran të tharët dhe Lezhjan të krehët, nuk ka.” Which essentially means, people in Shkoder whom are dry and people in Lezha whom have combed hair don’t exist. You see, Shkoder’s neighboring city of Lezha is like the Chicago of Albania. It’s windy aaaalll the time. And it’s not your normal breeze blowing. When it’s windy in Lezha there are 40 mph winds that blow in from the sea and never seem to cease. Hence the reason why people in Lezha never have combed hair.

So who says Albania isn’t that much like America? It seems to me like we have a lot in common…albeit mostly when it comes to annoying weather patterns.

 

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

To Fall in Love

All week long I’ve found myself curiously anxious to see how Albanians celebrate Valentine’s Day. If you’ve been following along, you’ve probably noticed the number of times I’ve mentioned the restrictions on dating in Albania. And for good reason. Dating in Albania is so taboo that it “doesn’t exist.” Ask any Albanian female if they have a boyfriend and the answer is no. At first I didn’t believe it. And you’d think that after almost a full year of living here I’d realize that they really meant it. You cannot have a boyfriend in Albania…you can only get married. Huh?!

So now that the week of love has arrived, I couldn’t help but wonder how it would play out in a world where romance consists of a look across the room, a 2 day engagement, and an arranged marriage. At school I tried my best to explain the culture of Valentine’s Day in America as innocently as possible…you know, with examples like “we give gifts to everyone we love, even our friends and parents.” Because heaven forbid I try to talk about the taudry affairs of teens in high schools across America (they somehow think the movies are just movies and life isn’t really like that. Hah! I say, hah!).

So we played an English teacher’s adaptation of “Taboo” in class to learn new words for Valentine’s Day and like any other day in Albania, I think I ended up learning just as much as they did. I wrote the expression “to fall in love” on the blackboard behind a blindfolded student while the rest of the class had to describe the expression for the blindfolded student to guess. There clues went something like this – “it’s the first thing that happens when you see someone you like! Before you kiss them and before you go on a date!” I couldn’t help but scrunch my face and say , “What? It’s to fall in love! Do you know what that means?” All of the sudden I felt like I was living a scene out of Fiddler on the Roof, and then it hit me. I really am.

Love and dating are so taboo in this country even in 2013 that you have to marry the first (and only) person you date. Therefore, you have to be in love with them before any kind of romance even begins. The fact that you could have a boyfriend and not love him or fall in love after dating for sometime is a foreign concept…literally. So do we celebrate Valentine’s Day in Albania? Well, not really. We talk about it and there are rumors of secret gift exchanges in the allies behind the schools, but there are no romantic candlelight dinners or anything drastic like that.

It’s just one more reason why I’m here doing what I’m doing and teaching what I’m teaching. I look at my students who inspire me everyday and I just want them to experience the joys of their first kiss or their first boyfriend. I want them to experience heartbreak and romance and holding hands in public and introducing a guy to their parents. All I can do is hope that the age of globalization and the internet will bring this to their doorstep in time for Valentine’s Day next year!

 

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

Karnavalet e Shkodrës

Who says change doesn’t happen! I’m telling you, there’s big moves happening up in Albania. Shkoder took part in the world’s celebration of Carnival, Mardi Gras,etc. (or whatever you want to call it) this weekend…and with a beautiful Shqiptare twist I might add.

In a country so steeped in tradition, it can sometimes seem difficult for us mere Peace Corps Volunteers to make change happen. Let’s say, for example, to introduce modern and progressive teaching methods into the classroom. No? I didn’t think so. I often find myself chanting the Peace Corps mantra – “You plant the seeds for trees whose shade you will never stand under”- but sometimes that just doesn’t feel satisfying enough.

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And then Karnaval comes to Shkoder. This wonderful holiday is full of sin, vice, indulgence, public drunkenness, day-after embarrassment, and all the other gems of youth. So how does that work in a country that is still stuck in the 1950s you might ask? Good question. Every school dresses up in a different themed costume and takes part in a giant parade around the city. Then we all gather in the center of the city to dance and sing…for an hour. Aaannd then we go for coffee. Not quite what you expected? Me neither. But, “avash, avash” as they Albanians say. Change comes slowly. Personally, I was overwhelmed with enthusiasm just to see this great international tradition of Karnaval making its way to my little old city in the north of Albania.

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Of course Albanians make Karnaval their own by adding in some fun superstitions. Like burning a scarecrow…and no, not a normal sized scarecrow used in the fields and farms, but a gigantic scarecrow the size of a tractor-trailer. Just when I thought Karnaval was over, day 2 happened. Again, another parade but this time with acrobatics and gymnasts doing flips and tricks on the asphalt streets (my American self was thinking “lawsuit waiting to happen”). At the end of the parade, we can upon the aforementioned scarecrow where the mayor proceded to light it in fire as everyone cheered. Personally, I backed away slowly trying to avoid getting trampled by the crowds because I have a secret for you…there are no firetrucks in Albania. And we only have 2 ambulances. So thanks but no thanks, I will watch you burn things from afar.

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All in all, a wonderful experience that I hope continues to spread throughout the country and show people the beautiful of globalization (oh and making a fool of yourself in public by eating too many doughnuts and drinking too much alcohol!). But in all seriousness, any kind of opening of this country to new ideas and new customs can only bring good things. So raise your glasses and cheers to a bright future Albania, may it be full of sexual freedom, women drinking beer in public, kissing in the streets, and dropping it like its hot for everyone!

 

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