update – 2018

welcome back!  i can’t believe the time that has passed since i started this blog – the very first day that i left nashville for pre-service training (PST) starting in philadelphia – march 18th, 2013.

now, november 8th, 2018 – not only time that has passed, but all that has happened.  my 3+ years in albania were the best and hardest that i’ve every experienced.  not only did i get the experience of a lifetime becoming emotionally & personally invested in another culture and people, i learned much about myself, and honed skills that i never thought that i had.

after completing the requisite 27 month (3 months of training + 2 years of service), i was able to extend for a 3rd year and moved to elbasan – a city that i spent much time in due to the hiking group and friends.

i had been put into contact with two amazing women who worked with the psychiatric hospital and community health center in elbasan.  i told them about the cognitive-behavioral therapy training and asked if they would like to work with me.  they accepted.  so, in june of 2015 i moved from gjirokastër to elbasan.

leaving gjirokastër was bittersweet.  i had made a really good friend in my language tutor, who became not only a tutor but amazing counterpart.  she and i began a roma community project at the nëntë-vjeçare (elementary school) outside gjirokastër – and, because of that i connected with the Qendra Komunitare Rome Elbasan in elbasan – utilizing the amazing language teacher resources available through peace corps, and creating another weekly project with the roma community center in elbasan with besa.

during my year in elbasan, i offered many trainings – the cognitive-behavioral therapy training for mental health professionals and teachers, focusing on groups for both adults and children, in elbasan, fier, and tirana.  i was also able to offer a quick training to the new group of peace corps volunteers that were in pre-service training during my last few months.  oh, and i presented at a conference in tirana on the CBT trainings.  i also had the opportunity to work with a group from the bashkia of elbasan for a project that was started by a COD volunteer for high school students focusing on speaking english.  for 5 months i had the privilege of working with a talented and hard-working group of high school students, learning about their community, politics and the world – in english.

the anti-trafficking peace corp group that i was involved in during my two years created and offered a training-of-trainers (TOT) in tirana that was a great success – a community outreach that helped reach all parts of albania.

thinking back, one activity while not the most successful, but one that i was particularly excited about starting was an animal group with a fellow volunteer and dedicated group of albanian animal lovers – Elbasan Cares About Animals. while we presented to the bashkia what we thought was a workable plan to sterilize the stray dogs of the city in under 2 years, we weren’t able to convince the city to undertake the project.  thankfully though the core group that i regularly worked with continues to advocate and keep a watch on the stray dogs of elbasan.

needless to say, the last two years went fast.  that first year was rough – i’m the first to admit.  but, i wouldn’t trade any of it.

i guess the biggest news was that i met someone while in albania.  and, over the course of my three years, we became good friends, dated and decided to come back to america together.  i won’t bore you with the fiancé visa details, but that process was not for the faint of heart (and, if anyone tries to say it is easy to get into the US legally – they’re full of it).   fredi received his visa in time for my end of service – so, we took 6 weeks and traveled through the yugoslavian counties that i had not visited yet (montenegro, croatia, & slovenia), then up and around europe until we landed in amsterdam to iceland then boston on august 8th, 2016.

our first two days states-side were spent at an extremely kind high school friend’s home, catching up before departing for home (nashville).  we had a welcome home committee with my mom and brother.  i’ve had two years home now, and there is nothing like coming home.

needless to say, we were under some pressure to get hitched.  with a fiancé visa, you have 90 days to get married from the time you enter the country and send in the next part of the paperwork.  with the help of my mom and two, very dear friends – in six weeks, with a lot of prodding from those lovely ladies to stay on track, we got married.

and, on october 2nd, 2018 – we celebrated our two year anniversary.  it seems unreal that two years has gone by.  in those two years, i took a temporary job at vanderbilt, then was fortunate to get offered a full-time position in a research administrative job.  fredi, my albanian bear, got his work permit, took a job with my father’s old company, six months later was offered another job as a maintenance supervisor.  his co-workers have been supportive and impressed with his dedication.  his green card came through finally 9 months after we returned home.  in the big scheme of things, not very long – but the waiting was challenging.  in the current political climate, each day felt like a year – would he get a green card or no?  the issue came to: will we be able to stay or will we need to move to another country?  thank goodness it worked out how we hoped.

and, now circling back to where we started with this entry – mirësevini (welcome in albanian)…  we’ve returned to albania for vacation.

 

so, there is more to come, but as i remember from before – these blogs take time.  we’ve been having a great time… visiting with friends, family & hiking!  i have some great photos – and, will keep working to get those up soon.  HUGS to all.

 

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day ??? (tiranë to elbasan) — saturday, may 14th, 2016

bikeride13day ??? (y3, d???): i wanted to post this sooner rather than later because it was a really great day.  i spent the day in tiranë and took part in the TiranaGay(P)Ride5 ride.  i came in support of fellow PCV, jon.  a friend since he arrived during my second year.  he’s done great LGBT work.  creating a project that brought together PCVs with several NGOs in tiranë.  they created a human rights-LGBT awareness youth program, traveling around the country to engage youth in being knowledgable and therefore more open and respectful to differences.  at least that is how i view it.  i had the good fortune to be able to bring jon and his project to the keshilli rinor elbasan program.  we viewed the documentary “ScaNdal” then weeks later had jon and gene from PC, along with two representatives from Aleanca LGBT and ProLGBT from tirana for a group discussion… great session.

bikeride3today, was the 5th annual ride/parade.  for the last two years, i’ve wanted to take part, but couldn’t because of timing and living in gjirokastër, but today i did.  and, i am so glad that i had the opportunity.

it was an amazing group of individuals from across the board… women, men, shqiptarët, amerikanët, gay, straight… everything on the spectrum.  all working toward the same goal of wanting everyone to live peaceably together.

plus, it was a nice way to see some volunteers who i don’t have the opportunity to see very often, as well as to say goodbye to those leaving soon.

there were some beautiful photos taken, and i wanted to share them with you all.

here is a funny one that i want to share separately.  our current US ambassador is a really neat man.  i had the opportunity to hear him speak at the group 19 swearing in, and he just seems like a genuinely nice person.  plus, in a very short period of time, he learned a great deal of shqip.  probably more than i’ve managed in my three years (and, he’s been here a year).

ambassador lu posed with the PCV group for a photo at the end of the ride.  one photo was taken of jon and me looking up at him, which makes it appear as if we’re in awe… which in some ways, i think that we all are.

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here is a video that was produced today…

and, if you would like to read an article about today’s event, click here.

highlight of the day:  just a genuinely beautiful day.

day ??? (elbasan) — thursday, april 28th, 2016

EYC stress sessionday ??? (y3, d???):  today was a fun day.  karla came for a visit… well, she has a session tomorrow, and she is staying with me overnight.  so, yea.  aside from regularly scheduled check-in meetings with my counterpart, karla went with me to the elbasan youth council meeting.

today we talked about stress.  a little mental health check-in session.  as with students in the US, this time of year is particularly stressful.  their version of our high school senior (3rd year gjmnaz), they have to take matura exams, which help place them for college.  the tests basically review their knowledge from all of their high school career.   i took a session that i created my first year in gjirokastër for one of my conversation classes and adapted it for them.  look at me, recycling lessons!

karla and i had a leisurely afternoon.  we had coffee at my favorite place, bar smile’s, and i helped her pick out and order a new smart phone (her first ever).  then we went home and ate fërgesë that fredi had made for us the night before.  living the good life.

highlight of the day:  a really nice afternoon with karla.

day ??? (elbasan) — wednesday, april 27th, 2016

IMG_1008day ??? (y3, d???):  today besa and i visited the roma community center.  as hard as i try to go once a week, we’ve been averaging about twice a month.  with pre-service training happening, besa is being pulled in lots of directions, and with my trying to finish up several projects, i too find that a week gets by me before i realize that we haven’t scheduled.

this week i turned our session into an animal awareness activity, trying to tie into several of my other activities.  we talked about dogs, the stray/street dogs and about how best to care for a dog in your home.  the kids, as usual, were great.  they knew all the answers: you feed them, give them water, keep them clean and give them love!  we ended the session with a coloring sheet: “Q është për Qentë!” [D is for Dog, in english].  they are truly little rays of sunshine.  and, this little girl’s group has acquired two boys, franko and nisi.  so sweet.

 

street doghighlight of the day:  working with this group of children really makes my day.  especially when i think back to the first time besa and i worked with them.  we thought that it would always be a chaotic mess.  but, we’re all working together and having a nice time (in times of chaos and not).
the Elbasan CARES about Animals group is collecting photos of stray/street dogs.  so, i try to take photos when i’m out.  this was the little fellow that i snapped today.

day ??? (elbasan to ohrid & resen [macedonia] to drilona to elbasan) — tuesday, april 26th, 2016

04-26-2016day ??? (y3, d???):  fredi and i took a quick trip into macedonia today.  i wanted to use each and every vacation day (today marked my last vacation day with peace corps).  so, we borrowed a car and drove across the border. we drove through struga, but didn’t stop until ohrid.  ohrid has a medieval castle, many older churches, lots of hills and follows along the coast of lake ohrid.

DSC_0052you see so many old yugos here, as we did when we were in serbia.  it is funny having grown up hearing about them, more as a joke, but here they are still in use on the road.  apparently they are very popular.

as soon as we were able to find our way to the old part of the city, we hoofed it up to the DSC_0055castle.  the route to the old city is not well marked, we asked about a half dozen people for directions.  fredi would stop when he saw someone he deemed albanian.  25% of macedonians are ethnically albanian. so, even though there is the macedonian language, many also speak albanian.  it is really neat to see the interaction, because there is always the inevitable, “where are you from?”  and, a quick exchange on the mother country.

DSC_0104ohrid reminds me of many of the ottoman style cities in albania.  DSC_0127the cobblestone roads, castle, and ottoman homes.  quite beautiful.  here you see a light fixture along the cobblestone streets… looks like little a mini-ottoman house.

ohrid is also a UNESCO site.

after exploring the castle, we took a stroll down to the serbian orthodox church. interestingly, there was  small entrance fee. i hadn’t wanted to exchange money, but had brought euro.  the ticket taker preferred no money than euro.  strange that!

next up, we traveled to a small, small town called resen.  fredi’s great, great grandfather came from resen.  apparently he had some sort of “problem” as a youth, so he decided to reloDSC_0143cate, and he was told elbasan was as clean, quite and hospitable as resen.  if only elbasan was as clean and quite as apparently it was a hundred years ago.  resent is known for its apples. so, we stopped and took photos of the apple groves.

they also have some gorgeous architecture.  we found their cultural center, a magnificent yellow neoclassical building built in the early 1900s.  we were given a forced tour… we just wanted to see the building and got roped into a tour of random art.  then, we were asked for money.  as previously noted, we didn’t come with much.  the poor curator seemed very crestfallen.  what to do?  we didn’t want the 3 cent tour that cost 5 euro.

 

on our way out of town, we stopped on the side of the road and bought a bunch of apples… apples for a year.  why?  only an albanian could answer that question.

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we drove back to ohrid (the part along the lake) for lunch.  we saw one more church and had a quite traditional meal.  much like albanian food here: salad and gjellë (soup).

trip to macedonia april 2016it was time to start traveling back.  we were making a big loop around the lake and we wanted to stop at two more places.  we did make a grocery store run to pick up supplies.  things are a little cheaper here and with slightly better selection (and, some say better quality products).

next stop was to visit the monastery of saint naum… or, at least the outside of one.  the monastery was built in 905.  many years ago.  it is beautifully positioned along the lake.  apparently they are home to at least one peacock, and several other water fowl.  it would be a relaxing place to spend the afternoon lolling about.

a few signs as we were heading out… and a very cool bunker overlooking the lake.

but, the day was slowing beginning to fade, and we wanted to stop in drilon near pogradec.  it is now a nature center that used to be one of hoxha’s vacation homes.   isn’t it nice that all these balkan dictators had many houses and several vacation homes, nice cars and plenty of food, yet the people of their countries were forced to be very spartan and simple?

highlight of the day:it may very well have been the dunking ducks!  so delightful.

just in case you are interested in seeing how many apples we brought home…

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day ??? (elbasan) — monday, april 25th, 2016

IMG_0977day ??? (y3, d???):  it was a busy day.  i met the elbasan youth council students along with the danida center staff for the municipal council meeting.  both students who presented did a very good job.  both projects were approved and now (i hope) the students will get on with planning.

the animal welfare group that i created with mike, a sitemate, has been trying to meet with the bashkia veterinarian.  we have a list of questions and in order to move forward (decide how best we can help the stray dog problem), we want to know what they (the bashkia) are doing and how we can work together.  i knew that we might have a meeting today; it was all up in the air.  and, i fully expected a few others to join.  in the typical fashion of how things happen here, within 30 minutes, i had a meeting scheduled and none of the others from the group could attend.  so, it was just me and the vet with a bashkia worker to translate.  thank goodness for cristina, because the vet is a talker.  but, in the end, he says that he wants our group (Elbasan CARES about Animals) to collaborate with the bashkia.  so, i invited him to friday’s regularly scheduled meeting.  avash, avash.  things move only at the pace that things will move here … slowly, slowly.

the rest of the afternoon was spent looking for supplies for the bathroom project which we’ll start working on friday… finally.

highlight of the day:  taking the first step toward the last steps toward finishing this last grant.

day ??? (elbasan) — sunday, april 24th, 2016

IMG_0951day ??? (y3, d???): today i met with a few of the students in the Elbasan Youth Council (Keshilli Rinor Elbasan) to work on their presentations for the municipal council meeting tomorrow. they will present their two projects for approval to the bashkia (their city’s council), then they have all of the month of may to implement their projects.

we’ve spent much of this semester getting ready for this. sadly, they aren’t quite there, but i’m trying to help them think concretely in order to get ready.   make sense?   one group is working on an animal awareness project while the other will do something to help children at an orphanage (it is still not clear, or concrete to me).   fingers crossed it all comes together.

highlight of the day: helping the students practice and think critically about their projects.

last night when i came home there was a roma wedding happening somewhere south of my building… it was so loud. seriously, the activity was probably happening a quarter of a mile away, yet sounded like the party was downstairs. AND, i’m on the 7th floor…

 

day ??? (elbasan to divjakë and back) — saturday, april 23rd, 2016

DSC_0014day ??? (y3, d???):  today i visited paulina in divjakë.  i had talked about visiting her sin
ce the beginning of her service (2 years ago).  and, now she’s COSing (finishing her service) and leaving country.  so, today, i went over for a quick visit.  i hate visiting this close to anyone leaving their site since all of us have the same tendency… procrastinating packing, saying goodbyes, and generally stressing out about getting out of country in a few days.  but, paulina seemed exceedingly relaxed for someone leaving country in 4 days.  i’m stressing and i have 2 months.  maybe that says something about our personality styles, and i need to take a page out DSC_0022of her book.

i had invisioned a much smaller town.  but, it is perfect.  it would have been a great place to run, especially since there is a national park just down the road that ends in a forest and lagoon: the national park of karavasta.  in addition to a lovely wide sidewalk running from the town into the park, granted the sidewalk is a recent addition.

the park is home to a special breed of pelican, pelican kaçurrel.  here is a short albanian news video on the pelican:

DSC_0004the word, kaçurrel, means “curly” in shqip.   the pelicans have curly feathers on top of their heads.  they are special to park in divjakë and to lake prespa south between pogradec and korçë.

while i wasn’t able to get a close up photo, we did see about half a dozen flying around while we wondered about.

DSC_1011once you make it to one of the beaches, there is a dock/bridge leading to a very small island.  apparently in the summer this is a popular spot for both sunbathers and pelicans.  let me back up now, because on our walk into the park, we were joined by a 4-legged friend.  she stayed with us most of the trip, so i took a few photos while we were enjoying the view.

the dog was very sweet.  she just walked with us, looking every now and again to see that we were following her.  paulina was very worried for her safety because there are some bear-sized german shepherds in the park.  needless to say this little girl has some hutzpah.  while we were terrified as we passed the very large, aggressive dogs, our uninvited guess raced by without a thought.

we walked back a slightly different way to avoid the other dogs.  we came across an old fisherman’s boat, some crabs and a bunker.  in addition, the trees are incredible.  i recently learned that up until 1979 (i believe), albania was 67% trees.  i can see that walking through this park.  what a shame they’ve destroyed so much of their forests logging.

before returning to town we stopped at the park office.  paulina has made friends with the director and workers.  a very nice group.  paulina has spent a lot of time out here on a trail marking activity with youth, in addition to many visits with visiting volunteers, and just hanging out.  the workers have done a great job of taking care of the park, and creating picnic tables, benches and flower containers out of fallen trees.  it is a refreshing change to see people taking pride in their work.

the walk back was picturesque.  lots of poppies… how can you not smile looking at a field of poppies?   also, there are some cows… not the typical albanian cow, but something imported.  not sure of the breed though.   there are lots of birds, including ducks and egrets.  and, a very big bug on the side of the road.

DSC_0040we made it back into town, and paulina saw me off on the furgon.  it was an interesting trip back.  i had several legs, and as a surprise i caught the mini-bus that i used to always take from gjirokastër to elbasan in rrogozhinë.  DSC_0043it is always nice to see a familiar face when you’re in unfamiliar territory.

highlight of the day: spending a lovely afternoon with a friend.