Archives for posts with tag: Elbasan

On Wednesday, May 28, 2014, at the Skampa Theater in Elbasan, Albania, the second class of high school youth graduated from the Elbasan Youth Council and received certificates of accomplishment for their work throughout the year and contributions to the city of Elbasan.
Created in 2012, the Elbasan Youth Council (EYC)  is a partnership between Peace Corps volunteers and the Muncipality of Elbasan established to provide high school students from fourteen local high schools (including private, public, and vocational) a unique leadership development opportunity.

This year 26 EYC members finished the 7 month program of weekly sessions focusing on topics that connect to municipality operations affecting youth, such as Environment, Social Services, Culture, Transportation, Health and Fitness and Recreational programs.  Session designs varied from group exercises, discussion forums and guest speakers.

In addition to the weekly sessions, participants of the Elbasan Youth Council also developed, planned and implemented projects that bring positive changes to the community. Along the way they develop important life skills such as leadership, public speaking, time management, fundraising, teamwork, creative thinking, flexibility and patience.

This year EYC developed 4 community projects including:

  • 2nd Annual art competition for high school youth, to increase awareness of cultural arts in the city and among youth.  Youth raised just over $1,000 to for awards and related costs and got the in-kind support of a local hotel restaurant to provide for a small award ceremony.
  • Anti-Drug and Violence presentations conducted in area high schools increasing education about the negative effects of drugs and violence and reaching nearly 250 high school students each.   Informational brochures were shared in all the schools and the Anti-Drug group is in discussion with a local television station to have their video aired.
  • Public Spaces groups organized the first Elbasan summer film festival, and got the in-kind support of the city and local business to use the cities big screen.  Movies will air in the evenings this June.


The success of the program has received national attention as other cities are taking lessons learned from the EYC and applying them to their own youth programs or attempt to replicate it.

A graduate this year said that, being part of the Elbasan Youth Council, was the best experience of his life.  The youth are held to high expectations and they quickly realize all the many things they are capable of.  They graduate from the program having tested themselves in different ways forging along the way with new skills and friendships.



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

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


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.


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.

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.

Chapter One: “Hard to be Free”
“Expose yourself to your deepest fear…”
-Jim Morrison

Just under two months ago, I started working with students from Nikola Koperniku, a small private high school here in Elbasan, who were tasked with discussing freedom.  The subject: “Hard to be Free,” but at times I thought, “More like ‘Hard to Grasp.'”  It was quite the undertaking for students, teachers and volunteers involved and we all felt challenged at times.

As I said to an audience of friends, family and others who gathered to hear the debate last Monday, Oct.  29, “The subject being debated today is one that has challenged great philosophers, politicians, and thinkers of the ages.  Men and women have devoted their entire lives to the subject and only scratched the surface.  I am amazed by the intelligence and courage the students have applied to this monumental topic.”

Over two hours they presented definitions, compared the legal and constitutional frameworks of the United States, European Union and Albania, and debated topics related freedoms and individual rights including speech, religion, sexuality and gender, movement, etc.   Despite nerves, sweaty palms, and multiple deep breaths, they all handled the topics well and did an excellent job.

For everyone who participated that day, I only hope the conversation and dialogue continues.

As a side-note, the teams surprised me with a b-day cake.  Super-fun!

Chapter Two: Model United Nations
the United Nations: a fundamentally symbolic organization founded on the principles of high-minded rhetoric and empty gestures.
-Prof. Cligoris, “Geography of Global Conflict” Community

Birthday celebrations were set upon by multiple work activities, but I wouldn’t have had it any other way.  The actual day of (October 19), despite being a national holiday in honor of Mother Theresa, was spent with the Koperniku kids, getting them ready for their debate the following Monday.  Sandwiched between was the Model U.N. Mini-Conference in Librazhd.

Delegations from China (Librazhd), Erseke (Togo), and Azerbaijan (Elbasan) gathered for the conference, and I had the pleasure of serving as the Chair for the Security Council, with Melia as my co-chair.  A much smaller group of kids, than what will be at the December conference in Tirane, it was really an opportunity for the students to start meeting one another, make friends, and really get a taste for what is in store.

I think they’ll be ready in time.

Chapter Three:  Language Refreshed
If you don’t like it, alter it, and if you can’t alter it, put up with it.
-D.H. Lawrence , Sons and Lovers

Last week all the group 15 volunteers gathered once again at Hotel Univers, here in Elbasan.  Like the days of PST gone-by, we were exhausted by language and cultural lessons but still managed to party into the wee hours of the morning.  If anything I am reminded of how much I need to apply myself and study.  Winter hibernation will provide ample opportunity, and my friends – winter is coming.

Additional highlights included a relatively successful meeting of the Gender Equality (Barazia Gjinorecommittee, a short and succinct VAC meeting and best of all a fantastic talent show, MC’d by yours truly with music and co-hosting by Brendan, technical and planning by Danielle and some fantastic and surprising talent.  To wrap up the weekend in the rain, Hal found a new home and some of us went down to Berat for a Halloween fiesta extraordinaire.  Now the question is – where to host Thanksgiving?


Hello, hello, hello and hello,

So many things to tell, so much to catch up on, and hardly the space nor the attention span.

Chapter One: ACT Now
“A beginning is the time for taking the most delicate care that the balances are correct.”

Albanians Coming Together (ACT) Now is an initiative of the U.S. Embassy and of particular interest to Ambassador Arvizu.  You can read his comments from the launch on June 21, 2012, but essentially it is an effort to motivate the citizens of Albania to be involved in civil society and government, and push for their voices to be heard.  It is a soft attempt at galvanizing the community to organize. He said,

“You have the power to change things.  But, in order to do so, you have to believe in yourselves, and you have to believe in the power that you possess to improve the lives of all Albanians.”

In an effort to begin educating citizens about the possibilities, my fellow Elbasan volunteer, Melia, led plans to have a citizen fair here in Elbasan, with many of the nonprofit organizations present to not only talk about their organizations and services, but to raise awareness among people and hopefully get them engaged.  About 14 organizations were present with information booths, and among them the Mayor’s office, which featured a board on which citizens could make comments about what they wanted for the future of Elbasan.

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But now what?  [I am open to suggestions]

Chapter Two: Diplomacy
“Often I must speak other than I think. That is called diplomacy.”

I have been helping at a local school, Nikola Koperniku.  It has been a great experience so far helping the high school students I work with prepare for their upcoming debate.  The subject is quite broadly, “freedom,” what with this being the centennial of Albania independence.

It’s a little daunting, and I’ve done my best to remain neutral and not impose my thoughts but rather lead the students to different sources of information and let them work it out on their own.  Paç fat , kids.

In all the readings and preparation, with the flurry of U.S. politics railing in the background, I think I have a better appreciation for the U.S., or at least my own understanding of what I think the U.S. means and stands for.  That the constitution was founded on the principles of Enlightenment thought (not Christian religion, or any sect, though there may be overtones in thought and principle is inescapable) which hold that an individual is born with innate rights, among which are , as my favorite John Locke would say, the rights to Life, Liberty, and Property.

I think, though I am not a constitutional expert nor claim to be, that the language of the document allows that it is fallible and that U.S. institutions are fallible.  I think there was a blind faith that Americana would recognize in each other their humanity, which is why they included Amendment 9 that reads: “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.”  It was also I think a failsafe, but as my father is always so keen to remind me (being a lawyer and all), “always get it on paper,”  and clearly there have been a necessary number of ‘course corrections’ to remit the mistakes of the past (i.e. 13, 14, 15, and 19 to mention a few).

There will never be absolute agreement, but one hopes that one day we can recognize the humanity of others without having to write out what it means to be human. That of course is all naïve poppycock, but it’s nice to think.  Speaking of which – soapbox:

The debate is in a few weeks, and I’m hurrying to prepare the students as much as I can.  I don’t think they or I have a clear idea of what to expect.  This should be fun.

Chapter Three: Hal “Little Shit”
“Parting with friends is a sadness. A place is only a place.”

This is Hal.  He was born about 8 weeks ago, and was the scaredy cat of the three.  I guess the role had to fall to someone.

The last of the brood, since he was unadopted by anyone, the honor was going to fall to me.

I admitted last time, I don’t like cats.  The mom was especially loud, demanding and grating.  Hal was just a kitten who couldn’t poop without a turd dangling from his behind.

After realizing Cat wanted to take him out and about, I started leaving the door open at night so they could do just that.  This morning Hal didn’t come back.

With the hustle and bustle of the morning market street it’s hard to say what happened to a terrified little kitten.

Even though this may be the natural order of things, I’m a little i mërzitur.

Chapter Four: Next up
“Not knowing what you said, you said it.”

This last week, I made presentations in each of the 14 high schools in Elbasan about a new Youth Council we’re forming. More on that soon!

UPDATED [8-10-2012]  Hal is back this morning.  After kitten rampage on the city he turned up, a bit dusty and hungry but unchanged.  So has Cat.  Time will tell how well this tripartite household can stand.

It has been a very busy few weeks in Elbasan and across Albania as people get back to work.  September is a dividing line and you can feel the difference.  It’s in the work place, it is in the air – it may be in the water, which is why you should use your water filter.

So, I admit I have been lackadaisical these past few weeks for all things other than pune, but we’ll get back to our regularly scheduled program soon.  In the meantime, enjoy.  See you space cowboy.

“I think it was Donald Mainstock, the great amateur squash player, who pointed out how lovely I was. Until that time, I think it was safe to say that I had never really been aware of my own timeless brand of loveliness. But his words smote me because, of course you see, I am lovely in a fluffy moist kind of a way and who would have it otherwise? I walk, let’s be splendid about this, in a lightly accented cloud of gorgeousness that isn’t far short of being, quite simply, terrific. The secret of smooth almost shiny loveliness of the order of which we’re discussing in this simple, frank, creamy soft way doesn’t reside in oils, unguents, balms, ointments, creams, astringents, milks, moisturisers, liniments, lubricants, embrocations or balsams, to be rather divine for just one noble moment. It resides, and I mean this in a pink, slightly special way, in one’s attitude of mind. To be gorgeous and high and true and fine and fluffy and moist and sticky and lovely, all you have to do is believe that one is gorgeous and high and true and fine and fluffy and moist and sticky and lovely. And I believe it of myself, tremulously at first, and then with mounting heat and passion because, stopping off for a second to be super again, I’m so often told it. That’s the secret really. ”

Stephen Fry, “A Bit of Fry and Laurie”

Elbasan was selected as one of 13 sites for a new USAID Planning and Local Governance Project (PLGP) and somehow I have managed to get myself included in the preparation and implementation of that project.  Huzzah!  A meeting was held with various directors within the Bashkia and one or two representatives from the regional government (qarku) and nonprofit sectors, to identify the immediate needs and create an action plan for the PLGP.  I find myself a bit out of my depth trying to understand the language and now the language of government, but hope to be a quick study.

One of the major elements of the action plan regards reconciling the national and local governance and the transference of powers and (most especially) funds, as well as deciphering and implementing new national laws on urban planning.  From the little I’ve understood it has caused quite the upset.

All about Albania there is a tumult of activity as it overcomes economic, infrastructure, political, and social barriers in hopes of entering the EU, and nowhere can the physical results of this change best be seen than on the beaches.

For the 4th of July week I joined a small group of friends in Velipoja along the Adriatic.  We came laden with the usual beach supplies (water, towels, blankets, food, etc.) expecting sparsely populated coastline stretching out to either side for as far as the eye can see, but instead saw an altogether different site.  In the year since one of our colleagues had last been there, Velipoja’s beaches have largely been privatized and now instead of clear coast, were row upon row of umbrellas and lounge chairs rented out for the lofty sum of 400 lek.  Behind them, a growing development of lokals, restaurants and a burgeoning boardwalk.

For my part, I received the sight with a mixture of pleasure (yay for shady umbrellas!), and remorse at the privatization of a once a public resource (400 lek to sit here?  What if I don’t have 400 lek?).

And as more isolated beaches get developed others have become less suitable for swimming because of the increased pollution.  Hotels and tourism have improved but the waste water and trash collection systems have lagged behind.

Despite the issues that exist, after a bit of sunning, it’s pretty easy to put it all in the back of your mind for a few hours, and in fairness there are wide stretches of  protected Albanian coast, though so much more needs to be done.

Velipoja is quite nice during the day, even with its searing hot black sand. It is far more lovely, however and cliché as it may be, under the light of a full moon.

It is about 7:56 pm on Monday night and I am slightly worried that I am giving in too easily to my anti-social tendencies, but I just don’t feel like “xhiroing” tonight (more on the xhiro later), but I promise I will tomorrow.

We’re about two weeks into the settling-in stage and I think the honeymoon is over, though I’m definitely remaining upbeat and optimistic in my own flat-lined kind of way.  Friends and family, you know what I’m talking about.  That doesn’t mean everything has been slow.  Oh no, no, no.  I had a flurry of activity this past week and more to come this.  Let me tell you all about it.

Being in a large site like Elbasan and being so lucky as to have a sweet pad (see previous entry) I am also charged with being the alternate warden.  The warden and alt. warden for each sub-region in Albania, are those people who are selected by destiny and the Safety and Security Officer to help Peace Corps liaise and safely deal with volunteers around the country and to ensure that if the shit goes down, we got ourselves covered.  It’s either going to be a good thing or a bad thing (ex. Me in an earthquake “. . . Oh.  Earthquake.  That was fun.” or me in a hurricane “C’mon! This is D.C.  It’ll just be a tropical storm by the time it gets here. No big deal.” and finally, me in a hold-up thinking “Is that a gun or a toy-gun?  Oh shit my planner is in that bag! Run? That’s just stupid.”)

There are worse hands they could be in.

But being a warden we also had the warden training in Tirane, where we took advantage and ventured out on the big city.  I was able to meet with friends of friends (thanks Tubman) and discovered that there ARE HIPSTERS IN ALBANIA!! Tucked away in the ruins of the old train station is a wonderful place, an amazing place, an art space called Tirana Ekspres* which opened last year.  It brings and promotes alternative local and international music, art, performance, etc.  So many of the things that I enjoy and didn’t realize I was missing SO much.  I will frequent as often as I can, I hope.  Best of, were the wonderful people I got to meet, members of the young, hip, smarty crowd of millennial Albanians, including a spoken word artist who goes by the artistic moniker of Gypsee Yo.  She is from Tirane but lives in Atlanta, Georgia and slips between shqip and southernisms (“bless your heart”) with ease**.

Conversation over cocktails with new kids has been missed.

Not to say that conversation is lacking.  Over beers and brats on a promenade of the city, a few fellow wardens in training debated vigorously the term “gentlemen” but it was nice to meet and speak with non-Americans (who thank the heavens spoke english and spanish beautifully.  My shqip is still shume keq!).  I guess I’m just looking for those social activities I enjoyed at home and trying to find out what the Albanian equivalent is here in the hopes of meeting new people and finding new entertainments for the next two years.  In that vein a brief caveat about movie theaters.

I LOVE movies, and while it’s not exactly the most interactive social experience, watching a film on the big screen is one of the best social, shared experiences anyone (who loves movies) can enjoy.  The day I arrived in Tirane, I happened to notice out of the corner of my eye the movie poster for Dark Shadows, playing at Imperial Cinema:

 Wary of recent Tim Burton films, I was still eager to see this big screen adaptation of the British series (thanks Annie-Laurie).  It’s better than Alice in Wonderland, but I think I had higher hopes. Regardless, going provided interesting commentary and observation on Albanian society.

Cinema attendance is uncommon and seems to be reserved for the upper echelon.  For example Elbasan has a movie theater but hours are in-frequent and unless you have at least five people in the theater, they won’t show the film. Shkoder in the north has a theater but I can’t comment on the state of things.  So opportunities outside of Tirane, i.e. the capital, are slim to none for cinema-goers and with ticket prices at 500 leke, which is kind of steep, it’s even more difficult.

Cinema attendance is an event.  People buy their tickets well in advance (not sure how far) and then go for coffee or dinner before the show (or after depending on the hour, of course) and the cinema provides both fancy bar/café and ritzy dining options for viewers.  It’s an enticing package deal.

Tickets are assigned seating.  So if you want to sit middle row, middle column smack in the center of the screen which is always the best spot, you have to do one of two things – buy tickets early and tell the vendor what you want or sit where you feel like and say, “whoops! sorry, un jam American”

It is easier to ask for forgiveness than permission.

Finally, film viewing is innovative.  I was ten seconds of enraged when an office projector showed the trailer for the next movie (Snow White and the Huntsmen. Blah!) and ads for the theater, but then came to realize it is used only to project the shqip subtitles, superimposed on the projection of the actual movie in its widescreen glory.  Clever!

So, I’m back in Elbasan and looking forward to a Thaners reunion with my host-site peeps later this week.  Tomorrow I xhiro and hope to get some good sneak shots to share with you all.  Also I’ve identified a gym and piece by piece I’m building up my new life.

Until next time true believers.

p.s. the song is fitting because not only am I not worried about the future, but sadly I have finally parted ways with my white chucks.  I bought them about 5 years ago when for a summer job I worked at the Abercrombie & Fitch in Pittsburgh, PA and they don’t allow black chucks.  It is a fun and ironic*** turn of events in my life that led me there, but the circumstances impelled me to buy one of the best pairs of shoes I have owned.  So long kids.  I hope you find your black pair mate in shoe heaven.

*If you are on the facebook, check out their page at

**(Check it out:

*** Defined as “Poignantly contrary to what was expected or intended.”