Friday, August 30, 2013

Bloodfest aka Kulmak aka DEAD SHEEP ERRRRYWHERE

I need to do a better post on religion in Albania, but a small introduction will suffice for now. 

Last weekend, a bunch of volunteers headed to south central Albania for Kulmak, a Bektashi ceremony on Mount Tomorri. The Bektashi order is an Islamic Sufi order founded in Turkey in the 13th century. The headquarters is in Tirana, and a large percentage of Bektashis live in Albania. Kulmak - or "Bloodfest," as we PCVs fondly refer to it - is a giant celebration on a giant mountain in honor of a flying saint on a flying horse but for some reason 7,000 sheep are slaughtered which is why we call it "Bloodfest" and I'm about as clear in this sentence as I am on the particulars of the event.

Anyway, the trip was an adventure, to say the least. Megan and I made it from Lushnje to Berat, where we had lunch with some PCVs (including Dan, who lives there and who I finally got to visit!) before a larger group of us headed further south to Corovode. In Corovode, we met up with even more PCVs and the two that live there, Heather and Lizzie. The town is gorgeous: built into a hill, there are tons of beautiful stone steps up the slopes, with restaurants nestled in the switchbacks of the roads. 

Because our group was so big, we split up the next morning to travel up the mountain. After some difficulty finding a ride (so expensive for my little group of four!), we flagged down a passing truck with sheep in the back. Somehow we managed to squeeze ourselves in, and braced ourselves for a hair-raising, stomach-churning, vertigo-inducing three-hour climb.

Of course, we stopped for coffee in an isolated little village halfway up.

Close to the festivities, we happened upon two other PCVs who had hiked most of the way up and who joined the sheep in the back of the truck. As we reached the top, ominous clouds were rolling in over the triple peaks of Tomorri and we all ran over to a make-shift lokale protected by a myriad of tarps and sheets. Thankfully, our luck kept and we grabbed a table and pulled up chairs just as it started raining...CATS. AND. DOGS.

It got cold - really cold - and I loved it. After this summer, a fresh, cool breeze and a couple of goosebumps were, dare I say it?, delicious. (Yes, I'm going to eat my words in about six months. Feel free to remind me and make fun of my insulation-less cement apartment. I won't be enjoying the nice fresket breezes so much then...)

After the rain abated, we checked out the festivities. The gloomy weather lent a sort of macabre air to the lively music accompanying a backdrop of bleating sheep and bloody slaughter grounds. Seriously, so. very. eastern. European. Think Dracula. Or Dracula-ish. If he didn't drink blood but instead spat it out all over a mountain.

Sorry about that imagery. Brace yourself for a few gory photos:

Of course there were some bloodthirsty PCVs who wanted to slaughter their own sheep "in the name of cultural immersion." There's a video. I feel like I must have a heart of ice because it doesn't give me nightmares. It should.

Later on, we went for a hike up the road towards the peak where the holy tekke stands. It's a good 3 hour hike, and we didn't intend on going all the way up (as it was getting late), but some shqiptars pulled over and told us to hop in for a ride to the top. The views continued to be spectacular all the way up.

After a lamb is slaughtered, everyone gets a thumbprint of the blood on their forehead, similar to ashes on Ash Wednesday.

We returned just before nightfall and made our way to where the Peace Corps Albania 2013 Sacrificial Lamb was salted and cooking over hot coals. It took about three an a half hours (and, in my opinion, was still a little undone when we ate it...but no food poisoning, I'm still alive, so it must have been okay), and when it was finished, we ate it on a table, in the woods, on a mountain, by the light of dozens of campfires and a few American LED headlamps.

Please don't ask us to explain how or why, but I didn't bring a sleeping bag and Megan didn't bring pants so we shared a sleeping bag. It wasn't the most comfortable night of my life, but there's something about sleeping (or not) under the stars on a mountain in Eastern Europe in the Peace Corps that made it all feel almost magical.

Meg and I got up around 5:30, took a walk, and found some Turkish coffee. We sat on a ledge eating fruit, sipping our terrible muddy coffee, and watched the sun rise over the valley as the rest of the camp slowly woke up. The festival was fun and interesting, but it's moments like those that made the trip so special. Not long after, Heather joined us and we started walking down the mountain, being picked up after a short period of time by a full-to-bursting furgon (including: seats for nine passengers, seventeen people, two broken stools, a sleeping baby, three American hiking packs, and a dead sheep).

 Seriously, what an awesome adventure.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Muzikë: Ngjyra e Kuqe

Happy Monday! 

"The Color Red" is a song by Adrian Gahxa, featuring everyone's favorite little singer, Floriani. The little dude is actually a Kosovar (92% of people in Kosovo are actually ethnic Albanians and Albanian is an official language) and won a variation of the TV show America's/Britain's/Kosovo's/Albania's Got Talent. 

The pronounced vocal vibrato (when they hold a note and their voice wiggles around) is an important feature in both traditional as well as popular music today, which says a lot about the juxtaposition and clash of old and new cultures in Albania. This is definitely my favorite music video - instead of random shots of women dancing cut with the singers in front of terrible green screens, this one actually tells a sweet(ish) story:

Here's another BIG song. I HATE I'm not the biggest fan of Euro-pop. It's the most popular genre of music here; even their folk music is pop-ified. I'm slowly getting used to it, seeing as it's blared in every locale and on every TV you may happen upon. One of the songs that's been super popular for all of our service thus far is Te Ka Lali Shpirt (She Has ????? Your Spirit - "lali" isn't in the dictionary, isn't on Google translate, and my language tutor is out of with it.) (EDIT: "lali" is an endearment, so the title means something like "You're to Your BF  Like His Own Spirit." Wow. That sounds hideous in English. But the sentiment is the same! Thanks to Fabian for pointing this out!)

Whaddya think? 

Thursday, August 22, 2013

About the Host Family...

As most people know, I struggled with my host family at first. A lot. They were (and still are) extremely possessive, they're very traditional, the gender roles drive me to the brink of insanity, and their diet is pilaf and bread and fried potatoes with a tomato every once in a while. However, as time passed and I got used to them and adjusted to their lives, I came to appreciate them as individuals - beyond their roles as cultural products and gender performers (can I get a "heyo!" for Judith Butler?)

And after spending three days with them at Florida's wedding, I realized I really do consider them family now. They treated me just like another sister - in the photos, getting my hair and make-up done, going to the groom's party, sleeping on one of the futons with one of the nieces, kisses and hugs and "te lumshin duart!" (bless your hands!) and "te lumshin kembet!" (bless your feet!) on repeat. Things that really bothered me in PST and, frankly, probably would if I still lived with them - like how the women all descend on me for braids after I plait the neighbor girl's hair - didn't get me at all. I enjoyed it and appreciated having something to do.

But isn't that how all families are?

You love them and simply can't stand them at the same time. You treasure the small moments when you're together, but appreciate that distance really does make the heart grow fonder. No one can hang out with their extended family for a long period of time without wanting to pull out their hair (except for you, Becky, I know) because that many people who care deeply about one another and know so much about each other all smushed into one place is overwhelming.

And wonderful.

I got to join Florida (the bride), Blerina (a sister), Fabiola (a cousin and also the stylist), and Clea & Zoe (nieces) at the shop to do our hair and make up. I had a funny moment with Clea, who's 11 and has lived in England her whole life, when the two of us went to go pick up expressos and little Kakaos (hot chocolate) to bring back to the shop. After talking with the cafe owner while he made our kafes, I asked her how my shqip sounded - "Would you say I sound more like a kindergartner or a three-year-old?"

Her only response was a barely suppressed snigger.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013


In continuing with this week's wedding theme, here's a little anecdote of a total Peace Corps moment - those moments where you really, truly, completely unironically understand your purpose here.

In PST, one of the things my host father did that shocked me and disturbed me (besides getting his feet rubbed by the 9-year-old neighbor girl, my buddy Klerida, or giving his 2-year-old grandson a cigarette to play with) was when he asked me if I would ever marry a Black man. I told him, of course - skin color doesn't matter, it's what's inside that counts, all the usual, but totally true, cliches - and he freaked out. "No no no!" He stated emphatically in shqip, "White goes with white and black goes with black. I'm not racist. But white goes with white and black goes with black."

I mean, at that point I'd known the man for less than a month, and not only did he want a say in whom I marry, an invitation to the wedding, and rights to nix any match, he suddenly needed to make a comment about race? WTactualF.

BUT - and this is a huge but - as I was saying goodbye to everyone on Thursday, he suddenly had a great idea. "Ask her if she'll marry a Black man!" he said eagerly, as if my answer would be entertaining and shocking for the group. They did, I answered my usual answer (a little more emphatically than usual, seeing as, really? Were we really covering this again?), and then my host father said something that gave me goosebumps:

"Isn't she great? She's not racist! She likes everyone! She's a good person! I'm so proud of her!"

Monday, August 19, 2013

Muzikë on Mondays

I'm gonna change things up a wee bit here. I've been slightly remiss in terms of the third Peace Corps goal:
Helping promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.
So, as much as I hate themed days on social media, it might be the only way to keep my rear in gear and post more often with the third goal in mind. That being said, here on the bloggity blog Mondays are going to be about music. (The alliteration is just too tacky to pass up.)


Let's continue in the wedding theme while we're on it, eh? "Nuse Moj Tu Befte Nene" (pretty sure it means, in other words, "Bride, Follow in Your Mother's Footsteps") is a classic example of wedding circle dance music. You can see some circle dancing going on in the video - the same steps as in my videos from last week's wedding. The leader of the circle (it's never closed; in fact, if it's a large group, the circle tends to turn into a spiral) waves a (usually red) scarf around, and often leads the group for one song.

Yes, I led the dance a few times. No, I did not want too. When in Rome...

Here's another tradition circle dance song "When the Does Dance" (not a typo, calm down - "does" as in multiple "female deer" as in "young women"):

Sunday, August 18, 2013

This is how I look when...Wedding Edition

...I rush all morning, catch a furgon, and practically run to my host family's house to be on time for the wedding, only to learn that the wedding didn't start til the day after:

...myself to my reflection in the mirror, when the hair stylist/cousin offers to do my hair and make-up for the wedding:

what could possibly go wrong?

...I finally see how high she teased my hair, and the eye make up that made me look like a street walker:

... after hours of circle dancing and my brain checks out from too many people talking in shqip at once and I'm tired...and then realize that someone asked me a question and they're all staring at me:

...I notice the smarmy 16-year-old cousin of the bride has unbuttoned his shirt to his navel and is sticking his dweeby little adolescent chest out for the wedding photos:

...I notice a heavily pregnant woman in four-inch stilettos wearing a floor-length dress that's much too long, circle dancing:

Thank the sweet baby Jesus she didn't fall. 

...when I got home from the three day wedding:

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Po Vjen Nusja!

I finally went to my first Albanian wedding. My host sister, Florida, got married on Wednesday and Thursday, and even though it was long and exhausting, I really enjoyed myself! It was certainly an experience, because other than brides in white dresses, weddings in Albania are entirely different than in the States and elsewhere.

circle dancing in traditional dress at the bride's house

pre-wedding party!

the rabbit hunt - two men dress as rabbits and hop around on all fours while a third, dressed in camo and face mask for anonymity, hunts them with a wooden gun, finally shooting and killing both, after which they all dance together like nothing ever happened. idea.

the bride! Florida with a cousin's little girl.

First of all, they are so. freaking. loud.

Second of all, they last two days. The first day is the bride's wedding, which is just basically a huge party thrown in her honor. She wears a white dress and gets all dolled up, but the groom only shows up for two hours with a small party of 20-25 people. The following day, the groom's family come to the bride's house and pick her up (in another dress!) to take her to the groom's party, which lasts all day.

Walking in on her little brother's arm. So sweet.

 the whole Pepa family.

cute littles in traditional dress.

Another weird thing? The parents don't attend the parties for their children's new spouses. So, my host parents were at their daughter's party, but stayed home the next day when 25 of us went to the groom's party. I have no idea what the reason is; the only answer I could get was "that's just the way we do it."

bride's sisters - and mine! - at the groom's party.

Everyone circle dances all day. There is a TON of food, but no one eats much, because they're too busy dancing. There are special dances, too: the visiting party's dance (where they stuff money down the bride's dress or put it on her head), the old-men-pretending-to-balance-on-a-log dance, the younger men showing off their crazy traditional dance, the "Rabbit Hunt" dance, and dancing in traditional folk costumes. I have videos below for most of them!

Also, the costume changes are ridiculous. I only brought two dresses - one for each day - which was JUST NOT ACCEPTABLE. So I got to borrow another one. The first day I changed three times at the party...while my host sisters changed, I kid you not, five times in five hours. Thankfully, all the women were obsessed with my sparkle dress, so I got away with wearing it for most of the two days.

Dress 1. Beginning of festivities. Normal.

Dress 2. Scary eye make-up done by a cousin/stylist. Sweating to death OMG.

Dress 3. Trying, and failing, to do the Albanian no-smile. I just look like a jerk when I do it.

The weirdest part? There's no ceremony. That is, at least, for my non-religious host family. They identify as culturally Muslim, but they are no where near to practicing. The match was made by my host father, and so the engagement was the real binding deal. To make the marriage legal in the eyes of the country, they'll sign a marriage certificate in a few weeks. But for two days of festivities, it was strange for there to be no "I now pronounce you Man and Wife."

The closest thing to that "moment" when they're finally considered a married couple was the morning of the second day, when the groom's family came to pick Florida up from her parents' house. All the women from both families crowded into this small room and sang a traditional song while an aunt sprinkled raki (Albanian moonshine) all over her. Florida kissed her family members goodbye, and was then greeted by all the groom's female family members. (I'm assuming this was the most important ceremony of the festivities, due to the impressive amount of crying.)

I caught quite a few videos of the different circle dances, but spliced them all together to make it just a little less boring! Skip around to get a taste of what I did, all day, for two days straight, at my dasma e pare ne Shqiperi!