Being gay in Albania

To say that being gay in Albania is hard would be an understatement.

There are very few people who are openly gay in this country, and the few who are brave enough to do so generally live in the capital (where progress happens faster and many things are more modern). So living in Shkoder it’s safe to say that I haven’t come across anyone who is, “out of the closet”.

But this week with my students we invited an Albanian organization to come and do an after school activity with us about diversity and stereotyping in an effort to change all of this. A little bit of background – Albania is a very traditional country that places a lot of significance on social acceptance through conformity. After 50 years of a communist dictatorship telling people exactly what was right and wrong, it’s hard for people to break the mold. In more ways than being openly gay, it’s difficult for people here to be different whether it’s music tastes, fashion, haircut, desired profession, or political opinions. And even though my students like to tell me that bullying is an American thing and Albanians don’t do that, I beg to differ. It’s hard to watch people get ostracized from groups or teased for being different, regardless of what country you live in. It’s a human thing, not an American or an Albanian thing. In my opinion, the beautiful part about being human is that we’re all unique, and I say we should embrace that not cover it up.

So anyway, back to my school activity. When it started I was literally shaking with nervousness/fear. This could be the end of my relationship with some of my students and with my community as a whole for that matter. Was I pushing the boundaries too much with this one? My students are so open-minded and respectful that I thought, why don’t we address a real issue this time. I wanted to move away from conversations on saving the environment because they all know they should do it (whether they take their own advice is a different story!). I wanted to tackled something that was tricky to talk about and makes them so uncomfortable that it forces self-reflection and consideration. Because only then can we really change the world. And after all, my student group is called “Change the World,” so why not?

The session started with the speakers explaining prejudice, diversity, bullying, harassment, and stereotyping. We all talked about ways we’ve been isolated by society and how it made us feel. So far so good. And then the conversation shifted. We started talking about the LGBT community in Albania, how we treat them, and how they must feel. My heart was pounding. “Please be polite. Please don’t say anything offensive. Please be respectful,” I keep repeating my head. And surprisingly, they were.

Okay, of course there were a few people who were visibly uncomfortable and wanted to leave. So I announced that anyone was free to leave at any point, and they all stayed. Baby steps. There were a few people who rolled their eyes and pulled out their cellphones. But the majority listened attentively and even raised their hands to ask questions.

And then the speakers actually came out to my students. For the first half of the presentation, my kids had no idea these 3 individuals were gay. And for that hour they were enjoying their company and laughing and talking. Why should it be any different now that we know she’s a lesbian? Yet all of the sudden the room was silent. I could see their eyes widening in disbelief. But when the speaker told her own story and the struggles she’s surpassed, they all clapped. And inside, I couldn’t have been prouder.

This woman in front of them had come out to her parents in high school when they saw her speaking about gay rights on national television. Her aunts, uncles, mother, and father cried, screamed and disowned her. They said she was going against nature and inhuman. Her father said he’d be the first to kill her for disgracing his surname and her mother wanted to force her to marry a man to cure her of this disease. As she told her story I watched the faces of my students soften. In fact, I’ve heard many of my favorite students utter these same words about gay people. But now gay had a face, and they couldn’t openly express their hatred. I watched as they struggled to grasp their own opinions and hoped that I had done the right thing by bringing them here today.

Across Albania, students are yanked out of school and sequestered in their houses when their families suspect them of being homosexual. Openly gay people, like this woman, can only leave their houses at night in the cover of darkness to buy groceries for fear of being attacked and beaten during the day. Gay rights are unheard of here, because gay is unheard of here. How can you have rights for something that doesn’t exist?

It’s not easy being different. But this woman fights every day for her right to be herself. And for that, I applaud her. I look at the faces of my students and I know that someday in the future, life will be better for everyone in this country and if they have anything to do about it, people will be free to be who they are.

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

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To destroy or not to destroy Syrian chemical weapons in Albania

It’s very strange to go from obscurity to the center of attention.

Just last month most people in the international community probably had no idea where Albania was on the map. But now it’s name is plastered all over television news thanks to the pending decision of sending Syria’s chemical weapons here to be destroyed.

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So today I want to share an important opinion with you all. Not my own, but rather that of the Albanian people. Okay not all the Albanians, because that would be impossible (everyone has their own opinion and all), but the Albanians that I deal with on a daily basis and have the pleasure of debates these hot topics with.

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All week long at my school we’ve been talking about this issue, and no one can seem to agree. I can only imagine how difficult it must be to reach consensus at the UN when there are even more opinions in the room. Regardless, in general, how do most Albanians feel about all this? Very badly.

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In 2007 Albania was the first country to uphold the Chemical Weapons Convention by destroying 18 tons of Mustard Gas from its communist past. But one year later in 2008 a munitions depot outside the capital wasn’t monitored well and exploded, killing 26 people and wounding 300. So why would you choose a country riddled with security issues, corruption, and no infrastructure to destroy these chemical weapons? Okay we did just fine with 18 tons because the US invested $45 million to help us do it, but 1,300 tons?? And yes, that’s the projected number that’s incoming. To most of my students and fellow teachers it’s terrifying. They think their government is just in it for the money and is disregarding their livelihood and future wellbeing. They think the government is just sucking up to the US and to the EU. Yes, they want to seem like a reputable part of the international community, but not at the risk of their own health and the health of their environment. Pretty reasonable if you ask me. But what do I know.

My kids did have some great solutions though. So all you UN representatives and ambassadors who read my blog, take notes! First up, let’s put them on a boat in the middle of the ocean and destroy them there. Or better yet, how about the Sahara dessert or Siberia? My personal favorite, why don’t we build a rocket and send them into outer space. All sincere attempts to fix the problem, but every time asked them, “okay but do the animals deserve to get hurt anymore than we do? Do those countries deserve this anymore than Albanians do?” They were all speechless. Wouldn’t it be better if chemical weapons didn’t exist at all? Resounding yes.

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Meanwhile Macedonians, Italians, Kosovars and all the rest of our neighbors are protesting over the chemical weapons coming so close to their homes. Where is Albania in all of this? It’s their doorstep! Despite the outrage that poured from every voice when we talked about this, when I asked if they were going to protest the response always seemed to be “but I have a math test and I have to study, so only if I have time.”

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Albanians are not stupid people. They are not ignorant and they are not dispassionate. But they do have a problem speaking up for themselves sometimes, which is why it was so cool to see my students and friends taking to the streets and “protesting” for real this time. I don’t really care what they are protesting about, which may seem weird to you. But honestly, it’s like watching the kid who gets picked on every day in class finally stand up for himself and punch the bully in the face. Not that you can condone that kind of behavior because you’re a teacher and role model. So secretly you hide your smile and the pride in your heart. That’s me today. Watching people march in the streets and take control of their country after decades of hopelessness and apathy. It’s a beautiful thing.

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Especially since Albanians are probably the calmest and quietest protesters I’ve ever seen. At least in Shkoder. First, a woman spoke over a megaphone while everyone listened. Then they took turns being interviewed by the tv crews while everyone watched. Then we walked down the street holding our signs and quietly carrying on conversation. A few times people tried to start chanting “I want Albania clean” but it never really caught on. Peaceful, calm, and quiet. But the sheer number of people spoke volumes.

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

A sense of belonging

There is a little man who stands outside our school. Okay, I probably shouldn’t start a story that way because it seems creepy, but it’s true! If only you knew him, you’d understand how un-creepy he is. As a matter of fact, he may just be one of my favorite people in Shkoder. Every time I come to school he smiles and waves and says “Do you have my passport?! When are you taking me to America?!” I just smile and laugh and say “later, later!” After almost 2 years, it’s become a thing. And I love it.

It seems that all of my stories have to do with my bicycle these days, and I apologize in advance if you’re sick of hearing about it, but Shkoder is in fact the Amsterdam of Albania (aka the city of bicycles). So please indulge me with one more story about how my bicycle shapes my life here in Albania. Can’t promise it will be my last though!

So I stay after school almost every day to work with different student groups at my high school. Unfortunately extracurriculars aren’t very popular in my community (or most others in Albania for that matter). Actually when I arrived here and started working there wasn’t a single one. It was so interesting to my students when I explained to them that at my high school in the U.S. there are at least 30 different after school clubs. In the end, they pretty much begged me to start a club here with them. “Well don’t threaten me with a good time!” as one of my good friends back home would say. And we were off.

It is so thrilling to work with talented and motivated youth in Albania. They are literally bursting at the seams with the chance to express their opinion, organize activities with their peers, do volunteer work, and make their city better. It’s stunning. When I first came to Albania I have to admit that I was a little overwhelmed by the initial sense of hopelessness and apathy that I found. It seemed that Albanians didn’t care about their future, their livelihood, their wellbeing, or anything. Complacency was everywhere. And that was my mistake. I didn’t dig deep enough.

But now I’ve arrived. I have a group of more than 30 students who meet every week to plan incredible activities in our community. Our group is called “Change the World” and every week we try to do just that. Honestly, these kids inspire me more than I do them I think!

At this point I’m sure you’re probably wondering where my bicycle comes in. Well the moment has arrived.

One day, I was meeting with my students after school, like usual, but this time we finished early. When I went downstairs to get my bicycle and head home, it was nowhere to be found. I immediately started panicking. My first thought was that one of my students thought it would be funny to take it. Not funny. But I ran back upstairs and into the director’s office, “I can’t find my bicycle! Where is the man who stands at the door! Did he see someone take it?” I ask her desperately. She immediately picks up the phone and calls the little man who stands at the door. My heart is racing and I’m hoping that he knows where my bicycle is.

Loe and behold, he does know where it is! And why is that you might ask? That’s right, because he was currently riding it. You’d think I would be upset, but in fact I just started laughing. As it turned out, he needed to go make some photocopies for a teacher and knew I always stay late at school, so he hoped on my bike and off he went. I couldn’t contain the smile that spread across my face. It may seem strange to some of you that I would enjoy the fact that he borrowed my bicycle. But actually it’s not. To me, it was a sign that this is my home and these are people. It gave me a sense of belonging. What’s mine is yours, and all of that.

Even though the longest conversation I’ve ever had with this man was about 2 sentences, he still treats me like family. 5 minutes later I saw him riding around the corner, waving at me furiously. No apologies and not a care in the world. He wasn’t embarrassed to have been caught taking my bike (since I’m sure this was not the first time, just the first time I’d noticed). At first this seemed strange to me, but then I was flattered. “I’ve made it,” I told myself. This place is my home and this is where I belong.

That’s Albania for you. If you stick around long enough, people start taking your things. But in a good way.

 

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

Albanians and the internet

As a second year PCV I feel so lucky to have so many talented students with the desire to go to university outside of Albania and the support from their families to do so. It’s been such a pleasure to help them prepare for the SAT and teach them about the application process. I just didn’t know that I would be starting at square one. Sometimes I forget where they people come from (I’m talking historically, not geographically).

So back in August we started planning how they would buy the prep books, write their essays, get their recommendations, look for scholarships, and all that stuff that kids across America are doing at the exact same time. But kids in America have one giant advantage- they come from an online culture.

With the way Albanians are hooked to their cellphones and their facebook accounts and instagram and everything else, you’d think it was the most tech-savvy generation yet. I swear, these kids are constantly online. But to many of them, the internet means facebook. They have no idea how to conduct basic research, check their email, or create accounts online. This is probably because the internet only came to this country about 10 years ago. It’s incredibly rare if not unheard of to find families with personal PCs. Communism really messed things up there for awhile. Instead, students here go to internet cafes and pay by the minute or buy cellphone plans with data packages. When it comes to technology, this is a totally different world.

Okay, so back to my story. One day as we were sitting around studying for the SAT and discussing essay topics when I asked them “have you registered for the exam yet?” Blank stares. “How do we do that?” they asked with a terrified look in their eyes, “I’ve never shopped online before!” I couldn’t help but smile at the association. “Okay, you have to go to the College Board website and create an account, then you have to put in your information, choose the date…” I could tell immediate that I’d lost them. “Nevermind, tomorrow I’ll bring my laptop and we’ll do it together.” This is what I’m talking about. This is square one – how to use the internet for things besides uploading photos and liking your friends’ status.

The next day we met and I opened the registration page. We started filling in all the information and after 20 minutes I said, “Now we need to pick the date, the location, and enter your credit card information.” Oops. I should’ve known. There is not a single location in Shkoder that accepts payment by credit card and people here have very little reason to leave Albania let alone Shkoder. Why would anyone have a credit card? So instead we figured out how they could pay their uncles abroad and in the capital directly and get their credit card information and do the payments later. No problem. I sent them home having thought that everything was clear.

A few days later I got phone calls from students absolutely panicking. “Danielle! It’s not working! There’s no place to enter my credit card. Help me! What should I do?” I took a deep breath, “Describe the page to me…okay scroll to the bottom of the page and press continue…good…press continue again…good…do you see the button that says process payment? click on it…good…” 20 minutes and 6 phone calls later everyone was registered. Definitely not short and definitey not sweet.

But then a few weeks later they needed to email the universities and ask about the interview process for international students. Simple, I thought. Wrong again. I had no idea that none of these students had ever sent an email. Email to them was the thing that allowed them to open a facebook account. The didn’t know how to create a message let alone go to the webpages and find the email addresses of the admission people. I’m toatlly addicted to my crackberry and never have my computer on without my email open, so I was totally taken aback. Square one, once again.

All this time I had been helping these students learn math terms and reading comprehension questions when I should have been teaching them how to use the internet. After all, that is the American way. If they get into school in America, they will have to do all kinds of internet registrations and payments and orders. And these poor kids won’t even know when to start. Who would’ve thought one of my greatest strengths as a PCV was knowing how to use the internet. It seems so simple, but it’s true.

I remember being a college student at George Washington University surrounded by international students, yet I never stopped to consider where they actually came from. I’m sure there were Albanians there and I never even noticed how much they probably struggled with basic things that Americans know like the backs of their hands. We’re so lucky to grow up in a culture that leads the world. Places like Albania literally take their directions from us. We’re always one step ahead. We don’t know what it’s like to play catch up. I’m so proud of these students for learning a whole new system, stepping out of their comfort zone, and committing themselves to a difficult path.

Sometimes I wonder if its harder to be an American living in Albania, or an Albanian living in America.

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

An Albanian Halloween

Halloween is not something that most Albanians know about. In fact, here in Shkoder they often confuse it with “Karnivale” (a foreign holiday that we do celebrate for reasons unknown to me). But Albanians love to party and any excuse to have a coffee with their friends is good enough for them. So this year I partnered with the other PCVs in my town, a local restaurant (run by an Albanian-American who has honestly become like a second father to me here) to bring Halloween to Shkoder.

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My after school club “Change the World” came up with great ideas to decorate the restaurant weeks ahead of time, so it prepped people for the madness that was about to ensue.

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Then a few days before October 31st, I took another group of students over to carve pumpkins and make Jack-o-lanterns. Interestingly, it’s so much harder than you’d think it would be to find pumpkins in Albania. Everyone tells me you can buy them from the vegetable sellers who live in the villages, but I have no idea where these magical people hid. I searched and searched and found 1 single butternut squash in Shkoder then gave up, went to the capital Tirana and bought a pumpkin for 3 times the price in the center of town. Small sacrifices.

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So as I was buying the pumpkin the old lady looked at me and said “What are you going to make with this??” I tried to explain that it was going to be a decoration for Halloween but she didn’t understand. “But how are you going to cook it??” She kept insisting, so I shrugged my shoulders and said “I’m going to put it in the oven and bake it” and I walked away. Utterly confused. Later I found out that Albanians do use pumpkins, but it’s mostly in the villages and mostly the older generation. It’s seen as a “poor person’s” food and makes simple villager dishes, which explains why she was so baffled that a young girl in fake Ray Bans and a Northface was buying all her pumpkins.

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Anyway, back to the story. So my kids are all decorating these pumpkins and having the time of their lives. Then the day of Halloween finally arrives and everyone goes all out. I had no idea what to expect since for most it was the first time they’ve ever dressed up or done traditional Halloween activities. Here, people “celebrate” by going to a club and drinking with their friends. Which actually sounds more “American” than the activity we did, come to think of it.

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We were going for old-school Halloween experiences with bobbing for apples, a pumpkin carving contest, and a costume contest. And word spread like wildfire. By the end of the night we had more than 75 people in and out of the restaurant registering for the contest, getting their face painted, trick-or-treating, and sticking their faces in ice cold water to get an apple.

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Even though this is my last Halloween in Shkoder as a PCV, I hope we’ve lain the groundwork well enough that people get excited again next year and keep this brand new tradition alive!

 

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