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
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.
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.