A Really Vital Update on Life in America

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Ok, since my weepy last post I found a great job and apartment. No complaints! Although I am still occasionally startled by automatically flushing toilets and share way too much “wisdom” (usually centering on food safety – ie, expiration dates mean nothing) that starts with “When I was in the Peace Corps…” I am pretty well-adjusted. I survived the transition home!

This post is just to note how much my sense of my neighborhood has shifted since I got back…in that I am suddenly finding Albanians everywhere and every time it reminds me of Peace Corps/makes me miss my town and my host family. Today I checked my mail and found a letter addressed to a “Kujtim” who used to live in my apartment. I live a twenty-minute walk from our local Albanian Islamic Society. Last weekend I was walking home from CVS when I saw this frightening sign in Albanian:

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Last month I staggered onto the bus with about a million pounds of crap from Target, sat in the first seat I could find, and then realized I was next to a gjyshja talking about what was going on “ne shpi.”

Yes, folks, that’s right: without even being aware, I have stumbled into a “little Diber” right here in Philly. Oddly it makes me feel more at home and also is a constant reminder of what I’m missing back in the real Diber.

On being back in America, an RPCV

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I’ve been back in America for a while now so it seems fair to update you all on what it is like, you know, coming back to America.

To sum it up as fast as I can, no one thinks I’m important or interesting anymore, things often are not where I left them three years ago (I mean both places, like the Spice Terminal in Reading Terminal Market, which I just today discovered is no longer there, and things, like a Joe Sacco comic book and my blender and my French press), more things are automated than I think need to be automated (doors, toilets, sinks, towel dispensers, supermarket checkout lanes), and public transit is unnervingly efficient and consistent in terms of where it goes and when and how much it costs to get there.

So, then. I am happy to be back and to be back in Philly, but every once in a while I find myself wanting to cry because I miss my host family, or embarking on a long-winded story about that time that that thing happened on the kombi (that no one is interested in hearing). I have realized that all the news reports I’d been reading about how hard it is to find a job nowadays were not exaggerations, and have the worrisome suspicion that many potential employers view Peace Corps and Fulbright as a fun three-year vacation I took rather than as three years of me managing projects, writing grants, and collaborating with everyone on any project they could think up, all with me speaking either Macedonian or Albanian. I feel moderately to very abandoned by Peace Corps, and would like to humbly request that they one day consider giving more to their former volunteers than a few thousand bucks, a reusable grocery bag, and a Peace Corps mug. (I mean, like, options to buy healthcare if you have a weird return schedule, not more money.)

I’m going to stop now, because I’m trying not to spend too much time reflecting on how strange it is to be on the other side of this Peace Corps thing. For years it was my only goal, and it never occurred to me that one day I would finish Peace Corps and would have to figure out what would come next. Now I’m almost 27 years old, unemployed, uninsured, and hoping that I work things out soon. Fortunately I can do so while reading my library books, eating Reese’s cups, and drinking all the good beers Philly has dreamed up in my absence.

I ❤ Çamëria

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Çamëria is the ethnically Albanian region extending from Albania’s Saranda district into some Greek districts. Before starting my Fulbright project I knew that there were a lot of Albanians living and working in Greece (when I traveled there my first summer in Peace Corps, I seemed to hear Albanian spoken all around me), but not that there was a region where Albanians had historically settled and lived.

How many Cham Albanians live in this region of Greece depends on who you ask. I’ve read a lot of Miranda Vicker’s writing on Albania, and recall her stressing the Albanian population in Çamëria in Greece. She estimates that about 40,000 Cham Albanians are living in Greece, while the Greeks say that the area is now inhabitated mostly by Greeks, in part because of an Albanian exodus around the Second World War. (If you’re interested, here’s the wikipedia page on Çamëria, and here’s the page on Cham Albanians.)

This is just to give you a little background on the photos. Ever since I moved to Tirana, I’ve been meaning to take a photo of some “I ❤ Çamëria” graffito. I’d only seen it in one place, though, about a 25 minute walk from my apartment, and never seem to have my camera when I’m going by there. Last week I noticed that the “I ❤ Çamëria” graffiti was popping up everywhere, along the major streets around the Bllok where I live. And then yesterday, along Tirana’s main boulevard, up went “I ❤ Çamëria” banners interspersed with banners showing the double-headed eagle from Albania’s flag. On my way for a coffee today, I stopped and took photos of all the Çamëria banners, graffiti, posters, and displays I saw along the boulevard. I’m waiting to see if Balkan Insight is going to write anything about this, since I’m curious about how all the Çamëria love is going to go over with Greece.

In front of one of Tirana’s landmarks, the Pyramid

The banners, heading towards Skenderbeu Square

Look how far they go – all the way down the boulevard!

A display along the main boulevard

Things I Will Do in America That Scare Me

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With the realization that in just over ten weeks I will be back! in! America! (after 26 months as a Peace Corps Volunteer and 9 as a Fulbright), a selection of things that most frighten me about returning to my homeland.

  • Go on a date. I have not been on one since August 2009.
  • Go on a job interview. I have not been on one since October 2008.
  • See hipsters.
  • Speak to people who won’t be understanding of the fact that my English is messed up for reasons out of my control, or that “opa!” has become my standard exclamation. (I can’t even remember what it replaced. “Oh”? “Ouch”? A shriek?)
  • Rent an apartment from any landlord whose vetting process is anything more than me taking a walk around the apartment, then taking the keys. No lease required.
  • My suspicion that I will be so excited to see American magazines again that I will end up with subscriptions to People, US Weekly, In Touch, Rolling Stone, and dozens more.
    • Related fear: that I will spend as much money on magazines during my layover at JFK as I did when I was flying back to Macedonia last summer. (See: $40.)
  • Ordering beer in any situation where I have to say more than “I’ll have a dark beer.” (See: how many Yuenglings I drank last summer because it was less confusing for me to ask for a lager than to parse beer lists that are now all but indecipherable to me.)
  • Learn that, apart from Breaking Bad, I missed everything about American culture, 2009 – 2012.
  • Own a “phone” with a touch screen. (I don’t really feel comfortable calling something a phone if it does not have T9 and Snake xenzia.)
  • That being an American will no longer make me the weirdest/most special person in the room.
  • That my host sister will no longer be a four-hour furgon ride away from me.

Travel! Adventure! Montenegro & Croatia

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Communist Hotel welcomes you with charming interior decorations.

Now that I’m in the last few months of my Fulbright grant the fact that I am going home soon (July 31st!) is starting to hit me. Ever since I moved to Macedonia I’ve been pretty relaxed about travel; I thought about going to a lot of places around Eastern Europe, but never did because it seemed more important to me to sit around with my host sister, drawing and baking cookies. (I think this was a good choice, still.) But now that I can say I will be home month after next, I feel a new panic about travel. I need to see ALL the places!

I dealt one small blow to my list of Eastern European Countries I Will Probably Not Manage to Visit by going, last week, to Montenegro and Croatia with Albania’s two other Fulbrights. We started the trip in classic Albania style, with a furgon ride up to Shkoder where we spent the night in a former Communist hotel. The next day we took a bus to Ulcinj, in Montenegro, where we were able to indulge in my #1 Favorite Travel Activity (eating food in a bus station) before catching another bus to Bar and then on to the resort town of Sveti Stefan.

Sveti Stefan. So much pretty!

Sveti Stefan is actually a small island connected to the mainland by an isthmus. I think the island is closed – someone mentioned this to us, and wikitravel confirms – but the day sitting on the beach, then looking out over the island while we had dinner, was perfect. I am becoming a big fan of traveling in the off-season, because we had the place mostly to ourselves, with just a few other tourists and locals on the beach in the afternoon.

Kotor – from halfway up the old fortifications.

The next day we caught a couple more buses up to Kotor. Our hostel was located in the Old Town, hundreds of buildings smushed within the city walls – walking around Kotor almost felt like being back in Italy. After a coffee and a few hours spent sitting waterside reading The Help, we laid out a few euros to climb the old city walls. Such a cool thing to do, and since the last time I climbed up a mountainside to look at a town was when I lived in Diber, the hour-long climb was weirdly reminiscent of those Peace Corps days. The waters in the Bay of Kotor are so deep that full-size cruise ships can be brought in, which was unsettling – I am pretty sure the Old City was only a few times larger than those ships.

In Kotor. Ridiculous!

From Kotor, Dubrovnik. More beaches, good food, and lots of gelato – including some from a shop owned by Albanians from Gostivar. This was my first glimpse of the benefits I’ll reap from knowing Albanian, at least if I hit some pizzerias on Staten Island (or, let’s face it, anywhere on the East Coast) – free gelato! free pizza (I hope!)! Plus the pure joy of meeting someone who lived so close to my Peace Corps home.

Dubrovnik! Full of pizza, gelato, and tourists.

Especially when we were in Croatia, I was struck by what a good job people have done building up the tourism industry and making these places accessible to visitors. I couldn’t help comparing Sveti Stefan, Kotor, and Dubrovnik to Macedonia’s main tourist destination, Ohrid, and feeling kind of glum about Macedonia’s development. My parents loved Ohrid when they visited in 2010, but it still doesn’t compare to these other sites in the Balkans – what shot does Macedonia really have at tourism dollars, when its claim to fame is an overcrowded lakeside town?

I’m at risk now of overthinking these things, so back to other subjects…like how my host mother one-rang my phone yesterday, and then did a great job guilt-tripping me into a visit (soon!) when I called her on skype. A trip back to Diber can’t really compare to these other travels, in a touristic sense, but it will still be one of the best.

Collecting thinker stones.

Reading, Conferences, Going Home, and Things

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Why, hello there!

I’ve failed, yet again, to blog like a normal person – I guess that when I moved to Albania I didn’t realize that 95% of my blog material came from inspiring Simon Says sessions with my students, or baking with my host sister. Things have been getting a little busier here, which is nice. Thanks to my parents I have a couple boxes of new materials for my project and now have so much reading that I’ll be lucky to finish it by the time my grant runs out. I went to Greece for a Fulbright conference in Thessaloniki, then for a few days in Satorini – I’ll put a few photos of this up, but since I only took thirty photos the whole trip (pathetic), and a shamefully large percentage of those were photos of Greek dogs, I don’t have much to offer. Since then I’ve been back in Tirana, working on the project and getting to do the occasional side efforts that are open to you when you don’t work a 9-to-5, like judging a public speaking contest and doing a presentation for local teachers.

Like I said...

Santorini

I’ve been doing some posts on my reading over at my other blog, writing on books about Albania seeming like one of those things that doesn’t really have a place either here or there. Still, I put up reviews of Ismail Kadare’s Chronicle in Stone and The Accident (and there’s also a post I have to work on about The Pyramid), and more recently Edith Durham’s High Albania. Especially with Kadare’s work, I’d like to do some more in-depth posts in the future, which will…to make a clear and exacting statement…go on this blog or somewhere else.

In other news, I have just over three months until I return to the States, which is (a) scary and (b) exciting and (c) probably going to show me that my English has gotten even weirder than I realize. It’ll have been 35 months since I left the States, which sounds a lot longer than I thought.

Abs of Steel, Albania Style

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When I lived in Macedonia I devoted a fair amount of time to grumbling about volunteers who complained about the gym in their city. “Your site has a gym?! And you’re complaining?!

Of course, after four months living in Albania’s capital I’ve developed an impressive ability to complain about even these luxuries. You know: the Italian grocery store doesn’t have my favorite flavor of Italian yogurt, I had to go to the second-closest grocery store to buy my peanut butter, there were too many Americans at the bar last night, the English-language novels at the bookstore ten minutes from my apartment are too expensive…

And, the gym. Hoping to reverse the effects of two weeks spent eating a half pint of Ben & Jerry’s a day, plus huevos rancheros for breakfast, followed by a few days of pizza and gelato, followed by more pizza and gelato, I signed up at the local “Ladies Gym” with my fellow Fulbrighters when I returned from Christmas vacation. Apart from the fact that I’ve packed on five pounds* (not muscle) since joining, things there have been going well… though the gym has more in common with an apartment building manager’s grudging concession to a difficult rental market than to an American-style gym, with its three ellipticals, three treadmills (one that threatens to send you hurtling into a weight station as it inexplicably changes speed every few minutes), five bicycles, and a few weight machines.

I have some poor memories of gyms in America. There was the day I realized I had to do my sit-ups at home, if I didn’t want a nineteen-year-old boy at the college gym ogling me while I tried to hide the effects of my burrito and beer habits. There was the way I always timed my apartment complex workouts for the same hour cleaning staff were passing through the gym/library. There were all my old high school classmates I had hoped never to see again, but did after joining my hometown’s gym to kill time in the two months before my Peace Corps departure.

Still, nothing quite prepared me for the Albanian gym. The equipment may be the same, but the mentality is different and centered on not sweating. Our first night at the gym the two trainers took us through our paces: ten minutes on the bicycle, ten minutes on the elliptical, ten minutes walking on the treadmill, ten minutes of sit-ups. Done! The next day we were to return to learn how to get abs of steel; but being Americans, we figured we’d get our fifty dollars’ worth and spend some more time on the treadmill. As we jogged, the trainers stood by our sides, repeatedly urging us to lay off, or to run for just two minutes and then walk for ten before heading home. They did a poor job of hiding their fear that we were about to have massive heart attacks after running a kilometer.

Don’t get me wrong. This gym does some things that American gyms don’t do and should, like encouraging everyone to use the weight equipment, and demonstrating how to use the equipment and how to do a variety of horrible ab exercises. But it took us about a week to press in that we were going to come in and do what we wanted, regardless of the widely held belief that more than two minutes of cardio will drop us. My greatest tactical error was revealing, one day when I went in alone, that I knew Albanian. An hour later I found myself struggling not to weep as I neared the end of my thirty-minute ab routine, then nodded meekly as my trainer pointed to one of the bikini-clad women whose photos plaster the walls and told me that I could look like her if I tried hard enough.**

Still, the Albanian gym does offer its pleasures, and a number of unique exercises you won’t find at any American gym. There’s struggling to change into your shorts before the cleaning lady comes into the locker room to keep you company. There’s trying to pick your way through the seemingly non-stop step classes that have cruelly been positioned between the treadmills and the bathroom. There’s running through the cloud of smoke billowing just outside the gym doors – smoking apparently being a widely recognized form of “lung training.” When I return to America, and am once again feeling inadequate for being the least healthy person in the gym (surrounded by women running six-minute miles for, like, an hour straight), I bet I’m going to miss these things.

* To be fair, this was probably the fault of my Ritter Sport Diet (see: dark chocolate Ritter Sports went on sale at the grocery store for a buck a piece) more than my joining the gym. It turns out that while a block of dark chocolate a day may be good for you, an entire bar a day mostly just gives you a muffin top.

** It was at this point that I thought I should explain photoshop, and being politically correct. But, no.