Thursday, August 18, 2011

Cili eshte me mire? A night on the town.

In "Cili eshte me mire?", I will take a look at life in Albania- specifically, one thing about Albania that I will miss when I return to America, and one thing about America I miss while I'm here. Tonight, we head out on the town.

When I return to America, I will miss

The Xhiro

When was the last time that you went out on a walk? Not a walk TO any particular destination, not a walk for exercise, and not a hike through the woods, either. Just a walk through your town or neighborhood for the sake of enjoying a pleasant evening and the pleasure of conversation with good company.

I am sure that there are people in America that continue to do this, but I don't think that there are many of them left. I wasn't one of them, and it certainly is not a common community-wide activity. Our lives have become so busy- whether it comes in the form of work or clubs or television or computers- that we don't often make time for quiet and relaxing activities that don't really accomplish anything tangible. “A walk around the block?”, we say. “ I don't have time for that. It simply isn't necessary.”

In some ways, though, I think that there are few things that could be more necessary. Work and progress are wonderful and admirable things, but there should be direction to them, and direction needs perspective, and perspective usually asks for a clear and steady mind. There is no single recipe for how a person can achieve this, but I have found that a good place for me to start is by occasionally stepping away from work, turning off the electronic glow of our modern times, and simply resting my mind in the company of good friends and the fresh air.

Albania may have its problems, but one of the things that it does very well is maintaining a culture that doesn't get too caught up in the hustle and bustle of life. Time is always made for friends and family-- most of whom are rarely allowed out of arm's reach in the first place. One of the ways where you can see this embodied most distinctly is their tradition of an evening stroll. If you venture out to the streets on a warm evening in just about any town or city in the country, you will find that one or two of the main roads are filled with people who have come out for the simple pleasure of walking. They call it the Xhiro (Jeer-oh).

Along with the general relaxed mentality that seems prevalent throughout Europe, the xhiro apparently has some of its roots in the communist era as well. Lacking both the money and venues for other entertainment possibilities, the people would gather on the main roads in the evenings for a couple hours of very cheap and very social activity. It also allowed the women, who were in some ways restricted in their social interactions with men, to make themselves up and promenade in view of their potential suitors who filled the cafes next to the road and kept a careful eye on the passing ladies. (Communism may be gone and the young and restless may have fewer official restrictions in their social comings and goings, but not much has changed in this regard. The girls still dress to impress when they go out for a xhiro and the cafes lining the road are still filled with leer... err... interested boys.)

The hanging tension of awkward young love aside, I am very grateful for the fact that this tradition has continued in modern times. Going out for a xhiro with friends is a fantastic way to spend a couple hours of your evening. Pogradec's xhiro (I'm actually not sure of the proper grammar rules, but in peace corp volunteer lingo, xhiro is both a verb- the evening stroll itself- and a noun- the street on which it happens), I might add, is one of the best that I have seen in Albania. It encircles a long and narrow lake side park that offers green grass and dense trees on the one side and an unobstructed view of the beautiful Lake Ohrid on the other.

When I return to America, I will miss asking my friends if they want to xhiro. I will miss the lazy conversations and the even lazier pace that you fall into while having them. I will miss the street vendors lining the road- the popcorn carts, the snack bars, the trinket stands, the ice cream, the petula (miss x100). I will miss the cafes and the smell of grills. I will miss seeing entire families walking down the road and the groups of friends walking with arms around one another. I will miss the music and the lights, the cool breezes, the setting sun, and the profound feeling of relaxation that usually finds me as I stroll along the xhiro.

Albania, you do this very right.

Now, a brief picture tour!

There are a couple of complete, standard restaurants on the xhiro, but there are countless sidewalk grills lining the road in July and August. The occassional pepper will find its way onto the coals, but usually they are cooking up some sort of meat. Kernacka is one of my favorites- it is made with qofta (a small sausage link) that is wrapped with bacon and, sometimes, some cheese. That, plus a salad, a plate of french fries, and tall beer make for a fine summer dinner.

A mini carnival area sets itself up near the beginning of the xhiro, complete with an inflatable jumping room, a train, and plenty of pay-by-the-ride mechanical horses and cars.

One of the numerous cafes along the xhiro, filled with its usual crowd of boys.

Petula! These stands have a complete mini-donut production line and do non-stop business throughout the summer. Petula is bought by the bag (an example of which can be seen in the left hand of the gentleman dressed in yellow), one of which usually contains in the neighborhood of 8-10 petula pieces. You are given your choice of toppings- honey, chocolate syrup, and powdered sugar on the sweet side, or mayo and ketchup on the savory side (I've never gathered the courage to try them savory style, but many Albanians seem to love them that way. I think it sounds gross.) Best of all? A bag only costs 50 cents.

Formula UNO! Self explanatory, but one of my favorite sights on the xhiro.

I think it worthy to note that these pictures were taken on a random Tuesday evening. There were no special concerts or events drawing these crowds out. For about two months, this road looks like this literally every night-- with even larger crowds on the weekend.

Last, but not least, Hotel Euro Korca. This sleepy and slightly run down hotel awakens in fine style for two months every year. The front lawn of the hotel turns into a huge outdoor cafe in July and August with plenty of beer, food, and nightly live music. Around nine or ten o'clock each night, the band will start playing traditional Albanian folk music and the dance floor in the middle of the lawn quickly fills with eager dancers. Good, good times to be had there.

Here in Albania, I miss:

A comfortable mixing of genders.

Albanians may be very good about getting out of their homes and spending time with their friends, but they do it in a manner that is quite different than that which I came to know in America. I will try to avoid turning this into a long discussion of gender roles in Albania, but suffice to say that Albanian women are much more restricted in their activities outside the home than are men. As a general rule, girls seem to be held to much higher standards than boys. They are expected to spend most of their time at home, studying for school and helping with housework. They do go out, but it is usually only with family or groups of other girls, and only for limited windows of time. Bars and cafes aren't off limits, but they aren't exactly encouraged either.

Boys, on the other hand? They pretty much do what they want. Housework is not expected. Studying is applauded but rarely required. Large amounts of time spent out of the home with friends is practically a given.

This, combined with relatively conservative views on dating and courtship make the approach to mixed gender social outings very different than in America. (Fun fact: According to my dictionary, the word shoqja in Albanian can mean female friend, companion, girlfriend, or wife. The english word “girlfriend” and the connotations that accompany it don't have an exact equivalent in the Albanian language, largely due to the fact that this stage in relationships doesn't really stand on its own in Albanian culture. Up until recent times, if you were publicly dating someone, it was basically assumed that you were going to marry that person. Yes, this is changing, but yes, some of these expectations continue today)

I notice this playing itself out in my day to day life in Albania in two ways. One is that I have noticeably fewer platonic relationships here than I did in America. I enjoy female company (Oh stop it. You know what I mean) greatly and was fortunate enough to have some wonderful platonic relationships in America. I am sure that questions of intent and attraction were occasionally raised by outsiders looking in at those relationships, but I never felt like it was an uncomfortable burden to carry and it never deterred me from continuing them. Here, however, the simple act of walking down the street with a female past the wrong pair of eyes could start a storm of gossip that I would just as soon avoid.

On numerous occasions (usually after female peace corp volunteers come through town for visits) I have come into my office and been approached by my coworkers with questions about a girl that they/their spouse/their neighbor/their grocer saw me with the weekend before. Wink and nudge type questions. It isn't done in an unfriendly manner, (and granted, one of those set of assumptions happily turned true) but with this knowledge that there are eyes watching me everywhere and that gossip is rarely restrained, I sudden have become very conscious of all my interaction with females. Some awareness of this is undoubtedly healthy, but I look forward to the time when I can sit down for a conversation with a girl without the nagging thought in my mind of what everyone around us is thinking.

Albanians themselves seem to be at least somewhat aware of these same eyes. Outside of Tirana and the areas around a few of the larger universities in the country, the groups of friends you see going out for the evening generally come in a single sex variety. And when it comes to the territory of bars and cafes, that sex is almost exclusively male. Albanian males, who, I should note, are some of the most testosterone driven men I have ever seen, see nothing strange with the idea of sitting down at a bar on a Friday night that is quite literally filled with nothing but other men. There is nothing wrong with this, per say, but boys! Invite a couple of girls to join you. They do wonders to the atmosphere, to say nothing of the quality of conversation.

When I return to America and head out with a group of friends, I will be very grateful for the fact that the females in our group won't be worried about what their neighbors will think of them, and for the fact that there will be little concern for who is standing next to who and how that can be read. I have nothing against families looking out for the well being of one another, but when concern turns into gossip and gossip turns into the fear and shame that keeps people (usually women) to the side or in their homes, it robs something from a society. I'm glad that America has, for the most part, moved beyond that.

So cheers, ladies. Glad to have you at the table.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

This (last) Month in Pogradec: July

Technically speaking, my first stab at This Month in Pogradec is reaching you a little late. The categories could also use better organization and a little work, but thus it is. Please consider this a test run.

July Weather

-Do te besh plazh? Do te lash? (Literally: Will you do the beach? Will you bathe? Meaning: Will you go to the beach? Will you swim?)-

It is definitely time to go to the beach. The days are warm and there is plenty of sun. Swimming is hit or miss, however. The days have been warm, but it is often the warm that is closer to cool than it is to hot. A dip in the lake could be a little chilly.

-Shorts, Capris, or Jeans?-

Capris. Symbolically, of course. This is the time of year that you can comfortably wear shorts during the day, but you might get a little chilly wearing them in the evening. To hot for jeans but too cool for shorts? Yep. There's only one answer for that.

-You should polish those shoes. They are very: (a) muddy/ (b) dusty.-


-Cun Roll Height/Number of layers over this cun-

Roll that shirt, son! To the belly button.

-Cops: Albania comes to my house and busts down the door. The viewers at home get to see me wide eyed and staring into the camera while wearing my usual home attire, which consist of:-

Boxers and an undershirt.

Xhiro Crowd Watch-

Neighborhood in Detroit (Abandoned)

The crowd at a Duke football game (Sparse)

The evening performance of your local orchestra (Social)

Your favorite college town bar on a random Thursday night (Full) <----- July

Like a shopping mall on Black Friday (Overflowing)

Market Watch: Produce Edition. What's fresh?

Nectarines, Peaches, Tomatoes, Honeydew, Watermelon




I was gone for most of the first two weeks of July and when I returned, the town was distinctly different. You start seeing some tourists and summer residents appearing in June, but July is when they begin making a noticeable impact on the city. Most of the changes are good. It is always fun to see a full beach or the busy xhiro or the live music in the evenings. Others, however, are not so good. The main roads are filled with traffic and the trash bins are overflowing with waste from all the new users. All in all, though, there is a fun energy that comes to Pogradec in the summer. While the climax of the tourism season won't come until August, July is the month when all the wheels start turning and all the lights are turned on.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Albanian Travel Guide: Tirana

If someone were to ask me why they should visit Albania, the very first thing that I would tell them about is the land. Albania lays claim to a gorgeous piece of this planet with some of the most beautiful beaches, mountains, and rivers that I have ever seen. A trip here would be worth your time if only to see the southern coast along the Ionian Sea, the Dinaric Alps in the north (see blog banner), or Mount Nemercke as it rises nearly vertically out of the Vjose River Valley-- just to name a few.

I'll talk about those things in good time, but for Behind the Boot's first edition of the Albanian Travel Guide, I'm going to start in a completely different realm. In a country full of quiet villages, lonely mountains, and meandering shepherd paths, we'll be starting with the noisiest, liveliest, most crowded, most traffic choked place in the entire country:

Tirana. The capital and largest city in Albania.

I should begin this by saying that I am hardly an authority on the subject. If you were seriously planning a trip here, there are many other people that you could talk to that would serve as much better guides for this city than I. I wouldn't go so far as to say that I avoid Tirana, but I don't exactly seek it out in my free time, either.

Despite this relative lack of familiarity and my preference for other places in Albania, I have decided to start here for a couple of reasons. One is that a trip to Albania without a stop in Tirana would be, in some strange way, incomplete. England without London. France without Paris. Turkey without Istanbul. A visitor's experience in a country is shaped as much, or more, by its people than the land that they live in, and when a country has one city that towers above all the rest in terms of size, power, and cultural influence, it is worthy of a visit if only to allow you to better understand the currents running underneath the people of the country. With one-third of the population of Albania living in it and a wealth of ideas that I will address shortly, thus is Tirana.

Secondly, in the process of establishing the order in which I'll present the destinations in this guide, I decided that it would be best to actually have a logical order, as opposed to randomly picking and choosing at my passing whim. Therefore, we'll stage these destinations as though they were listed on a travel itinerary. Seeing as how Albania has precisely one airport for your avionic entering and exiting pleasures, it seemed that this would be as good of a place as any to start. Tirana, your number has been called once again.

So we begin.

I must admit that my first impressions of Tirana were not overly favorable. By nature, I tend to gravitate towards situations and places that are quiet, calm, and relaxing. Tirana is precisely none of these. Walking through the city is an experience in sensory overload. You are assaulted from all sides by the noise of traffic and construction and loud conversation. Bobbing and weaving through the crowded sidewalks may seem like a trying task, but eventually that sidewalk ends and you are then confronted with the even greater challenge of crossing a street. If your American sensibilities wait for said street to clear itself of traffic before you cross, your progress through the city will effectively end at your first major road. Instead, you must simply wait for a small gap in the closest lane of traffic and then strike confidently out onto the road for a true to life game of frogger.

I don't mean to throw around super technical language on this blog, but as someone who has studied urban growth and development and plans to make a career in the field, I can confidently say that Tirana suffers from the condition of “too big for its britches.” In layman's terms, that means that the population growth of the city has outpaced the infrastructure expansion needed to support it. Twenty years ago, the city had a population of about 300,000 people. When communism came to a close and the people of Albania were finally free to move about the country at their pleasure, Tirana quickly assumed the (domestic) role of “land of opportunity.” It offered jobs and better schools and entertainment and the people came in droves.

Today, the population of the city reportedly hovers around the one million mark. While growth on that scale brings with it many opportunities, it also brings many challenges. It was a very dense growth that saw two story homes leveled and then replaced by high rise apartment buildings-- the new residents of which used the same infrastructure that was available before. Where you had one person using the garbage bin on the corner, you now have three. One person on the roads and buses and in schools and parks in the neighborhood is now three. It is possible to do dense growth well, but it takes lots of planning and resources and, quite simply, the city of Tirana has not always had those things at its disposal. They are doing much of that work now, but it seems like a perpetual game of catch-up.

Throw on top of all of that the oppressive summer heat, the dust, and the (relatively) high price tag attached to just about everything in the city and you have the reasons why I felt a profound sense of relief as I watched the city retreating behind me at the conclusions of my first few visits.

It also was the reason why I couldn't help but feel slightly confused when I heard Albanians (especially young Albanians) throughout the country speak so reverently of the city. At first, I attributed it to their desire to fit in with the greater European community. Albanians are surrounded-- on the internet, on TV, in newspapers-- by stories and images of life in the west. Things aren't terrible here, but there is an unmistakable gap separating Albania from the cool and refined European world that they keep in their minds.

The gap still exists in Tirana, but it is smaller there than in most places in the country. The skyline is dotted with tall, shimmering office buildings. Shopping malls and mega-stores are appearing on the periphery of the city. Nightclubs and bars stay open late into the night and are filled with live music and dancing. You won't be fooled into thinking that you are in France or Germany or England, but it doesn't really feel like Albania either.

As time has gone on, however, I've come to realize that it isn't just the glitz and the glamor that built Tirana's reputation. Underneath the lights, there are also ideas and an energy you rarely find in other places in this country. The signs are so subtle and familiar from an American's perspective that I didn't fully appreciate them at first. After some time and separation from the world that I once knew, however, I began to see them.

You see the people running (Lots of people say they run in Albania, but what they usually mean is that they go for brisk morning walks. In Tirana, though, they are really running! Like two-feet-off-the-ground-at-the-same-time running!) in the park. Dogs come in two varieties: stray AND domesticated. Restaurants boast crazy ethic themes like Mexican and Chinese. Bikes are available for rent within the city. And then you get to fashion and decoration.

A walk through a high school or college in America can itself be a lesson in social dynamics. As each person there pursues their interests and works their way into their social groups, they take on a certain look that reflects that personality. The jocks. The preps. The skater punks. The country boys (and girls). The music dorks. The hippies. And on and on and on. This idea of individual expression is so pervasive in our society that, to some extent, businesses seem to market themselves especially towards some of those groups. You have the cozy but dingy local bars. The posh clubs for high society. The frat and sorority bars. The good ol' boy dance halls. The super-granola vegetarian restaurants and hookah bars.

It is something that you subconsciously notice and base your decisions on when you are in America but like anything that surrounds you every day, it doesn't seem remarkable.

Then I came to Albania. I'm sure that Albanians have their own opinions of my dressing habits (how could you dress so... so... simply? Have you no self respect?), but from my perspective, just about everyone here dresses alike. The boys have white shoes or flip flops, tightish jeans with lots of zippers or capris or plaid shorts, tight shirts that are either striped or have BIG WRITING that SENSE NO CHIPMUNK MAKE, and short, highly flammable... I mean finely sculpted... hair. The girls, on the other hand, walk/teeter around on 4 inch heels, and wear tight jeans or skirts, tight tops with low cuts, are highly made up, and have big, also highly flammable and usually artistically styled hair. And they have sparkles. Everywhere.

Everyone looks good in that sense that they are cleaned and groomed have taken the time to make themselves look show worthy, but everyone also seems to be looking at the same Italian fashion magazines for ideas. The same can be said for the cafes and bars. (The two merge into a single entity in Albania: the lokal. I would feel strange walking into a bar in America and ordering a coffee, or into a coffee shop to order a beer. Here, however, if you don't have both, you are a very strange exception.) First, you must understand that these cafes are everywhere in Albania. I haven't taken an official head count in Pogradec, but I'm guessing that there are probably in the neighborhood of 100, if not more. Of the thousands that likely exist in this country, however, about 90% of them can effectively be categorized in one of three groups.

The first is the man bar: White walls, simple wooden or metal tables, minimal decoration. The second is the Lotosport. Similar to the man bar, but the walls are covered in TVs that are showing soccer games and a couple of screens showing the betting lines for all the sporting events the world over. And finally, the third is the swank modern Euro cafe. Cushy furniture with highly design upholstery. Nice wooden or wrought iron tables. Shiny metal ash trays. Bright colors. Modern abstract art. Recessed lighting. Really, nicer than the vast majority of coffee shops that you'll find in America.

What does all of that have to do with Tirana, you ask? Well, the same basic rules apply in that city, but you see many more exceptions to the rules. It is not uncommon to see someone that has noticeably different fashion tastes-- a little artsy, a little sporty, a little goth. And the bars and restaurants follow the same patterns- you can find quiet wine bars with books on the walls, beer gardens with fun outdoor wooden patios, small, poorly lit neighborhood bars with eclectic wall paper and decorations. In a word: variety.

I don't want to speak as though I truly understand all of what this country has gone and continues to go through, but this seems to be a new direction for modern Albania. Variety certainly didn't happen (wasn't allowed) under the fifty years of iron-fisted communism. When the country reopened in the early 90's, I imagine that people realized that their culture was different than most of Europe but weren't sure what the next steps of change should be. They adopted the fashion tastes of their neighbors in Italy and Greece, but in some way, it almost comes across as a caricature of those fashions. The look is about the same, but it comes without the same attitudes and ideas and culture that accompanies them in the places where they originated.

Albanians are very proud to be Albanian, but they seem to still be figuring out what to make out of Albania itself. It's home and therefore loved on some level, but they are very conscious that it doesn't quite look and feel like the world that they imagine they should be part of themselves. It never is a bad thing to look towards others for ideas and direction, but ultimately I hope that they find the answer for where they want to go within themselves. From an outsider's perspective, that is one of the main things that I look forward to seeing in Albania in the future: a culture and fashion that is distinctly Albanian and proud to be so, rather than one that takes pride in it one moment and seemingly apologizes for it the next.

That's what I think you can see emerging in Tirana. It is a place where Albania is growing comfortable in its own skin and trying out new and different things. I realize that this entire ramble of mine may seem very superficial, but these are just the outward expressions that you can see while walking around the city. Advancing at an equally impressive rate are the ideas that you can find there, be it for environmental protection, women's rights, business development, education, or any number of the issues that come to the forefront as a country is developing. There is an entirely separate discussion that could address the frustrations that come from the fact that the leaders of Tirana (public and private) often fail to see beyond the borders of their own city to consider how these issues are affecting the country as a whole, but the very fact that they are being talked about and acted upon at all is encouraging. As goes Tirana, so goes the country, and overall I think that the direction is exciting.

Now then. What can you actually do in Tirana?

The Block- During communism, there was a quarter of the city that was restricted to Enver Hoxha and his leading cronies that is affectionately referred to now as “The Block.” The streets are shaded with very nice trees and the architecture has a richer feel to it (except for Hoxha's actual house. A sad monstrosity of modern architecture if I've ever seen one). Today, the Stalinists are gone have been replaced by the best of the west. The irony is delicious, and so is some of the food. The neighborhood is filled with restaurants (including most of the ethnic restaurants I mentioned previously) and clubs and bars. Several universities are located nearby, so the crowd is always young and energetic.

Mount Dajti- Tirana is located on the far eastern edge of Albania's coastal plain where it meets the high fortress of mountains that mark the interior of the country. A national park was created on one of these neighboring mountains that you can reach by road or by gondola. It is a popular place for a break from the summer heat or a taste of snow in the winter. The view of the city is supposed to be fantastic as well. And don't worry... you'll have a nice selection of lokals waiting for your wining and dining needs at the top.

Museums and Theaters- The national art gallery, history museum, stage and opera theaters are all located in Tirana. Information regarding shows or displays can be tricky to come by, but I've heard that most of the productions are quite enjoyable.

The apartment buildings- Albania is still full of communist style block apartments and Tirana is no exception. The previous mayor of the city is an artist and started a movement to paint pictures and designs on the walls of these buildings to break up some of the monotony. I wouldn't go so far as to call them artistic murals, but it is still something that is fun to pay attention to as you wander around the city.

Kruje- Kruje is actually a small city that is entirely separate from Tirana, but it is a common day trip for visitors to the capital. The city has a well maintained castle that still has residents inside. The main road to and into the castle is lined with vendors selling crafts and other traditional hand made products. Touristy, yes, but I've heard nothing but good about it.

I'm sure that there is more to do there, but that's about where my knowledge comes to a close. So there's that. Tirana in an vague and abstract nutshell. What more could you ask for? Next month, we'll head to the beach!

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Get Grandma Great Greek Grapes

Mi mi mi mi miiiiii


-Tap- -Tap- -Tap-


Ladies and gentlemen. You may have noticed that this stage has been a little quiet lately. By lately, of course, I mean, “for the year 2011.” I wish that I had a really good story to tell you that would explain this lack of activity. Given my last entry, perhaps you could have presumed that I eventually became frozen in a state of bionic suspension in my living room, only to thaw out in July in time to sun myself on the beaches and eat absurd amounts of fresh fruit. Or, possibly, in an attempt to truly integrate into the local culture, I swore off all speaking, writing, and thinking in the English language and was avoiding this blog so as not to subject my readers to the generally helpful but always strange world of Google translate: Albanian.

In truth, however, my fingers have been moving this entire time and my Albanian is still mediocre and spoken/written/thought in limited quantities. The more accurate and less exciting reasons could be summarized in the following themes:

Things to do: I have more of them.

Laziness: I'll explain it to you. Later.

Women: Wonderful. Interesting. DISTRACTING.

The GRE: Because “What? I haven't studied math for, like, 8 years,” isn't a good line to put on your grad school application.

Blogging: Ideas? Anyone? Please?

A couple of things have changed lately, however, that make me think that the dust covers may be coming off the set pieces and the lights may once again come back to this show. For one, I made a trip down to Athens last week to take my GRE. The thirty minutes that I had been devoting to studying for it every morning (or there abouts) for the past 6 months now sit conspicuously unoccupied. I thought about using the time to pursue my life-long dream of mastering cross-stitching, but if that doesn't happen, I just may use it to write for this thing once again.

Secondly, and perhaps even more importantly, I've come to finally accept the fact that I need a writing plan. Some people seem to have a knack for sitting down at the end of their day and knowing how to put together a narrative for their readers that is accessible, creative, and interesting.

I am not one of them.

Once I established a somewhat normal schedule over here, I found it difficult to know what I it was that I should be writing about. Life was no longer defined by big changes and new discoveries (both of which lend themselves quite well to blog posts), but rather by the subtleties that shape the overall experience. I became overwhelmed by the task of setting them down in a way that is both interesting and understandable to people who have little or no direct experience in this part of the world and my inner writer simply threw in the towel.

Should I hope to return from this sabbatical, I have come to the conclusion that I need a plan. A schedule. A list. Perhaps I won't succeed in communicating everything that I would want to say about the Peace Corps and Albania, but anything would be better than what I've been communicating these last six months. As such, my entries from here on out will fall into the following categories:

-This Month in Pogradec. These entries will attempt to summarize life in Pogradec for that month- what food is available in the markets, how busy the city is, what the weather is like, and any other fun details of life at that time of year.

-The Albanian Travel Guide. Albania covers approximately 11,000 square miles, or roughly the same amount of land as Maryland. Despite this small size, there are many places worth visiting here and you should know about them. I'll use these to highlight one such place and share my own pictures and experiences from there.

-Culinary Corner. I'm not sure what percentage of my life is spent deciding what I want to eat/cook, cooking/going out, and then eating, but I'm pretty sure it is big. My diet isn't dramatically different here than it was in America, but there certainly have been changes. These entries will highlight a food, drink, or cooking experience (If I had only known all along how easy it is to make my own pancakes. Bisquick! You trickster!) that has become commonplace in my Peace Corp life.

-Cili eshte me mire? Translation: which is better? Albanians love to ask this question about just about everything. Food. Land. Languages. Women. Men. Drinks. Dancing. Weddings. Cities. Roads. Families. Fish. Sunglasses. The little yellow flowers that grow in parks. You name it. Are they better in America or Albania? I'll try to avoid outright competition, but in each entry I will highlight one thing about America that I miss in Albania and one thing about Albania that I'll miss when I return to America.

-The Question Box. You, my tens of loyal readers, have questions about life in Albania and the Peace Corps, right? This will be your chance to ask them directly. Within reason, I'll do my best to answer them well.

We'll get July going with a Travel Guide and a This Month in Pogradec. After that, I'll try to run through a cycle of the five each month. Hold me to it.

Blog! Go!

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Refrigeration Not Required

Shortly before I left for Romania, I had written a blog about the spell of cold weather that we had experienced the week before. I got caught up with packing and trip planning, however, and failed to add it on here before I left. Things have warmed up (slightly) since then, but it is still relevant enough that I figured I'd add it on today. So without further adieu...

December 20th, 2010

A few days ago, I made a stop by the Peace Corp medical office in Tirana to receive my seasonal flu shot. I have had several shots since I arrived in country, but all the others had been administered during the heat of summer when the logistical challenges associated with rolling up your sleeve are quite small. Winter gear, on the other hand, presents a couple new obstacles for this task. With that in mind, the medical officer indicated a chair where I could set my jacket when I walked into the room. Off came the jacket, but that was just the beginning of the fun. The next step was to unwrap my scarf. Then I took off my zippered sweater-jacket. That was followed by my long sleeved shirt and then my long underwear top. Finally, I was down to my short sleeved undershirt and was ready for business. The medical officer regarded the small mountain of clothes that I had shed with a smile and said, “It's cold, isn't it?”

Why yes, it is. Cold, I would go so far as saying, took on an entirely new meaning for me last week. Having lived through six winters in the mountains of Virginia, I thought that I had a pretty good idea of how a person goes about dealing with day to day life when temperatures start to drop. As cold as last week was (temperatures dropped below freezing in Pogradec early on Friday morning and didn't come out of it for any sustained period of time until Saturday... 8 days later), I've dealt with colder spells in the past.

There is an important distinction that needs to be made whenever a person talks about winters in America, however. “Wow, it's really cold!” doesn't adequately describe the situation. What you're almost always trying to say is, “Wow, it's really cold outside!” That may be, but once you get where you're going, you're probably walking into a 70 degree room and shedding your layers.

Not so in all places in the world. For example, when I returned to Pogradec the day after my shot, I shuffled/slid through the snow and ice covered streets of the city back to my apartment, which greeted me with the loving embrace of...

35 degrees. Actually, my thermometer is in Celsius, so the actual number displayed on the screen was 2.

Excuse me while I flex my beard.

After doing some quick figuring in my head (35 degrees inside... 20-some-odd degrees outside), I turned with some trepidation to my sink. I turned the faucet on and sure enough, a couple sad drips were followed by a lot of nothing.

There are some points in life when it is very helpful to take a step back and look at the whole picture. For me, standing in front of my then-decorative sink and watching my breath rise in heavy clouds was one of those moments. All in all, the checklist didn't look bad. My health was good. I had plenty of sweaters and blankets. I also had plenty of food. If I needed running water or a warm room, I had only to slide out my door to find both surrounding me. My job is endlessly interesting, my friends and family are amazing and... all in all, frozen pipes and a 35 degree house are nothing but great material for the grizzled old man stories that I'll get to tell the grandkids in 50 years. And, um, to blog about.

So I settled in on the couch, wrapped myself in a blanket, turned on the space heater, and let time march on. The confines of my apartment didn't top the 50 degree mark until the following Sunday, but there is a charm that comes with cozy sweaters, blankets, and big, hot mugs of tea that central heating just can't match. I won't go so far as to say that I plan to abandon modern heating technology when I return to the states (if for no other reason than showering in a 40 degree bathroom= NOT FUN ( = it doesn't happen too much)), but things could certainly be much worse.

Like, for example, if I lived in northern eastern Europe. To give that theory a run, three other volunteers and I are turning our backs on the Istanbuls, Sicilies, and Greeces that are calling away so many of our other friends for holiday vacations and will be heading up into the mountains of Romania on Wednesday. On the one hand, we'll probably run into a little bit of cold. On the other hand, how often do you get to spend your Christmas in Vlad Dracula's home town?

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Viti i Ri 2011

Happy New Year! I hope that everyone has had a lovely holiday season. I spent Christmas in Romania with a few friends (more on that trip later) and returned to Albania on December 30th with just enough time to unpack my big bag, repack a smaller bag and make the trip to Bishqem to bring in the new year with my host family.

New Year's is arguably the biggest holiday in Albania. In some ways, it incorporates bits and pieces of several of the American holidays that I am familiar with into one big, blowout night. In the weeks leading up to it, decorations announcing its pending arrival appeared throughout town- New Year's trees, New Year's lights, and the jolly patron saint of New Year's himself, Santa Claus (he has a different name here, but I can't remember what it is. Më fal.). They may look like their Christmas-themed cousins on the surface, but you'll get confused looks from the locals if you tell them how pretty their Christmas tree is.

On New Years Eve, you gather with friends and family for a feast not all that unlike our own Thanksgiving- roasted turkey and all. They up the ante, however, with giant platters of Baklava. Take notes, America.

Finally, when the clock strikes midnight, everyone goes outside and puts on a fireworks display that would put your average Fourth of July party in America to shame. Throughout the month of December, the soundtrack to life in Albania began to be peppered with the occasional loud explosion. The frequency of these booms and bangs increased steadily as the end of the month drew closer. Walking around Pogradec and Elbasan on New Year's Eve day, I was struck by the thought that a small scale military attack could be happening in an Albanian city that day and it would probably take a few minutes before people took notice. The firecrackers that kids play with here are more akin to small bombs than to the piddly strings of black cats that we have in America. It's slightly disconcerting at first, but you get used to it.

With such firepower at their disposal during the day, I was quite curious to see what the show would be like at night. It did not disappoint. Whenever I had the chance to play with fireworks as a kid, my favorite part of the night was when the box of artillery shells made its appearance. These are the egg sized fireworks that shoot high into the sky and explode in a miniature version of the displays that your town or city might put on in their central park. There is a sense of danger that accompanies the artillery shells. You shoot them one at a time out of a thick cardboard tube that is placed on a stand. This tube, of course, must be 30 feet away from all people and buildings. The lucky person whose turn it is to light the shell carefully slides it down the tube, lights the foot-long fuse, and then runs back to the shelter of the house to wait expectantly with their friends for the lone shot to come forth. They are big and pretty, but even on a fast night you're only setting off about one per minute.

There is another popular type of firework that I grew up with in the states: the Roman Candle. These, in case you need a refresher, are the small foot-long tubes that you hold in your hand. They contain six or so small colored charges that are connected on a single fuse and shoot off one after the other. They are great if you want to add a little color to the night and even better if you want something to shoot at your friends. In Albania, they apparently looked at a box of Roman Candles and then at a box of artillery shells and then thought, “wouldn't it be fun to put those two together?”

The results look something like this. I took this video while standing on the balcony of my host family's house, overlooking the tiny town of Bishqem and neighboring Pajove. The quality isn't the greatest, but you'll get the idea. Happy New Year, everybody.

Friday, December 10, 2010

I also like to live dangerously

In 1991, when the communist government in Albania was official removed from power, Pogradec had a population of about 20,000 people. To my understanding, it had maintained that size for much of the 20th century-- not a major city, but a noteworthy population center. If you can find pictures of Pogradec from 50 or more years ago, you'll see a tidy collection of stately old homes and businesses that are surrounded by the lake, mountains, and the broad plains that extends for some distance to the south and east. Sometime, probably between the 1960's and 1980's, the communist government replaced many of the city's original structures with block apartments, but the overall footprint of the city did not grow significantly.

The last twenty years, on the other hand, have ushered in sweeping changes in the city. Albania, in general, has seen its cities grow by leaps and bounds during post-communism years as villagers moved into the urban centers in search of employment and a better taste of the modern world. Pogradec's story is nowhere near as dramatic as, say, Tirana's (the capital's estimated population growth in the last twenty years falls in the range of 500,000-1,000,000 depending on who you ask), but significant, regardless. The official population now stands at just under 40,000 and the city's footprint, which had stayed so steady for so long, has been growing at a dizzying pace.

I say dizzying not only because of the sheer number of buildings that appear with each passing year, but also because the rate of growth seems disproportionate to the actual demand that exists here. The population has doubled in the last 20 years, but the growth seems to be leveling off today. The city's economy depends on the summer tourism market. Outside of that, there is little in the way of industrial, business, or cultural development that would indicate that the city will continue to double its population with each passing generation.

The new apartment buildings continue to rise high, however. The situation in Albania, as best as I can tell, goes about like this: most people have little money. A few people have lots and lots and lots of money. This upper crust seems to have two favorite kinds of toys that they purchase repeatedly with their fortunes- new Mercedes and big apartment buildings. Should any of you big wigs happen to be reading this, I would like to take the time to remind you that Pogradec, lovely though it is, still lacks a few things. For example:

-A real movie theater

-Mexican food

-Putt-putt golf

-Chinese food

-A bowling alley

-Greek food (seriously, we're 20 miles away from the border)

-A functioning playground


-A scoreboard at the football stadium

-Sub sandwiches/ any kind of street food that isn't byrek or sufllaqe

-Paved streets other than the main roads

-A cheese shop (A room with 30 wheels of djathe i bardhe doesn't count. You would love cheddar, I promise)

-A readily available map of the city

-Indian food

-Marked hiking trails


-A hostel

Just to name a few. (I promise that I'm quite well fed over here. I just miss variety, is all) I understand that some or most of those would be massive failures here, but surely you could find a successful business venture-- or at least a nice philanthropic donation-- buried somewhere in there.

Buried it shall remain, however, because there seems to be no end in sight to the construction of new apartments. Whatever these investors may lack in creativity or planning, they make up for with gusto. I suppose that there is something to be said for that. If you're going to roll the dice in life, there is no sense in doing it quietly. You load your car up with fireworks and cruise the city in search of a hairpin turn with a gas station on the outside corner. If you can take it at 60 mph, people will be talking about you for a long time. If you can't, at least you get to go out with the happy knowledge that they'll be talking about you for even longer.

So there we stand. On the one hand, fame awaits in the form of a growing city with prime real-estate on a beautiful mountain lake. On the other hand, a saturated housing market and questions about the long term population growth makes the cool embrace of infamy just as likely. The money of Pogradec stared down the road, stroked its chin, opened a couple more buttons on its shirt, and punched the gas. If you're looking for a good spot to watch the coming spectacle, look no further than the lakeside boulevard. In a 1/2 mile stretch of that road that apparently used to be fronted by small private houses and open fields, you can now find this:

8 brand new, huge apartment buildings being built quite literally next door to each other at the exact same time. Some may question the sense in that. Then again, a true gambler knows that there is only one opinion that really matters.

Yes indeed. The Hoff approves. Vazhdo, you daring gents. Vazhdo.