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! :)