Tackling gender issues in Albania

Last week I had the honor of being featured on Top Channel (a fairly reputable television station here in Albania) thanks to all of you who shared my blog with your friends and families. So seriously, a big thanks to each and every one of you.

The topic of the program was foreign women who live and work in Albania. Four of us were invited to participate in the panel to discuss the projects we do to make this country better and to articulate just why we love this place so much. Easier said than done. When they first asked me this question, you know, Danielle you write on your blog all the time about how much you love Albania…why?? I couldn’t help but think what a ridiculous question that was. Why do you love your left hand or your right foot? I don’t know, it’s just part of who I am. This place has become my home. Plain and simple.

(here’s the first part of the interview)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8XzA-p_4MXs

As I was preparing for this interview I was getting all nervous and excited, mostly because it would take place all in Albanian. My Albanian is pretty good, but there’s nothing like a live television interview broadcast nationally with all your friends, students, and directors watching to make you forget every single word of Albanian that you’ve learned. Thank god for the 2 inches of foundation and make up they put on my face before the interview, you couldn’t see the 12 shades of red that my face turned every time they asked me a question.

At the Top Channel studio in Tirana

At the Top Channel studio in Tirana

Which brings me to my point, finally. I know, I’m a long-winded person and it takes me forever to get to the point, but we’ve arrived so don’t worry. Anyway, there I am on stage and the lady interviewing me asks her first question, “Do you have a boyfriend?” It takes everything I have not to roll my eyes. Why is this always the first thing people want to know! As if it’s not possible for a 24 year old woman to be proud and successful and single. Second question, “Do you want to marry an Albanian man?” Of course I smile and say “with any luck, it will happen!” Because that’s what everyone wants to hear. But inside I’m conflicted. I came all this way to talk about my work in the community and all the great projects my students have done to improve Shkoder, and all we get to talk about is my dating-life (keep watching the interview, we get to my work later on I promise!).

(…here’s the second part of the interview)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e1F5aK0vUI8

This is not something unique about Albania, I hate to say it. This is a problem that plagues women everywhere. As young women we are encouraged to be skinny, to flat iron our hair, to wear skinny jeans that show off your legs, to put on high-heeled shoes and walk around town, not to leave the house without mascara and lipstick, and to keep our hands freshly manicured. Sometimes it’s maddening. We’re taught to become these icons of beauty but the moment we attract attention from men, it’s shameful. Here in Albania, women can’t date a man openly ever and shouldn’t hold hands or hug or kiss in public unless their engaged. But they’re supposed to walk around town looking their best and showing off everything they have while men sit at cafes and watch them walk by. It’s such a strange dichotomy, to be raised to be a sex object who can’t have sex.

In every culture, it’s incredibly difficult for women to walk the fine line of beautiful not slutty, successful not intimidating, powerful not domineering, sexy not slutty. I want people to take me seriously regardless of how I look and regardless of my age. I want to talk about my hopes and dreams as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Albania without anyone trying to get me to marry their son. Wouldn’t it be better if we could just be who we are and not worry what people think about us as we walk by? Sometimes I want to wear sweatpants and not put on mascara. Sometimes I want to sit and drink beer outside, not sip tea for fear of judgement. Sometimes I want to eat an entire pizza without someone telling me not to get fat.

Maybe next time.

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

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A day against hunger

This Wednesday we celebrated the UN’s World Food Day, aka the International Day Against Hunger.

So last week when I was meeting with my students from our “Change the World” club (see my previous post for more info: https://daninesmith.wordpress.com/2013/04/30/albanian-gangham-style/) we decided that it was a holiday we absolutely needed to honor.

Okay let me backtrack here for a second. These kids are seriously some of the best and brightest in the country. When the academic year started the hallways were already abuzz with who was going to be accepted into the “Change the World” club this year. With half of our students having graduated (including our amazing founder who I miss dearly every day), it was time to start all over again. But this time I was convinced I could introduce an American style after school club atmosphere into this group. So I made them campaign and give speeches for who would be our new president, vp, treasurer, secretary, and pr chair. We held secret ballot elections one afternoon and a new executive board of CTW was chosen. So one day when these kids are running this country, at least they’ll have one experience of honest, free, and fair elections under their belt!

They even made a legitimate application process with a deadline and everything to select new members. None of this, chose your best friends or the children of teachers kind of thing that happens in real world politics (in Albania and way too many places around the world). We had the whole school filling out applications and asking us for more information on how they could volunteer with us to do cool projects in Shkoder. For a PCV, this is it, the moment I’d been waiting for. These kids really get it.

My students serving lunch.

My students serving lunch.

So anyway, back to the World Food Day. They thought it would be a great idea to give canned goods to the Roma community here in Shkoder, since they are a very poor and marginalized group. Inside I was giddy. Seriously. These kids were really rising to the ocassion and taking their positions in the CTW club to heart. They want to make a difference in this community. To up the ante, I proposed that we sit down for a meal with them to show the Roma community that respect them as individuals as well. And they totally went for it.

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You see, the Roma community in Albania is treated almost like a lower caste of citizens. They have their own little village at the end of town with their own rules and their own customs. Rumor has it that they even speak a different language and have different religious beliefs. But the Roma community is also treated very badly by everyday citizens here. They beg in the streets for food and money, and their children aren’t integrated into the schools. In general, Albanians distrust the Roma for a variety of reasons (not all of them unjustified).

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Needless to say it was a tricky issue to get some of my students to bolster the courage to come to the Roma community and face what they saw as a “dangerous community”. But that’s the whole point of the project, the change this mentality and make Shkoder a better place for everyone, not just for yourself. So in the end they all did it, and I couldn’t have been prouder.

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Each student contributed food, drinks, plasticware, fruit, dessert, or whatever else they wanted. And when the bell rang after 5th period, we boarded the bus with our goods and headed to the Roma community. There, 30 little kids were eagerly awaiting us and the lunch they had been promised (by the parents of one of my students who helped us organize the whole event). The looks on these Roma kids’ faces were priceless.

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And then their mom’s showed up. And their cousins. And their uncles. And their fathers. And everyone else. It was chaos. But wonderful chaos.

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None of the Roma could believe that we were actually there to serve them for a change. They didn’t have to beg or harass us for attention. We were willingly giving them not only food, but also our time and our respect.

My students singing and dancing with the Roma kids

My students singing and dancing with the Roma kids

At the end of the day, my students were grinning from ear to ear. Their opinions of the Roma had totally changed. They weren’t scary people and they weren’t so different from you and me. All they wanted was to eat, laugh, sing, dance, and play with their families. It was such a beautiful moment to see these two communities grow some appreciation and respect for one another. Now I only hope that this is the first step and bigger movement, and not the end of it. But with the CTW kids out on the lose and ready to change the mentality of Shkodrans, you better watch out. Big things are coming.

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

The mystery of Albanian dexterity

I’m a pretty clumsy person. No seriously, it’s bad. My mother used to joke about giving me an “eating shirt” during meals because, without fail, every time we sat down to dinner I would spill something on my clothes. You could say I have a tendency to drop things, run into stationary objects, and trip over invisible lines on the sidewalk. It’s terrible.

But in America I’m not the only clumsy person in the room making a fool of herself. Telling embarrassing stories about myself gets nods of acknowledgement and approval from my friends and family because they’ve done something just like that before. Yet somehow I ended up living in Albania surrounded by some of the most dexterous and skilled people I’ve ever might. No joke.

I’ve never seen an Albanian trip over their own feet while walking down the street. I’ve never seen an Albanian drop something and make embarrassingly loud noises in quiet places. Maybe they just wait until I leave the room, or maybe I just hang out with the wrong crowd (or rather the right one at that!). I have to admit that in the beginning, this freaked me out. How can I be the only one in this whole country who can’t manage to keep food on my plate?! Like just this weekend I was sitting down to lunch with some Albanian friends and as I was cutting a piece of chicken, the whole plate jutted out behind me and spilled all over the floor. Mortifying.

Albanians on the other hand, are the most careful and delicately moving people I’ve ever encountered. I swear! Every day there are hundreds of Albanians who ride their bicycles down the streets of Shkoder with an umbrella in one hand, a cigarette in the other while talking on the phone and weaving in and out of traffic and around people walking. How do they do it! I can barely avoid getting hit on my bicycle with two hands firmly on the steering wheel.

So in Shkoder we have this area called the Pedonale that’s filled with cafes where all the tables and chairs are outside along this beautiful Italian-looking cobbled street. All summer I watched waiters carry trays over their heads with drinks filled to the brim while dodging chairs being scooted in and out, people standing up suddenly, and cats running around at their feet. Not a single drop spilt. Once, I even watched a waiter walk out the door of the restaurant with a tray packed with drinks as a man on a bicycle was passing (and waving at his friend across the street, not looking where he was going). The bicycle literally came within inches of the waiter who made a maneuver I can’t possibly describe to you here. I so wish I had caught this on video. His whole body seemed to instantly contort around the man and his bicycle as he swerved, lifted the tray over his head, seamlessly side step and continued towards the table without missing a beat. I, of course, gasped loudly and grimaced in preparation for the loud crash I assumed would follow; because if I had been caring that tray I for sure would have crashed into the bike and broken every glass. But no. Not a single head turned and not a bead of sweat left his forehead. Now that’s talent.

Maybe it’s an innate sense of care that they are born with here. Maybe it’s something in their genetic coding that gives them quick relfexs and a gracefully air. At least that’s the conclusion I’ve come up with (mostly because it gives me an excuse for why I stand out so much here when I make a fool of myself). In America we are so clumsy and careless with our bodies and our things, because we can always replace it. We have warranties on our phones and insurance on our cars. We have parents with credit cards who always have our backs. We have doctors who can put our bones back together and stitch up our scratches. No need to look where you’re going.

But here in Albania, things and lives are precious. Coming from a communist background where generation after generation barely had enough food to eat and computers were unheard of.  And if you were lucky enough to have a new bicycle then you better take care of it because it will be a long time before your family can afford to buy you a new one if you break. Not to mention the clothes you were wearing; if you fell and ripped your jeans then you could be wearing ripped jeans for the next 3 months at least. Nowadays things are a little better, but doctors still have to be bribed for good service and hospitals lack the supplies to give you the are you need. You better not trip and fall because you might never get back up again. So maybe that’s where they get it from. You know, evolution of species and all. You could say that over the years Albanians have adapted to their environment to become dexterous and careful, while Americans have become clumsy. But almost 2 years in this country hasn’t been long enough to give me the luck of an Albanian just yet!

Hopefully now that the days of communism are behind them, I will find more people tripping on the sidewalk and spilling their food so I won’t be the only one red-faced and embarrassed in public on a daily basis. Not that I would wish that on anyone, but it would nice to not have to suffer it alone!

 

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