Tag Archives: culture

Abs of Steel, Albania Style


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.


I miss….the forty-hour week


Here in Macedonia, I don’t work a forty-hour work week. I don’t work anywhere close to a forty-hour work week. Even when I’m going in to school early to goof around making lesson materials on my laptop or organizing library books, or staying late to run English clubs, I top out at about twenty-five hours. A more typical week is fifteen to twenty hours, and a week like this one – when I’m sick, but unaccountably so (ie, I tell people I’m sick, but it’s not like it makes a real difference – I don’t have to request the time as sick leave or produce a doctor’s note, I just have to lay on my sofa watching Judd Apatow movies and napping) – I’ll probably end up working ten or eleven hours.

Growing up, I gave my parents a lot of grief about their jobs because the one thing I was sure of was that I was never going to work a forty-hour week. I was never going to work in an office. Instead, I was going to be a writer, which on the best days means staring at a wall tapping a pen against a notepad, or sitting in front of a laptop with a blank Word document open behind some celebrity gossip sites. Still an appealing image, but what the style of work here in Macedonia has helped me realize is:

I want the forty-hour work week.

A few months ago I was in one of the cities here, Tetovo, and another volunteer asked what hours we’d prefer, without amendments like “…if it’s a job I love” or “…if I hate the job.” Flat-out, forty hours a week or fifteen? And we all chose forty, which surprised me for a minute, until it didn’t because – that’s what we’ve been raised with. Work is so central to who we are, to how we define ourselves and structure our days, in America, that to not work forty hours a week is almost crippling.

Exhibit A: When I was a senior at Rutgers I loaded my schedule with as much stuff as I could. I don’t remember why exactly I did this anymore – I think it started around July or August because I was bored and watching Law & Order all day and came to realize that wasn’t healthy – but I signed up to work maximum hours at the campus tutoring center, 15 hours a week, picked up a job at a branch of the campus bookstore, 9 to 15 hours a week, on top of a 12-credit thesis, two seminars, a graduate English course, and five other assorted classes. I have no idea how much coffee I drank that year, I have no idea how I managed to wake up and get out the door at 9 a.m. for my first tutoring session of the day, go for twelve hours, and then go to the library when I finished work and class at 9 p.m. But I did it, I got everything done on time, I improved my GPA, I still managed to drink beer occasionally (sometimes while writing papers and sitting on my bed, whatever) and I felt like I had a direction, at least till May when jobs and classes wound down and I realized I had no idea what I was going to do with the rest of my life.

Exhibit B: The regional spelling bee I ran with another volunteer in November and December was, truly, one of the most miserable and tiring periods of my life, and I remain convinced that it’s what crushed my immune system and led to me getting a wacky lesion in my esophogaus, the flu two times, and countless colds and respiratory infections this winter. But when we were running semi-finals we were busy for full American-style workdays, if not longer, with barely the energy to make dinner or turn on a movie or keep our eyes open at the end of the day. When the bee was over I had no idea what to do with myself and the expanses of free time I had and I almost missed being yelled at by the parents and teachers of crying students all over the west side of Macedonia.

Exhibit C: Last summer I didn’t have any work. Apart from a trip to Greece, Camp GLOW, a visit from my parents, and my host sister’s wedding (which we’ll generously call in at one month) I didn’t have anything to do or anywhere to go, with the result that I did things like: eat Pop Keks instead of meals; read five young adult novels in one day; watch the entire first season of Glee in a few days; kill my internet bandwidth in the first week of a month; nap; walk to the prodav to buy a bottle of mineral water; confirm that my local friends were all still on vacation; lay on the floor while my host sisters played on my computer; read John Grisham novels; nap. It was miserable, and now that I think of it that’s probably what this summer is going to look like, only minus Camp GLOW, the wedding, and the visit from my parents.

I’m not saying that I love the forty-hour work week or the way that we Americans tend to center our lives on work, but I am starting to realize that there are some cultural differences I’ll never be able to get over. As shocked as my counterparts at the school are when I tell them that I worked forty hours a week at the job I held before coming here, I’m shocked that they consider a fifteen-hour week a workweek. If I had children and husbands to take care of like most of them do, I’d probably embrace the shorter workweek, but as it is I miss having somewhere to be from 8 to 5 everyday. As my dad observed when we spoke recently, what I disliked about the office job I held in Philly wasn’t that I was working regular hours or in an office; it was that I didn’t have enough work to do and was bored all day. The best weeks of that job came after I gave my notice and had to spend all day running around tying everything up, because for the first time I didn’t have any free time.

Peace Corps is about adjusting to another culture, of course, and part of that is in adjusting to the very different styles of work in other countries; but I think it’s also about finding ways to incorporate comfortable degrees of your own culture into your daily life. When I’m working the same hours as my counterparts (15 hours) I get lazier and lazier, until it’s a miracle if I even get outside to see my family; but if I put in more hours, find excuses to head in to school and spend five or six hours there goofing off or running extra lessons, I’m a lot happier and more likely to visit with my friends and neighbors after work. What I’ve got to do now is find a way to keep that sense of “doing stuff” going through the summer.