Archives for the month of: March, 2013

Annually, Elbasan (along with other cities throughout Albania and the Balkans) celebrate the departure of Winter on March 14 with Summer Day.  It seems a bit like putting the horse before the cart, since we still have to endure frosty temperatures and rain for a few more months.

I found this explanation about the origin of Summer Day:

“The origin of the Shkumbin Summer Day has been tracked to the temple of the Mountain Muse (Zana Malit, Zana e Çermenikës) which was built in the periphery of the city of Shkumbin. According to the legend the Muse was the goddess of hunting, forests and all nature. She would come out of her temple on March 14th, thus marking the coming of summer. Passed on from generation to generation the national festival has become a day by which the city of Shkumbin (Elbasan) itself has come to be identified with, and renowned for the unique cultural heritage it holds.

But the Summer Festival celebrated in the otherwise known as the umbilical city of the nation, is not a local event at all. Many guests pour in from all parts of the country to attend the arrival of summer, and naturally to taste the characteristic food of the region like the ballakums and the traditional cake that on this day are prepared somewhat “differently”.” Turkeys, walnuts, loads of dry figs are traditionally given to little children, who on their turn are the first to make the visits of good luck and prosperity in the houses of kin and family.

Our ancestors tell that the night before Summer Day, people would gather early on in their houses to celebrate with kin and family the prologue of the festival. The waking was then done early in the morning. The elders would be the first to open the doors of the house for bounty and the ones to pick up the pitcher and go out and fill it with fresh water. On return they would bring home a slab of soil, new roots and grass as nature was reborn.”

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Just a few quick notes:
Ballakume are these massive cookies and I ate all the ones given to me so here’s a picture from the internet.  This is special to Elbasan and everybody has their own basic recipe, but I think general consensus is you mix it by hand, it takes all day, and if you can get the baker down the street to bake them for you, go the night before Summer Day eve.  I think they are made with sugar, butter, eggs, and cornflour.  Also there is some difference in spelling, but I’m going with what I saw.  Ballokume? That’s just wrong.

Honestly it’s a lovely little event, and it’s what we have.  Summer Day Eve, i.e. March 13 had concerts galore and despite the rain, the true, honest, Albanians were circle dancing (as you do).  It was impressive to see the crowd in the central boulevard and many of the craftier more flexible audience climbed up the castle walls or sat on the shoulders of Aqif Pasha (the statue and the legend).DSC_0046 DSC_0070 DSC_0060 DSC_0050

The one problem with the festival is that the actual day of Summer Day starts SO early, and the evening before goes SO late, that unless you’re prepared for it – something has got to give.  So I missed most of the morning activities which included a parade, the brass band, some folk dancing, and heaven knows what else, but it was a fair trade.  I got sleep…

…and cinnamon rolls. (thanks Melia!!)

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A little group of volunteers groups 14 and 15 gathered at the ONE café in all of Elbasan that was not serving coffee.  As I noted to friends there – in America, someone would probably fly off the handle, “WHAT DO YOU MEAN THERE’S NO COFFEE?” and then break down, cry and maybe melt in a puddle depending on how much they drank the night before, but I think Albanians, for whatever reason, have learned to take such set-backs in stride.

Albanian patron, “I want a coffee.”
Albanian waiter, “We don’t have coffee.”
AP, “tea then.”
AW, “no tea.”
AP, “…”
AW, “….”
AP, “I’ll have a beer.”

(That’s not exactly how it went down, but you get the idea)

Anyway after missing all the activities, there was only one thing left – the kiosks!

It was crowded, and the flow wasn’t helped by the mayor and his entourage. I love the mayor of Elbasan, but I was there for the vendors, in particular to see one of my students from the Youth Council, whose father owns a honey business.  She was sweet enough to gift Melia and I both a jar of honey.  I’ve only had a sweet taste, but the color is this rich earthy brown.  It is like the stout of honey – compared to the lager-esque crap I’ve been using.

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And yeah that was pretty much the day.  Things died down and the rain picked up, but we managed to restaurant hop and celebrate with some local friends.  After a few beers and raki, some in our group were really jonesing to circle dance and invited their way into some circle dancing.  Albanians are nothing if not hospitable and quickly welcomed the foreigners who could hop and skip with the best of them.

That’s what I got.

On a MIKA kick.

*Originally posted Tuesday 19, March 2013 by Same Shqip Different Day, a Peace Corps Volunteer blog (check it out! it’s amazing).  Said volunteer is my partner coordinator/organizer for the Elbasan Youth Council. Be sure to follow her blog for more updates on Elbasan Youth Council.

“Preface.  In the last post I gave a “sort-of” excuse for being missing in blog-tion that I had been busy with work.  So…to be fair, I’ll now spend some time writing about this work!  Elbasan Youth Council (EYC).  Those three words represent, far and away, the most rewarding experience of my Peace Corps service.  All thanks to the 29 brilliant youth participants and my six program colleagues.  The next few posts will be dedicated to this program… “my baby” and the EYC family.

I had been doing some youth development programs with area high schools.  It was fun and important work, but I felt a nagging sense of guilt for being outside the Municipality of Elbasan- my host agency (PC jargon for primary assignment.)  I shared this guilt with my new site-mate, Luis, and whined about (he deserves a medal for tolerating me!) how I wanted to develop a city-based youth program.  Together we hemmed and hawed over multiple ideas.  How can we make this work?  And then, because he is awesome/ai eshte i tmerrshem, Luis nailed it – A Youth Municipal Council.  We pitched the idea to our Mayor, who has a soft spot for youth programming.  In fact, Mr. Qazim Sejdini started HIS career in youth development.  SLAM DUNK!  We were off and running!

Elbasan Youth Council’s program design closely resembles a model of my own experiences with “Tempe Leadership,” a civic initiative that educates future community leaders.  Never re-invent the wheel, when a great model is available.  Cheers/Gezuar to 28 years of the Tempe Leadership tradition… now paving the way for the future of Albania!  A debt of gratitude.  

This BRAND new youth leadership program, publicized to all 14 high schools in the city, brought quite a draw… nearly 100 applicants.  Wow!?  Was it because the Youth are ready to have their voices heard?  Was it because this program provided a chance to further their English skills?  Was it because Albanians LOVE America and two Americans were part of the program?  Was it because Albanian Youth value opportunities for developing their leadership skills?  I think the answer is YES, to all of it!  However, certainly the “America card” is the least important or should be!

From 100 applicants, we had to cut the field to 30.  Yikes/O bo bo!  No one wants to be the “bad guy” who has to turn away hopeful and eager applicants, especially when they are teenagers/adoleshentet! But learning how to deal with disappointment is a leadership lesson in itself.  It had to be done.  So we devised a score card that ranked applications based on the quality and completeness of answers to essay questions.  And also took into consideration reference requirements.  We made every effort to be as fair/i drejte and transparent as possible.

As you might imagine, in a culture where nepotism is the norm and favors are often paid… this was not easy/kjo nuk ishte e lehte. Soon after the selection announcement, my Albanian counterparts were subject to phone calls from irritated parents asking, “Why wasn’t MY child selected!?” This would be followed by defenses such as “But we’re neighbors!” Or “Our kids go to school together!” Or “Our family supported the Mayor in his last campaign.”  I can only imagine how uncomfortable these calls must have been.

I was nervous, “Will we have to waver, make exceptions?”  The thought of it make my stomach hurt.   I worried that we were pushing our American standards on a culture that might not ready for them…and frankly, might not even want them!  Even with months of cultural and community integration, at the end of the day, I’m still and outsider.  I’m not Albanian/Nuk jam shqiptare.

As it turns out, my worries were unnecessary. (much like my Mom’s usually are about my nutrition, skin care routine, online profile, etc. but I digress.) My Albanian counterparts made me proud, as they remained firm time after time. They countered the inquiries by explaining; “We followed an American system for transparent and fair scoring.” They invited parents to review our process.  They invited disappointed applicants to go over their applications to receive tips and advice for strengthening their case next year.  And for the most part, with this explanation, came acceptance from nearly all those who challenged.  I was encouraged by students who pledged to try again next year.   And I was touched by the level of respect shown to American values.  And although America is far from perfect, this is something of which I can be proud!

In the end/Ne fund, we invited 30 young men and women to the First Class of Elbasan Youth Council.  One by one, as the selected Youth arrived for Orientation on an early Saturday morning… smiling, eager, curious and full of hope, I knew we’d done something right!  Very right.  And that was only the beginning/vetem fillimi!

Peace, Love and Doing the Right Thing.

PS:  More to come on EYC including… Youth Priority Issues, Community Projects and Making it Happen!”