Category Archives: Fulbright

Reading, Conferences, Going Home, and Things


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...


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.


Interreligious dialogue in Albania


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.

Work From Home


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.

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


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.

COS, Fulbright, Being Awkward


Oh man! I am really lazy when it comes to updating the world (mom, dad) on my Thrilling Adventures. As you may have surmised – and that’s the wrong word to use, because anyone who might be thinking about this has been speaking to me, and doesn’t have to make guesses – I’ve COSed, I am no longer a Peace Corps Volunteer, and I am in Albania starting Fulbright.

For COS volunteers have to go into Skopje for a few days. Peace Corps staff spent a lot of time “encouraging” us to schedule meetings and appointments before our actual COS date, so that by the time I arrived in Skopje I had maybe three hours of paperwork-ing and meeting-ing and two days of “I got a TB test and now I have to wait for the results.” Once I finished everything on Thursday, though, I took the kombi back to Debar for a final coffee with one of my friends, some time with Ava, dinner with my family, and some frantic last-minute packing and cleaning.

Friday morning I finished the cleaning and called up the taxi company. My travel down to Tirana reminded me of a lot of the things I’ve loved about Debar – the relationships I have with all the people who provide me with the basic services I use every day. My favorite taxi driver showed up and told me he had taken the fare because he realized it was me, his friend (my heart melted right then), talked up my work to the border police (who then wanted to know if I was of Albanian origin – touching his cheekbones to suggest, I don’t know, that I have Albanian cheekbones?), and put me on a furgon (see: kombi) that passed us just before we entered Maqellare.

I spent my ride south wedged between two older Albanian women who kept trying to feed me and give me gum, the grandma patting me on the leg every time I said something and donating part of her lap blanket to me. The furgon dropped us on the street and I took a taxi to the apartment of one of the other Fulbrighters. I was pretty happy because the driver told me his family was from the Dibër region of Albania (so, close to my Dibër) but I think sounded like an idiot to him – just stared out the window going, “Whoaaa! Kam qenë këtu një herë, por unë harrova sa i madh Tirana është! Whooaaaa! Sa makina ka! Whoaaa! Sa njerëz!” (This all translates to a bunch of pointless gushing about the number of people and cars in the city.)

I’ve spent the past two nights on a Fulbright sofa, but found my own apartment today and am planning to move my things over tomorrow. Being in Tirana, so far, feels like being on vacation. After my fantastic trip down, I’ve hardly spoken any Albanian; the second you walk into a store or restaurant, people speak English. The food is fantastic (all similar to what I got in Macedonia) but I can’t handle eating out anymore; I may be on a Fulbright budget now, but I still remember my Peace Corps one. It’s a great city for walking but I have no sense of direction here and keep finding myself thinking, “I wish I were in Skopje.” I’m finding it awkward, too, to negotiate host family things; I spoke on the phone with A. today, and she invited me back for Bajram. Of course I said yes – there’s no way to say no to a six-year-old who won’t talk about anything but you visiting – but the thought of figuring out a new relationship with my family is horrifying. (This would be easier except that a trip up there also means a night spent up there – and the only place I can stay is their house.) As much as I thought it would be a good thing to ease out of Macedonia by being in Tirana, I worry that not having a clean break from my life in Debar will just end up being awkward.

What everyone keeps saying, probably correctly, is that Tirana is a sort of halfway house between Debar and America. A big city, but not as big as the one I’ll live in in the States; an expensive city, but not as expensive as the one I’ll live in in the States.

10 More Days?


Next Friday I’m going to be a kombi on my way to Tirana, only I’m going to be a Fulbright student instead of a Peace Corps Volunteer and I’m going to be calling the kombi a “furgon,” since that’s how things go in the Shqipëri. I’ve been trying and failing for about a week to sum up how I feel about this; everything decent I manage to write gets lost in my word vomit about how I’m going to miss my host sister. She is an invaluable baking assistant (actually, I may be her assistant now; my job is to stand by her side handing her ingredients as needed), has learned the complete lyrics to “Always” by Erasure by playing Robot Attack Unicorn, but also cries for a full day every time I leave Debar.

Compounding the weirdness of leaving my home for two years, last Friday I traveled to Kumanovo to speak on a panel at a hub day for the MAK16s, the new group of trainees. There are four or five hub days during training. Every other week the trainees meet at a hotel in Kumanovo for a day of meetings and lectures and, as I remember it, struggling to stay awake until being let loose for beer and dinner. (Admirably, only two trainees fell asleep during my panel.) I went to a hub day last year, too, but walking into the hotel on Friday was weird; suddenly it hit me that I had two weeks left and that, especially in the eyes of someone who arrived in Macedonia a month ago, I’m out of here.

In some sense, I feel like I’m not in such a different position than the trainees. In a couple weeks I’ll be starting at a new job, settling into a new apartment, trying to set up internet and phone plans, and I don’t know what any of these things are going to look like. Although there are certain things I’m ready to leave behind, like waking up in the middle of the night because a mouse has run over a glue trap and I need to finish the job so it will quit its squealing, I don’t want to leave all my kombi drivers or my “impressive” mental map of Macedonia* or skilled juggling of three languages.** It took me a while to figure my way out around Macedonia, and the Fulbright is looking awfully short to me – only nine months to ingratiate myself to a new set of kombi furgon drivers and local prodav dyqan owners? How’s that gonna work?

* On this map: my house, the Peace Corps office, the falafel restaurant in Skopje, the Mexican restaurant in Skopje, the good grocery store in Skopje, most bus stations west of Skopje.

** To wit, I don’t know English, Macedonian, or Albanian very well at this point, and will speak a garbled mashup of the three whenever given the opportunity: “A mundët të stop kaj студенски дома? Ej, фала!”

My Fulbright-y Future

My Fulbright-y Future

Back in October I applied for a Fulbright grant to study in Albania. Ever since, I have been dreading learning that I maybe actually got the grant. I don’t want to say I’m ready to leave the region because that just doesn’t sound good – but I have felt this winter and spring that Macedonia has beaten me.

Last week I checked my email after a long day of spelling bee semi-finals to find a message from a woman from Fulbright asking me to give her a call. I applied for a dual-country grant, and when I spoke with her learned that Macedonia rejected my grant (to study Albanian culture – so, maybe I should have expected that) but Albania still wanted to award me the grant. My initial reaction, something like, “Why is my life so unfair? Why did I have to win this grant? Why me? I want to go back to America and eat a burrito a day for the rest of my life” faded over the weekend, though, and I started to feel – I guess happy, a lot happier than I have been here recently. Things turned for me when I looked up photos of Elbasan and realized that (a) Elbasan is a city and (b) it’s a pretty city and (c) if I live in a city I’ll have a lot more privacy and draw a lot less attention than I do now.

After lobbing a healthy number of questions at the organization, I’ve accepted the grant. After I finish my service in Macedonia in October I’ll be heading straight over the border to Albania, where I’ll be studying and doing my research in either Tirana or Elbasan. I’m excited, and I also feel more present here in Macedonia than I have for a while. Knowing that I’m going to be in the region for a third year, I feel inspired again to study Albanian; tomorrow I have my first language lesson in months, and I’ve been finding myself doing nearly-forgotten things like downloading Albanian subtitles for movies and reading the newspaper, Koha.

Another advantage of the Fulbright? I’ll be taking the rest of my vacation days to visit America this summer. I am already making lists of all the foods I am going to eat and things I am going to do. I can’t wait.

What I’ve got so far:

* eat a giant cookie from Reading Terminal
* go to a Phillies game
* get a beer and veggie burger from Nodding Head
* go to a grocery store
* eat edamame
* buy a burrito on my way home from the airport
* ride my bike
* go to one of those Indian restaurants (I’ve forgotten their names now) in Old City
* get my teeth cleaned

Smiles, smiles, smiles.