Behind the scenes

Albania is a strange country. You really have to come here to see it and live it in order to understand the complexities that make up this crazy little place.

You see, from a distance Albania seems to be doing fine. On the surface, it’s making progress. It’s developing. It’s moving forward. But when you look behind the scenes, it’s still broken. Corruption undermines all the good intentions and makes change almost impossible. The lack of rule of law, police, and a justice system makes it incredibly difficult to enforce new laws and efforts to make this place better.

a bombed out house on my street that has lain dormant for a quite awhile.

a bombed out house on my street that has lain dormant for a quite awhile.

Why am I talking about this now? Well, my second year as a PCV in Albania is getting underway as the school year here is about to start. And you know what that means? That’s right, time to think about life after Peace Corps. Not the answer you were expecting? Good! It’s not the answer I want to give. I wish I could be as gung-ho about my community and serving this country as I was when I first got here, but time changes a person. And realizing that I just have 9 short months left in this wonderful, terrible, crazy, mixed-up place is hard to believe. So what’s next? That’s a damn good question.

In a few weeks I’ll be taking the GRE and writing graduate school applications, then spending my lonely winter nights crossing my fingers and toes and praying to every god out there that someone accepts me. So in the meantime, that leaves me with a near impossible question to answer. What to write about in my grad school essay. I know, I know, there are starving people in Africa (and down the street from my house) but all I can think about is framing my Peace Corps service into an 500-1000 word essay that makes me sound humble yet motivated and an excellent candidate for a masters degree.

It may not seem that hard to you, but I swear it’s maybe the hardest thing I’ve had to do. How can you possibly summarize the most life-changing experience you’ve ever had in just 500 words? While managing to explain you goals for the future and the details of the university that will make it all come to fruition? You can’t, that’s how. It’s impossible to put the feelings and faces and warm fuzzy moments into words that admissions committees will be able to grasp. Like most other things in life, you have to see it to believe.

So I find myself walking down the street and stumbling upon these great analogies for Albania all around me that would make amazing grad school essays symbolize this country and my experience here. Nothing life changing yet. But instead, I leave you with these pictures that for me, really hit home.

DSC07674

These houses have been in ruins for quite sometime, but no one seems to mind or to have any plans to turn it into something new. So people continue to walk by on the main street, totally ignorant of the destruction that lays behind the freshly painted exterior. Just like so many institutions and systems in Albania that seem normal and functioning on the surface, until you dig a little deeper and find garbage and ruin. They continue to put up pretty buildings and smooth over the trash dumps, but as soon as they turn their back its all destroyed once again. And it will continue to function in that way until someone fixes the real problems and doesn’t just slap on a band-aid.

DSC07677

 

And if a picture is worth 1000 words maybe I can just turn this in for my essay? Wish me luck.

DSC07675

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

Advertisements

Making marshmallows and memories

Albanians are always asking me what traditional food we eat in America and I try to explain to them that all of our food comes from other countries and other cultures. How we are a country of immigrants with very few “traditions” in the same sense that they understand the word. But like most arguments, I usually lose and end up inventing things that are “traditioanlly” American just to get them to drop it. It works much better that way.

So what’s traditional American food? My answer is now pancakes with maple syrup, fried chicken, mashed potatoes, and marshmallows. Yup. Can’t think of anything more traditionally American than melted sugar sandwiched between chocolate and graham crackers. Maybe it’s the inner Girl Scout in me or the years spent camping with my family, but either way, America to me tastes like a s’more. So that’s what I set out to do – to introduce my students here to my American lifestyle be feeing them endless amounts of marshmallows and s’more.

One small problem. You can’t buy marshmallows in Albania (which is another reason why I consider them to be so typically American and why most Albanian believe me, because it’s so exotic that they’ve never seen or heard of them or tasted them). But never fear, I refuse to be defeated by the lack of cooking supplies in this country. So here is how I did it. How I created s’mores in a country without gelatin, powdered sugar, vanilla extract, corn syrup, graham crackers, or anything else resembling the processed deliciousness that goes into good old American cooking.

Step 1: have an awesome mom back home who will indulge you and ship you massive amounts of knox gelatin. You can try to use your local Albanian stuff, but like most things it’s just not the same and doesn’t quite work like you want it to.

Step 2: find a group of willing test subjects to experiment on (any Albanian student will do the trick) and a place to light a fire without burning down the city. I usually save this activity for days at the beach since camping is an exotic and foreign activity in and of itself, so if you wait for that day you could be waiting a while.

Step 3: find a blender that won’t explode after being used continuously for 15 minutes on high. This may be harder than it sounds since Albanian outlets do not have consistent electricity flowing through them and appliances tend to overheat, melt, spark, and explode or what have you. Use at your own risk. This is my 4th time making marshmallows this way, which is evident by the one-whisked blender I’m using. It’s on it’s last legs but it still gets the job done.

Here are my basic substitutions- instead of corn syrup I make my own sugar based syrup. Instead of vanilla extract I use the vanilla sugar that is easily available at my super market. Instead of graham crackers, use any square shapes plain cookie you can find.

Moral of the story, don’t be defeated by the lack of supplies around you. Get creative and make it happen. Anything is possible, even marshmallows in Albania.

DSC07673

Ingredients:

2 packets of knox gelatin

8 tablespoons of cold water

2 cups of granulated sugar

1/2 cup of cold water

1/4 teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Directions: 

Cover the bottom of a pan with a powdered sugar/corn starch mixture. Set aside.

DSC07668
In a small bowl, soak gelatin in 8 tbsp cold water. Set aside.

Combine granulated sugar and 1/2 cup of water in a large heavy saucepan.
Cook and stir over medium heat until dissolved.

Add gelatin and bring to a boil.Remove from heat. Pour into a large mixing bowl and let stand until partially cool.

Add salt and vanilla extract.

DSC07665

Beat with an electric mixer until soft and double in volume. About 10-15 minutes.

DSC07667

Pour into prepared pan to about 1/2 inch thick. Cover the top with the remainder of the powdered sugar/corn starch mixture.

DSC07668Set to cool until it will not stick to your finger.

Cut into 1.5 inch pieces.

DSC07672

Make a campfire, find some sticks, and make s’mores!

1000864_10200556674099148_1713044874_n

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

Welcome home

I’ve been traveling a lot this summer, all over Europe. Being in the Peace Corps in Albania has been such an amazing opportunity for me to see other countries since it’s right in the heart of everything. It’s literally in the middle of the map. No kidding. Go look it up.

Rozafa Castle- my view on the drive into Shkoder.

Rozafa Castle- my view on the drive into Shkoder.

But I’ve come to realize that every time I leave Albania, I develop a kind of homesickness for this crazy place. It’s so easy to rag on developing countries and what PCVs lack or give up when we commit to 2 years of service abroad. But honestly, I think I’ve gained more than I’ve given up.

the historic neighborhood where I live

the historic neighborhood where I live

Just last week I was sitting in Munich, Germany with my parents drinking a local draft brew and stuffing my face with bratwurst and sauerkraut. And I thought I was in heaven. Oh my god, words cannot describe how good food tastes when you haven’t had it in a year and a half. But after five days of binging on pretzels and hefeweizens, my body craved the fresh vegetables and fruit stands of Shkoder, the light pale ales served in .2 L glasses rather than 1 L drafts bigger than my head, and the simple clean fish straight from our lake.

the old hillside houses of Shkoder near the castle

the old hillside houses of Shkoder near the castle

It’s a weird feeling, to be homesick for a place you’ve only lived in 16 months. To find yourself mumbling Albanian expressions at passersby or during dinner conversations because there just isn’t a good enough direct translation in the English language to capture the moment. To miss the things you thought you hated most (like xhiros and cheap wine and flea market shopping). And strangest of all, to find your parents more technologically savvy (and straight up glued to tv, internet, and their cellphones) more than you are.

the streets of Shkoder

the streets of Shkoder

But one thing is for sure, the more I travel and see my friends and family from back home, the more I realize that Albania has made me a better person. A calmer person. A more stress free and go with the flow kind of person. A more accepting and tolerant and easy to please person. And for those of you who knew me before Peace Corps, you’ll understand just how much that means.

the big mosque in the center of our town

the big mosque in the center of our town

You can say that before living in Albania I was little high strung. Okay, more than a little. A lot. I was a perfectionist and a control freak and stubbornly determined. (Yes, as you can see, I’ve had a lot of time here for personal reflections. It passes the time on cold and lonely winter nights when the sun sets at 3pm and the power is out for hours on end.) So thank you, Albania. I think I needed it. Here’s to 9 more months of living and learning and eating my way through this beautiful place I can now call home.

the surrounding region of Shkoder

the surrounding region of Shkoder

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

Wedding season is upon us

Summer in Albania means late night strolls through the city (because it’s too hot to move during the day time). It means endless horns honking, guns shooting, and fireworks blasting. The din of summer wedding season has arrive. There’s a constant buzzing and activity all over the country as people leave their work behind and embrace the spirit of summer. Which in Albania means absolutely no work.

It’s kind of amusing actually. Sometimes it feels like Albania is in a constant state of senioritis. It’s too hot in the summer to work. It’s too cold in the winter. It’s too rainy in the spring. So what happens? Very little, to be quite honest.

But the one thing Albanians do do best is weddings. And summer wouldn’t be complete without the constant celebratory atmosphere of the wedding season. As soon as the sun comes out in May, wedding bells (or rather wedding “calls to prayer”?) start ringing. Like many other countries in the world, the most popular time to tie the knot is during the steamy summer months. But in Albania, it’s almost exclusive. After a full year in this country, I can honestly say I’ve never heard of a wedding happening anytime other than the summer. So what does that mean? Summer is awfully packed with weddings, as people try to squeeze them in while they can.

Marriage in Albania is still incredibly traditional. And while there are in fact people here who are progressive, they still adhere to all the customs of their ancestors when it comes to their wedding ceremony. First of all, weddings in Albania aren’t an afternoon or even an evening affair. They last at least a week. The whole week before the wedding, all their friends and family pay visits to the families to wish them happiness in their new union. Then at night, there are engagement parties for the bride and for the groom (separately, at their respective houses) that last the entire week. Needless to say, their neighbors won’t be getting to much sleep as they bump loud music all night long. And don’t forget the gun firing and fireworks that go along with it.

Confetti fills the gutters near my house after a long night of celebrating.

Confetti fills the gutters near my house after a long night of celebrating.

So on the day of the wedding, they decorate the car of the groom in lots of ribbons and bows. Then they drive it over to the bride’s house and symbolically take her away from her parents (mind you, the entire month before her wedding she’s been rehearsing for this moment by practicing her crying face). The couple then drives around town followed by the wedding party as they honk their horns continuous…for more than an hour.

A groom's car that's been decorated for the wedding drive around town.

A groom’s car that’s been decorated for the wedding drive around town.

All the while the “best man” and “maid of honor” (they have different words/titles for them in Albanian, mind you) are sitting halfway out the wind of the car filming the entire ride with their videocameras. But no, they are not filming the couple or anything like that. They point the camera at the sky and the stream of cars behind them, honking their horns. I guess that’s what they want to remember from their wedding day? What the weather was like? Who knows.

They make a few loops around the city while making pitstops at each of the most important mosques, where they will bow and be blessed by their equivalent of a minister.

Finally they end up at the groom’s house, where the bride will live for the rest of her life with her in-laws. As she enters the house, the mother-in-law symbolically bangs her head against the door (gently, of course) to remind her what will happen if she doesn’t obey.

And there you have it! The nuts and bolts of an Albanian wedding. Add in feasting, circle dancing, traditional costumes, and general merriment and that’s about all there is to it.

To an outsider, it seems strange to see a culture so tied to their past that they go through all these motions even though they have little relevance in society today. After all, divorce does exist here and couples are allowed to buy a new apartment on their own if they can afford it. There are lots of glimpses of modernity in new married couples if you look hard enough.

But at the same time, I’m kind of jealous. In the U.S. we have so few traditions and customs because we are a country of immigrants. Everyone brings their culture with them. So for lost people like myself whose families have been in the U.S. for 400 years, what’s my traditional wedding ceremony supposed to look like? Which of the 10 different heritages of mine should I cling to? For that, I’m envious of how proud and traditional Albanians are, and how they can show it off during their wedding ceremonies. Now if only they could do it without keeping me up all night long!

 

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

Crazy Conspiracy Theories

There are conspiracy theorist all over the world. It’s true. So why does it strike as such a crazy thing in Albania? Maybe because the percentage of conspiracy theorists seems to be higher than anywhere else I’ve ever been in the world. I mean, like 100%. Okay probably closer to like 95%, but still. Out of control.

The good news? It always leads to fascinating conversations! Take my latest conversation with my counterpart and group of young teenage students. Before I begin though, you have to realize that these girls are some of the brightest and most intelligent girls I’ve met. Like ever. They are so cultured and interested in the world and they speak so many languages and they know so much more than I do in just about everything. No joke. But yes, they still believed that the world would end in December 2012 and all of those Mayan calendar myths.

So back to my story, I was sitting around a table late in the evening just talking about life, when the conversation shifted to America. No surprise there seeing as how I’m American an all. They started asking me what things were “true” and “not true” about America that they’d heard in the news or read online. Normally I love this conversation because it opens up so many doors. But this time it took a turn I wasn’t expecting.

Student A- “Danielle, is it true that Dick Cheney has a house in Kukes?” (that’s a city in northern Albania).

Me- “What?! Where did you hear that? I’m pretty sure Dick Cheney has never been to Albania.”

Student A- “There was a special on tv about him after the evening news one time. And it said he was accused of being a wanted criminal in Kukes.”

Student B- “Yea! I saw that too! He definitely has a house in Kukes where he does illegal things. Or maybe it was Kavaje?”

Student C- “No I think it was Bulqize. No wait it was Librazhd.”

Student A- “Anyway…we heard that he has a house here and he kills people who don’t have families and then cuts them open and takes all their organs and sells them in Kosovo to make money.”

Me- “WHAT?! Are you serious? I’m pretty sure Dick Cheney doesn’t need to traffic organs to make money.”

Student B- “No, it’s true. There’s proof. I know it. It was on tv.”

They then proceeded to explain how a politician in Albania is trying to sue him for this crime and bring him to justice in Albania because it’s all true and they know for sure that he did it. I just smile and shake me head. It’s not the first time I’ve heard an outlandish story like this one about famous people all over the world having issues in Albania.

My students could read the disbelief on my face and were probably a little frustrated that I didn’t jump on the bandwagon right off the bat. So they proceeded to explain to me how George W. Bush and Osama Bin Laden were really good friends and business partners (they used to sells weapons and oil together you know). But then they got into a fight and that’s why 9/11 happened, as a result of their feuding businesses. It’s either that or the government planned the whole thing and blew up the Twin Towers on their own to start a war and win the hearts of the people. And something about how everything around 9/11 has the number 11 in it…the sum of the digits in the flight number, the appearance of the towers on the sky line, the number of terrorists in the group, the time the planes crashed, it goes on..

Again I just shake my head and say, “Well, I’m preeeeetty sure that’s not what happened.” But it’s like trying to tell someone that the sky is purple when they’ve spent their whole like thinking it’s blue.

I’ve had so many conversations like this in Albania and every time they take me by surprise. Most of my students are firm believers that the Illuminati is a real and that Rihanna is the queen of it. And that half of the movie stars and singers in America are Illuminati. Go ahead and try to prove that one wrong. I did have a good time explaining to that what her song “S & M” is really about though.

In a country that is so infatuated with superstitions and good luck charms, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to me that they all believe in crazy conspiracy theories  like this. They hang stuffed animals on new buildings to ward off evil spirits. They touch their nose and say “marshallah” when a beautiful woman walks by because she might have the curse of the Blue Eye. They don’t cut their fingernails at night because it will bring good luck. And that’s just skimming the surface when it comes to Albanian superstitions.

I love them all those, because it’s what makes this country so unique and so different from home in Washington, D.C. But I will seriously laugh one day if the news breaks that Dick Cheney has been a trafficking organs in Albania this whole time.

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