I watch way too many movies and sometimes get asked for recommendations. Here’s what I’ve seen in February (thus far).

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty 

Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller) has a crush he can’t talk to, a new boss he can’t stand, and a life he can’t seem to change.  A compulsive day-dreamer he’s finally called to action when negative 25, the cover shot for the final print of Life Magazine, goes missing and he has to track down friend and idol, professional adventure photographer, Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn). So many things I like about this movie.  Mitty’s day-dreams are incredibly visceral and bizarre but then, so becomes his reality.  Trailer says it all and Ben Stiller’s return to directing is pretty great.

August: Osage County

A plains family melodrama depicts a family falling apart…and it is stunning. The drama kicks off shortly after the suicide of patriarch Beverly Weston (Sam Shepherd) and at the eye of the twister is surviving wife and drug addict Violet Weston (Meryl Streep) and their three daughters.  It’s a beautiful film for a sadist and what I like most about the story is that there is no satisfaction for anyone.  In the hellish heat of the house, family gathers and the tumult begins as truths are spoken and secrets revealed and characters run away to save themselves.  Based on the play by Tracy Letts, who also adapted the screenplay, the following is a section of one of my favorite bits in the third Act.

“BARBARA/BEN. She smuggled Darvocet into the psych ward … in her vagina. There’s your  ‘Greatest Generation’ for you. She made this speech to us while she was clenching a bottle of pills in her cooch, for God’s sake.
IVY/IKE. God, I’ve never heard that story. Did you just say “cooch”?
BARBARA/BEN. The phrase “Mom’s pussy” seems a bit gauche.”

This trailer cut is a bit of misleading horseshit, but here it is.

Short Term 12

It is amazing and the perfect thing to watch after August: Osage County.  The former watches a family fall apart and into ruin, Short Term 12 brings us back from that ruin and depicts how young people who grew up in desperate situations can rebuild their lives, come to peace with the past and move forward.  Beautifully led by Brie Larson as Grace, with so many other great performances.  Here’s a clip. Marcus is turning 18 and is about to “graduate” from the facility.  He’s having a hard time.

Thor: The Dark World

Really it’s just an excuse to watch Tom Hiddleston, who I’m really excited to see in Jim Jarmusch’s film, Only Lovers Left Alivewhich premiered at Cannes last summer and will finally have its USA release April 11, 2014.   It lacks the gravitas and Shakespearean overtones of the first film, but still a good plot and of course fantastic action flick from Marvel. And Benicio del Toro shines in his bit role as “the Collector”, but what is with that hairdo?

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Hunger Games: Catching Fire

I have nothing to say about this film.  It was enjoyable cinematic candy and I always love seeing Amanda Plummer in any role she can get.

The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug

I laid low the warriors of old
and their like is not in the world today.”
-Smaug

I watched it for the dragon (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Thranduil (Lee Pace).  One of these did not disappoint the other however is blameless.

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I am haunted, mesmerized and transfixed by the bizarre diaphonic sounds and dissonant harmonies of Bulgarian folk music.  A rich tradition of singing going back over a thousand years (for more click HERE) the music is as complex as the country and its history – of which I still know next to nothing.  Over the new year holiday, I took up once again with my friend, peace corps colleague, and travel companion, Joe, to explore strange old ruins and monuments, to seek out old vestiges of a communist eastern European past, to boldly go to Bulgaria.

Our journey took us to Plovdiv, Stara Zagora, Burgas, Varna, Shumen, Vasiliko Tornovo, and back to Sofia.

The Monuments
“You have to talk about dead people all the time?
There’s nothin’ in this whole city but dead people.”
Robert Winters, Houseboat (1958)

At the center of Balkans, Bulgaria, like much of the area, was highly trafficked by diverse conquerors throughout time. Thracians, Greeks, Macedonian, Roman, Byzantine, Bulgar, Ottoman… and nowhere is this more apparent than Plovdiv, one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in Europe.  Ages have passed here and the city continues to grow around ruins as old as 4,000 BC.  New and old melt into one another as you walk down one of the 6 remaining hills of the city into a modern urban setting. Reminding me a bit of Sarajevo, this city formerly known as Philippopolis (City of Philip) among the many other names it collected, offered our first taste of the variety of cultures that have shaped the country…and it’s humor.

We took the required tour group photo with Milio “the Mad” in the background.  Milio caught meningitis as a youth and was afterwards simple, hard of hearing, and loved by citizens. Teased by men and adored by women, he was purportedly gifted with a large penis.  The statue depicts him fondling an impressive bulge in his pocket.  To reverse the adage, “the lord taketh, and the lord giveth.”

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Moving along we visited a Thracian necropolis and saw a replica of the Tomb of Kazanlak, and for a little while I could imagine having a similar something prepared for me when I die.  I dare not imagine what images would decorate the domed ceiling or the stories they would tell.

Thracian Tomb

High above Stara Zagora (most of these monuments were “high above”) was the Memorial House of the Bulgarian Communist Party.  I know very little of its actual history, but I can tell you of its present.  A massive dilapidated building, it stands majestically as a reminder of a past that many Bulgarians would sooner forget.  Like the bulking saucer section of the starship, Enterprise, the monument was a symbol leading the people to their future.

Memorial House of the Bulgarian Communist Party

From the state inside, people didn’t like where that future was going.

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Unfortunately many communist era monuments throughout the Balkans, are abandoned to the whimsy of visitors. While there one family walked away each holding a small piece of one of the many fantastic mosaics that decorated the inner and outer rings.  It’s not exactly the happiest of histories, but as a piece of art these monuments still have their place in Bulgaria’s past and present, and deserve some level of protection and preservation.

The next pictures are not my own (I left my camera – whoops) but by far one of the most impressive stops was the Monument to 1300 Years of Bulgaria (visit HERE for more pics from the photographer.
FOUNDERS OF THE BULGARIAN STATE MONUMENT IN SHUMEN BULGARIA

And this is why I will never be a travel writer.  Next blog – Bulgaria II (or “Lost and Found”).

I’m catching up with news before we enter 2014 and wanted to share some quick work updates from the land of the eagle and ancient Skampis.

Elbasan Youth Council
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This year things have been going really well with the Elbasan Youth Council and highlights include:

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1) Meeting with the Mayor, the head of the Prefecture and the Qarku: EYC youth met with heads of the different government offices.  They had a chance to ask questions about city functions and operations, plans for the future, and the role the youth council could play.  The group loosened up by the time they had their second meeting with the mayor but for anyone working with groups, try to prep them as much as possible and prod them with the kinds of questions they should ask.  Otherwise you’re in a really quiet room.

2) Deciding projects for the year:  This was mostly fun for me and a chance to use a new interactive facilitation tool I learned from USAID.  Through the process the group selected 4 project areas that they will be working on. Those are
– Arts and Culture
– Youth Spaces
– Equity
– Anti-Drugs
All of these are pretty broad, but we’ve started to work on winnowing down to specifics and having the group understand that these are big problems and obviously won’t be solved by them, but they can (with limited time and resources) focus on a small part of the problem and have a real impact.  We learned about SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, Timely) in December and we’ll see what the new year brings.

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3) Christmas Spirit:  As I’ve noted before, this year is all about transitioning the project lead to the local staff.  This year, staff took it upon themselves to plan a visit to the local Balashe center, a city run day home for elderly and special needs people, to where we brought food donations, a violin quartet made up of EYC members and friends and sang some Christmas carols.  A few days later – EYC Christmas Party!  (and yay capacity building!)

With Respect

As part of a  USAID, Small Projects grant (SPA), I have partnered with two human rights organizations in Tirane, Pink Embassy and Alliance Against LGBT Discrimination.  Early on in my service, I read a report about high levels of homophobia among youth in Albania, and unlike other minority or disenfranchised groups in the country, the LGBT population is an invisible minority. Despite positive legal changes protecting there is very little education and awareness, not just about LGBT, but about concepts of diversity, individual and group identity, human sexuality, and human rights.  The leaders of the groups have been trying to expand their reach beyond Tirane, and over the last few months that is what we have been doing.

15 sites were self-selected by Peace Corps volunteers who, with their counterparts, expressed an interest in having a presentation made to their groups.  These groups are largely teens or young adults and are part of classroom, after school, extracurricular or community programs supported by volunteers. These sites vary in many ways; they are urban and rural, large and small, north and south, majority Muslim or Christian, religious or not, etc.

Our presentation is ambitious, and because of the diversity of the crowds and the level of knowledge about the issue, we try to ease into the topic focusing on identity, bullying and harassment as forms of acting our prejudice, facing stereotypes we have and then defining LGBT, understanding human sexuality and tying it all back to human rights. Still a lot, I know.

As of December we have presented in Shkoder, Korce, and Gjirokaster, and 4 sites to present to in January.  There have been a few hurdles, and I’ll say more about the project in a part 2.  We start each session with laying some ground rules, and like we tell everyone who comes – “We’re not here to change your mind, or force an opinion on you. We’re only here to give you the information.”  Happy to share the resources I’ve pulled together on this or have the discussion.

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New Year 2014

I’m in Bulgaria! More on that later.

Exceptional post from “Dude, Where’s my Gomar?”

dude, where's my gomar?

Before I learned that I would live in Albania for two years, I was like perhaps many Americans of my generation in that my only knowledge of Albania was based on one episode of  The Simpsons. Re-watching, I wanted to share some of my favorite parts of this hilarious episode .

Brief intro: Comrade Homer and Principle Skinner are both ready to be rid of the troublesome Bart. They decide to send him to France as an exchange student while the Simpsons family will host a student from Albania.

I hadn’t remembered that they actually speak Albanian in this episode… or kind of speak Albanian. They say “I will miss you”, “write us frequently”, and finally “mirupafshim” (goodbye). Some of it is incoherent because the speakers are not Albanian speakers.  Watching this episode as a little kid was actually the very first time I would hear an Albanian word. Little…

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“When you’re away you crave the home comforts.
T
hen when you return you forget why you missed
them at all 
and long for the things you left behind.
I grieve for 
the croissant.”

-Randall Brown, “The Hour”

I walked with my sister in her picturesque neighborhood.  We were on our way to pick up my nephew from school with dog in tow.  The day was beautiful; the air crisp, the leaves in hues of bright orange and red, the smell of suburbia and I, in that infinitesimal moment realized, “My gods, I’ve missed this.”  “This” not being the crisp air, or the changing leaves or suburbia (definitely not suburbia) but a quiet, simple moment in the company of my sister and her hulking beast of a dog.

When I left Washington, D.C. over a year ago, I was quite honestly, exhausted of the city and what I perceived were its limitations.  I desired change.  Despite the basic surroundings though and new work challenges, things were not as different as I would have thought.  I adapted rather quickly to life in Albania.  Nor did I experience any counter-culture shock when I walked across the customs threshold back into the USA.  I did not weep in the cereal aisle – or for me more appropriately, the wine racks.

On Thursday, I stood outside my old office building on 15th and M, waiting for Ben and Sarah, my former co-workers.  Looking in, I saw Joe and Ms. Shirley, the front desk attendants, same as ever.  After lunch, when asked if I wanted to visit the office, I could not.  I could not face from my former co-workers that dreaded question of all Peace Corps volunteers, “Oh, what are you going to do next?” Not when I didn’t have an answer or even a clue as to what I thought my post-Peace Corps path should be.

The idea of coming back to D.C., while mixed with the pleasure of being near family, friends and food, also fills me with fear.  It took going across the ocean to find perspective, but when I got there, not much was different, truly different.  With the end of my service looming nearer, I feel the riptide pull of the old life I’m not sure I want. Is Washington D.C. my personal black hole, ready to pull me back in? The gravity of it is too much.

That Halloween night, my friend John and I went out. He dressed as an aging bureaucrat and I as a Peace Corps volunteer in existential crises. How could we have lost to the Invisible Man?  John, however is a master of disguise in his own right.  For the years I have known him he has worn the guise of a cynic, but, I believe him among the happiest of optimists and someone who rides change with casual ease.  Somewhen during that night, I was inspired by John, who having faced his own crisis of stagnation, had found something new and worthwhile in D.C. and I realized the place always had opportunities.  The place was never the problem.  It was me.

To be continued…

This is the 2nd year of the Elbasan Youth Council and over the last few months fellow volunteers have taken some of my lessons learned and either tried to incorporate components or replicate the program in their cities.  So kudos to everyone, and yay for promising practices.

In that same vein as the year rolls along I’ll try to share some of  those lessons learned (and learning) here.  This is of course based solely on my Elbasan Youth Council experience and observations as a Peace Corps volunteer.  I will do my best to keep it succinct, organized, informative, and witty.  Part of this also chronicles my attempts to transition the program from a Peace Corps volunteer led project, and put the onus on my Albanian counterparts. So, yay for capacity building.

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PUBLICIZE
It is no good if no one knows about your program.

Social Media – 
These are standard and if your agency has a website or Facebook account, it is good to announce your project there with the appropriate links; however this is passive and will not get you a desirable number of diverse applicants.  Same goes for word-of-mouth.  No, no.  At least in the Elbasan context one must actively promote.

School Visits – In the first year we made a concerted effort to present to all the high school classrooms, describing both the program and it’s benefits to participants, and the application process.  When asked, for many students this was the principle way they heard about it.

To compare, we had 90+ applicants in year one.  In the second year, staff thought that the program was established and that we didn’t need the presentations.  We compromised and went and spoke with all the school directors.  This year we only had 33 applications.

I believe this to be because:
A) After only one year, the program is obviously not “established.”
B) Varying degree of support and publicizing within schools.
C) The idea of an application process is still nascent in a country where nepotism is the norm, and for many students it can be intimidating.  Last year during our presentations we clearly explained what to do, but without that… :P

SCHOOL DIRECTORS

They are the gate keepers to the schools, more so than local Departments of Education, and the lack of a centralized infrastructure gives each a certain degree of autonomy.  Much like a loosely affiliated collective (think the Delian League) school directors may work together for the common cause of youth education, but will have their own approach and interest.  Many will welcome you and be excited for a program that will benefit the students. Others are like griffins at the door.  Placate them and find the mutual benefit – but don’t give into to anything that may connote favoritism.

Try to meet in person with the school directors to explain your program, its benefits, the application process and provide them with a few copies of the application.  You will need them to help disseminate the information to students and support your program.  In any major follow-up activities or events you have, it will also be important to recognize their support and thank them.  School Directors have a long memory, so it is important to build and maintain good relations.

BILINGUAL

In our first year, the program was led largely by the volunteers, and despite best efforts to include staff, the language was sometimes a barrier, less in meetings and more with the materials (which being the first year, we’re sometimes prepared very last minute…whoops).  It is also possible that the focus on English was a deterrent for some (great) students to apply, whose English may not have been as strong (whether this was true or just perceived by them).

While English is an attractive component for any program (at least in Albania), it was important to bring the focus back to the leadership, civic engagement and community project portions, which are the real heart of the program.

To address some of these issues, this year we made the program more obviously bilingual.  How can you do this?:

  • Make your application and promotional materials available in the local language, as well as English.
  • Give students the option of selecting which language they want to submit their application in.  This may be challenging for the volunteer in the review process, but it’s a good tactic for getting staff more involved.
  • Produce all your materials in both languages on the front end.  This will take some time if you are making new lesson plans, but the results will be worth it.
  • Youth are smart.  I’m fortunate to have a counterpart who is bilingual and helps with the translation, but students will help each other (and you) out. Students will demonstrate their leadership in small ways, this being one.

Not to mention promoting a bilingual is a good tactic to help Peace Corps volunteers learn the local language as well. Yay for more exposure.

This is all for the moment, but I will continue to keep tabs on things and share.  If you have questions or there are things you’d like to know more about, please feel free to contact.

SPECIAL THANKS…
to Melia who shared with me the joys of struggle with our first year of EYC…and of course, to all the school directors, public officials, staff, and our first year members.

I have been re-reading Brideshead Revisited.  Please forgive me.


The languid days of summer have too quickly concluded, and but for the tan, I would believe it all a dream.  A beautiful dream.  In my past notes on the season, I failed to note the splendor with which the heads of cabbage gave way to mounds, piled high, of bright green watermelon, succulent honeydew, cantaloupe, and fruits I had no name for.  The pitted fruits took the place of the short seasoned strawberries and even then, cherries and apricots gave way to peaches and the peaches now to plums with their purple shades beckoning fall, a wonderful trick of evolution to capture the fading spectrum of sunlight as the days get shorter and shorter.

It was recently in conversation with my friend Kyle, that I suddenly became more aware of time. Not just of the quickening fall, but also of my time in Albania.  I realized that, even throughout the summer, I had looked on things in sections of time. Chapters of events isolated, closed off and only demarcated by the dizzying activities that filled each one.  I had just closed one more chapter.

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In the halcyon days of late August, Russell came to visit.  Both of us were ignorant of what the region held, and so became voracious, holiday tourists consuming all the Balkans had to offer. We were explorers and each day whether it was in Kotor, Dubrovnik, Sarajevo or Prizren, was filled with adventures.  We climbed the castle walls of ancient citadels, conquering fortresses once garrisoned by Roman and Turkish soldiers, and now, transient internationals; denizens of hotels, hostels and passing cruise ships.  One particularly proud moment was a 2 hour kayaking trip on the choppy seas around the island of Lokrum.  Battered by the waves, there was one particular point, a narrow pass through sharp cliff sides, where I felt like Odysseus on alert of the monsters, Scylla and Charybdis.

At the end of Russell’s stay, when we had exhausted ourselves, we returned to Elbasan and but for a short trip to Pogradec, spent the days lounging in the sun, enjoying cold beers and decent wines.  It was splendid. How I thought, “If only it could always be like this, ‘always summer, the fruit always ripe’ and not a care in the world.”

I said goodbye to my friend, and goodbye to the free, long summer days.  The new, near final chapter has begun, filled with a frenzy of work activities and projects.  New youth council, public speaking courses, human rights presentations. . . and while the vigor of the new challenges and learning opportunities excites me, in the recess of my mind, I am nostalgic and melancholy for simplicity and an aesthetic education.  Like Charles Ryder, on arrival at Oxford, and throughout his life, perhaps I too am searching to learn about Beauty or Love.  Are the answers in a chapter yet un-lived or is the opportunity to find it fading with the sun?

The nights are chilly now in Elbasan.  Winter is coming.

If you have been following, this blog you will be familiar with the tale of a random cat giving birth to kittens in the dead of night in my underwear drawer. How overtime I grudgingly became a cat person, and most recently how that affection was betrayed overnight by the treachery of Cat.

Now the final chapter in this Cat saga.


The facts as I interpret and remember them are these.  Shortly after giving birth Cat left with the kittens, and despite my small attempts to stop her, she was determined.  There had been a few break-ins, other cats jumping in through the window, and the skirmishes must have left her squeamish. I never would have thought that of Cat.  She seemed the fighter, however, she left.

But then she came back with all three kittens.  Oh what a happy moment that was, because let’s face it, they were adorable.  Oh fickle and changeable creature, because a week later she left again.

A week went by, and the hellcat came back to the house to feed.  I wanted to deny her, but then had to remind myself that I was going to get rid of the kittens once they were of age and it is Cat’s prerogative to do what she wills and I still had a bag of cat food that needed doing with, so…I fed her.

Then she left one day and came back with one of the kittens, by now about 6 weeks – 8 weeks old (I have no idea what the particulars are regarding the other two. One can assume but it’s better not to know).  Eventually I called him Norman, and soon I will explain why.  Norman and Cat lived in the house for a few weeks, and against better judgment, I started to get attached to Norman because he was the best kitty you could ever imagine. When he played he didn’t use his claws, he hardly meowed, and was rarely annoying.  Only once did he poop on something he shouldn’t have, which is more than I can say of most people I know.

And then Cat took him away…but then brought him back to the roof top, where I climbed to feed him. Then she took him away again.  This seemed to be some cruel game and while I was its intended target, it was Norman who really got hurt.  She turned possessive and cruel and when clearly he wanted to end the ruse and settle in with me, she pulled a Norma Bates and twisted him up inside.  Poor fellow.  He never stood a chance.  The last I saw Norman, we were separated by an abyss of rooftops, too far away for me to bring him in when he called out. Heaven knows Cat was probably watching, laughing, somewhere in the shadows.  The bitch.

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I still see her. She passes through the patio though never coming in.  One time I tried to pet her and the trollop took a swipe at me.

I never wanted Cat and yet she weaseled her way into my home.  Over a year I came to care for her and wasted my time, regard and affection on a heartless guttersnipe.  Was I being used the whole, time? Was there ever affection on the part of Cat? What was the past year? I thought once, during a golden moment in our coexistence, “Maybe this is it?  To find someone with whom you can feel happy and comfortable.” As simple as that.  Now I think it was all a lie and I was fooling myself from the beginning.

I will never let a cat into my life again.

Elbasan Youth Summer Camp

“Oh! how I love, on a fair summer’s eve,
When streams of light pour down the golden west,
And on the balmy zephyrs tranquil rest
The silver clouds, — far, far away to leave
All meaner thoughts,…”
John Keats

day in Librazhd

I work with youth, which is to say I am normally exhausted and yet continually inspired.  During the month of July, my fellow volunteers, alongside our local Albanian counterparts, organized a month-long summer camp for youth.  Decried as folly by some, I would have thought them right when on the first day we had only 5 participants, but 5 is 5 and I would have been happy with any number, great or small, of attentive young minds.  Ultimately we had about 25-30 participants with a strong core of 15 that persisted weekly to seek out what knowledge and activities we had imagined.  Take that nay-sayers.

A small smidgen of the things we did included: English Discussions, Health Discussions, Drawing classes, Salsa dance classes, Personal Development, Creative Writing, and hiking trips and outings.

Youth Groups Exchange

“The ritual has meaning.” 
-Dr. Abraham Verghese

Another quick update on work related things. Finally after much planning and multiple setbacks, I was able to organize the final activity of the Elbasan Youth Council, a youth exchange with the Durrës Youth Movement.  It went well enough I think.  They talked about things they had done and some of the challenges of being active young people in current Albanian society.  The original intention was to begin building towards a national youth movement – which now I think is a very long way off, but not entirely impossible. Thanks especially to fellow volunteer, Sara, who organized with me and to Friends of Albania for funding the whole venture. Oh look, a picture of the group.

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Seth and Luke do Albania

“Real life is fine, but you can only take so much of it.” 
-Dylan Moran

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I took a week off to travel in the deep south of Albania with visiting friends Seth and Luke.  I’d like to  recount some sort of story, some amusing account of adventuring.