Archives for the month of: August, 2012

I went up to visit Joe and Allison in remote Peshkopi this last weekend, an adventure 3 months in planning.  Originally there was to be a full moon, a night hike and potentially a pack of wolves, but due to scheduling challenges we pushed it back several times several weeks.  There was only a half-moon, the sky was hazy from recent fires burning across Albania, and the closest we got to wolves were the street pups and the neighbor’s son and his friend.

Like most Albanian cities, Peshkopi is quite fond of it’s xhiro, so much so they walk it twice.  At a surprisingly early hour we went out to get byrek and a coffee and already the streets were jammed pack with mostly young men and a few families.  Our little band of Americans got a number of stares, and I was amazed by the patience with which Jay and Joyce, who are of Asian descent, handled it.  Afterwards I asked Jay if he could expound on his experience.  Instead of butchering his statement, I’ve decided to publish it in its entirety.

“I am an American. I was born in South Korea but was adopted into a white American family when I was five. There is very little that I remember from my country of birth and I have no real knowledge of its culture and social norms. My identity is tied into the American way of life. This is who I am.

There are many challenges that I face living in Albania because of my Asian features. For one, most Albanians believe that all Asians are from China. It feels very strange to be instantly categorized by an entire nation just based on how you look. Wherever I go, heads turn to my direction as I walk by. I feel the stares as their minds are processing what they see into what they think to be fact; 2+2 = 4; Asian = Chinese. I can hear the whispers spewing from their mouths, “kinez”. I see their eyes as they determine with absolute conviction my origin. I would be lying if I told you that I never get annoyed.

There have been many situations where I would meet an Albanian for the first time and the first word they would utter is “kinez” or “Kinë”. I can actually feel it coming. Time slows down and my mind processes the look in their eyes and I slowly see the word forming from their mouth and all I can think is, “Here we go again”. It gets tiring sometimes. My initial feeling of excitement of meeting someone new turns into dejection. I have experienced different outcomes but it hurts when I tell someone that I am an American and they say with complete confidence,”No. You are Chinese.” The person refuses to believe that I could be anything else but Chinese. My origin is from China because I look Chinese. I likened it to being slapped in the face. I am momentarily stunned because we just met and I answered your question about where I came from and you follow up by calling me a liar. But, the worst is when an Albanian won’t believe that I am an American and will take their two index fingers to “show” me why I can’t be an American by mimicking my eyes. “You can’t be an American because your eyes look like this.” I look at them with complete disbelief as they perform this heinous and insulting gesture. From here, my mind shuts down and I try to leave as fast as possible. I am filled with various emotions and the only way I can dissipate my rage is by walking away. I would be lying if I told you I never get angry.

I am a Peace Corps volunteer living in Albania. I expect the generalizations and the stares that I receive. I do not blame Albanians for their misunderstanding because they usually mean no disrespect. I am constantly learning about the culture and the mentality of its people. Albania is a very homogenous nation that was cut off from the rest of the world because of communism. China was one of the few countries that had any relations with Albania during these years. I understand why most of Albania would see someone like me and assume that I was chinese. I can understand why it would be very hard for some Albanians to comprehend a place like America where anyone in the world can live in America and be called an American. How many years does it take for one to live in a country before they can call that country their home? How many generations does it take before someone can say they are from that country? My experiences with Albanians are not all bad. In truth, only a very small percentage of my encounters have been negative.

The coping mechanism I use to deal with ethnicity issues is approaching the person or group and clearly and confidently stating who I am and where I am from using their language. The results are almost always positive and this approach is especially effective with boys. I do not scold them for their misconceptions but try to present myself as a fellow human being. Also, I do not try to avoid people and let myself to be seen. Oftentimes, I will make eye contact as I walk by people. A simple head nod or hello goes a long way. Most of my encounters have been exceptional. I’d like to think that this is partly due to my disposition in that I exude a certain amount of confidence in the way I present myself to new people. I have made many Albanian friends and have easily adapted into the culture. Albania is a wonderful country and I am proud to be given the chance to serve in this country as a Peace Corps volunteer. I would be lying if I said I didn’t love this country.”

Last Monday started with a low growling from my dresser drawer.  I was heading to Korçë, had less than an hour to pack and something creepy was going on.  Brandishing a broom and a rug thwacker,  I looked a little closer to see snuggled and squirming among my unmentionables, a mama-cat and her newborn brood. “What the f***?”

Aghast, I did what any person with newborns would do and left as quickly as possible.  It’s not that I dislike cats.  It’s just that I don’t want them in my life, much less in my drawers.  They are icky and leave a lasting odor . . . and dry placenta.  So I walked away, and told everyone who would listen, “Guess what I found in my underpants?”  Ultimately friends would ask, “What are you going to do?”  to which I replied, “I’m heading to Korçë Beerfest 2012.  I’m going to get drunk.”

I never did actually get drunk.  Enjoyably social, yes – until around midnight.  That’s about when I turned back into a pumpkin.  An exhausted, slightly i mërzitur  (pick your definition, they all apply) pumpkin.  Danielle and I said our goodbyes and tried getting clear directions back to our host, but of course no one could remember.   I had to wake up Denis, alternately texting and calling, until I finally got what seemed like reasonable directions, but in the dead of night, it turned into a strange social experiment wherein we walked down every single alleyway trying to piece together clues from our addled memory (“I think there was a blue Mercedes.  Look for a blue Mercedes.”) and trying the key in every single door (“I think the door had glass.” “I think the door had metal.”  “Maybe it had glass AND metal”).  We were narrowing in when Denis came and got us (And we would have had it too…eventually).

I was finally able to lie down.  After a night out camping on a rough hillside in Voskopojë, a futon is a heavenly embrace.  Deep breathing settled in.  The muscles relaxed and I could feel that slight “ungh” sensation as the spine released tension. I could see dreamland through the expanse of darkness.  They’re calling to me . . . on my phone? It’s Sara and Brenna. They were lost. I know I texted them clear directions earlier. F***.

I answered the phone, in no state-of-mind to talk and it took a few sessions to get them on track, though eventually I had to leave the apartment to collect them in the early AM.  Fortunately I did.  I found them just down the street and feeling slightly unnerved, and whatever mërzit I was feeling went away.  We have to look out for one another, even when all we want to do is roll over.

I got back home around Friday afternoon and looked for non-cutesy kitten care-taking instructions, bought some food for the mama cat (apparently they need to eat a lot and well, while nursing) and checked on the creatures.  There they were, still squirming about, and somehow looking slightly more precious, the little bastards.

“A strong man stands up for himself; a stronger man stands up for others,” Ben the cow to Otis in Barnyard

“Waking up begins with saying am and now. That which has awoken then lies for a while staring up at the ceiling and down into itself until it has recognized I, and therefrom deduced I am, I am now. Here comes next, and is at least negatively reassuring; because here, this morning, is where it has expected to find itself: what’s called at home.”
– Christopher Isherwood, A Single Man

My morning routine has adapted to the current situation, but remains relatively unchanged from what it has been for the past near 2 + decades (I don’t include the early, early years.  Those mostly consisted, I imagine, of crying, eating, pooping, or some combination.  Still not entirely different but I have no recollection so cannot confirm or deny anything.  I’ll ask mom.).

5:00 am – the alarm goes off.  Ignore said alarm.

5:10 am – the alarm goes off again.  Remind myself, why I do it.

5:15 am – get up.

5:30 am – out the door for quick run.  Today I am listening to Carl Orff’s, Carmina Burana.

Today, however, will be different.  Today I’m going to Pogradec. Today is actually last Saturday.  As soon as I’m home and conclude the rest of the ritual (coffee, shower, etc.) I throw a few items into my hipster stylish messenger bag, grab a compact sleeping bag from OA closet, and rush to the Librazhd furgon station on the opposite side of town.  These days I travel light, and slide into the back seat of the second furgon I find (the first was going to Korçë  – he looked a little disappointed.) with two other passengers on either side. I text my friend Alex (a.k.a. Alexandra), “Sitting in the furgon.  We need two more to leave.  Be there soon.”  Alex replies, “OK.”

We wait for a bit longer than normal, and despite the early hour, the air is still and getting hot.  The man next to me is clearly anxious to get on the road.  He waves his arms, speaking emphatically and looking me in the eye.  I must have said the right thing because he keeps going but I can’t keep up the charade for long.  “Me fal, nuk kuptoj. Nuk jam shiqptare.” Usually at this point, they lose interest and I fall asleep.  “Oh, you’re American?” he asks, “I speak some English!”

By this point we’re finally on our way and I’m conversing with my new friend.  I speak to him in broken shqip, he to me in broken English, and we’re getting along famously.  I get a real kick out of his telling the woman on my other side everything about me.  She seems delighted.  This is about the point the furgon breaks down outside of Librazhd.  I update Alex to let her know my predicament and that I might be running late, but that at the very least, I’ve made some friends to keep me company.  She writes, “Hahaha, oh no! Who are your friends?” In Albania, many times all you can do is laugh.

We passengers are all loitering about the parking lot of a road-side lokal and gas station.  A mother and her small child are being told about me by the woman.  They seem delighted as well. A young chune and chuna are off to one side getting a little handsy and my friend has gone off.  I manage to ask the furgon driver about the situation and this is where our company parted.  I pay my hundred lek and am about to update Alex and go wait by the road for another furgon, when my friend appears out of nowhere and calls me over to a parked tour bus heading to Greece.  “He will take us all to Pogradec.  200 lek.”  “Sweet!,” I exclaim, overjoyed.  He looks at me funny.  I update Alex.

We continue on our merry way and my friend tells me about his work in Tirane, and how he has an American engineer friend who he used to work with.  He tells me about the economy of the country and the different mining operations we pass, some still functioning, most defunct.  He tells me about the friends he is going to see just outside of Pogradec and the few drinks he’s going to have before heading back to Elbasan in the afternoon.  He never tells me his name.

Just outside of Pogradec, we shake hands and I wave goodbye to my friend as he gets off the bus.  The chune and chuna are now making out hardcore in the back of the bus and I can hear their lippy-smacky noises.  We pull around the corner and I can see my destination along the shore of shimmering Lake Ohrid.  Macedonia is just in the distance, on the opposite shore.  I update Alex.
“OK, cool.” she writes.

With mercurial delight I pulled from the depths of my boredom a one minute ode to Snake Xenzia and Dune.  It comes from the limitless limited creativity common with having too much free time on my hands.  Not the most well executed of creations (unlike my fantastic ciabatta bread which was also birthed from a fit of boredom and an obstinate nature and position of not paying for things that I can just as easily bake myself) it was however, an exercise in a few of my favorite things (i.e. video, pop culture reference, something, something, etc.)

Over the course of the two years, Peace Corps Volunteers will take on a number of hobbies and skills, attempting to fill their free time by:

  • Learning culinary wizardry (or just wizardry);
  • Taking on arts and crafts [or as I sometimes call them, “arts and crap” (thanks Dolly)] like weaving plastic bags into what-not;
  • Making their own music video covers of popular music (i.e. “Can I Smell Yo’ D***?);
  • Learning a new language beyond the one they already have to (or at least aspire to);
  • Keeping an amusing and charming blog to rattle out their inane musings (read earlier posts of ¡PermisoAlbania!)

But on the subject of hobbies and filling ones times, Irish comedian, and one of my favorites, Dylan Moran said on chat show, Friday Night with Jonathan Ross:

“Hobbies are a bit sinister I think, because what are you going to do, you know? Are you going to get a tractor tire and cover it in shells? Or get a lump of wood and chisel it for nine hours because you’re not happy with your life? That’s what a hobby is. […] How does anyone fill their day?  I think the truth is you fill your day, most of the time, by being in the washing machine of your own mind thinking, ‘What’s this? When does it stop?  Am I enjoying it?  I don’t know. Oh, it’s time to go to sleep. I can’t. I’m worried.’ And then you wake up and smear jam on your family’s face and your own. But at times it is an enormous pleasure to be alive.”

It is a pleasure, and if someone, anyone, can find some modicum of something meaningful or enjoyable in any of it, well that’s just icing on the cake.  And I love cake.

Heading to Pogradec this weekend.