Monday, June 7, 2010

One week in...

At the end of my first official week in Pogradec, I am feeling content and confident that I will be able to realize my full service in this city. My first week was nothing but productive - I was productive nesting in my apartment, productive in establishing relationships in the workplace, productive in cooking for myself, and productive in terms of exploring my new home.
One of the most consistent pieces of advice I received from returned Peace Corps volunteers was to make sure you make your house your own as quickly as possible. I employed this tactic and was surprised by how quickly the space felt like my own. I rearranged some of the items left in the house and created a picture wall of my friends and family that have inspired me over the years. So, whenever I am having a rough day, I’ll look at my picture wall and be ready to go again. Here are some pictures of my house and the view from my balcony.

Work is definitely going to be a unique opportunity and challenge. I am no longer intimidated by the fact that no one in my office speaks English, but am learning how to catch on quickly and/or pretend that I am. Really I am getting quite good at writing down words I don’t know and looking them up later. Qibrie also finds it especially exciting to teach me a few random new words everyday and then she will test me on them the next day. Those are definitely the words I study every night! For example, mornica is goosebumps (because I have them almost all the time in the building) and çorape is socks. We did three antismoking lessons in the middle and high schools in the first week. For each one, I did my sponge demonstration that we used during our practicum in Belesh to demonstrate how difficult it becomes for the lungs to exchange carbon dioxide with oxygen after being exposed to smoke. Sometimes it is amusing because the male students do not think I can understand Shqip right now and so they will say inappropriate comments, to which Qibrie will yell at them, or to which I decide to respond and startle them. My name in Shqip is spelt Stejsi and they often find it hilarious to start calling me Strejsi, which just so happens to mean stress. I hope this is just a coincidence and has nothing to do with my character or my tendency to stress about things...I mean, how could they know this already? The students keep this job interesting and I am looking forward to all the experiences we will have with them.

Cooking has also been quite interesting. It is not like I never cooked for myself before, but chips and salsa and Mexican food are not so easy to come by here. As such, I am learning to broaden my horizons out of pure necessity. The first thing I made was tarator, a traditional Albanian salad. It is actually pretty simple, it is made with yogurt, grated cucumber and leek, and some olive oil. Then I decided to get really fancy and bake my own bread. Theoretically it is not too difficult, but after I already prepared the dough, I realized that my oven does not actually have a dial so I can never know what temperature the oven is at. Unfortunately, that meant my bread came out especially yeasty. Maybe I’ll just stick to vegetable soup and rice dishes.

Another piece of advice we received as we became official volunteers was to be sure to get out of the house every single day. Thus far I have been able uphold this piece of advice and have gone out on new adventures. Every time I go out I think of it as an opportunity to meet someone new. The first weekend Matthew and I met this girl that is from Pogradec but has been living in Wisconsin for the past 11 years or so. She has returned because she is getting married. She invited us to her wedding the second week of June and we quickly accepted her invitation. This will be our first Albanian wedding and are both perhaps too eager to engage in some circle dancing fun. I also met a 12 year old boy named Mario that works at the coffee shop with wireless internet. Since we started going there, he has been communicating in both English and Shqip to us but always hesitated because he did not quite know what we spoke. Yesterday we both realized that the other speaks English. Let me just say that this kid is incredible! He has been teaching himself English. They start teaching English in the schools here in grade three, but he wanted to learn before that and taught himself. He was two full classes ahead of his peers by the time it was offered to him. Because he is so far ahead, he goes to the library to read the English books there. I asked what kind of books and he said chemistry, physics, and math because those are the only kind of books that are available. He wanted to show me some of the essays he has written in his English class and I was really blown away. Not only was his English impressive for a non-native, 12 year old, he was also expressing deep philosophical perspectives that I am not even sure I could write about in English. Then last night after dinner we went walking along the lake with the only intention of buying these delicious doughnuts that we know all too well are keq për shëndet (bad for health). This was a success but we also stumbled upon a concert in the city center. They lip-sang Albanian music and there was even a stand-up comic (we did not understand but elected to laugh when everyone else did). I love these random moments more than I can say.

Over the weekend my site mates and I went to Korca just to visit a new city. We went to the open market there which is far larger than what we have in Pogradec. Luckily I was able to find more knock-off undies!

Korca is a beautiful city. This church is newly built and stunning to look at. Also, the school here was the very first school in Albania.

Here are two of my favorite views in Pogradec: (I am not sure why I love the peeing fountain but I think it is hilarious!)

Though there have been many wonderful experiences as an official Peace Corps volunteer, my first week also had some downsides. My apartment gets especially quiet sometimes and it gives me too much time to think about how I miss friends and family. I do not think this feeling is ever going to get better with time. I think it is going to be an ongoing challenge that is unique to this type of experience. Also, I experienced the first set of rocks thrown at me by youth. I first read about this behavior in the invitation material sent to me by Peace Corps and we all heard about it during out Pre-Service Training. However, I never experienced anything like it in Belesh and I just did not think that it was as common as they always mentioned. At first it is a sad feeling, but then you have to realize that it is not a personal attack; they just do not know who you are and it has never been a behavior that has been reprimanded. Connie has been asking the kids outside her apartment building “did you throw rocks at my friend?” That will teach ‘em!

I am looking forward to the next two weeks, but they are going to be quite busy. At the end of this week, there is a Gender and Development conference that will take place here in Pogradec. Young girls from around Albania will be coming to this conference to learn about gender issues, body image, the environment, leadership, etc. We have a Gender and Development committee in Peace Corps Albania that allows volunteers to create and run Gender and Development groups at their permanent site. There has not been a group here in Pogradec, but I am hoping to get one started. In fact, one of Connie’s co-workers really wanted some young girls from Pogradec to attend this conference and so she distributed the application and permission slips. We have had six turn them in already and I’ll be getting to meet them tomorrow. This seems to be the perfect way to start a group here! Another good thing about the conference is that it means other Peace Corps volunteers will be coming into town. I will have a house full, but I think it will be a blast! Then early next week the health education volunteers working in the south of Albania have been invited to meet in Permet to work on a project together. It involves the development of health education videos that have been translated into Shqip for subtitles. I was so excited when I found out about this opportunity because it will allow me to use some of the communication and social marketing skills that I have hopefully acquired from graduate school and I think it is a fantastic way for us to collaborate with each other!

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