Happy Easter!

It time for another American holiday tradition in Albania. Easter!

Albania’s population is about 80% Muslim so needless to say, most people here don’t know all too much about Easter. And while I’m not particularly religious, I do come from a Christian family…but mostly in the commercial-Hallmark-American sense. Aka holidays are more about gifts and candy than going to church. Regardless, when you live far from home you often find yourself clinging to strangely nostalgic traditions that you didn’t realize meant that much to you beforehand. Hence my weekend project of dyeing Easter eggs!

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Luckily the 15% of the population that is Catholic or Orthodox in Albania does participate in this egg dyeing tradition, so it is possible to find egg dye in Albania. But it’s not like the PAAS egg dying packages with cute holders and stickers that we’re used to in America. Instead you buy individual little packets for 20 cents each and pray that you’re Albania is good enough to translate the directions on the back.

my Albanian-style Easter egg dye

my Albanian-style Easter egg dye

Like everything else I’ve found here, it looks good on the outside (which always gets me excited) but never seems to work all that well when you get down to it (which leads to inevitable frustration and mild depression). But after some trial and error I realized I just needed to leave the eggs in the dye longer than I was used to. Cue my predictable analogy between America’s instant-gratification culture and Albania’s “avash, avash” culture where everything just takes a little longer than it needs to. But hey, at least it works!

putting my espresso mugs to good use for the first time!

putting my espresso mugs to good use for the first time!

And I even tried some new ways of dyeing eggs that the lady at the store taught me.

Step 1: pick fresh flowers or leaves from your garden.

Step 2: place the plants onto the shell of the egg.

Step 3: place it into a women’s stocking and wrap it tightly.

Step 4: put the whole thing in the dye and wait for 5 mins.

And you get these beautifully spring-like eggs! I’m a fan. Try to ignore my dyed fingers in this photo, they don’t have those nifty little metal egg holders here either!

nature-inspired Easter eggs

nature-inspired Easter eggs

The best part about Easter in Albania is that all the Christians dye eggs then give them away as gifts (usually to all the Muslims, but there’s no hard feelings or insults or subliminal messaging I swear!). So now Easter egg hunts or anything like that. Instead, dyeing eggs is more of an art form and a way to celebrate the holidays between different religions. It’s actually pretty cool. All the Muslim teachers at school were so excited for Easter since they knew all the Christian teachers would be bringing baskets of beautifully dyed eggs for everyone. This is a tradition I might have to bring back to America (both to save me from high cholesterol and to spread the love!).

 

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

On maple syrup

For those of you who studied economics in college, you are probably aware of the Big Mac Index. For those of you who didn’t, here’s the spark notes version- essentially it is a way of measuring purchasing-power parity between countries. In other words, the exchange rate market results in goods costing the same across currencies, so that the price of a Big Mac in every country in the world is relative to  the strength of its currency. Therefore to get a rough snapshot of comparative world currencies (and thereby strength in the market which is a common indicator of economic development) one simply needs to look at the price of the McDonald’s Big Mac.

But that assumes that you can find a McDonald’s in each country. And unfortunately in Albania, that is not the case. Yup, that’s right. No Big Macs in this fine country.

So I have a new theory I would like to propose to the economic world. And that is my Maple Syrup Theory. It’s based on the aforementioned Big Mac Index…well kind of. It goes like this- one can roughly divide the world into developed and developing countries based on one thing: those with maple syrup and those without.

It may seem farfetched to you, but just hear me out. Take Albania for example- no maple syrup. Peace Corps has a long history in this country because of the high levels of corruption, lack of disability rights, stuck-in-the-past educational system, lack of health care resources, and so many other reasons. Now, Albania’s lovely neighbors to the north, Montenegro, do not have Peace Corps Volunteers serving in their country. And guess what you can find in Montenegro? You guessed it. Maple syrup. Albania’s lovely neighbors to the east (Macedonia and Kosovo) also have a need for Peace Corps volunteers and foreign aid for development. Do they have maple syrup? Nope. But the rest of Europe like Spain, England, France, Italy, etc….all have shelves stocked with maple syrup.

Now I’m not saying that maple syrup in grocery stories causes economic development to take off, I’m just saying its a correlation that my maple syrup deprived self can’t help but notice.

For real though, countries that carry maple syrup in their grocery stores have a certain level of saturation by foreign cultures. If there were no demand for maple syrup, it wouldn’t be supplied. So the pure fact that they have maple syrup on their shelves is a sign that the country has a healthy import/export market and participates heavily in international trade. It is a signal of economic growth in that they are strengthening ties with North America and global markets. It is a sign that they are a forward-looking and progressive country that allows its citizens freedom of movement across borders to bring back new ideas, foods, tastes, customs, etc. It is a marker that they have opened their society to become more a diverse and globalized culture. They are exposed to foreign ideas, ways of life, etc. and therefore have been convinced of the amazing necessity of maple syrup. They have recognized that a life without maple syrup is simply not as sweet.

So there you have it. My simple solution to solving all the development problems of Albania is this- start selling maple syrup. And start with Shkoder. The American volunteers here with thank you.

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

Broken April

One of my personal goals while serving as a PCV in Albania was to read an entire book in Shqip. Unfortunately I don’t see that being a realistic possibility, but I have a close second. I’m going to read as many books by Shqiptare authors as I can. And the best of those authors is easily Ismail Kadare. Kadare has been nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature several times but never won. His books are known for their tangible descriptions of Albanian culture…which is exactly why I’m trying to read them all. Every time I finish another of his novels, I feel like I have a better and deeper understand of this strange place that I’m living in.

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On that note, I just finished this book (Broken April) by Ismail Kadare and I can’t recommend it enough. I picked it up casually the other day and then spent an entire afternoon sitting on my porch reading; I seriously couldn’t put it down. That might not be the case for those of you who don’t know Albania, but for me this book was so real it was jarring. From the way he describes the feeling of being cold to your bones when you live in the mountains to his images of the mountainmen wondering along the winding roads in northern Albania…I was smiling and shaking my head and laughing and crying at every word because it was just so true and accurate to what I see around me. And the man wrote the freaking book like 30 years ago and has been living in France ever since. That’s how much Albania has changed over the years (aka not very much).

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So this entire book attempts to explain the Kanun and how it has sculpted the culture of northern Albania by telling the story of a young man who is born into a blood feud and is pre-destined to die because of it. It tells his journey to avenge his brother’s blood and the last month of his life before his own murder is avenged and he loses his life as well.

To give you a little background, the Kanun is a book that was written more than 200 years ago and it is the reason why the tradition of blood feuds were started in Albania in the first place. It’s the bible and constitution of the mountains all rolled into one.

Way back when, the north of Albania was completely beyond the realm of the police and the government (due to distance, lack of infrastructure, harsh terrain, etc.). So to create their own form of law and order, Leke Dukaqjini wrote this code called Kanun which explains every single aspect of life – it tells the roles of each member of the family; it tells the punishments for every kind of crime; it tells how to get married, how to cut your hair, how to baptise, how to treat a guest, how to have a funeral, how to sell your produce, how to keep your house…literally everything. And people here take the Kanun seriously, even still today. It’s the reason blood feuds still exist in Shkoder. The code of Leke Dukaqjini is so ingrained in these people that try as negotiators might, the tradition of blood feuds runs too deep to be stopped.

Reading this book is like reading 1984 or Animal Farm or Anthem or The Giver…except that it’s real. The laws of the mountains under the Kanun seem so cruel and outrageous and far-fetched that they must be from someone’s imagination. I kept saying to myself, you have to be joking. But then I found a copy of the Kanun in English and couldn’t believe the reality I was confronted with. And to think that people in Albania still live by these laws. Its terrifying and awe-inspiring and mind-boggling all at the same time.

So here are some of my favorite rules and laws from the Kanun, just so you can get a taste:

900. Kanun extends the blood-feud to all males in the family of the murderer, even an infant in the cradle; cousins and close nephews, although they may be separated, inur the blood-feud during the 24 hours following the murder.

918. Blood is never unavenged. 

9.10 If someone abuses me and I kill him, I incur blood. 

911. If someone comes to set fire to my house, and I catch him and kill him, I incur his blood.

912. If someone comes to robe me and I kill him, I incur his blood. 

945. If a gun is fired accidentally, its owner incurs the blood-feud if someone is killed or wounded. 

962. If a son kills his mother, he incurs the blood-feud with his mother’s parents. 

988. Once the hearts of the members of the family of the murderer and the family of the victim have been reconciled, they drink some of each other’s blood. Two small glasses are taken and filled halfway with water or raki. Then one of the friends ties together the little fingers of the two parties and pricks them with a needle, causing a drop fo blood from each to fall into the two glass. 

 

It goes on and one like this. And talk about overly specific stipulations in law…the Kanun covers even the most bizarre possible situations that might occur:

913. If someone comes to empty my sheepfold, and I seem him driving the flock before him and he refuses to release them regardless of what I say, if I kill him I incur the blood-feud. 

946. If someone enters another person’s house and, while hanging his rifle on a hook, the strap breaks and the rifle discharges, killing someone in the house, the owner of the rifle incurs the blood-feud.

951. If someone kills a pregnant woman and, upon opening her body, it is found that she was carrying a boy, the murderer aside from paying for her blood, must pay 6 purses for the boy; if she was carrying a girl, he must pay 3 purses for the child and 3 purses for the woman. 

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

Happy anniversary!

That’s right. Today is my one-year anniversary of being a PCV in Albania. And I don’t know exactly how to feel about that, but ready or not, here it is. To use the word bittersweet to describe this day seems to cliché, but it’s true. I guess it’s a cliché for a reason, right?

There are so many things I absolutely love of living in the country, but at the same time there are so many things that drive me insane. Which I think is pretty normal. And as is only natural on such momentous occasions, I can’t help but think of all the things I’ve done here and all the things I’ve missed out on back home and all the things I have left to do in Albania and all the things I can’t wait to do when I go home…and the list goes on. So to honor this occasion, I’ve compiled a list of things I miss (both positive and negative). Some of these things may seem strange, funny, absurd, or whathaveyou to those of you who haven’t heard all the dirty little details about my life in Albania, so enjoy!

  1. Dryers. Like most places in Europe, the people of Albania do not own, sell, or know about the beauty of drying your clothes in a machine rather than allowing all your neighbors to star at your underwear for hours on end as they hang over your balcony to dry.
  2. Central heat and AC. Flat out does not exist in this country. Okay that’s a lie. You can find it some places like fancy restaurants or hotels but it’s not nearly as functional as the beautiful American kind. For the most part we use woodstoves and space-heaters.
  3. Taking a shower without flooding the bathroom. In case you haven’t heard, Albanian showers do not have shower curtains. So after every shower you have to mop the floor (two-in-one forced cleaning?).
  4. Taking a shower on a whim. In order to have hot water, I have to turn on my water heater and it takes about 2 hours to get the water hot enough to take a shower. So there’s no waking up and showering before work or hoping in the shower after at the gym. You have to sit there and wait it out.
  5. Drano. This wonder of the modern world cannot be purchased in Albania so when all of my drains are clogged from the above showering fiascos, there is no way to unclog them. Needless to say, the act of showering takes half my life.
  6. Sensible power outages. On a perfectly sunny day, not a cloud in the sky, I often walk home to find my house without power. For hours. No explanation. Yet on days with torrential downpours, hail, and 40 mph winds I will have power all day without a problem. Mind-boggling.
  7. Flushing toilet paper. Like most developing countries, the plumbing system in Albania isn’t good enough to handle toilet paper so you have to put it in a little bin next to the toilet and take it out with the trash every day.
  8. One-stop-shop grocery shopping. When I need to get food for dinner, it’s an hour long ordeal. There is no grocery store in Albania where you can get everything you need. Instead you have to go to the cheese shop, meat shop, vegetable/fruit stand, bakery, and market before heading home to cook. Thinking about giving up and ordering a pizza instead? Wrong.
  9. Delivery food. There is fast food in Albania, but it’s not really fast food like you’d imagine in the U.S. There are byrek stands (Albania’s answer to Greek spanekopita) and there are sufllaqe stands where you can get a sandwich. But ordering Chinese takeout or delivery pizza is non-existent. You’ll have to sit down and wait 40 mins for the water to take your order and another 30 for the chef to make the pizza before you can take it home with you (if they even let you do that). And Chinese? Never.
  10. Driving a car. Peace Corps doesn’t allow us to drive so instead I’m subjected to the maniacal maneuvering skills of the bus and furgon drivers in Albania. Sometimes terrifying, but think about it like an amusement park ride or a virtual simulation of Mario Cart and all of the sudden it’s a lot easier to breathe.
  11. Happy hour. Oh, what I wouldn’t give for a glass of wine or a cocktail after a long day of teaching sometimes. Unfortunately this wonderful concept doesn’t exist in Albania. So I’m stuck with espresso shots, which is pretty much the only thing I can order at a bar without getting strange longs anyway (women really shouldn’t drink in public unless they want to be the topic of conversation for weeks to come).
  12. Jogging. I’ve pretty much limited myself to Insanity workouts in my living room so as to avoid the unwanted stares of Albanians. No only is exercising in public taboo, but women exercising is even more unheard of. I could go to a gym of course, but that costs money and also brings a lot of attention since I’m the only woman there who is actually sweating and not trying to find a husband.
  13. Vacuuming. Probably not what you expected, but it’s true. Albanians don’t have vacuums and it’s almost impossible to find one at a store. So I’m limited to sweeping and mopping and using these strange little hand-held contraptions for the rugs.
  14. Airplanes flying overhead. It took me awhile to realize it, but in all honesty I haven’t seen or heard and airplane in the sky since I’ve been to Albania. And I live an hour outside the airport. Tourism is not our biggest industry if you hadn’t guessed.
  15. Melting cheese. Albania has two kinds of cheese- kaçkavall and djathë e bardhë. Both are delicious, but with no remarkable flavor characteristics, besides the fact that you cannot in fact melt them. And a world without melted cheese is just not the same.
  16. Commercials. Never thought I’d say that, but it’s true. I don’t have a television so I have to download or stream all of the tv shows I want to watch. And none of those have commercials. So who knows what the latest products to hit the shelves are!
  17. Baking at 350º. My beautiful Albanian “furre” does not have a temperature gauge. It’s just on or off. Needless to say I burn a lot of food.
  18. Ben & Jerry’s, frosting from a jar, chocolate chips, dill pickles, olives without pits, cheddar cheese, maple syrup. No explanation necessary.

 

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

Stop and smell the roses

You know spring has finally arrived when you wake up to birds singing, the sun rising over the mountaintops, and the sweet smell of flowers in the air. That’s what Shkoder has been like for the last week. No complaints here, that’s for sure!

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On every street corner in Shkoder there are people selling these flowers. They are called “mimozas” in Albania and they are the national symbol of Teacher’s Day (March 7) and Women’s Day (March 8). It may seem gimicky, but I think I’ve fallen for it. Every day this week I’ve seen students stop and buy mimozas on their way to school. My American self thought that maybe they were gifts from secret boyfriends or that, you know, maybe they would be giving them to their favorite American volunteer English teacher. But alas, no. People here honestly just remember to stop and smell the roses…or rather the mimozas.

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It’s a reminder to me to slow down and appreciate the little things in life. In the U.S. I feel like I was constantly sprinting from one metro station to the next, headphones in, texting someone on my cellphone, and turns pages on the kindle in my other hand. Americans are so plugged into technology that we forget to pay attention to the beautiful little things that make life worth living. But not in Albania. Here, all the women (and even some of the men) are carrying around these bouquets of mimozas every where they go, lifting them to their face to smell them every now and then…almost as a reflex. It’s a subconscious, unqualified and undebated aspect of spring. When they sell the mimozas on the street, you should buy them and appreciate the fact that spring is here. Maybe this comes from the fact that winter here is so damn difficult? Who knows.

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In Albania life is just a little bit slower. But in a good way. Strangely enough I think I’ve grown to like that part of my life here. I know, crazy right? Me, the type-A, perfectionist, control-freak with a 50 year plan. But it’s true. And now I plan on returning to America with a little more appreciation for the people and the nature around me. And hopefully I’ll remember to stop and smell the mimozas.

 

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

And the award goes to…

Schools in Albania are locked into their old, traditional methods. They teach right out of a book and its almost impossible to get teachers to vary and, you know, think outside the box. Cue the entrance of you friendly, neighborhood Peace Corps Volunteer.

Granted, sometimes I take my job a little too far. But hey, with big risk comes big reward, right? So this week I decided that what I needed to do was take all my first-year students to the movies. Yes, all 200 of them. Good idea? No, great idea. I’ve never seen students so excited in my life. Now this is where the story takes a spin.

You see, Albanians don’t have the same culture of “movie-going” that Americans do. As a matter of fact, the movie theater in Shkoder is almost always empty. They only show 1 movie a month and they only show it 2 times a week at 7pm and there have to be at least 5 people in the audience, or they won’t show the movie. Does this sound like a society that cherishes movie watching to you?

Our walk to the theater...I'm pretty sure all the people on the street watching us thought it was a protest or something lol

Our walk to the theater…I’m pretty sure all the people on the street watching us thought it was a protest or something lol

In order to make this fabulous plan a reality I had to think like an Albanian and forget all of my American instincts. So, I went home and illegally downloaded a copy of the Oscar-Winning “Argo” with English subtitles, put it onto a DVD and hopped on my bike. I went directly to the movie theater and asked if I could show said movie at 3pm on Friday to an audience of 200 students from my school, you know, for a project. The man looked at me like I was crazy. But as soon as I handed him a big plastic bag full of loose change to pay for the tickets, no more questions asked. Only in Albania would the owner of a movie theater readily agree to this strange (and wildly illegal) idea and then give you a discounted price on tickets (just $1 per student).

Needless to say, I was on cloud nine. So on Friday, I gathered all of my 200 first-year students outside the school and resorted right back to my swim coaching ways. Standing in front of this massive group of excited students (who’ve never even dreamed of having a school project that consists of going to the movies), I quickly explained the assignment…to play detective and find fact vs. fiction in the film. I think I shocked the other teachers with my ability to captivate and silence this rowdy crowd…but what can I say, some skills never leave you.

Gathering outside to get our tickets

Gathering outside to get our tickets

The only real problem with the whole activity was, as I mentioned before, Albanians don’t know how to watch movies. They’ve never been to the movies before so they don’t understand that you  need to stay sitting, turn off your cell phone, and stop talking. And good luck to the American teacher who tries not only to teach them English but also movie-going etiquette. What could I do, really? It was just too much excitement too contain. So I just it let go. After all, the day wasn’t about me, it was about them.

I can’t even begin to explain the pure rush of happiness it brings me to see  these students happy. It’s the reason I keep coming up with these outlandish and far-fetched and crazy activities even though people tell me “Albanians will never let you do it” or “Albanians won’t appreciate it” or “just stick to the book”. I can’t wait to see what we can do next!

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