Tag 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

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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.

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.