Category Archives: Albania

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

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.

Interreligious dialogue in Albania

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For the next few months at least, most of my research project is going to revolve around doing little more than listening. In many ways this is a lot of fun for me; I loved hearing people’s thoughts on politics and religion while I was in the Peace Corps, but I didn’t often have the opportunity to sit someone (or a group of people) down and torment them with question after question about their culture. With the discussion groups I’m planning for Macedonia (already scheduled in Struga and Skopje, and hopefully soon in a few other cities), and later for Albania, I’ll be able to take on the role of interviewer/note-taker in a way I was never able to while in the Peace Corps.

This morning I headed to Elbasan to speak with a local religious leader, a Catholic man who runs an organization focused on interreligious dialogue. This was the sort of group I always wanted to see in Macedonia; it’s more complex than religion vs. religion over there, because religious issues are so tied up with Albanian and Macedonian national identities within the country, but these conversations between people of different faiths have felt necessary to me ever since I went through Peace Corps training in Macedonia, and got a glimpse at how little some Macedonians and Albanians interact with each other. Because it’s a three-hour round trip from Tirana and Elbansa, I usually try to plan a full day’s worth of coffees when I head there, but today tried to keep things short because I’m getting over a cold I caught in Kosovo (and mostly want to sleep).

I spent about an hour and a half speaking with Sokol. As someone who proclaims her atheism pretty publicly (though usually not with Albanians or Macedonians; not even now that I live in a country that is largely atheistic after religion was banned under Enver Hoxha’s rule), I tend to look at religion from a purely cultural rather than spiritual perspective, so it’s interesting to hear about local religions from someone who is coming from a different position, in terms of belief. Sokol’s organization has run a symposium at the local university featuring leaders of different faiths, and taken a group of women of different faiths on a trip to view religious sites; in future, he hopes to publish a pamphlet featuring writings by a number of religious leaders, and to expand the organization into some of the towns surrounding Elbasan.

Again, a lot of fun to hear about religion from a person living in Albania, who was alive during Hoxha’s rule, rather than to simply read about religion from a history book or newspaper article. Albania is often recognized today as a state that does unusually well in terms of interreligious dialogue and cooperation, which I’ve suspected is in part because for many people, who for years could not practice, religion is more a cultural than a spiritual concern. Sokol’s take is that while communication between people of different religions is better in Albania than in many other states, there are still ways it needs to be improved. For example, he said: people don’t often really discuss religion, beyond stating what their family’s religion is; marriage between people of different religions is still limited; and when people of different religions do marry the result is often that one of them leaves her religion behind. He also affirmed what I had thought about this cultural vs. spiritual view of religion, saying that many Albanians today are religious “in their heads, not their hearts.”

I’m hoping to set up this type of interview with other religious leaders while I’m in Albania, so that by the end of my Fulbright grant I’ve had the chance to discuss Albanian identity and religion with students, with religious leaders, and with historians. This morning’s meeting was a great way to start things off. Also, next time I go to Elbasan (or anywhere else in Albania or Macedonia) I’ll take some photos to include with the blog. My excuse for not doing so today is that my nose was running, I wanted to take a nap, and there was a furgon just about to leave for Tirana when I finished my meeting.

Kosova!

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As another former Macedonia PCV has suggested in all her posts referencing Kosovo (first in the “Doughnut tour” of the Balkans, looping around Kosovo, then in her visit to the “Doughnut hole” itself), this Albanian state has a real allure for my group of volunteers. Until a few months ago Peace Corps Volunteers weren’t allowed to travel to Kosovo because of security concerns. By the time the travel ban was lifted I was in my last three months of service and not allowed to leave Macedonia, meaning that my years of promises to friends that I would visit Prishtina (Kosovo’s capital, where many of them went to university) with them were for naught.

Finally, though, I hit up Kosovo on an impromptu tour. Monday and Tuesday were Albanian holidays (Independence Day and Liberation Day), making it a pretty easy decision to drop all my vague weekend plans (reading, sending emails, drinking some coffees, reading some more) in favor of getting the 4 p.m. bus to Peja. We landed in Peja late Saturday night and on Sunday explored the town – drinking Peja beer (of course), learning the different types of Peja that are available (big bottle, small bottle, grapefruit flavor, and non-alcoholic/zero calorie/pineapple flavor), and taking photos of the Albanian flags in nearly every store window. Because we were there on a Sunday of a holiday weekend there wasn’t much going on; stores were closed, and we couldn’t tour the beer factory because it too was closed. It was nice to be out of Tirana, though, and to discover that Kosovo, like Macedonia, is a whole lot colder than Tirana, and very into displaying the double-headed eagle of the Albanian flag. (Fun fact: From 1969 until Kosov adopted its new flag in 2008, Kosovar Albanians flew the Albanian flag as their national flag.)

Monday morning we caught a bus to Kosovo’s capital, Prishtina, where there was a street fair and music. At night they had programs celebrating Independence Day, Dita e Pavarësisë. Again, interesting and fun to see Albanian nationalism at play in a country bordering Albania; in some ways, Kosovo made me feel more at home than Albania does, in that it looks (in number of Albanian flags if nothing else) a little more like the part of Macedonia I lived in.

On Tuesday I caught the 4am bus back to Tirana, arriving just in time to spend the rest of the day laying on my sofa sleeping. As Katie wrote, Kosovo doesn’t feel particularly exotic to me after two years living in an Albanian town in Macedonia, but it was nice to finally pay the country a visit – even more so to see it as it celebrated such major Albanian holidays.

Work From Home

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One of the things I liked most about the Peace Corps was that it is a largely self-directed experience. There is an office in the capital full of people there to train you in the culture, the language, your job, but once you get to site you’re on your own and no number of phone calls to Peace Corps staff is going to get your job done for you. The projects I worked on that succeeded worked mostly thanks to my hardheadedness and willingness to keep testing out new things with my co-workers and students until I found something we could get behind. (I think the best result of this was the regional spelling bee we worked on last year. Awful as it was at the time – doing spelling bees for a month drained me like I still can’t believe – I almost wish I could go back and do the project again.)

Fulbright, I’m finally realizing, is the same way. Because I’m here on a research Fulbright rather than an English teaching one or on a project being run by a host country organization, the results of these nine months depend mostly on my willingness to get off my ass and push myself to network, which isn’t the most natural thing for me to do. It’s also not unlike Peace Corps in that my “office” is my sofa; I’ve got to do most of my research and planning from home, something that feels oddly reminiscent of all the nights I spent making materials for classes while watching doofy romantic comedies.

I’ve met a couple people this week I’m very excited to work with in the coming months – one who is an English professor and runs a nonprofit organization, the English Language Teachers’ Association (ELTA), and one who is a history professor at one of the universities here in Tirana. I’ve started to plan the first big leg of my research project, a quick run through the major Albanian towns of Macedonia to run discussion groups on Albanian national identity with Albanian high school and university students. I’m hoping to get this trip in before the winter break begins, and then to follow up with similar discussion groups within Albania after the break.

I feel like I’m starting to get a clearer sense of my role here as a Fulbright grantee, after a few weeks of struggling with the need to shift the way I identify myself and the reason for my work here. Spending nine months working on a research project doesn’t lend the sort of results that my work in the Peace Corps did; just a couple weeks ago, I found myself lost for words when a volunteer here in Albania asked me what the point of my work was. I can’t say that my research project has some obvious benefits, like my work in the Peace Corps did – you know, I’m not going to be working with any teachers to come up with new ideas for the classroom, I’m not going to be running after-school programs to “make kids love school” (which was always my goal while I worked in Debar – I guess I am still an idealist, a little bit), and because I live in Albania’s capital I’m not getting the same feel for the culture that I did while I was living in Debar. This Fulbright project may be valuable in a different way, something that speaking with the history professor helped me see. If nothing else, I have the opportunity to discuss some questions of culture and nationalism that students don’t often have an opportunity to discuss, and a chance to get a different view of Albanian culture than I had while drinking coffee with my co-workers and friends for the past two years in Debar.

In Praise of the Furgon

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Photo stolen from Tend to Travel - click on the pic to see more

Combi: mini-bus (Macedonia)
Furgon: mini-bus (Albania)

I don’t know what it is about the act of traveling that seems so interesting, but in Macedonia, and in Albania, it’s always what I find myself wanting to talk about. When I was living in Debar my interest in travel had something to do, I think, with the level of trust I had in my combi drivers; I could count the number of drivers on one hand, I often decided what time to leave Debar based on what driver I felt like going with (at 7am the friendliest driver, at 10.30 the one who would drop me right in front of the Peace Corps office), and I got to wave to them as I walked around town. When one of the men who’d driven a combi for my first year began working at the school as a phys ed teacher, you should have seen our faces: “Hey, remember me? I used to drive you to Skopje?!” “Of course I do!”

I’m still surprised by the level of affection I felt for my combi drivers, and for combis in general. I was a little upset when I moved to site and realized I wouldn’t be riding on buses (they seemed to signal civilization for me – a big population), but over two years that shifted until I felt uncomfortable on buses, like I couldn’t lean over the driver’s shoulder and ask a question or tell him to drop me off at a specific street. Living in Tirana, now, there’s no chance that I’m going to have any relationship with my furgon drivers – there are way too many of them for that – but I’m feeling the same sort of affection for this goofy and inefficient system of transport.

When I head to Elbasan, which I’ve been doing about once a week, I walk over to a street near the Conad supermarket (the good Italian store; or the expensive Italian store) where a line of furgons sit. Most of the drivers stand outside yelling, “Elbasani! Elbasani!” to try and attract riders, and when they get one they latch on and guide them to their furgon. One time a driver signaled for me to get in a different driver’s furgon, but there’s generally no cooperation among the drivers; they’re trying to fill up their furgon (eight or nine seats) as fast as they can, which means that you often end up with three or four furgons each with a few passengers. Sometimes when the furgon is near full the driver will hop in and drive around the block tooting his horn, attempting to attract more passengers…only to pull back up to the line of furgons and see three passengers being helped into an empty furgon. I want to say that furgon drivers need a union, but they need protection from themselves more than anyone else – someone who can get them to fill up one furgon at a time and work in an orderly system that won’t leave passengers sitting in the furgon for forty minutes before leaving town, or attempting to scramble out, unseen, to go to a furgon with a driver who’s done a better job of advertising.

The pleasures of the furgon ride are similar to the pleasures of a combi ride out of Debar: the driver handing plastic bags back for people to vomit into, pulling to the side of the road for formal vomit breaks, me staring out the window trying not to sympathy vomit, listening to Albanian pop music (the regional equivalent to turbofolk, though frankly more bearable), and trying to avoid hitting livestock grazing along the road.

When I was preparing to move to Tirana the sight of the furgon “schedule” terrified me. Every furgon leaves from a different place, and the list of street names is incomprehensible to someone who isn’t familiar with Tirana; but the idea of looking at license plates to determine where a furgon is headed, and walking up and down a line of furgons to find the one with the most passengers, now feels both manageable and somehow correct. I’m not about to claim that the four-hour ride (at roughly twenty miles an hour) from Maqellarë to Tirana is a barrel of laughs, but there is something comforting about stumbling off a furgon with your fellow naseuated passengers, digging through your purse to find correct change to pay for the ride. It feels a lot like stumbling off the combi in Debar, next to the statue of fat Skenderbeg, like a piece of home in the big city.

More money, more problems: or, Life as a Fulbright

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When I told my co-workers at my school in Debar that I was moving to Tirana after I finished my Peace Corps service they all joked that I would soon speak cleaner Albanian than they do. This seemed funny at the time (a) because of course I’ll never speak better literature Albanian than they do and (b) because despite my occasionally voiced reservations about how far my Dibranchi would take me in Albania, I was pretty sure that the Albanian would be mostly the same. After two weeks I’m starting to realize there might be something to their jokes, since I keep finding words we used in Debar that mean nothing here (as when I asked how much a “complete trainerka” [tracksuit] cost, to be met with a blank stare – here they’re called “sports costumes,” or something) and am met with the oddest looks when my Debar-style pronunciation slips out. (I don’t know how to describe the differences in pronunciation, other than that in Debar Albanian is spoken with a more rounded, open mouth – sort of dropping the bottom out of your mouth – and is more nasal, and some letters we pronounce differently, so that my Dibranchi “two” sounds like “know” here.)

When I came in to Tirana the city felt overwhelming, way too big for me to ever be able to navigate. Every time someone tried giving me directions I felt kind of weepy: “Meet at the park? WHAT park? Just tell me what direction to turn when I leave my apartment.” It’s not such a big city as it felt at first, though, and I’m starting to find my way around and explore some of the areas outside the “Bllok”, this very hip area of bars, restaurants, coffee shops, and shoe stores that’s near the center of the city.

As far as work goes, there’s not much happening. I’m beginning to understand how so many Fulbrights land in their countries and spend nine months traveling and drinking rather than working on their projects. If I didn’t know any Albanian I’d be completely lost right now, and as it is I worry that the things I picked up in Macedonia (doing everything slowly, putting my foot down when I’m unhappy in a situation [as in the great library grant debacle]) aren’t going to help me when people are expecting to face someone straight out of America, overflowing with that can-do attitude.

For as many problems as I think there are in the Peace Corps bureaucracy, the organization does some things – in teaching volunteers the local languages and cultures, in helping them to form connections with their host families during training, in providing them (at least the English teachers) with clear job descriptions – very well, which Fulbright doesn’t begin to address. After two weeks I’m still bumming around Tirana, slowly adding people to my contacts list and meeting for coffees and lunches; I won’t have my first meeting with someone from the history department of the University of Tirana until next week, and my secondary job as an English professor in the university in Elbasan is faltering, owing I think to poor communication on all sides. (That said, the English professor thing is looking better now – more on that later.)

Even with what feels like two weeks of setbacks, though, there are some good things happening now. Since I’m only a little over four hours from Debar, I was able to visit my host family there for Bajram. After my somewhat disheartening first week in Tirana, it was nice to go back to a place that’s so familiar and spend a night eating baklava, talking with my host mother, and playing with A. And my list of contacts in Tirana is expanding; I can see that little as is going on right now, learning to network (after this you know what I’ll be googling) may lead me in some good directions a few months from now. I’ve found oatmeal and peanut butter and Heinz ketchup and pine nuts and (this last should be followed with roughly 100000000000 exclamation points) not just mozzarella and parmesan but grano padano, ie The Best Cheese Ever. So even if I’m not doing much right now, at least I’m eating well.