Sunday, March 28, 2010

Chips & Salsa Detox

I have been living in Belesh, Albania for one week now. In some moments, it feels like just yesterday I got here. In others, it feels like I am in a whirlwind. We have been pretty busy with our Pre-Service Training. Mostly, my favorite part is learning Albanian. I am now speaking a pretty horrible combination of English and Albanian (Albanish)...but I have hope that I will soon be able to speak sentences that are greater than 3 words. I never thought I would be so happy having my host family understand me when I say "I am full" or "I have to go to school now."

Speaking of host family...they are great! My host mother (who is actually younger than me) had a baby three weeks ago, so I have enjoyed getting to see such a cutie-patootie every day. My host father is one unique, incredible man. Luckily, he speaks English quite well so he has been helping me to understand and learn new words every day. He is a lawyer and does a lot of work with Albania's Blind Association. Though this may come as a slight surprise, I did manage to get myself in trouble with my family. On Fridays, we have to travel to the "hub" (Elbasan) to have training sessions with the rest of the trainees. After lessons this Friday, many of us decided to walk around and we ultimately ended up getting a beer. It was such a blast and we enjoyed the opportunity to have an unsupervised moment to relax with the other trainees. We ended up leaving around 5 PM, but by the time we rode in the furgon back to Belesh, it was 6:30 PM. I walk in the house and the entire family, including my little sister, were shaking their finger at me. My host father said it is not good to be late in Albania. Lesson learned. By the way, everyone watches the Albanian Big Brother here religiously!

After living with a host family, it is hard not to notice the distinct gender norms here. Women stay in the house cleaning, cooking, tending to the garden, etc. The problem here is that I do not really fit this female norm...I burnt the rice a little today. Maybe this means they will never ask me to cook again? The men are the ones that leave the house to work, have coffee, and, it seems, to stand along the road. My host sister says women don't go out! I have experienced the unwanted attention and slight harassment a woman can attract when not conforming to these gender norms. Luckily, I have incredible site-mates that are always looking out for each other. I take this as a lesson well a woman in a country with such distinct gender norms, I need to get it out of my head that I can enjoy coffee with my friends when I want. Nonetheless, I am so happy to be here every morning when I wake up. I cannot wait to learn more Shqip (Albanian) so that I can actually have a conversation I understand and I cannot wait to learn more about this country and its culture.

Finally, I am currently undergoing an unwanted detoxification from my chips and salsa addiction. I think about eating chips and salsa more than is healthy for any one person. My mouth is watering just thinking about it. The food here is delicious, though. Mom and Dad, you would be proud of what I am eating. Dishes with liver and intestines are delicacies. So, if you happen to miss me, even in the slightest, please eat some chips and salsa on my behalf!

Friday, March 19, 2010

Beginning in Elbasan

Arriving in Albania seems like such a whirlwind in retrospect. Staging in Philadelphia went really well. We discussed expectations, anxieties, and got the opportunity to meet some of the other volunteers we will be in country with over the next 27 months. From there, we started the interesting journey to Albania. Honestly, the hardest part so far has been carrying my all of my luggage. I should have known how hard it would be since my backpacking backpack literally knocked me over the night before I left Colorado. Because I never learn a lesson the easy way, I decided I was ready to go and was somehow stronger than ever. Amazingly, I made it all the way to Elbasan, Albania. Elbasan is located in what is essentially the belly button of the country. On the drive here, we saw stunning mountains and even a small glimpse of the Adriatic Sea coast.

We have been kept quite busy since our arrival. The Albanian Peace Corps staff has been incredible. I feel lucky to be working with such a prepared and engaged staff during this Pre-Service Training (PST) period. We are officially Peace Corps Trainees now...if all goes well, all 50 of us will fulfill our requirements to swear in as official Peace Corps volunteers on May 27th. Cross your fingers!

One of my favorite parts of PST so far has been the language and culture trainings. I am so glad I started to learn Albanian before I arrived because the lessons move so quickly. I have to say that I have never been in a language class with such effective teaching methods. I have always heard that Peace Corps language programs were quite reputable. So, I am valuing this opportunity to experience it first hand. They use a combination or repetition, student led activities, songs, and short assignments. I have learned that greetings are one of the most important parts of interacting with people in Albanian culture. Good morning is miremengjes, good day is miredita, good evening is mirembrema, and finally good night is naten e mire. It has been quite entertaining to watch all of us say these greetings to both the Peace Corps staff and to the hotel staff here. Tonight, we were able to learn a traditional Albanian circle dance. It was so much fun and I truly hope we get to do this as frequently as possible. We were also able to walk around Elbasan during our breaks and I would like to share the incredible view I get to see each day with you.

We are leaving Elbasan tomorrow afternoon to go live with our host families. I have always thought that meeting them would be one of the most nerve-wracking experiences I would have as Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV). Surprisingly, I'm pretty calm and collected about it right now because I realize they are my immediate insight into the culture, language, and my ultimate experience. Also, I have come to accept the fact that it is going to be especially awkward at first because they wont be speaking English, and I can only ask them how they are so many times before it becomes disruptive. I know my host family lives in Belesh (pronounced Belsh) which is about 28 km from Elbasan. The description I was given of the town says it is an ancient residence near a beautiful lake. Unfortunately, the lake's ecosystem is being damaged because of pollution and general lack of policies which protect the environment (not to mention inability to regulate the regulations). They also said there was an ancient temple to Athena where residents threw gifts, including dishes, into the lake. I will be the first volunteer to live with this family during PST which I think poses more of an opportunity than a challenge. I will be excited to share more information about living with my host family. While living there, we will come back to Elbasan a couple of times each week in order to have training sessions as a whole group. PST proves to be rigorous, but I know it will prepare me for my two year service.

Hope all is well at home. Love and miss you.