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!

Monday, July 9, 2012

Accidental Bikram

Arriving in Albania, I was coming off a good run of yogi commitment by attending a weekly class offered after work, as well as, regular classes at my gym.  For clarity, there is a significant difference between “gym” yoga and private studio yoga and I prefer the latter.  Gym/Palester yoga tends to be less personal, less forgiving and less effective in the whole mind-body-soul experience thing.  But when I’m already paying for a gym membership… frugality trumps preferences.  And doing something is far better than doing nothing.

What a convenient segway… recently, I’ve been more in the doing nothing category when it comes to my fitness.  And well, no big surprise here… there are effects of my lethargic ways.  General soreness, tight muscles, lack of flexibility and the fact that my abs are looking less and less like a Victoria’s Secret model.  (If you are asking….Did they EVER?  Just trust me, OK!? Everyone’s a damn skeptic…) Not to mention the mental malaise that accompanies inactivity.  So, I was due, or even overdue, to get back into a healthy routine.

This past weekend/fundjavë e kaluar (when I finally pried the crochet needle out of my hand) I dusted off and rolled out Old Faithful, my yoga mat.  It was during the summertime pushim (think of the Spanish siesta…2-4pm when its too hot to do anything so life shuts down for a mid-day snooze!) and my neighborhood was peacefully quiet.  Since I’m between major project work, no pressure of deadlines.  Conditions were perfect…. and so I got started.

It felt great to stretch again, twisting to align my spine, opening up my shoulders, and just getting moving again.  I was connected to myself and feeling centered (yes… I believe in that spiritual kind of talk, if you don’t…  go ahead and roll your eyes.  But beware, Kharma’s a bitch!).  I was in a zone, flowing through poses, using my oooo-gjah-eee ocean-sounding breathe and then something changed.  I could feel a bead of sweat/djersë rolling down my spine… a few moments later, another and then another. It’s quite distracting when you realize it’s so f@#*ing hot that sweat is not only being released from your pores, but in such a magnitude that it pools and then rolls off the body.  Wouldn’t you know….I’ve just created my own accidental *Bikram Yoga experience!

Temps in my “hometown” Elbasan have been hovering between 37-39° Celcius/98-100° Farenheit for the past few weeks with no end in sight.  And it’s STICKY too.  And just like winters….my apartment in the summertime is just about the same temperature INSIDE/brenda as it is outside/jashtë.  Which means, I’m also now becoming practiced in the art of Bikram Dish-washing, Bikram Typing, Bikram Web-browsing and my personal favorite, Bikram Napping.   Who knew the franchise could have such a broad range! 

So the way I see it…. if I keep up a moderate yoga practice and if I continue to sweat like a whore in church simply in stillness….then those abs I mentioned are gonna be back in Gisele Bündchen fightin’ condition real quick!  (You’re welcome, Jason.)

Peace, Love and Mercury Rising

PS…  While the included photos may not adequately represent the amount of sweat produced, it does represent some other interesting routines:
Cupboard doors left open - That’s my dish drying-rack.  I leave it open to help prevent mold. 

Multiple water bottles - Well, duh, Mama gotsta keep hydrated, what what!?

Tomato on top of the frying pan - Not really a routine at all… just that’s where I put it, but it seems embarrassing now that its captured on digital, so I felt like I had to acknowledge it. 

*Bikram Yoga, named for founder Bikram Choudhury, is ideally practiced in a room heated to 105°F (≈ 40C) with a humidity of 40% and is the most popular form of hot yoga. 

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Good Intentions Back-firing

Historical perspective:  About a year before leaving for Peace Corps service…. I learned how to knit.  I was intrigued by the productions (hats, scarves, even scrubbies) of my co-workers (artistic types at Childsplay, of course) and wanted to learn the craft.  So thanks to their patience… I got started on scarves.  And I was hooked! For my friends and family, it was like being on Oprah….You get a scarf and YOU get a scarf…. AND YOU GET A SCARF!   (still need to diversify my skill sets to hats, etc.) Not knowing what to expect from Albania… and thinking a low-tech hobby would be wise, I purchased all kinds of knitting needles and crochet hooks, how-to books… know, The Works.  Dammit if I wasn’t gonna make some masterpieces during my time aboard!  Upon arrival in Albania and with nearly instant access to the internet and other technology… my crafting time fell to the wayside. 

Environmental perspective: Although MUCH of Europe (Take note USA!)  has banned the use of plastic bags for grocery or other shopping…. Albania has not yet embraced this concept.  Plastic is King.  Often times, produce vendors/shitësit perime want to put your tomatoes in one bag, plums in another and carrots in another!  One visit to a store could mean 5 bags/qese  for just little ole me!  (I’ll refrain from the environmental impact soapbox here….but you all know just how BAD this is!  And if not….just google “impact of plastic bags on the earth” and prepare to be horrified. )  Anyway….its a problem here for sure.  And while the re-usable canvas bag concept is being introduced here….its slow in coming.

Personal perspective:   I’ve been lazy about carrying my canvas bag for shopping.  Or sometimes I stop at the store on a whim un-prepared and therefore have amassed a fair collection of plastic bags.  Recycling is rare, so that’s not an option and I just can’t bring myself to throwing them away….too toxic, too damaging/ shumë toksik, shumë të dëmshme.  (Yes, that last word has 4 consecutive consantants…that’s nothing, the word for "future" has six!)  So, I store them in a kitchen cupboard with good intentions to do SOMETHING… SOMEDAY.  But recently, I reached the breaking point.  Each time I’d open that cupboard, they’d billow out onto the floor and I’d have a WWF style fight on my hands to keep them contained inside.   Imagine smashing them to the back and trying to slam the cupboard door closed before they expand out again.  Repeat multiple times before success.  Half-hearted success as there was always some baggie remnant hanging out.  Close enough!  Anyway….it was bad, and my boyfriend started making threats….   

Pending Break-up + Internet + Crafts + Trash >>> Creative Innovation!

Well…not exactly my OWN innovation, but innovation I can be part of none the less.  I found some websites about re-purposing plastic bags and found a great pattern for crocheting with Plarn, “yarn” made from cutting and tying together strips of plastic bags.  I certainly had the products and the tools/produktet dhe veglat.  Now… I needed the “know-how”…  Faleminderit Youtube! 

And within just a few days I transformed those plastic bags into…. well…err...  another plastic bag.  Hrumphf.  Ah hell, at least it’s a cute one!!! 

 But the good deed back-fires.  Just like I took to knitting and made a trillion scarves, now  I want to make more bags and give them to everyone I know!  So I need to make more plarn.  Which means I need more baggies!  The exact product I was trying to avoid has now become my most urgent need!  (Dramatic, much?  Just wait.)  How, painful....the burden of artistry!  Oh the cruel, cruel irony/Ironia shume e mizor! 

Well, here is my plan:  I’ll start using my new, stylish and eco-friendly bag in moderation while I collect some more baggies.  And I’ll ask my co-workers, neighbors and friends to save their bags for me.  I’ll And then… I’ll make bags for them and help them to develop good re-useable bag habits and THAT’s how I’ll do my part to put a dent in the Albanian plastic epidemic.  Just give me a little more time….and a few more baggies!

Peace, Love and Trash intoTreasure

PS…I’ve definitely become a crochet monster...granny squares and hexagon flowers galore!!  Maja, Katie McF., Yolanda, thanks for being my inspiration.  Now…I just need to run to the yarn store and get me some more supplies!  Ooo!  I bet the lady there will put my yarn in plastic baggies!  Win-Win!

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Frustration Stinks. Do Something.

My dear Albanian neighbors and friends (near and far),

Allow me to express my great respect and appreciation for your kindness, generosity and hospitality.  Let me to say “Thank You” for helping me to integrate into your community, work among you and to encourage your youth to become confident and skilled leaders of the future.  And let me share in your frustration with the country’s challenges as you continue your development as a democratic nation.  I understand that programs and systems are not yet adequate to serve all your needs.   I understand why some days it feels like nothing will ever change.   But today, I have living proof that CHANGE IS POSSIBLE
A story:
A young woman stepped out of her apartment for a morning walk.  Immediately, the pungent odor of dog poop hit her in the face and seconds later, she discovered the source… a nasty mound, sitting on the stairway landing.  “Gross!” she thought as she passed, holding her breath and swatting away the flies that were buzzing around.  “The owner of that dog should clean that up!”

Some time later, returning from her walk, and having stopped at a market, the young woman climbed her stairs and was met again by the increasingly foul stench from the doggie pile-o-poo.  As she passed, she leaned away from the smell, but there was no escaping it and she had to stifle her gag reflex.  Not wanting the stink to infiltrate her groceries, the girl quickly entered her apartment, again thinking, “That is just disgusting!”  And she started to wonder…  Who’s dog was to blame for this offense?  Did any of her neighbors even own a dog?  Perhaps this was the mark of a street dog?  Regardless, she was steadfast, “Someone really needs to clean that up!”

Later that day, the young woman stepped out from her apartment again… it was still there, and potent as ever and she was frustrated.  How long would she have to wait for someone to clean up?  Until the evening?  Tomorrow?  Until it had become petrified shit?  She was so frustrated that she made a decision. I’m not willing to wait any longer.  She walked back inside, grabbed 3 plastic bags (tripling up for safety and the sheer ick-factor), and then literally took the matter into her own hands. 

Even though it was gross…  even though it wasn’t her dog or her mess… Even though others could have done the same thing… SHE DID IT!  She took that steaming sack of wretched animal feces and delivered it straight to the dumpster.  When she came back, the smell was nearly gone.  And she felt good.  Because she didn’t have to deal with it any longer.  And the young woman felt good because she knew she’d relieved her neighbors of the same unpleasant experience.  And she felt good because… SHE HAD NEVER DONE THAT BEFORE.

So as you can see… change can and does HAPPEN.  That young woman (notice how I keep using the adjective!) was ME.  And the story is true.  (You can even ask my mom!)  Never before in my life, have I ever WILLINGLY picked up dog crap!  But today, it was necessary and important... and so I did.  

And if I can change, and do just one little thing for my neighbors… think of the magnitude of change that will come when each Albanian does SOMETHING within their power to do something for their neighbors, their city, their country?  And not because its easy or popular… Or not because it’s their  job…   Or not because they’ll get public recognition… Just because they are not willing to wait any longer for something to change!   That day is coming and I just can’t wait!  (which is exactly the reason why I am here.)

So there you have it… the proof that change is possible.  It is within each of you.  Do something, anything. Don't wait, start today.  There will always be challenges and frustrations.  There will always be greater need than we can accommodate.  There will always be injustice.  But we must never stop ourselves from doing THOSE things that ARE within our power to bring change. 

Peace, Love and Extra Plastic Baggies

Monday, May 21, 2012

Smart Mob: Let’s Do It

While watching the Modern Family episode where Mitchell cheats on Cam in “the worst way…. Cheating with choreography”, I thought, “Hells Yes!…Albania needs a Flash Mob!”  I started asking around with some of my other G14 volunteers and the resounding response was….Pse Jo? Le te bejme!  Why not!? Let’s do it. 

Yes, these fellow volunteers just happen to be gregarious extroverts (not at all like me) who were lured by a love for performance and limelight.  But we also realized the potential for using our attention-whore-like attributes to raise awareness for a relevant cause, issue or organization in Albania.  Thus turning a flash mob into a “Smart Mob.” Ok, seriously….Let’s do it!  (I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that everytime I read those words, I hear Tone Loc’s scratchy “Let’s Do It” as the prelude to Wild Thing. More 90s Hip Hop playing a role in everyday Albanian life)

In a matter of days consisting of emails, brainstorming and “what-if?” “planning and BAM!: a committee was formed, project plan was designed and an NGO partner, Green Line Albania, was secured… their motto: Let’s Do It, Albania!  No, I’m not even shitting you!  Indeed, the stars were aligned! 

Green Line Albania, part of the civil society movement World Cleanup 2012, graciously accepted our PCV proposal to promote their initiative, "Ta Pastrojmë Shqipërinë në një Ditë" (To Clean Albania in One Day) via an Earth Day Smart Mob!  And the ball was rolling.  Vazhdojme!

It took weeks of dedicated coordination, strategy, a fair amount of silliness and… if I’m being honest, a shqip-ton of anxiety… came to fruition on Sunday, April 22nd, Earth Day in Tirana’s Parku Rinia/Youth Park.  Need proof?  

Just watch our video: I'd like to draw special attention to the early part of the dance where a plak/old man (also known as gjysh/grandpa) walks directly in front of our dancers!  Hilarious!  Even better....he just cops a squat on one of the benches nearby and is in the thick of the mob as more and more people join!

Over 120 Smart Mob participants (more than half were Albanian nationals!) launched a surprise performance, wearing “Clean Albania in One Day” T-shirts, carrying Let’s Do It logo signs and boasting a very public and positive statement about community activism.  Through the breadth of PCV outreach, 34 communities from across the country were represented in this event.  Eight weeks of planning, an 18-member committee, countless emails and phone calls… all for only a 5-minute Smart Mob Performance.  Was it worth it? 

Meledina Rrustemaj, a teenage participant from Koplik, a small northern town, remarked, “I had an unforgettable experience...  These American volunteers have opened doors and opportunities that support our lives, and our world.”  Yeah… was ABSOLUTELY worth it!  And finally, giving immeasureable credit, where credit is due….Shume Faleminderit to the Smart Mob Committee!  We certainly DID IT!

Oh...and since our Smart Mob is a promotional gig....please watch the video, share the video, add it to your Facebook etc.!  We want this thing viral!  Sure, if you have contacts in Albania, they are our preferred audience, but hey....we'll take what we can get!

Peace, Love and a 5, 6, 7, 8!

PS.  Jam dakord me Kaem / I agree with Cam...cheating with choreography really is the worst kind!  Cheating with karaoke is a close 2nd.  And its possible I've been found guilty of both.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Secret Family Recipe

All the brownie-lovers in the place say, “Yeah!”  
All the brownie-lovers in the place say “Hell Yeah” 
Hell Yeah!
Now somebody, anybody, every body….(I)scream!

Yes, I’ve dared to mix my love for 80’s hip hop and my eternal appreciation for fudgie desserts.  And I don't care for your eye rolls.  I did it.  It’s done.

Although I’ve had only minimal success introducing Albanian hipsters to the artistry of Run DMC, LLCool J or the Sugar Hill Gang… I have introduced my counterparts, neighbors and friends to the addictive qualities of BROWNIES.  

Note:  I have yet to discover an appropriate translation.  The best I can do is tortë me çokollatë/chocolate cake.  And let’s be perfectly clear here… there is a significant difference between chocolate cake (which is something I do not like) and brownies (in which I find the existence of God in each bite.) 

Back to the story.
I have now made three batches of brownies in Albania and each time I’ve shared with my co-workers, boss and of course the Mayor (a teacher’s pet never loses her touch.)  Much to my delight, they all enjoy the chocolate treats and shower me with compliments… that may be translated as “Wow, you MADE these!?” Or “Delicious, I want another.” Or “Oh, such a good girl” That last one may sound condescending to our American ears…but it is actually quite respectful here in Albania.  Since I’m not one to shy away from flattery…I soak up the praise like a sponge.   "Who me?  Oh, you are too kind!"  

But then the guilt begins to creep in.  After all, these accolades I am graciously accepting should actually be credited to… Mr. Duncan Hines, et al.   Po, eshte vertet/Yeah, that’s right.  My delicious, amazing, mouth-watering, perfect brownies come from a box!  From a box…uh uh, I’m not a-shamed, a box from a Kroger…I’m still getting paid! Reference to Digital Underground’s Humpty Dance. (Yes. I did it again.  It’s done. Again.)  I digress.  So the thing is, I find ways to justify the credit bestowed unto me.  
I did risk a nasty paper-cut opening the box.  
I did correctly the amount of water and oil to add to the mix.  
I did crack the two eggs flawlessly into the batter pa/without eggshells.  
I did stir the mixture until smooth-ish.  
I did pre-heat the oven and grease the pan.  
I did test for baking through with a toothpick.
Da-Yum - I’m exhausted!  Of course I deserve some credit for all my hard work!  

That is until that one troubling kerkese/request from my warm-hearted, thoughtful and appreciative co-workers is spoken aloud:  “Can you give me the recipe?”  Commence squirming.  Packaged ANYTHING is pretty rare around here.  And many Albanian women take great pride in their home-made embelsire/desserts.  
How do I begin to explain the laziness that is bred in American kitchens? (oh, not YOURS Paula Dean! Relax.)  How do I admit that I worked all of 5 minutes? 
How do I tell them the best flavors of the brownies have NOTHING to do with me?

It’s simple, I just say…”it’s a secret family recipe.”  :)  A little trick shared from "Aunt Jess."  And since my awesome vellai im i madh/big brother is the one who sent the Duncan Hines boxes… its not a TOTAL LIE!  Thank you Duncan.  Thank you Jess.  And thank you Dunny! 

Peace, Love and Licking the Spoon

PS.  Yes, theoretically, brownies from scratch CAN be made here in Albania.  But, ugh…the effort! ;)

*Coming soon: Smart Mob Post with some kick-ass Apache-inspired Jumpin On It.  

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Microwave Popcorn. Soooo Over It.

Quick Shqip Lesson:
If Pop=Puf and Corn=Miser, then naturally Popcorn would be….. Kokoshka! Exactly!

Ok…so I’ve already accepted that ol’ man Reddenbacher won’t be taking too kindly to this message. But life in Albania has lead me down a memory lane and along the way… I've rediscovered traditional popcorn… pa microwave! And with the batches of stove-top popcorn I’ve been making recently, I may never go back. BTW: "pa" in Shqip means without and in its short, sweet form, I’ve taken to applying it in my English vocab.

Although this “old-school” method may not produce results in 3 minutes… it’s not necessarily an arduous process. I’ve got down to about 12 minutes in total. Well…that’s if I’m being timed. But considering the pace of life here is a little more laid back… I’ll round up to 15 minutes for good measure. And really, when you're measuring out oil, its best to be slow and steady. Anyways... LET ME TELL YOU… it’s worth it! Harkins Theatre has NOTHING on my buttery theatre-style popcorn. Although you’ll be washing the greasiness from your hands for a good fortnight. And I’d willingly go head-to-head with any country festival booth manager who’s peddlin’ the ole Kettle corn. (Shout out to Aimee D for the addicting recipe!) And my new twist to the sweet kettle style is a dash of cajun spice…now that batch has a little ZING!

And the anticipation of the popping kernels is so much better than the old microwave bag. I just love that moment when so much has popped that the pots lid starts to rise up. It reminds me of times when I was little and my family was pa microwave and we’d make our own popcorn. Without this experience, maybe I'd have never recalled those moments with my mom and brother and the anticipation of those first kernels starting to pop. The memories are really quite sweet and I'm grateful. NOTE: If you are concerned about the level of enthusiasm I have over popping popcorn….let me just say, it was a long, cold winter/nje dimer i ftohte dhe gjate. And on that note, the action of shaking the pot so the bottom kernels don’t burn was a good way to warm up my insides!

Beyond the nostalgia comes the cost benefits to my Albanian cook-top prepared popcorn. I can make up to 3 batches for the USD equivalent of 65 cents! Consider that a 3-pouch box of PopSecret is $3. Still feeling the crunch of the US Economy? Apply to Peace Corps and Hajde me mua ne Shqiperi/Come with me in Albania! A measly bag of Lays Potato Chips, which is about a 1/3 the snacking amount of 1 Batch…costs me 50 cents. For you math-letes out there/nerd alert… I’m scoring BIG on some snackfood SAVINGS! However the extra savings will likely support a necessary gym membership as I’ve been known to scarf down a single batch (enough for 2-4 people) in less than 90 seconds. Photo evidence.

Anyway… what I’m trying to say is that I’ve found comfort/comfort food in reverting back to a lifestyle once enjoyed pre microwave convenience. Well….let’s just stick to the joys of my kokoshka, because when it takes me 20 minutes to reheat my leftovers from dinner last night… perhaps I'm a little less enthused! Ahh… nothing like that faithful hypocrisy to keep it real!

Peace, Love and Good Kernel Kharma

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Hey, Where's my Waist?

Albanian winters do no favors to a lady's figure. Case in point: although I'm only wearing 2 layers on bottom and 3 layers on top (its warm-ish today!)....the waistline overlap sums to a plump 5! How is this you may ask? Well...

My tank top-1 is tucked into long longs-2 that ride uncomfortably high over my belly button. What? They don't make low rise LJs? Then there is the long-sleeve t-shirt-3 which rests over the Steve Urkelesque LJs, but is then tucked snuggly into my jeans-4. And finally, my sweater-5 ... which fortunately covers my now very girth-y mid-section. And I'm not even counting "outerwear."

But alas, the forecast is showing progressively rising temperatures. Could it be the end is near... that soon my shape may be revealed once again? One can only hope! And come July, I'll be writing posts about how unbearable the heat is. There is no pleasing this girl. ;)

Peace, Love and tailored wardrobes

PS: All those layers also don't do favors for someone who consistently waits until the last minute to use the Ladies Room. Imagine frantic tugging combined with the international pee pee dance. I've had some close calls.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012


Or as we’d say in Shqip: Kikirikë (kee kee reek)

Peace Corps Volunteers survive on peanuts, I’m talking about the CASH-O-LA factor here….not those that go along with CrackerJax at the ballgame. In Albania, we live on $230 a month (actually women get an extra $5 a month. I’ll trust you can figure out why.) That translates to a little over $55 a week which should cover our costs for food, household items, hygiene, transportation and recreation. Our rent and utilities are paid through a separate “allowance.”

The $230 Living Allowance is less than 10% of my previous, modest non-profit monthly salary (after taxes/pas takseve). And I thought I was living on a BUDGET then! Do you think YOU could do it?

Sure, there are differences in prices/çmimi (chmee-mee) between the United States and Albania. But I can assure you, our allowance doesn’t allow for much wiggle room. My days of impulse buys are long gone. Good thing there aren't racks with the gossip magazines at the market/tregu (tray-goo).

See here that nearly 75% of my budget is food-related. (Nerd Alert! Yes…I keep track of my purchases to make visual aids like these!) And for a frame of reference: Here are some of my typical Albanian costs, well…averages, converted to US Dollars:

• 1 liter of milk: $1.15 (about 4 bucks a gallon)
• 1 loaf of bread: $0.40
• A bottle of water: $0.50
• 2 lbs of tomatoes: $0.70 (produce is really affordable and super fresh!)
• Small Jar of Peanut Butter: $4.00 (Yowzah! Now that’s a luxury purchase)
• 16oz. bag of pasta: $0.75
• Snickers Bar: $0.40
• Indiv. Bag of Lays BBQ: $0.50
• Fast Food lunch: $1.50
• Coffee Break: $0.70
• Pizza and a Salad dining out: $7.50
• 3-hour busride: $4.50
• Texting plan-500 in 30 days: $5.00
• Cut/style/blowdry: $6.00 (women’s)
• Shampoo: $4.50 (Pantene)
• 12-roll pack of TP: $3.20
• Hand-knit wool socks: $2.50

What surprises you most? My inexpensive texting plan or that shampoo isn’t such a smoking deal? That a simple US “staple” like Peanut Butter is considered High End? Or that my coffees are less than a dollar! (No venti caramel macchiatos here!)

How do I do it? For one thing, I’ve cook much more at home and with the freshness of fruits and vegetables, it can be pretty delicious/shume e shijshme (shoom ay sheesh-may)! I don’t spend much on “nightlife,” but with gender norms among other factors, my town’s nightlife scene isn’t exactly a major draw. And for household cleaning… a bulk purchase of dish soap has served well for dishes, cleaning the bathroom, mopping the floors, etc! Creativity with resources!

Besides, when it all boils down, I’m a product of H. Lee Dunn, Financial Advisor and Frugality Expert. He taught me how to be smart with my money and so I manage. I try to stick to essential purchases, even though I'll treat myself to ice cream now and then! But damn it... if there aren’t days when walking past that super cute shoe store doesn’t take ALL MY WILLPOWER!

In the US, how do you spend your money? On things you need? On things you want? On things that ensure you "keep up with the jones's?" How much do you spend on yourself versus on others? Is your spending thoughtful or careless...or somewhere in between (that's where I prefer to be)? I only ask because many incredible non-profits are struggling in the current US economy. Before YOUR next impulse buy...consider saving that $$ and sending it to your favorite charity or buying a hot meal for the homeless man you always see on that corner. No buyer's remorse will follow that decision!

Peace, Love and Creamy JIF in care packages (HINT)

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

My Albanian Liquid “Heroin”

Look, I’m not admitting that I have a problem. This is not a cry for help. So, don’t even think about an Intervention. I’d see right through that bulllllllshit… I mean, come on! Why would my best friend ask me to meet her at some random hotel room? Oh no… I’m not havin' it!

Here’s the thing… its not about addiction. I just really really really must have … (be strong, Melia... nothing to be ashamed of) HOT SHOWERS! And I'll say it: I don’t want to live, if it means living without them! As I think about how I crave the hot shower experience, I can’t help but relate to the heroin addicts I’ve encountered. And by encounter, I mean… watch with blink-less fascination on TLC’s gut-wrenching Intervention and movies like Requiem for a Dream, Traffic and so on. So clearly, the following comparison between your typical, run-of-the-mill junkie and my own steamy vices will be based only on the most solid of expertise.

Let me walk you through it.

It’s morning and roughly 50 degrees or so inside my apartment. Crawling out of the radiant heat of my mummy bag, every fiber of my being screams for that fix, that comfort, that that sweet satisfaction. As I make my way to my bathroom, I watch my breath float in front of me and imagine the blue-ish purple shade my lips have taken. I’m careful to prepare my private sanctuary, securing the window closed and sliding the door closed behind me. Afterall, I can’t bear to give up a single droplet of steam. Stripping down, revealing the bareness of my soul, moderate chills grow into shivers. And on the occasions when I’m careless enough to let my tootsies hit the frosty tiles… we’re talking full-body convulsions. But it doesn’t last. No… I won’t let it last. My reprieve is only moments away.

When the fog begins to rise, it marks the moment I’ve been aching for. One deep breath and without hesitation, I step into the flow. Pure, unapologetic indulgence. As the first waves of hot water wash over me, I’m rendered virtually useless. No shampooing, no sudzing… just my Id reveling in its pleasure. During these precious moments, nothing else… no one else matters. When I finally “come to”, there’s no telling how much time has passed. Seconds? Minutes? Weeks?
The high is too good. I’m woozie, stoned, giddy with feeling the warmth reach my core. It’s what makes me feel alive again.

I manage my way through the typical routine, wash face, condition hair, shave legs, yatta yatta… it’s all a ruse. Just opportunities to ride the high for as long as possible. Once there’s nothing left to do (or I can sense the hot water running frighteningly low), I allow myself one more little taste… pushing the nozzle just a little hotter, a little sumthin’ to get me through. Drying off brings fast, aggressive scrubbing of the skin, scrubbing away the guilt from placating my urges. And suddenly, I’m overwhelmed with resentment… furious at all the things (work, meals, friends, etc) that stand between me and my next fix. Returning to reality, I can hardly even look at myself. (But that’s only because the mirror is all fogged up!)

Hello. I’m Melia and I’m a hot shower addict. It’s been a little over 14 hours since my shower. And I don’t think I’ll make it much longer.

Peace, Love and Steamy Bathrooms

Blogger’s Note: I truly believe that addiction is a disease that requires both significant medical and emotional support to overcome. Despite the tone of this post, in no way, do I wish to minimize the experiences and trails of any addict. May we all muster the courage to battle our demons.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Room Temperature, Where Art Thou?

Forgive me while boastfully say, “I think I’ve adjusted pretty damn well to life in Albania.” Granted… many of my fellow volunteers may chide me for the “luxuries” that my site placement of Elbasan provides. And they are right, I am lucky/Jam me fat to live in a larger city that has supermarkets, fairly consistent electricity, 24-hour access to water and a wealth social gathering spots. Elbasan is also considered one of the “warmer” areas of Albania. (Those quotes are meant no disrespect to my dear friends who live up in the mountains and frequently face temps in the negatives.) But hey now! Come on… I’m a desert-dweller and 10 years in the Valley of the Sun has made me soft!

I may have you wondering, “Just how cold/f is it?” Well, the nightly lows are right around freezing, 0C or 32F and the highs range from 6-10C or 43-50F. Hey…I can hear you scoffing…Ugh, that’s not so bad! And well, true, it’s not. (Here comes the BUT!) But I’ve eluded before to construction in Albania. My apartment walls are made of pure concrete block and there is literally no insulation. Windows are usually single pane, and “leaky.” In addition, central heating is a RARE phenomena. This means that more often than not, the temperature inside my apartment is the same as the temperature outside! And NO JOKE…there are times in the mid-morning, when it’s actually warmer OUTSIDE! What was that? The sound of your mind being blown? I’ll give you a moment to re-group.

Now, let’s contine/Tani, le te vazhdojme
. I’ve developed the greatest appreciation for what we in America so casually took for granted – Room Temperature (approx 68F.) Much of this information about climate was provided to us before leaving the US. So… I did pack accordingly…layers, long johns, hats, winter coats, wool socks…the whole she-bang! And... those with hearts bigger than Texas (yea…that’s right, BIGGER than Texas!) sent me some warm goodies. And I am quite certain that my well-intended mother has cleared out Kohl’s entire winter selection of FLEECE. Not even remotely an exaggeration.

Again, I’m a lucky one. My apartment is in great condition and my landlady takes great care to keep me warm, well-fed and happy! For heat, I have an electric unit. But as PCV’s with a TIGHT budget, this can be an expensive option. So it's only used in the COOOOOLDEST situations as a last resort. Usually, I crawl into my sleeping bag and bundle up. I have an *electric blanket that I use from time to time as well. So… truthfully, its not too difficult for me to warm up when I need to. (Here comes another BUT!) But, the low temps insidehave other effects…like how everything inside my apartment is cold too!

So here are some more reasons why I miss Room Temperature….and how I try to deal with it:
Freezing tile floors: Slippers are essential if not popular! And its good practice to have enough for house guests too. When I don’t have my slippers on, I try to hop from one area rug to another!
3-day “dryer cycle”: Wait, I thought they didn’t have dryers in Albania? We don’t! We air dry… and in these cold days, its takes FOREVER.
Take an outfit from the closet…COLD!: On the really cold mornings, I turn on my *electric blanket and lay my outfit folded inside. The first time I did this, I felt like a rocket-scientist.
Chilly mouthwash and toothpaste: I let the Listerine just hangout in my mouth and warm from my body heat. I know it sounds ridiculous, but you try chilling your Scope and see how it feels!
Frigid Deoderant: Clearly, I’m not strong enough for a “cold shower” to wake me up. But I do let the icy deodorant give me a jolt every morning!
Frosty Toilet Seat: Yowzahs! The complete opposite of Hot, crossed buns! It’s gonna get a little personal here. Sheild your eyes if necessary. I don’t pull my pants down the whole way! I let them give me a little frost barrier on the edge of the seat and hope for minimal splash back. (Now I understand why Gramma Dunn liked those old-lady cushioned toilet seats!)

And finally, the best thing I can do when I’m cold in my apartment: Get OUT of my apartment! Kick around a soccer ball with the kids in my neighborhood. Browse the latest collections at the Gabi/Second-hand store. Go to a café and meet a friend for a coffee, hot cocoa or WINE! Challenge the old men in the park to a game of dominos. Go for a walk in the sun and strike up a conversation with a gramma/gjyshe who is selling her hand-knit wool socks. Buy a pair of wool socks! Accept an invitation to visit with my friend/shoqen time. To put it simply, be a good PCV!

Peace, Love and Finger-less Mittens!

*if you've accepted an Invitation To Serve as a future volunteer in Albania and arriving in March, DO NOT bring a US electric blanket. They don't do well with the voltage here. I found mine in Tirana for $25 US and it's perfect! Besides, use that space in your bag for something FUN! Oh...and CONGRATULATIONS!

COD and I ain't talking Fishsticks!

This week marks 10 months of living in Albania as a PCV in COD (Peace Corps Volunteer in Community and Organizational Development). And all this time, I’ve been creatively dodging a popular question… “But WHAT is it that you ACTUALLY do!?” Well friends, the wait is finally over. (Sighs of relief are heard ‘round the world.)

First… A point of reference:
The 3 Goals of Peace Corps.
1) Helping people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.
2) Helping promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.
3) Helping promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.

Now… these are the World-wide Goals, and of course, each country has its own set of objectives for their specific needs. Don’t worry, I won’t bore you with all of them. (Sighs of relief are heard ‘round the world.) But I can tell you briefly, Albania is focused on building capacity of personnel in local governments, health centers and schools. My “official” role is COD-ing at the local government, specifically the Municipality of Elbasan/Bashkia Elbasan.

So, why have I been so reticent to talk about my work? Well….quite frankly, at first, it didn’t really feel like I was doing much! Hmmm…. Not exactly what you want to be reporting to the American tax-payers. D’oh! And, it was making me feel a little guilty. After all, the whole reason I joined Peace Corps was to DO SOMETHING! Even though I was trying to get involved, my wheels were just spinning. If you know me, you know how frustrating that must have been.

But as PCV’s, we are constantly reminded by our staff and colleagues that THIS IS NORMAL. Our first several months are less about projects and more about relationship-building, observation and cultural adaptation. (Hey does this sound anything like fundraising and resource development?) OK… of course, I can appreciate that. But, I am my father’s daughter and I do believe reckless impatience is hereditary. But recently, my begrudged patience has begun to payoff.

Today, I’ll focus on Goal 1, and other posts can address my “extra-curricular activities. Lest we forget, as a PCV, my job is not 9-5 Monday through Friday, but 24-7 Sunday to Sunday. I don’t have the option of turning off my community status “The American Girl/goca amerikane.” Therefore, Goals 2 & 3 become muddled between my professional and personal lives. This may be the only time in my life where I have ZERO work-life balance and actually embrace it!

So WHAT is it that I ACTUALLY do?!
I’m a consultant. I’m an advisor. I’m a morale booster. I’m a trainer. I’m a co-grant writer. “co” because with everything we do… we should be passing our expertise on to our Albanian counterparts. I’m a “what if we try it another way”-er. I’m and English speaker and quasi-tutor. (But I’m NOT an English teacher!) Essentially, I’m whatever the Municipality of Elbasan needs me to be (Hey oh!) Perhaps I should rephrase: I serve many roles based on my expertise and experience.

I participate in meetings about developing a “marketing strategy” to promote good work being done and future city improvements. I support a public/private committee of staff from the municipality and Elbasan non-profits charged with promoting volunteerism (which lead to a community-wide clean-up day pictured here.) I offer my suggestions on professional development needs, anything from presentation skills to using Excel (many financial reports are done by hand! Wha-wha-WHAT?!). I ask a lot of questions. Then I usually ask them again because I misunderstood the Shqip, or because something was lost in translation or because…things just change! I listen to staff express their frustrations with political challenges (although PCVs do not make political judgments!) In these cases, I try to encourage creative alternatives…or somedays, just let my colleagues vent. I join colleagues at seminars on project design and management so that we can learn and collaborate.

Does any of this truly serve Goal 1? I mean… how am I doing, here? At a conference, we were told, “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” Ummm. Errr. Well. Ugh. Am I making tangible changes in Local Government systems? Not exactly. Am I making a change among the people that I work closely with? I think so, a little. Will those little changes make a difference in their lives, their work, their contribution to their country? This is my sincere hope! And only time will tell.

Peace, Love and Making it Count

PS: The concept of measuring impact always makes me think of the very wise, very much respected Debra K. Stevens, begging the question, “But HOW can we measure JOY!?”

PPS: It also makes me think of the very wise and very much respected David Saar who served as a PCV in Sierra Leon in the late 1960’s teaching English, among other things. He received a phone call in 2010 from one of his students…who had become… oh JUST THE COUNTRY’S PRESIDENT! Confirmation that the seeds we plant as volunteers do grow strong and mighty! :)