Getting Lost in Rome

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Oh, man. I am really bad at writing blogs now. About a month ago I promised my mother that I would write something here, and there are things to write about (mostly about rain, and what Albanian gyms are like, and spending two weeks hunting Tirana for basmati rice [I am spoiled, but also the rice suddenly vanished off the shelves of my favorite grocery stores (it’s back now)]), but I’m actually supposed to be posting pictures from my trip to Rome.

So! After firmly declaring that I was going to spend my third Christmas/New Year’s in the Balkans, my parents said I could come home, I booked a ticket, and a week later was sitting in South Jersey eating tater tots and fake chicken nuggets. Life was good: for Christmas we went to see Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (for the first hour every gray-haired sixty-ish man looked the same to me, making it hard to follow the plot) and eat Indian food; I went to the library and read new books I thought I’d have to wait six more months for (Zone One, The Marriage Plot, and also an old book – The Blind Assassin); I went to New York and nearly cried because the city was too big, and also got on subways going in the wrong direction a couple times; I bought a bunch of shoes, since neither Albanian nor Macedonian shoe stores cater to the giant-footed; and I ate a lot of baby Reese’s cups.

After all this exciting stuff I got on another plane, headed for Rome. I stopped in Rome mostly as a matter of convenience, because last time I was flying out of the States I kept getting interrogated about whether I was allowed to enter Macedonia. (When you are going to a country no one has ever heard of, they won’t believe you when you present your Macedonian identity card and say that, no, you don’t need a visa because you have THIS CARD SAYING I DON’T NEED A VISA.) I was still waiting on my Albanian residency permit (which now that I’ve picked it up, wouldn’t have helped matters – it’s just a sheet of paper, and while an Albanian would understand that it says I can live here through December 24, 2012 [yeah! only, I am not staying that long], a USAir employee couldn’t) and it seemed easiest to play this little trick and spend a few days wandering around Rome.

Rome is, if you’re wondering, a great city for those of us with no sense of direction. Each evening I carefully plotted my course for the next day, drawing my walking routes from one attraction to the next, and each morning I would set off only to be utterly and completely lost within the hour. Even these tiny roads are scenic and worth walking along, though, and when I stopped panicking about finding the Trevi Fountain or some highly praised pizzeria or gelatario, I was able to enjoy my six hours a day of aimlessly wandering the streets of Rome. After two and a half years of living in places that are beautiful and welcoming but that don’t have many “touristic places,” it was strange/wonderful to walk down streets that hadn’t even been mentioned in my guidebook but offered sights like ornate fountains set into the corners of buildings, and little piazzas with more fountains and statues, and beautiful churches. I never found the pizzeria I was searching for, but while on the hunt I stumbled into a different pizzeria filled with a crush of people, and picked up a slice with tomato and mozzarella that I am still dreaming about. And yeah, after I did that (the second time) I may have gotten completely lost and wound up standing next to the river across from the Vatican, when I had intended on walking in the other direction (I had just come from the Vatican), but everything seemed to work itself out once I had a piece of pizza or a gelato in hand.

I’m not a great travel writer – apologies – but it seems worth noting that I found a little Skanderbeg Square in Rome, just by the Trevi Fountain. If you have ever read my blog before, you’ll remember that Skanderbeg is the Albanian hero, and that Debar had a statue of Fat Skanderbeg in the town center. Other things:

  • the Vatican Museum. When the guidebook says to buy your tickets in advance it means, really, buy your tickets in advance. To avoid the two-hour line to enter I joined an overpriced group tour, and after that ended spent the day wandering the museum. The Vatican has really figured out this museum racket, so I would like to now offer this guide to museum curators/fundraisers who aren’t too concerned in the quality of their visitors’ experience: instead of labeling exhibits, set up little bookshops throughout the museum, where visitors can spend 13 euros to buy a book describing the artwork. This totally works. It got me, though I clearly still harbor some resentment.
  • The Trevi Fountain, beautiful but would be more beautiful if it were not constantly surrounded by two thousand sweaty tourists straining to take photos without dropping their gelato.
  • There are many, many restaurants in Rome serving bad Italian food. I guess this is what happens when you don’t have to worry about creating repeat customers?
  • The gelato!
  • Best thing I saw: The Capuchin Crypt, by far. At one euro this was one of the cheapest places I went, a crypt decorated with monks’ bones. Very, very cool.
  • Rome, like Philadelphia, has a subway system with exactly two lines.
  • St. Peter’s Basilica, beautiful. I first tried to go after visiting the Vatican Museum, in mid-afternoon, but the line looked a few hours long. Went back around 8 or 9 am the next morning and walked right in. This is a nice place to have to yourself, if you can manage it. Also, how much money went into the Basilica? (That this was my overarching concern as I walked around is further proof, as if we needed any, of my non-religious mindset.)
  • After walking around this very cool museum near my hostel (about one block from Termini Station – both the hostel and the museum, I mean), admiring all the old-timey statues, I realized that I needed to join a gym.

So, that was my visit to Rome! Toss in a couple of unsatisfying bouts with overcooked penne, my subsequent visits to The Schwarma Stand for falafel sandwiches (I am that person who went to Rome and ate non-Italian food…sorry), trying not to think about what was clogging the hostel’s shower drains, and my fury that Italians, unlike Albanians and Macedonians, won’t allow you to get a macchiato in a big cup (if you ask they will give you an Americano…at least they will if you’re American), and you’ve got the complete picture. It was a nice four days, but it was maybe slightly nicer to return to Tirana, where I immediately* went out for a lunch that cost, like, three dollars.

* Explanation: I accidentally turned off my refrigerator before leaving for the trip.

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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.

COS, Fulbright, Being Awkward

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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.