Tag Archives: fulbright

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.

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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.

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.

10 More Days?

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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

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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.