A multicultural New Year’s Eve

2014 has arrived. Just 5 more months and my PCV service will be done. But I can’t even begin to think about that right now, so I’m just going to focus on life in Albania one more time.

The holiday season in Albania is a tough time for an American who is used to blasting Christmas carols, putting up gaudy light shows, and drinking eggnog until my heart’s content. Those things just aren’t easy to do in Albania. Granted, in the 2 short years I’ve been here there have been some immense changes happening around me. Awesome lights go up in December and the streets of Shkoder are filled with wreathes and pine trees.

Christmas lights on the road to my house

Christmas lights on the road to my house

At first I was so excited to see all these displays and all my students in Santa hats as Christmas was approaching. How incredibly strange for predominantly Muslim country to have such bursting Christmas spirit? I ignorantly thought to myself. But then I took a close look and actually read the captions on the tv and the words printing on the Santa hats. Gezuar Vitin i Ri! That translates to Happy New Year.

That’s right, in Albania pine trees are put up and decorated in every house as a symbol of the new year and Santa hats are worn on the 31st, not the 25th. They completely absorbed another holiday and made it their own in order to fit in with the rest of the world while maintaining their own Muslim identity. After all, I don’t think Santa Claus delivered presents in the Bible and I’m pretty sure there is no mention of a pine tree filled with lights there either. No harm no foul in my opinion.

Shkoder's townhall all decked out in lights

Shkoder’s townhall all decked out in lights

I’m sure all my Fox News lovers will have a different opinion. But for me, it’s just one more reason why I love living in Albania. After 50 years of religious suppression during the communist dictatorship, people here are pretty open and welcoming of every faith. They don’t question or pester or get all defensive about saying “Happy Holidays” versus “Merry Christmas.” In fact, every single person wished me a “Merry Christmas”- Orthodox, Muslim, and Catholic alike.

the center of Shkoder

the center of Shkoder

Albania is such a cool place because in the same town, on the same street you can find a communist building, a mosque, a Christmas tree, and an Orthodox church. Despite the homogeneity, it’s quick a beautiful mixture of religions and people that coexist in peace. A lesson to be learned by everyone.

 

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

2013 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 39,000 times in 2013. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 14 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

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.”

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.” 

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.

DSC08209

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.

DSC08217

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.

DSC08214

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.

DSC08213

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.”

DSC08211

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.

DSC08212

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.

DSC08218

“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.

DSC08054

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.

DSC08133

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.

DSC08137

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.

DSC08157

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.

DSC08187

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.

DSC08166

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.”