Friday, July 9, 2010


I have been living in Pogradec for over a month now. At this point, I am officially considering myself to be a Pogradecare. Apparently this is coming off to others as well, but this is starting to complicate matters because when I meet some new Albanians I have to argue with them about how I am not Albanian but am fully American. Sometimes they take this to mean I am Albanian but happened to be born in America. My solution is to say that I am American but Albanian at heart…they think this is cute.

The last couple of weeks have been particularly busy, but enjoyable. I will just share the highlights to spare you from my own overindulgence of reflection. Two weeks ago I was invited to travel to Tirana, the capital, to assist a presentation being made by Peace Corps at the Institute of Public Health. One of the group 12 volunteers put in a lot of work and time to prepare the presentation she gave (entirely in Shqip) on making lesson plans for a group of health educators (including many of our counterparts). Traditionally, the health educators review the information available to them and then regurgitate the information in their lesson. Our responsibility as health education volunteers is to enhance their capacity to plan for a lesson that is more interactive and engaging. The golden standard for health education right now is to prepare a lesson plan that identifies target population, goal, objectives, materials needed to conduct the lesson, a comprehensive outline of the lesson, then revisiting the lesson plan after the lesson to make a reflection of what worked well and what did not, and making any modifications where deemed necessary. I am trying to study these words in Shqip so that I can relay this information to the nurses in my unit. Wish me luck.

While in Tirana, I took advantage of the opportunity to explore. I have decided that my sense of direction is only fully functional in Tirana, for some reason, because I was able to find my way around the city with no problem at all. I was so proud of my ability to find the Peace Corps office on my own the first time given that the only other time I had been there was on our tour of the capital. One of the best parts about Tirana is that they sell avocado. That’s right, avocado! The next time I go to the capital, I am going to bring another bag to be filled with avocados. I will proceed to make guacamole and freeze it for strategic consumption over time. Another unique characteristic of Tirana, and this country in general, is the colorful painting on buildings. Along the “river road” there are many buildings with the most colorful and interesting paint jobs I have ever seen. Apparently the mayor provided funding for the beautification of the city and this is at least one of the outcomes.

And this is how much Albania loves America…

Work-wise, things have been progressing along and we have been productive. The director wanted us to focus on family planning this month and so we have been traveling to the villages around Pogradec to talk to women there about the various contraceptive methods available to them. Albania has a “Planifikimi Familiar” emblem that is placed on all clinics where contraceptive methods are available for free. For the villages, these family planning clinics are within the community health centers but the cities typically have their own separate family planning clinics. One of the villages we visited had this family clinic located in a classroom at the local kindergarten. In general, the resources in these clinics are very limited. The villages are on a water schedule and so during the day, working hours, there is no running water. As such, the expected normalcy of hand washing by health professionals in the US is not thought of much here. These village clinics do not have the capacity to run tests or to use basic diagnostic tools for complicated health matters. Instead, the patients are referred to larger clinics. First, it seems they are referred to specialized care centers here in Pogradec. Afterwards, if the medical condition is serious, the patient is referred to Tirana. Of course, many families cannot afford to travel to these cities let alone afford the prescriptions and tests they will have to pay for. Back to family planning…it has been an interesting project for us. Many of the village women have not been exposed to modern contraceptive methods or are unaware that they are available for free. The women get so embarrassed during these lessons, especially during the condom demonstrations. Sometimes they start laughing uncontrollably (sometimes even to the point of crying) and other times they turn bright red. At one of the villages this week, Qibrie was giving the condom demonstration and of course the women were laughing. At this same moment, the donkey right outside the window started making its ridiculous noise, which managed to make the situation even more awkward for the women. I thought one woman was going to fall off the chair because she was laughing so hard. We are going to continue focusing on family planning through August, including having a project on the beach where we set up a booth and give family planning education. Qibrie envisions having a seriously oversized condom to draw attention. I am not sure what I think about this idea so far…

I have also established a working relationship with another organization operating here in Pogradec, called Nehemia. It is a German, Christian organization that is quite impressive in terms of the reach it has with education, social work, medicine, and even religion. It is really an honor to get to work with this organization. Last week I was invited to attend an organizational event in Peshkëpi, a village just outside Pogradec. Nehemia was celebrating the inauguration of their mission house and a community center there. This community center will be a space for the community to have their meetings and cultural events. Also, the organization will run a soup kitchen out of it during the evenings. Nehemia also operates a school and a medical clinic there. All of the employees were so nice and welcoming.

For the rest of July, I will be working at Nehemia in Buçimas once I get off of work, another village just outside Pogradec, helping the social work department with their summer projects and events. At the end of July, I will move to Pogradec to work with Amarotan, the Roma school. At this school they have a very well developed social work department and they provide medical care to the students, whch I am particularly interested in.

I have a very important introduction to make: last week we had a new addition to Team Pogradec. Brad, a volunteer from my group who was previously assigned to another town, was moved to Pogradec. He will be teaching English which means we now have all the Peace Corps sectors in Pogradec (community development, health education, and teaching English as a foreign language). Brad was moved from his previous site because they did not have adequate housing for him and his site mate there. I personally think he got a pretty good deal out of this whole ordeal because Pogradec is one of the most beautiful places I have ever been and he has some great site mates, if I do say so myself…

On a fun note, I have just experienced my very first birthday and Fourth of July in Albania. My birthday was great. I had to work during the day, and afterwards I had dinner with my site mates and Steven at Connie’s house. The food was delicious, as always, and I even had an Albanian cake with candles. It was a special birthday because of the company I had, so thank you all for making it so memorable.

For the Fourth of July, my site mates and I decided to walk to Vila Art, which is the place where Enver Hoxha, the previous communist dictator, used to go for his vacations. Connie said the only authentic part now is the chimney in the main house, but that is ok for me. Now, it is a primary tourist attraction of Pogradec. Essentially it is a park with beautiful flowers, trees, ponds, boats, and swans. We decided to relax, drink a beer and eat French fries in honor of our holiday. Connie even brought some peanut butter with crackers as an American treat. It was pretty dang amazing…I guess I am missing peanut butter more than I let on, which is interesting because I did not eat a lot of it when I lived in America. I guess you always want what you can’t have. On the way back, Brad took us to a place where he saw a sign for hot dogs. We all thought they would not really be hot dogs, but in fact they were!

So, it looks like we celebrated the Fourth of July appropriately. Oh, and we even had fireworks! On July 3rd, a beach bar had its opening night. Given there were so many of us interested in seeing what it was like, we decided to go. At exactly midnight they had fireworks! We pretended they were for us and for the Fourth of July.

When I look back at my experience so far, I think I am starting to get so well adjusted to life in Albania that I no longer take notice of the things that stood out to me in the beginning. As such, I am deliberately trying to take note of the occurrences and observations I have which remind me I am in Albania:
• The adolescent and young adult males walk around with what we affectionately call the “çuni roll.” This is where they pull up their shirt so that their belly is hanging out. Apparently this is their preferred method of cooling off but makes me laugh every time. Could you imagine if I picked up this habit?
• The local government ordered road spikes to be inserted into a road that leads to the city center as a way to enforce the one-way rule. First, the spikes are metal so when you are driving over them, they make this horrible clanking noise. It would be terrible if you lived on that corner because I am sure you would hear it at all hours of the day. They also did not put a sign telling people that if you are going the right direction, the spikes will go down with no problem and your tires will not be damaged. Some drivers stop and wonder whether or not they should go over them. Other drivers will come and honk which only flusters the driver in question even more. Now, some people have put these wooden planks over the spikes so that they no longer make the clanking noise and so they can drive the wrong way (I am sure). I noticed today that the wooden planks have nails sticking up which probably will manage to pop some tires no matter if they are going in the right direction or not.
• This week, the laboratory at the Directorate of Public Health, where I work, has been testing beer for their content.
• Water problems have continued in my apartment. This time, I have droplets of water that are falling from the ceiling in my bathroom. They usually appear in the evening and persist until the morning. At first, there would be one or two drops but they would not disturb toilet activity. Now, the water droplets have extended across the width of the bathroom ceiling, which means that I am experiencing potentially poopy water droplets during all toilet activity that takes place in the evening and morning. I will not lie; I have waited to use the bathroom facilities until I get to work just to avoid the icky water. I have communicated this problem to my landlords, but they say it is not their problem, that it is the problem of the residents above me. Pieces of ceiling are falling these days…I have a serious fear I will die on the toilet when the ceiling falls in on me.
• There is an overall resistance to change and work here. People complain regularly how there is no work, even at work. But at the directorate when I propose that we do a new summer project or event, I hear that it is impossible, they do not have enough resources to make anything happen. Maybe this is the case, I have never held a summer event, but we will never know if we do not try. Speaking of work, I have also observed how it is acceptable for the men to be intoxicated off of raki (the local alcoholic beverage) at any hour of the day.
• I have received serious marriage proposals at work and on the street. Today for instance, I was walking with Qibrie and we met one of her friends. She was asking about where I am from, what I do, and the usual and so I was responding. Then she got very serious about how she has a 30-year-old son that she wants me to meet. Qibrie just started laughing and told her that I am already taken because she has a 25-year-old son for me. There was even one time where women at a garment factory interrupted the presentation on blood donation to offer their sons for marriage. Now Qibrie is even teasing me about marrying the new psychologist in our unit….interesting.

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