Thank you for not smoking

Smoking in Albania is a little out of control. I don’t think this is something unique or special about this country, but it’s definitely something that affects me on a daily basis. Believe me, when I lived in Madrid it was just as bad, but bare with me while I relate this awesome story of cigarettes, classrooms, and women power. It’s gets good eventually, just wait for it.

Okay, so during the summer I must have somehow forgotten or ignored the high quantity of cigarette smokers in Shkoder. Probably because I spent the whole day outside where the smoke doesn’t stagnate and soak into my lungs, hair, and every fiber of my clothes. But during the winter, all the bars and restaurants close their outdoor seating and I’m forced to remain indoors to thaw out my fingers while sipping on my macchiato. And because it’s so cold outside, most places keep their windows shut tight and don’t let fresh air in or smoky air out. All in all, this makes for a pretty abrasive coffee drinking experience for an American who is used to people having to stand 100 yards away from the entrance of a building or public space before lighting up their cigarette. I never realized how much I appreciate that law or the public shaming of smokers until I came to a society that does the exact opposite.

In fact, there is a “no smoking inside” law in Albania, but like most laws here it is not enforced in the slightest. Which makes for some pretty ironic, head-shaking moments as you enter a bar covered in no-smoking signs that are barely visible for the smog of cigarette smoke billowing around them.

So anyway, I started writing this post about smoking because the greatest moment happened at school the other day. We have this makeshift teacher’s lounge where everyone gathers in between classes to regroup and gossip. Now this might shock you as much as it did me when I first started teaching here, but smoking in schools is not exactly rare or frowned upon. Teachers walk up and down the hallways with lit cigarettes in their hand on a regular basis. And all too often the teacher’s lounge is full of people quickly getting their nicotine fix in between lessons.

Even though I find it outrageous that in a place of education where people are supposed to be enriching their brains, we are filling their lungs with toxins, I’ve never said anything. I just try to sit by a window and hope that after 2 years of second-hand smoke I don’t go back to America with lung cancer. Unfortunately, the dangers of cigarettes and second-hand smoke are not very well known to Albanians and many people chalk it up to superstitions not medical facts when I say smoking will kill them.

But back to my story. So this one day, a female teacher and close friend of mine had just had enough. She walked into the teacher’s lounge and said “Ugh the air in here is terrible. Why do they smoke in here?!” And then the greatest thing happened. She a wry smile appeared on her face, she walked over to the ashtray sitting in the middle of the room, winked at me, and quickly hid the ashtray where no one could find it. Not a minute later the vice principal (side note: he’s one of the biggest smoking offenders of the school) walked in. “Where’s the ashtray?!” he demanded (another side note: he spends most of his day patrolling the halls and yelling at people for no reason so this was not unusual behavior). She turned to him and said “Do you see that sign on the door? There’s no smoking in here. So you don’t need the ashtray.”

The whole room immediately got silent. All the teachers stopped talking, turned and looked at her with terror in their eyes, fearing what the vice principal was going to say to her in return. He immediately started screaming in Albanian and I only caught pieces of what he said, but it wasn’t nice. She didn’t back down though. She refused to show him where she had hidden the ashtray and insisted that he stop smoking in the teacher’s lounge. I couldn’t help but smile awkwardly as she said (on her own accord without my prompting) everything I’d been thinking for the last year and half.

And then it got even better. Much to my surprise, another female teacher quickly chimed in and came to her rescue. “That’s right! No smoking! We don’t want the smoke in here!” And for the remainder of the 5 minute break, I sat there with my eyes wide open and my jaw on the floor as these teachers unleashed on the vice director and shamed him for smoking in the teacher’s room. It was a beautiful thing to witness. When the bell finally rang he huffed and puffed and stormed out with the unlit cigarette dangling from his fingers.

Granted, I don’t think he got the message because his response to their onslaught was “Well you guys wear so much perfume that I can’t breathe so you can breathe this smoke!” ¬†First of all, what?! How is that a comeback? Second of all, perfume doesn’t kill you. But whatever, totally beside the point. Ironically I’ve given up on wearing perfume in Albania because the stench of cigarette smoke has seeped into every item of clothes and every strand of my hair that it’s just not worth it. But I’ll kindly kept that opinion to myself. Anyway, until the ashtray magically reappears it looks like he’ll be keeping his smoking to his private office and away from the rest of us.

I’m so proud to work with such forward thinking and strong women who can stand up for their rights. They are the reason I love my job and think this country has a bright future ahead of it. If you’ve been following along with my posts for the last year you’ll understand how intense it is for a woman to stand up to a man, let alone a man who is a director and a solid 30 years older in a position of authority. So it looks like I’ll be breathing easily for the last 5 months of my service in Shkoder. Bravo ladies, bravo.

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

Cheating, Communism and the Balkans

Cheating must be an American concept.

That’s the only explanation I can give as to why it’s so difficult to explain to my Albanian students why it’s not okay to copy and paste directly from Wikipedia and turn it in as your homework. Or why it’s not okay to give your friend the answers to a test while I’m standing right there.

In the beginning of my time in Shkoder, cheating was more of a shock than a frustration. Reaally?! You’re going to copy off his paper right in front of me?? And smile when I give you my best “stop it right now, I’m a teacher, please respect me” look?! Okay, I see how it’s going to be. Bring it on.

But now it’s reached the point of shear befuddlement. I’m aghast and speechless every time, probably because over the last year I’ve become so invested in these kids and this community. It’s so hard to believe when I see it and hear because these people are like my family, and no one wants to think badly of their family. So instead of assuming my students are just bad kids and Albania is full of criminals and people who deserve the life they have, I decided to dial my anger back. Time to try and read between the lines and understand why cheating seems to be perfectly acceptable in the Balkans.

Like everything else in this region, I think it has a lot to do with its communist past. Recently I asked one student how he did on an exam and he told me, “Well, we helped each other on the test so we could both do better”. I kind of cocked my head to the side and said, “So you cheated?” in utter disbelief. “No! We just helped each other.” And I repeated, “So you cheated. That’s cheating.” But for every time I claimed he’d cheated, he just repeated that it wasn’t cheating to help a friend when they don’t know the answer.

Where is this coming from?! It’s like trying to convince someone the sky is blue when they’ve been told their whole life that that color is purple. It’s just not going to work. During communism, people had to work together and teach each other. Every thing was communal and people shared just to survive because it was the only way. You depended on the kindness of neighbors and friends to make it thought. And it became expected that if you new the answer and your friend didn’t that you’d help him. It was just the right thing to do. You had to look out for each other after all. And this mentality of helping your friends and “hospitality” spread to what most of the western world considers blatant cheating.

This explains a little bit why when someone is reading out loud in class the whole class shouts and corrects him every time he makes a mistake. And if I ask someone a question who doesn’t know the answer, the kid next to him will whisper the answer in his ear in a very obvious fashion.

I can only ignore it for so long. When students stand up and read entries straight off of Wikipedia for their homework assignment or turn in an essay that is copied straight from the web (highlighted links and all), it’s pretty hard to turn your back. These kids want to study at universities in America and all over Europe. They’re going to need to figure out how to keep their eyes on their own papers and site sources at some point. I might as well start teaching them now.

But how do you demonstrate the importance of doing your own work when those around them who never study and cheat get better grades? There’s no punishment for cheating in Albania and most teachers either participate, encourage it, or turn their back when they see it. And I seem like the crazy one who is shocked when the best kids in class do it.

Maybe it’s a Balkan thing, maybe it’s a communism thing, or maybe it’s an Albanian thing. But hopefully in the next few months I’ll be able to hit the message home. It’s heartbreaking to hear an incredibly talented and smart kid admit to cheating. Especially when it’s on a test as important and world-renowned as the SAT or TOEFL. But then I remember most of these tests are not accredited to be taken in Albanian and understand why.

I think Albania has a bright future and I think my students will be the ones to take it there. I only hope they learn how to think for themselves and do it honestly before it’s too late. Wish me luck!


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

How the weather controls my life

A wise man (my father) once told me that the major difference between developing and developed countries is how much of your time you spend on basic life sustaining activities. I was probably complaining about how busy I was and how much time I spend grocery shopping at the time he gave me this wise advise and I probably didn’t listen as closely as I should have. But it’s stuck with me ever since. And now that winter is here, I’ve come to realize that there is one more big distinction between the two strata of nations – how much of your life is controlled by the weather.

When it’s summer time in Albania I use the excuse “it’s too hot to do that” on a regular basis. The heat and the sun and the lack of oxygen due to humidity becomes my general reason not to do anything. Well, anything besides sleep, lounge around, and go to the beach (thank god I live in a town near the Adriatic Sea).¬†Then winter rolls around, and I replace the word “hot” with “cold” and continue coming up with excuses not to do work. It’s too cold to type on my computer without gloves, to walk to the grocery store, take a shower, or anything else for that matter.

And then we have the rainy days. In Shkoder it rains more days in the year than the rest of Europe. So much so that we are considered a tropical region. For real. It’s kind of crazy. So when the rain starts, I yet again let myself be lazy because it’s raining too hard to leave my house, to go to the gym, and to meet my friends for a coffee.

When did I become this person?! It blows my mind sometimes. For those of you who knew me in the US, you know that I’m a pretty busy person. And busy might be an understatement. I used to pack my day full of meetings, activities, classes, errands, etc. and I’d use a planner to make sure I had every single minute of my day filled up. No joke. But then I moved to Albania and everything changed.

And its a good thing I’m not alone! Albanians do the same. Maybe I learned it from them? It’s not uncommon for the director of our school to cancel the last 3 classes because it’s too cold, too hot, too anything. And people often show up late to our meetings because they were waiting for the rain to stop. When I first moved here it drove me crazy. But the longer I’ve lived in Shkoder the more I want to high-five them and congratulate them on their superior reasoning skills for staying home.

So all in all, I’m pretty sure that my fellow Albanians and I work hard for a solid 4 months of the year. Not too shabby.

In the US I had a car and central heating/AC, yet I never realized how much I depended upon them for my happiness. You could forget your umbrella and only get drizzled on for a hot five minutes as you ran from your car to the door and back again. I could wear a flimsy jacket in 10 degree weather because I’d only be cold for the 2 minutes it takes for the heat to warm up in my car and inside during the winter. All you lucky people back home reading this in the comfort of your living rooms, realize how lucky you are. You are lucky to live in a place where the rest of the world’s luxury comes standard. And god do I miss it. It’s amazing how much the weather controls your attitude and your life when you’re living in a developing country.

I can’t help but shake my head when I skype friends and family back home that say “it’s so hot/cold here!” while they’re wearing sweatpants in the summer and a t-shirt in the winter. It does make me realize just how much energy we waste heating and cooling our buildings and houses back the US. It’s a terrible yet beautiful, beautiful thing. Oh what I wouldn’t give not to wear 6 layers, a scarf, and winter jacket inside my house to cook dinner.

But on the bright side, I know have a completely justified reason to do nothing but sit in bed and watch movies while eating cookies (my oven inadvertently heats my house, don’t judge me) all winter long!

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