Sunday, December 20, 2009


The language refresher ran dead into Halloween, so the group made a pit stop in Elbasan (the belly button of Albania) before being homeward bound yet again. No, this is not really celebrated in Albania, but we made it work: here are some pictures for your enjoyment!

A piece by PICASSO (GK Crew)

Double-headed Albanian Eagle
Grab some candy.... or a Fiber One
Aladdin Sane (make-up done by ME)

Grapes (essential in Albania)
Everyone's favorite snack and a turkish toilet
Willy Wonka & his Chocolate

Harry Dunn.Lloyd Christmas. (DUMB & DUMBER...duh!)

Together Again!

After having gone our separate ways for 6 months, Group 12 in FULL convened in the southeastern city of Pogradec for 4 days to brush up on the language (and show off what we know). The Language Refresher Conference is provided to revive our Albanian/Shqip skills, and give us a few days to learn some more stuff. We were divided into groups based on level, and you will all be pleased to know that I was in Group 1- the advanced students!!!

Don’t get me wrong though, the language is definitely hard, and the dialect and accent is different within every person I meet. There are some days when I can understand everyone and everything, but there are other days that crush my spirits. Sometimes people don’t expect me to know a word, so after saying something so simple as “hello” they pat me on the back, hug me, kiss me, and praise me. There are other people who hear me speaking Albanian and still pretend they can’t understand a word I am saying/look at me like I’m speaking in tongues. Still there are others who hear me say “hello” and then plow full speed ahead and assume I can understand them. Most frequently though, I get complimented on my Albanian, and my favorite compliment is “you speak like you’re one of us!” Those that know me know I am extremely competitive, so my desire to learn as much as possible and always be the best keeps me learning more. But to be completely realistic about the situation, I know how much and how fast I have learned in 9 months, and its pretty incredible. I sometimes remind myself its okay when I don’t know things… or at least I remind myself that I can go home and study for hours like a true nerd.

Special Olympics

Peace Corps Volunteers gathered in Tirana early in November to help out with the annual Special Olympics Albania. S.O. is fairly new to Albania, and I was extremely impressed with the event. It was sponsored by the Vodaphone Foundation and was well organized by a youth group based in the capital called The Animators. The Olympics kicked off early across town with a running of the torch and followed by a stunning opening ceremony. The 12 teams came from handicapped schools and centers all over Albania. The athletes competed in the events of basketball, soccer, ping-pong, bowling, and swimming. At the end of the day everyone involved was bused to a hotel for the night.

I think the most difficult part of the event was simply coming with an American perspective. Handicapped, disabled, mentally or physically: these terms are not well known by Albanians. These people affected are marginalized and neglected still in this country. A stigma still exists because people are uneducated; they are uncomfortable, and there isn’t many severely handicapped people in Albania. Some kids at the event were dealing with ADD while others were dealing with serious mental and physical disabilities making it hard to create a real competition. How do you think the match will turn out with all-star athletes versus a team incapable of fully understanding rules of the game? Also, most girls didn’t participate, and when I encouraged them to get involved the staff simply said, “girls don’t play sports.” It’s hard and it’s frustrating, but I DO KNOW that the kids all had a really great 3-day vacation, enjoyed some excellent October weather (I got a sunburn!), and felt very special. I can only hope to be more involved next year, and have a great time again.

Opening Ceremonies (yes, they unfortunately released those balloons into the sky)
The Berat team tearing up the futbol field
Berat vs. Lezhe on the bball court


Berat vs. Gjirokastër

There are two UNESCO World Heritage cities in the whole of Albania: the charming Berat, (where I live) and a place in the deep south known as Gjirokaster (GK). I frequently hear the locations being compared and contrasted, so when I discovered the “once every four years Folk Music Festival” was being held in GK at the end of September, three words came to mind: Count.Me.IN!

The day finally arrived and it was not a pretty one. Here is a summary of the unfortunate events:

1) As I lugged my baggage to the center of the city, I discovered I forgot my wallet. I had 5 minutes before the bus left and 20 minutes round trip to my house. I took a TAXI to my house, grabbed my wallet, had a friend buy me breakfast and also hold up the bus for me.

2) After stopping for gas, all I could smell inside the bus was gas fumes. Fumes + carsickness = vomiting (Good thing the buses are always loaded with plastic bags specifically for this reason…no joke, they are stocked like a supermarket!)

3) While taking a break from the 5-hour journey I discover gas splattered all down the side of the bus and dripping out of the tank. The driver stares at it, shrugs his shoulders, and tells everyone to board the bus. I choose to lie down in the back and try to sleep. Once peacefully sleeping, the driver decides to slam on the breaks, the row of seats I’m on top of decide to all tip up, and I am thrust not only OFF the seats to the ground but I continue to fall down into the back stairwell feet over shoulders, skirt over head. NOT ONE OF MY 5 FRIENDS TURNED TO LOOK. Only one Albania lady saw and helped me up, then asked what happened. When I answered she interrupted me to say: “drink water or something, your voice sounds weird like you just woke up.” Well, duh, not only did I wake, I was RUDELY awoken and thrown onto my head. This incident left me with some severe arm & leg bruising.

4) Once in the GK, we hiked up a mountain just to get to a restaurant where I decided to splurge on lasagna. The restaurant however replaced noodles with slices of hard-boiled eggs and I’d have to get them a zero on the food. I should have assumed: they had menus made out of wood and advertised for an appetizer called “bags filled with cheesy creams.” (SEE PIC)

Luckily, this is where the unfortunate events ended. I spent the next two days enjoying the Folk Musical Festival. It was held in the GK castle, which was simply stunning and very well preserved (though I AM biased to Berati’s older castle). Folk groups came in from all over Albania for a 5-day show. Most groups showcased traditional dancing, singing, and musical instruments. My favorite, however, was one showcasing acting skills and a group of older men. They had big fur coats, muskets, and at one point they were doing forward rolls across the fur and getting spanked halfway through the roll. It was extremely dramatic and wildly entertaining. I live for the cultural event here in Albania, and had a great second half of the weekend in the rivaling town of Gjirokaster, but in the end, Berat is still number one in my heart.

The castle from below

FFK 2009

Performers from Kukes

Sunday, September 20, 2009


Yet again I am fortunate I live in an Albanian city full of culture. The occasion? Annual Wine Festival. By special invitation, I was invited to the yearly event at the Çobo Cantina, about 30 minutes outside of Berat in the beautiful countryside. Not fully knowing what to expect, a group of 7 Peace Corps Volunteers from the region and 5 tourists from the local hostel arrive into a mass of cars parked every which way, police on the roads directing traffic, and traditional Albanian folk music penetrating all the way out to the highway.

We were warmly greeted: given our very own 2009 souvenir mugs full of wine, and ushered in toward tables of free food and live entertainment. It was one of those nights that made me feel so… includedso Albanian, I suppose… in a way almost inexplicable to be quite honest. At 7:00pm, the traditionally dressed band led the way into the vineyards- in which everyone followed in sort of a parade-like session. After retrieving baskets and baskets full of grapes, we returned to the main event, where they were placed into the giant wooden vessel waiting in the center of the lawn. The group of Albanian teenage girls finally stepped in barefoot: treading the grapes to the beat of the music, everyone circled around and cheered full forcedly as if they were attending a huge sporting event. The rest of the night went down in history: circle dancing, drinking wine, eating plate after plate lamb, making new friends, chatting socially with the VIP’s of Berat, and well… just enjoying ourselves. In the Albanian language: Gezuar! (Cheers!)

Eat. Drink. Be Merry!

Çobo Winery

Live Entertainment leading the pack

Emerging from the vineyards

stepping into the grapes

grapes, rrush

Corinne and I digging in on the lamb chops

The last supper...Aida.Eric.Daryoush.Phoebe.Me.Chloe.creepy track suit man. Scott.

Ramadan & the Ringling Brothers

While the dominant religion of Albania is strongly Muslim, the majority of Albanian Muslims are non-observant or non-practicing. That is… unless there is some reason to celebrate, and why not celebrate for Ramadan. For those of you who do not know, Ramadan is a month long fast for those of Muslim faith. Fasting is done from dawn until sundown, and the month is used as a sort of personal cleansing with much prayer and much self-control. In accordance with the Berat Municipality (Bashkia), performers came in from Turkey to put on a one night and one night only show. The show was accompanied by rows of tables and platefuls of food- only served after sundown of course!

The concert itself left me without words. While there were multiple singers and performers, I was left stunned by one performance in particular. I can only describe the pair of dancers and hopefully upload a video to follow that will let all you enjoy the spectacle as well. Two men entered stage left: looking somewhat like the Ringling Brothers, dressed in white puffy shirts and black vests boasting a series of chains down the front. The men joined hands, the music started (which, by the way was music so dizzying that it single-handedly could send you into vertigo), and for at least 6 minutes those men danced like THEY were the Lord(S) of Dance. Let us hope my Internet is trusty enough to upload the video- you certainly will be thanking me later.

The first performers

Snapshot of the ringling brothers since video is NOT loading. Video will come later!

Corinne, Phoebe, & I at the festival!

Gezuar Ditelindjen

Once again I found myself celebrating my birthday abroad, this year was the big 25. Ironically, Sofie- one of my closest friends in the group- also celebrated her 25th … just one day later. Thus, a party was thrown, though it was hectic having just returned from the USA and being jetlagged.

Albanian birthday are celebrated in one way and one way only: the person having the birthday invites guests to drink and a big meal – sounds like American tradition right? WRONG. The person having the birthday is to pay for all drinks and all food- guests are never allowed to pay. Thus, true to Albanian tradition I took a group of 12 of my closest friends out to a nice meal on the town of Berat followed by an endless flow of beverages the rest of the night…

Well the truth is that actually I didn’t pay for everyone because if you remember correctly I am a Peace Corps Volunteer, and collectively as a whole, we are broke. Thus, true to AMERICAN tradition, each person paid for themselves and the night carried on as normal. The day of my birthday was spent with my host family: making a traditional food called byrek for the occasion. We had a picnic dinner out on the porch accompanied by a lovely swarm of mosquitoes and at least 15 people all telling me the same thing “U bëfsh nje qind vjeç” which means “May you live 100 years!” For the special occasion I was able to drink a shot of raki, (the locally made somewhat lethal alcohol) which is a big deal because women drinking alcohol is turp or shameful. Nevertheless, I somehow swallowed the awfulness down, marking the start of year #25 of my life. May I live to be 100…

Our birthday cake, funfetti of course!

The birthday girls out to dinner at the White House

Phoebe, Luke, & Daryoush at dinner

Carrie Ann & Raino

Sof, Me, Marie, & Corinne celebrating