Sunday, April 19, 2015

April 19 - Community Project, Preso's, Language Adventure,Baby Goats


It's Sunday at the "gas station café" and time to blog a bit.  It's been an action-packed week, of course with the usual language training and regular Friday sector training, safety and security sessions, AND we did our Community Project and Language Simulation Stations (more on that later) AND our team cooked dinner for our village mate's 58th Bday.  Needless to say, it's our one "relax" day and we are all very tired but completely filled with joy and gratitude that we made it through another week! 

We remind ourselves we are here to help others and that at the end of the day, it's not about us, but how we can help this gorgeous, welcoming, culturally deep, and "developing" country.  We have such a range of ages in our large group of 54 "trainees." (we get sworn in as volunteers in less than a month). The "yungins" definitely have the energy to both study those extra two hours a day AND enjoy beers AND play sports, etc. As one continues to evolve, it becomes about balance and being present to each moment.  It's all good and such a wonderful experience to get to reflect on the different stages in life and see one's own life through the lens of someone experiencing things for the first time (this must be what it's like to have kids :-) - and I'm old enough to be the parent of many of in our group!

Quick review on this week, I was down for 2 days with the cold/flu that has been rampant in my village and among our group for weeks.  My village mate, Mitesh was an angel and rode a bike to the pharmacy in the next town to get  the meds prescribed by the PC Medical Office (great service by phone)!  Everyone in my household was hacking and stuffy and it was an interesting feeling to realize that I had medicine and they did not (can't share nasal sprays :-)).  Each day brings a new reminder of how much we have and what we don't think twice about (the access to medical services, how to limit the spread of germs <every one eats out of the same salad bowl with their own forks>, and the choice to rest versus having to work 12 hours on the farm...

Enough perspective... now for pure productivity... We did our Community Project this week. Our small group of 5 in Bishqem decided we wanted to keep it simple (the real goal was to both do something to have a cultural exchange along with exposure of what it takes to get something accomplished within the Albanian structures). We have a grade school right next to the health center (which houses our freezing language room).  We arranged to do a small break out session with the 3rd/4th grade and teach them a song/s that would hopefully inspire them to learn more English. 

We created posters and then led them in the standard "Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes" song and dance.  After several rounds of that, we led them in the Hokey Pokey.  They were so cute and were in a big circle and we started off all holding hands.  They laughed, participated with some initial hesitancy and high-fived us as we finished.  We got great feedback and we felt we had success over all. Mostly, we were silly and got to feel the smiles of their darling faces. (I will provide photos later as my village mate, Jackie, took all the photos and video and I need to get it from her).

We also had our language Simulation Stations Day in Elbasan (the larger city). We had an assignment sheet and walked around the city in smaller groups of 7-8 and had to engage, speaking Shqip (Albanian).  We met with kids at a music school and then a high school.  We went to an open market and then the castle.  We had specific questions we were encouraged to ask and then document.  At the end of it all, we stood up as a group and presented our results or told the story of the conversations (which included the simple/difficult task of asking for directions - LOL - I barely understood the person I asked)!  I had success at the market and was able to ask what the word for zucchini is in Shqip (kungull) and then ask for the price and then buy some!!! I may survive in this country on my own, yet!!!

Great news - the sun was shining this week and I think spring is really here!  Things are blooming, the grass and fields sparkle and new life is seen everywhere in the village.  Baby chicks are being born daily.  And for my host family, the Mecja's, 2 baby goats were born.  It brought tears to my eyes to see these 2 darling babies.  Their hair is so soft and I was shocked at how big they seemed (unfortunately they were born during the day while I was at school).  My host mom, Nyshi, delivered them with no help from a vet or anything!  WOW! (her husband is in Greece working).  My village mates came to look and touch these baby goats - it made all our daily challenges melt away!!  I hope the video will attach and you will get to see a little of what I saw this week.

We also did short preso's (presentations/"preso" is a word I learned at Tellme and I just love using it!) for demonstrating and practicing our facilitation and training skills as we will all be doing this in our assignments.  We were supposed to talk about something we could teach others and we only had 10 minutes.  PC has a format and learning process they want us to follow, so we had guidelines to utilize. I did my "preso" on "Quick Tips for an Effective Group Meeting." I had a few short slides (PowerPoint meets Albania)!! What was super cool was the person right before me is a bit of a yogi and he taught us how to do "alternate nostril breathing" technique for stress reduction.  This was perfect as where our group presented, the office was up the  "fun" 4 flights of stairs... Great way to slow down heart rate and depleted lungs!!! (Note: my yoga teacher taught me this several years ago and we had practiced it last year at chant camp but I had forgotten about it).  I think it could be useful in my first meeting with some high level Bashkia official!! :-)

This week ended on a high note with our dinner party for Megan's birthday.  We shopped in Elbasan and cooked it at her host family's house.  We made chili (Albanian style) and an "American salad, Debbie style)/lots of chopped items.  We found avocados and it was so fantastic to have it in the salad.  We played music, danced and spoke "Shqiplish!"- which is broken Shqip (Albanian) and English mixed in (which is how I speak mostly at this stage)!! Lots of fun was had by all and since it was next door to my house, there were no issues with staying out past dark.  When I did get home the door was locked and I had a short moment of "oh, no" but Nyshi leaned over the balcony and told me "the door is open" (in Shqip, of course) and I said "no, it's not" - it turned out it was locked! We had a good laugh and soon I was back in my cozy "burrito" bed... AND WOO HOO - the first night without the orange sweatshirt and other layers!!! I guess spring, really is here!  (I'm still a bit hesitant about sleeping without my "Darn Tough" socks but tonight I think I will give it a whirl)!!!

Okay, my precious circle... I must sign off and will load photos later.  I hope you are all doing well.  And thank you for sending the detailed notes and emails, they warm my heart and remind me of why I am doing this - for Albania, for all of us and as the next step in Debbie's life journey.  And thank you to Ann, Maureen, Steph T, Patty, Sue Fialer for sending actual cards!!! I cried!  It takes 3-4 weeks for mail to arrive FYI

We find out on Friday where our permanent site assignments will be... so much buzz is happening around it for many and on Friday, we were reminded (and coached) that we all signed a contract to serve wherever, under hardship, if necessary AND to not get caught up in "at the beach, in a city, with a BFF, or somewhere not cold LOL - COLD is not considered a hardship :-)) - It was really good for many to hear this and remember why they joined the Peace Corps.  All along, I've said, I will go where asked.  It will be exciting to hear and know where "home" will be soon.  Keep you all posted.

xoxo  :-)



Sunday, April 12, 2015

End of Week 4!!!

Sitting in our favorite "gas station, café, bar and supermarket" - using wifi ("Wee-fee in Shqip/Albanian")... We try to get here at least 1-2x per week, have a boronce tea or bodin (bottle) of uje (water).  I, of course, am emailing you all (now trying to become savvy on blog posting) downloading some mindless TV programs to clear my brain for a few moments, and soaking up some local culture...

Our usual "language and then COD (Community and Organizational Development) training was shortened because of our site visits to existing volunteers.  I'm still reveling in the beautiful castle I walked up to and all around... I was incorrect in telling you that it was 15th Century - parts of it were but it was originally build 400BC!!! It has tunnels as a way to get down to the city to secretly get provisions when they were under siege and running out of water and food! It was a great way to get in some culture and exercise.  When we were at the very top, we could hear a Muslim chant from way down below.

This shortened week we had some people come to speak with us again. This time it was a Director from the Ministry of Urban Development. He gave us an overview of the history of "urbanism" and now what's called Urban Development.  He talked about all the challenges with property ownership (there was none during communism/45 years) and now all the housing that was built with no standards, lack of ownership rights, etc.  There are some big challenges ahead and minimal revenue generated by almost zero % property taxes and non-payment (still a lot to learn about that).  He also talked about all the tourism initiatives on the radar and all the planning, fund development, execution and follow-up that is targeted for the next 5 years.  Many PC volunteers will be assigned to some of these initiatives.  Not surprising, a lot of the focus is on the coastal/beach cities along with some historical sites. Two existing PC volunteers also presented and shared their challenges in the tourism space and advice on how to make an impact (even to showing people how to use basic Google). Often the volunteers become IT and power point trainers and even build mobile apps (I can't wait to see what new techie skill I develop while here! LOL)

I got my first Albanian cold (I'm almost the last person to catch it in our village and PC group).  Interestingly, not as bad as at home (phew)!  And I'm convinced all the oxygen sessions in the hyperbaric chamber definitely boosted my immune system :-)

I bought my first bottle of wine this week (and my host sister was home from university and made pizza that was divine).  It was a Syrah-Cab Sav from Macedonia and cost just under $5!!! The wild thing is that here they keep the open bottle of wine (with cork in) in the cupboard for weeks (hence why I thought it would be good to get a fresh bottle).  And we only drink a small glass or two (probably less that 1 CA glass!)!  We still have beer occasionally when we are in wifi, etc - it's mild and drinkable.  I still can't believe I'm having a glass of beer or two... MY how things change.

Crazy as it might sound, I've settled into the routine of 2 showers a week, the damp, damp cold and eating last night's leftover salad with my breakie of boiled egg, cucumber, tomato and fresh goat cheese... The evening meals are mostly Gjelle (stew/soup) with meat probably 2x per week. I get my salate gjeshille (green salad) every night!!! - that makes me so happy.  When I was in Kuchove, Kelsey made me a green drink one morning with her juicer - I can see one in my future, some day!

I hope you are all well... let me know your questions and I will do my best to answer them. In 2 weeks - we find out our permanent site assignments.  And then we have swearing in on May 11th.  We are all buzzing with potential excitement about where we will be serving for the next 2 years.

Pray for warm weather - we are ready!!!

PS - in the photos below - that was my bed in Kuchove (actually very comfy)! And that is a quintessential Albanian couple sightseeing at the castle...
I hope the uploaded video allows you to hear the Muslim chant in the background (listen in a quiet space)  - let me know if it worked - I'm still so new to all these tools!  (My blog consultant, Jo, is encouraging me to play around with everything and I'm being patient and "getting it!" - I'm so grateful she helped me get started!)

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

In Kuchove with Kelsey!

I just spent 3-1/2 days with Kelsey in Kuchove. She is just finishing up her first year as a volunteer in the COD (Community and Organizational Development- same as what sector I will be in).

It was such a nice break from intense language and meaty technical training. We visited the beautiful town of Berat and walked up a long, steep cobblestone street and path to a 15th century castle. If you do come to Albania - it's a must-see city with stunning mountains in the background.

More later as I have to catch my minibus back to Elbasan and then a furgon back to Bishqem - my first solo adventure!

Monday, April 6, 2015

Getting my blog started...

This is my first post so I can see how it works, etc.  First, I'm letting you know that my dear friend and creative genius, Jo Toscana (in photo!), helped set this up for me.  I got the required PC approval and can now start sharing!

It's been 3 weeks in Albania. Two weeks living with our host families. And 3 weeks of intense language, cultural, and technical training. (technical training is all about local government structure, upcoming elections, the project/program framework for Community and Organizational Development/COD, NGO's working in Albania, etc)

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Boot Camp for PEACE!

We "trainees" will have roughly 7 weeks of in depth training, 6 days a week, we find out our permanent site locations/assignment on April 24th, go to our sites for 5 weeks, then come back to our host family villages for another few weeks and then we are "sworn in" as PC volunteers and the 2 years begins from then (May 11th). The training is top notch and well thought out.  It's a balance between language and then very detailed sessions on gender norms/culture and safety and security.  It's super intense and there isn't much "down time." - it's not a bad thing for me as all the time off from working, I am energized and ready to work hard and learn a lot.

The Albanian language is one of the hardest Indo-European languages to learn - it has 36 letters and some of the combinations are so hard to pronounce like xh is "zha like jacket" and gj is juh with a hard g - we spend hours going through the alphabet and many activities to practice the sounds. The teachers are amazing and patient.  We even had class for 5 hours on Saturday!  I know it will eventually click for me and I will be able to have full on conversations.  I swear my brain is growing new capacity with this process!

Life with my host family
My family is so wonderful.  They are on a true farm and they have 3 kids. One is married and has a 2 year old and they live out at the coast.  The 20 year old daughter lives at home on the weekends and boards at University in Elbasan during the week.  The 16 year old boy spends most of his days (when not in school) at the café hanging with his friends and using wifi.

We eat very well.  Everything is fresh from the farm.  Daily breakfast for me is a half a Persian style cucumber, a fresh farm egg, a half a tomato and a small slice of fresh, homemade goat cheese from their goat, Lara. I've taken to drizzling local olive oil on it all to keep my skin good!  I drink lots of "chai mal" which is mountain herbal tea - love it.  AND I've had to delve in to espresso several times a week to stay awake in language class and I have found it makes me learn it better LOL

I am one of the lucky ones who has a real bed, many have a couch-bed.  I  have 4 layers of blankets and duvet plus my sleeping bag on the bottom and for the first 3 nights, I had 7 layers of my cotton clothing on plus a knit cap and gloves.  IT WAS DAMN DAMP COLD!!! I was not prepared and I can say it was definitely an adjustment.  I have now acclimated and I suspect it will be getting warm soon.

They only heat one room in the house - the kitchen.  It's a wood fire stove and most of the cooking is done on it.  We all hang out in the kitchen (with a small 14 inch "televisor" which is on most of the time with Albanian X Factor, Albanian BIg Brother and Albanian music videos...

My family has a great spirit and makes me feel totally welcome.  While I can't speak well yet, I use the dictionary and gesture a lot. I make them laugh with my attempts and they tell me "no problem." The Albanian culture encourages lots of food and "more" so I have to keep reminding them I am trying to get smaller, not bigger!!

Its a simple life and they seem very happy.  They work on the farm and the wife does all the cooking, cleaning and the men tend to get to go to the café and hangout drinking KAFE and smoking and/or drinking Raki.  My host dad is 46 and much more low key.  He works as an emigrant in Greece for part of the year and will be leaving soon.  Today, they went up to the hills to plant potatoes and onions.

When I arrived the big turkey and chickens were loose in the yard.  I still haven't figured out how they know to stay in their yard and not go to the next farm... Day 4 was a special Navruz celebration and woo hoo - turkey was in that night's soup... I cringed a bit and then dug in...

I'm getting salad every night which makes me so happy!! They even took the raw onions out since I wasn't eating them.

One of the initial challenges was adjusting to not showering every day.  Electricity is expensive for them, so we get.... 2 showers a week.  The 5 of us in this village discovered Baby Wipes at the supermarket and they are now our best friend!!

Today was laundry and now I have clean clothes - yay!!!

The women in the city and even in  the villages take pride in what they wear.  They may not have a lot of outfits, but they like to dress up and be stylish.  Clothes/shoes are often brought over from Italy - its kind of like a low-end Nordstrom's rack approach - still figuring that one out.

When we go into Elbasan for our HUB days, we take a "furgon" which is a mini van and it takes about 25 minutes.  You stand on the side of the road and they stop and pick you up.  Then we are dropped off at a central location and walk about 15 minutes to the Peace Corps office.  The rooms there are also not heated and we sit bundled up and sometimes dance around to stay warm.  And did I forget to mention the roughly 100 stairs we climb up to the training floor...??? Exercise is happening, for sure!!

There is a tremendous focus on the gender norms here.  As women, we have to be much more aware, look down on the street and don't really make eye contact with men in the city.  It's a bit different in the village/s- as most people know we are here/there.  

Once I am at my permanent location, it will be another adjustment to understand the customs and not become a target for theft or assault.  The PC does in depth sessions on security, safety and risk mitigation.   We are still learning what it really means and how to conduct ourselves in a way that is respectful and smart. I will say more about it once I have more experience.

What I can tell you is that I am so happy and blessed to be here.  I look forward to being able to really converse in Albanian and to ultimately have an assignment and make an impact.

We had our first round of "interviews" with the COD PC staff in Albania.  In my typical Debbie fashion, I got them talking about themselves and walked away feeling they get a sense of my potential contributions, etc.  I don't want to try and influence too heavily on what my assignment will be, I want to see what will unfold and then really dive into it.

I'm enjoying the range of ages of people in our group of 53.  There are several married couples - one in their late 20's, mid 40's and one in late 60's/early 70's?  I find myself connecting with most everyone. Everyone is adjusting in their own way...  I see the bonding happening and suspect some of these people will be lifetime connections.

Well - I'm almost out of time for the wifi café visit with my village mate, Mitesh (32 and from Campbell/Oakland).  We had a beer (yes, beside coffee, I'm imbibing in some beer)! and need to head back to our homes (shtepi) shortly.

Please email me with daily and mundane stories... It warms my heart and keeps me balanced.  If you are interested in sending a letter or card, let me know and I will email you the address of the PC office. I won't be able to get any packages until I am at my permanent site (and YES - there is a list)!!

Love you lots and I know you are on this journey with me.
Take care, be well and remember how much we have in the USA to be grateful for...

Mirepafshim (good bye)