Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Honoring my Host Family-a Final Visit

Kopshti e Razijes (actually, just a corner of her beautiful garden)
It has begun... the onslaught of Good-byes.  Most recently (last night and this morning) was the last visit with my Host Family, those who took me in when I first arrived and supported me through 10-weeks of training.  

Like most people, I don't like to say good-bye and prefer the more hopeful "until we meet again."  And while these may seem unrealistic, in my experiences Life has a way of bringing good people back together again.  

Case in point:  Just two weeks ago, I had the very special opportunity to reconnect with someone I hadn't seen since my High School graduation in (hate to admit this) 1995 - Joel VanBriggle.  I actually met Joel when I was in Kindergarten at North Franklin Elementary - a school that doesn't officially exist anymore.  (Shit..I really AM old!)  Through many twists and turns of fate...Joel and I found ourselves across the world in Albania at the SAME TIME!  Only a month before my departure... he was here laying groundwork for his next career step with Convoy of Hope Europe.  We never could have planned this happen-stance reunion but God's will/Kismet was in full effect.  BUt the truth is...It IS a small world, after all.  Yes.  I did that.  You'll be singing that all damn day.  I'm sorry.

Thanks to instances like my reunion with Joel after nearly 20 years...I believe in the power  of "until we meet again." 

Allow me to return to my purpose today....a tribute to my Host Family- Familje e Kujtimit Kateshi.  Last night, brought my last opportunity to express my gratitude for taking me in, giving me a home and a chance to learn and be successful in my Peace Corps service.  Here is the letter I gave them (with translation support from my awesome colleague, Anila!  also, the English version is below.): 

Mami dhe Babi

Te dashur Razije, Kujtim, Jerina, Antonini, Manjola, Martina edhe gjithe familje tjeter!
Dy vjet me pare ju me ftuat ne shtepine tuaj.Une isha e huaj,nuk dija as edhe nje fjale ne gjuhen shqipe .Nuk kuptoja kulturen shqiptare ,mbi te gjitha isha e humbur por kisha qellime te mira.
Prej miresise tuaj une kisha nje shtepi,prej durimit tuaj une pata nje vend ku te mesoja,prej shpirtit tuaj une kisha nje vend per te qeshur,prej dashurise tuaj une kisha nje familje dhe prej kesaj une kam qene e bekuar.
Nuk kam fjale te mjaftueshme per te shprehur se sa mirenjohese jam prej secilit prej jush.Ju do te jeni perhere pjese e kujtimeve te mia me special dhe une do tju mbaj gjithmone ne zemer .Faleminderit Nje million here faleminderit.

Me ndjenja te sinqerta,

Dear Mom, Dad, Sister and Brother, Another Sister and her baby and all the other siblings (there were 3 more, who also have families!) who live abroad!

Two years ago, you invited me into your home.  I was a stranger.  I did not know a single word in Albanian.  I did not understand Albanian culture.  Essentially, I was lost.  But I had good intentions.

Because of your kindness, I had a home.  Because of your patience, I had a place to learn.  Because of your spirit, I had a place to laugh.  Because of your love, I had a family.  And because of this, I have been blessed.

There aren’t enough words to express how grateful I am for each of you.  You are forever part of my most special memories. And I will carry you in my heart always.  Thank you.  A million times, thank you.

With deep affection,
Motrat Gjithmone!  Sisters Always.

I knew there would be tears.  As my host sister, Jerina read the words  aloud, Mamaja, Jerina and I became more and more choked up.  And as I tried to reinforce how grateful I poor Shqip skills had us laughing at my mistakes in no time!  Tears, Laughs, Smiles... it was bittersweet, but heavy on the sweet.  I adore my Kateshi family:  special people who live in a small village, a village far too small to hold their enormous hearts!  

Peace, Love and Shihemi prap (See you again)

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Not a typical "Day at the Office"

My primary project assignment with Peace Corps is with the Municipality of Elbasan/Bashkia Elbasan…the local city government/qeveria.  And for the past two years I’ve been regularly walking the two flights up steps at City Hall to my office.  But today… brought something very different/dicka shume te ndryshme!

But first, let me walk you through a “normal” day. 

My morning arrival is full of greetings – the staff in the Information Office, Koli and Fati the two lobby doormen, Osman and Jonida the city photographer and journalist respectively who work on the first floor.  Then I start my climb.  At the second floor landing, I usually stop an talk with (another) Koli, the mayor’s security guard.  He likes to test my Albanian skills/aftesit e gjuha shqip and tease me since I’m just not very good. 

Some days, citizens will be seated outside the mayor’s office, waiting to speak with him about their concerns.  Other times, this landing is full of community leaders who will convene for discussions on how to make improvements to the city, in spite of limited resources.  Before continuing to the third floor/kati tre, I stop to see Diamanta, my boss…NO, my friend… and we talk about the day ahead.  And then its time to go upstairs/shkoj larte where I pass the men who work in urban planning and public works.  They are always dressed to the nines…. shirt, tie, sweater and jacket.  Looking sharp/duket e mire!  I’ll knock on the door of the Human Services office to say hello to my friend Vilma and then finally the end of the hall…..Economic Development!

I’m lucky to share an office with a large staff of friendly colleagues:  Bledi, Ervin, Kristina, Ornela, Anila, Fatma and Andromeda.  Olsi….the department director pops in and out regularly too!  It’s a little crowded, but I don’t mind.  It keeps us close…. telling stories, learning Albanian songs and laughing.  OH!  And we work too/ O! Dhe ne punojme gjithashtu!

But today was NOT a normal day!  Arriving at the Bashkia brought a very special and happy surprise.

When I walked to the second floor lobby, there was no crowd of community leaders.  There were no men or women waiting to share their challenges with the Mayor.  Instead, six children/gjoshte femijet squeezed onto the small couch in the waiting area.  Accompanied by their 5th grade teacher, Ms. Kokoshi, these students were meeting with the Mayor to develop a partnership between schools and the municipality.  Their goal: help make Elbasan a cleaner and greener city/ nje qytet me paster edhe me gjelber.

They were inspired by a “Flash Freeze” and city clean-up event that was coordinated this past weekend by Peace Corps volunteers to honor Earth Day.  (Spin-off of last year’s Earth Day Flash Mob!)  As PCVs, we hope our actions create positive change.  Sometimes it is an active effort and sometimes more passive.  To hear first hand that a Peace Corps Albania event is having a near-immediate impact on the mentality, and even better, the actions, of this community....Well, that is just plain awesome!

It was such a pleasure for me to speak with these 5th grade students who believe celebrating Earth Day/Diten e Tokes just once a year isn’t enough/nuk eshte mjaft!!  I couldn’t agree more!  And I’m eager to learn more about how these young leaders will do great things for Elbasan!  And a special recognition to their teacher, Ms. Kokoshi for going above and beyond/me lart dhe pertej her duties and for supporting young activists!  I have so much respect for you!/Une kam shume respect per ju!

Peace, Love and 5th Grade Activists

P.S. Here's the link to the Elbasan Municipality's official article.  Can't read Albanian?  Use Google Translate!  Or your iPhone!  Or your neighborhood Albanian-American! :)ërgjegjësimi-për-ambjentin-ku-jetojmë-fillon-që-në-moshën-e-edukimit/487262057994262

P.P.S. When I was in fifth grade, I was sort of a mini-activist too.  Here's a link to the "Observer-Reporter" newspaper clip about my best friend and me getting "good citizenship" awards.,1280351
However, we are both a little unclear on how we were selected based on "neatness." ha!  Best friends in 1988....and still are today! 

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Fresh Meat/Mish i fresket

This past Wednesday marked a special day for Peace Corps Albania - the arrival of the next group of volunteers - Group 16, Fresh Meat!   Our Training Manager asked me to come greet them and go over some basics of our cell phones.  Sounds silly, right?  Teaching 35 tech-savvy Americans about cell phones?  Well, consider this - Peace Corps cell phones carry an element of time travel…about 15 years into the past.  In a smartphone/iPhone dominated society, these relics do require a refresher course.

Wednesday marked a special day/dite te vecante for me as well.  Standing in front of the new group, naturally, I was reminded of my arrival day.  Of sitting in that same hotel dining room, curious and for the most part, clueless.  There they sat, quietly and patiently, but I could feel their intensity.  The excitement of starting this journey, the uncertainty of what’s to come and how they will manage to work through it, the jet-lag making everything just a little hazy.

It’s been two years since I was in their shoes/kepuce.  At the time, I coined the phrase appre-citement:  a hybrid of apprehension and excitement, which was exactly what I was feeling.  Standing there now, I can’t believe how quickly time has passed, how much I have learned, how many new friendships I’ve made and how I’ve grown.   

Albania started as a mystery and became a home.  I’m part of a community. In some places, I’m even a “regular.” For example/per shembull, When I walk into the butcher’s shop, before I even get to the counter they ask, “chicken breasts? How many?/fileto pule? Sa?”  I’ve become predictable/Une kam e bere te parashikueshme.  My life is comfortable and routine, but to be clear, never mundane!  After all, I still screw up the language!  I recently told my boss that I “shaved” it instead of “saved” it.  Well, that was fun.

But now, as I look ahead, here I am again, curious... and for the most part clueless.  My service will end on May 24th.  The uncertainty is back.  When I look through my calendar (which is a paper, by the way) and I turn to June/Qershor… its completely blank.  Crisp, fresh, white paper.   Other than a few birthdays (Dannyboy, Dave and H.Lee) I don’t have anything concrete to fill in.  And so I’ve coined a new word again. Liber-fying: the hybrid of liberating and terrifying.  Liberating because the only obligations I have are to myself.  I can carve my own path. Terrifying because it’s all new.  I’m new.  And I’m not sure how to navigate my way to the future I want. 

Two years ago… I didn’t know how it would work out.  But it did and I am better for it.  In Albania I've learned the expression (that I’ve used here many times)Avash, avash.”  Which is literally slowly slowly, but boils down to “one step at a time.”  And as liberfied as I feel in this moment, I know it will all work out again.  Just like everything will be amazing for the Mish i fresket - Grupi 16!  And just for fun, here’s a video created by MY group 14…our lessons learned. PC Albania Group 14's Lessons Learned.  Click through, you'll like it! (unless you are a grumpy curmudgeon, then don't bother.)

Peace, Love and the Mystery of June.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

A Project is Born/Projekt ka lindur.

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 made my stomach hurt.   I worried that we were pushing our American standards on a culture that might not be 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!

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Why Don't (S)He Write?

O, Sa Turp!/How shameful!  
Sa gjate/How long it has been since I've written in my Albanian Blog. It's been five long months... reminding me of this scene from Dances with Wolves:  (only 30 seconds...why not click thru!?)

Fortunately, I did not meet that same fate as that bag-a-bones.  

But that doesn't answer the question, "why don't she write?"  I don't have a good excuse. I could blame it on being busy with projects, busy with my young love, busy traveling.  And sure, I have been, but not too busy to share.  My best reason is writer's block.  I've sat down with some ideas... but the fire wasn't there.  The spark to start.  I was like an empty Zippo lighter/cakmaku i Zippo, waiting for Julie to re-fuel and shine me for packaging.  

I'm disappointed in myself for letting so many moments pass.  But I'm not going to waste any more time.  With only three months left of my PC service...the Blogger in me is back! And better than ever?! (Remains to be seen.)  However, before I return to stories about Albania and life as a Peace Corps Volunteer, let me share why in hell, after 22 years, would I be reminded of a scene from Dances with Wolves/Kercime me Ujq!?

In 1990 when Dances with Wolves hit theaters, my mother had her heart set on seeing the film.  It was about this time of year- her birthday.  And her only wish (read: demand) was that we go to see the movie as a family.  I was in 7th grade and Ryan was in high school. So obviously, being seen with your family (especially when both your parents are teachers!) at Cinema World in WashPa was a fate worse than death.  As any two loving, appreciative children would....we threw an outright fit.  No way.  No How!  My very clever and determined mother suggested a compromise: We could drive 30-minutes north to another town and see the movie at the Galleria. We caved.

Neither Ryan, nor I (nor my dad, for that matter) were remotely interested in seeing this film. It's THREE HOURS LONG and is about pioneers and covered wagons! Bor-ing. Mom didn't even care.  She refused to let us piss on her parade.  Hindsight: the opportunity to see Kevin Costner's bare ass/buthe on the big screen does have quite an appeal. Remember, his ass was 22 years younger at the time!  Collectively, the rest of us knew that a 3-hour sacrifice was preferred to a lifetime of mother's guilt. (a fate we failed to avoid anyway.)  And so we got our popcorn, found our seats and settled in for a long winter's nap.  

Here comes the beautiful irony.  The opening scenes of the movie are pretty gruesome...a Civil War-era make-shift hospital near a Confederate battlefield.    Amputations, blood, bones, innards.  Pretty disgusting stuff, really.  My mom couldn't watch...averted her eyes and winced at the sound effects she was unable to tune out.  Two hours and 48 minutes left to go, she never quite recovered.  

I, on the other hand, was riveted from the opening scenes to the rolling of the credits. To this day, Dances with Wolves remains one of my all time favorite films. The wide open spaces, the commitment to a post, the clash of cultures and the unbreakable bonds of even the most unlikely moves me.  And as I type, it hits me:  The American Frontier is to John Dunbar what Peace Corps Albania has been to Me.  Lame?  Probably/Ndoshta.  Accurate? Absolutely/Absolutisht.

Ok, fine... so my Albania doesn't have buffalo or "hostiles."  But my Albania has occasional loneliness. It has curious interlopers who've become dear friends.  It has street dogs who could pass for "Two Socks."  It has love stories, new cuisines and rooted traditions.  It has moments of confusion and sorrow, but also moments of camaraderie and joy. And it has a People who are uncertain, yet hopeful for their future.  People who often look to me for answers that I can't give.  Peace Corps Albania has been my undiscovered frontier.  

So... with this little glimpse into my silly love affair with a mustached Kevin Costner, it should come as no surprise that after lapsing in my blog posts, my first thought was imagining McBride asking Arlene..."Why don't she write?"

And now, with only 3 months left before I will say good-bye to this amazing experience, to the incredible friends I've made... I am reminded of the movie's closing scene:  that always brings me to tears.  I hope before leaving, I find the right words in Shqip to say:  

Do you see that I am your friend?  Can you see that you will always be my friend?  

And just like in the movie...I am quite sure it will always bring me to tears.

Peace, Love and New Frontiers

Monday, September 10, 2012

Lost in Translation 3: Nothin' but Love for Upton Circle.

Other titles considered:   
Lost in Translation 3: Stacked like a shelf
Lost in Translation 3: Pothuajse/Sort of

Why SORT OF? Well…this little keqkuptimi/misunderstanding didn’t occur from English to Shqip, but actually English to English.  Making matters worse, this was not just a silly gabim/mistake between two friends speaking privately and oops, Freudian slip!  No….this was via an international Skype conversation with an entire family….the Mingioni clan at their home on Upton Circle.  Picture it:  three generations worth in one room….popping in and out of the screen to give well-wishes and ask curious questions about life in Albania and then I took an utterly inappropriate turn.

For my readers who don’t know the Mingioni’s…a little background:

The Happy Family (pre-Fi)
There’s Gina, my primary connection to this proud Italian-Irish family is the middle child/daughter.  Her sisters may/may not confirm that she’s been known to display typical textbook middle child behaviors.  Gina and I (among a tight-knit crew known as 11 Garner Court and The Guys) became friends during our Freshman Year at Penn State.  And in spite of my sometimes (often) egregious ways, Gina has remained a true and loyal friend who brought me into the fold of her loving family.  Bridget and Katie…the older and younger sisters respectively were part of our Penn State world and thanks to banking conferences in Phoenix, Annual Memorial Day Karaoke Parties and Facebook, I’ve been fortunate to stay connected with them as well.  Bridget brings two adorable munchkins to the party, Jamie and Fi (50% credit to Matt Keeley, who can do a mean Lionel Richie when he’s tickling the ivories).  And of course….there are the two who are responsible for the whole lot, Kathy and Tony.  These two kind souls managed, while raising three, dare I say it, dramatic young women, built a home like none I’ve experienced before or since.   Let me put it this way, in a time when we look around and recognize just how nutty, crazy and damaging families can be… when you see the Mingioni’s you can’t help but think….Wow!  They really know how to do this thing right.  A happy, healthy and loving family is not impossible; they are the proof.  And this love and concerns extends beyond bloodlines.   Any of us lucky enough to be in Gina’s cirlce become part of the Inner Upton Circle. 

Upon hearing of my Albanian destination, my babai plus/bonus dad, Tony promptly called me to discuss the movie Taken and made me promise to be careful.  As I did with my own parents, I gave him the obligatory “Yeeeeees, Daaaaaaad” style response.  And yet, it was sweet to know that he genuinely cares.  Just as he’s been genuinely interested in my experiences while serving as a PCV. 

OK….back to the error of my words….

Gina and I had set a “skype” date to start planning our trip to Greece, a hop, skip and a jump for me, a nine-hour business class flight for her.  (stay tuned to read about that fab little get-a-way that I refer to as the vacation of a lifetime!)  Sundays often bring the Mingioni family all together so I was eager to speak with her then and get a chance to see everyone and wish them well.

It started out great with Gina, Bridget and a curious llil' Jamie who was far more interested in his own image on the screen than talking with some silly lady across the world.  And one-by-one the gang trickled in squeezing their heads in the frame, or Gina would shift her computer to give me the full room panorama and a slight case of vertigo.  It was a barrage of pyetet/questions:

What’s it like there?  "Great, exciting, different everyday."  
Do you love it? "I really do, but there are things I miss things from home."
Are you happy? "Yes, even if some days are frustrating, this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience!"
Tell us about your house? At which point I could give the panorama of my digs.
Is the language difficult? "
What are your co-workers like? "
And so on.  And then what I thought I heard… was Tony enthusiastically requesting,
“Melia, tell me about the b_ _ _ _!”   
(Yes…I’m going to leave you guessing for the fun of it...)

Immediately, I launched into something like this “Whoa! Tony! …you wouldn’t believe them!  I mean the women here are stacked like shelves.  I’ve seen some serious racks on young girls and even up to mid-age women.  I don’t know if its from the water, or if the bras here are just SUPER padded or what, but I mean, DAY-UM!”

If I had any self-awareness, which is debatable, I may have noticed Bridget covering the innocent ears of her son or the warning looks on Gina’s face.  At first confusion peppered with some disgust and then a devilish joy as she realized she’d get to ZING me in 3……2……1……. 

“OH MY GOD, Melia!  He said booze!  Booze, not Boobs! What’s wrong with you!?

The display on the outside door of a store near my house.
This is only the top row!
And now, if I had any shame (no debate required…I don’t) I would have been mortified.  I got by with some blush-worthy embarrassment.  But this does raise some issues.

First of all….why was it so easy for me to launch into a graphic description of Albanian Female Anatomy with my friend’s Dad!?  Well, some creedence….there are some serious boobs here in Albania.  And on more recent research outings, I’ve discovered they ain’t kidding around with the push-up bras!  Wonderbra….you’ve met your match and its name is the Albanian Street Market Bra.  Secondarily, why would I ever assume so casually that he would even ask me about boobs!?  Clearly I'm a sick individual.  (Note to self: resume counseling upon return to the US.)  This must be the fruedianEST slip of my lifetime, thus far.  Oh…there’s still time.

To his credit, Tony laughed whole-heartedly… the only way he knows how, getting a kick out of my gross misunderstanding.  And while he and Kathy may have been thinking it, they never made me feel like the total donkey’s ass that I am.  I attempted a recovery, giving a quick explaination of raki…the actual “booze” traditional of Albania.  But for the most part….the conversation after that was nothing but giggles and snickers from Gina, Bridge and Katie. 

Since then, I’ve learned that perhaps Skype is best only one-on-one.  But after an experience like that, how can I have anything but LOVE for Upton Circle? 

Peace, Love, Shamelessness and MCRO   

PS: A little shout-out to extended member of the family via Katie.  Shume urime per Ju!  Congratulations to you two!