Monday, February 24, 2014

Monday, Monday

Happy Monday! And what does an average Monday look like? Let's take a look at last week's:

7:00am The usual morning line-up: snooze button, snooze button, snooze button, crap I have to shower.

7:45 Hop in the shower.

8:00 Run around, making coffee, putting on mascara, looking for that one pair of tights, eating a banana, starting a load of laundry, reading email while attempting to put on lipstick.

Much better than the tin-can camping contraption I was using before. Thanks, Heather!

8:30 Leave the house.

8:31 Return to the house for whatever I forgot. Usually my phone. Or my sanity.

8:35 Get to the office (conveniently just across the street). Have (another) coffee with the office mates. Gesti calls the cafe down the street and they send a waiter over with our little macchiatos.

9:00 Knee starts bouncing due to the amount of caffeine I've consumed in an hour.

9:30 Call a physician at the National Institute of Health about a grant I want to write with her. She calls me "darling" four times and we agree it's best if I go to visit her in Tirana. Yay field trip! Boo bus ride.

10:00-12:00 Moza and I walk around to all the 9-year schools to talk to the directors about doing projects with their students. We set dates for next week to present to 6th grade girls about every preteen's favorite topic...menstruation!

12:30 Return to the office, where Lena is grouchy because apparently there was supposed to be an AIDS presentation at the high school...which I had absolutely no idea about. Oops.

12:31 "MERI, CALL FIQA." (Fiqa is the student leader of the First Aid Club)

12:45 Fiqa and company show up and we plan to do the presentation the following day. (It didn't get done until Thursday.)

1:00 I head home to do some work with my internet, make myself some lunch (fresh squeezed orange juice with oranges from Ina's mom), put some failed bagels in the oven, switch out the laundry, sweep (and be shocked for the millionth time how dirty these floors get), go through my students' piano books looking at today's lessons, take bagels out of oven, grab my computer, burn mouth on hot-outta-the-oven bagel, and run out the door.

I think I killed my yeast...

2:10 Make it to Megan's to drop off my computer so she can copy some files while I go to piano lessons.

2:45 Until 4:00, I have three different group lessons at a local church that has two keyboards. One of the keyboards only plays the bassoon sound after high C, causing me to cross my eyes and twitch whenever that perilous bridge is crossed. But first up, a fifteen minute piano lesson with 6-year-old Ana. She's adorable and pretends to not understand a word I say. We succeed in getting her to do a simple C scale...on her second lesson. Woot!

3:00 Lesson with my "skilled students" - the two girls (14 and 16) who've had a bit of solfeggio in the past.* We're just starting with muscle memory on the keyboard, though, and so they get incredibly frustrated that I make them play the same thing over and over for twenty minutes until it's perfect. Even though I outwardly tell them that I remember how frustrating it was when my teacher made me do monotonous exercises repeatedly (heyo, Mrs. Heinecke), inwardly I'm cackling maniacally because the student has become the master. *obnoxious overly-dramatic voice*

3:30 I switch classes to a strange group of 3: two boys, 10 and 14, and a church employee in his 20s; none have any musical background or experience whatsoever. It's the first day that I'm letting them touch the keyboard after a month of trying to get them to understand the connection between the musical notes and the notes as written on paper.

4:02 The pastor asks me to add another student. No.

4:20 Call Megan on my way home and gripe about the day. Sorry Megan.

4:30 Get back to my apartment, eat another bagel because I have no self-control, read a few chapters of Great Expectations, and pass. out. on the couch.

6:25 Awake with an aggressive leap from the couch, afraid I missed my dinner date. But I've still got five minutes, which is enough time to try to rub the pillow marks off my cheeks and brush my hair in an attempt to look semi-acceptable.

6:31 Take elevator to the 8th floor in my slippers (nbd, just going to dinner in my slippers cuz they live in the same building, holla!), wrong floor, walk down a level, wander around a bit, and finally arrive at my destination.

6:32-10:00 Dinner with Ardita and her parents. Ardita is a young doctor who works at the D.Sh.P. and with whom I'm going to do GLOW (Girls Leading Our World). Her parents are teachers, and from his huge collection of books her father gave me an Albanian novel to try out (yikes), Ne Te Tre. Her mother made a traditional Albanian dinner and dessert, and sent me home with sweet byrek. So of course I'm in love with both of Ardita's parents, because sugar and books are totally the way to my heart.

10:00 Make a cup of tea and snuggle up with Pip and Estella.

12:04 Finish Great Expectations (totally surprised by how much I liked it). Brush teeth. Crawl into bed.

Two thumbs up.

12:11 Suddenly remember to set alarm. Say a prayer of thanks because otherwise I would have slept until 3pm the next day.

12:11:30 Pass out.

*THE IMMOVABLE "DO" IS GOING TO KILL ME. I swear. I try to use the note names but then I say the letter names and they look at me like I'm on crack. And then I fix it but if we're in the key of G and we're playing GAB, they still consider it sol-la-si. Crazy. CRAZY.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

(Pre)pare and Pack Again: A Procrastinator's Tale

( which I discover that packing for two years in one night is a heinous thing to do to yourself.)

This post is 1000% inspired by Tyler's clear, tidy, and concise post. But my experience packing?


It consisted of claiming a corner of the floor in my mother's sewing room to chuck stuff that I invariably thought of during random moments during the two months leading up to leave date. Like, while peeing in the middle of the night, "Man, I gotta find a flashlight to bring with me..." Or while fixing the toilet for the umpteenth time, "I NEED A SAW...or perhaps just a multipurpose tool." Or (in a non-toilet-related-example) while dreaming of summer during another blizzard, "Crap. I'm going to have to bring a swimsuit." (Sorry, couldn't help myself.)

As for packing it all together, that happened the night before I left. I won't even pretend to wish I'm kidding. I work best under pressure. (Tell that to my mother and sister, who sent me to bed an emotional mess at 1am while they finished the final sort-through.) Even then, I ended up throwing random stuff from my suitcases onto the airport floor while checking in to make weight.

About 10:00PM, upon the realization that I literally could not afford to bring any paper books. Tears.
P.S. I'm fully aware that's the derpiest face I've ever made.

About 12:00PM. Reading between the lines, "I HATE MY LIFE."

I packed in one giant suitcase, one small-ish suitcase (the red one in the photo above), a 35-liter hiking pack, and my college backpack. It's an act of God that any PCV can successfully carry all their crap...but somehow we do it. Unless you don't mind paying extra for the extra weight (and then carrying it), don't bring a giant suitcase if you can't keep it under 50 pounds. Keeping things under the weight limit was by far my biggest challenge.

No one needs another comprehensive list of what to bring/what I brought, so here are just some important highlights. Some of my random absolute non-negotiables: sleeping bag (it may be a lot warmer here than at home...but a cement block is a cement block and a cement block is COLD at night), skittles (or your favorite American candy, for your mental health), and slippers with rubber soles. Everyone wears slippers here, especially in the bathrooms because the floor is always wet. Additionally, my host family had multiple buildings, so to go from my bedroom to the bathroom, I had to cross the farmyard...which I wouldn't recommend doing in socks. Also, baby powder because there's no way you're going to want to shower as often as you're used to. Every day? LOLOL. Use some baby powder to stretch your hair-washing to every 3-4 days.

Some of my personal random items I am extremely glad to have with me: an old flannel shirt of my dad's (perfect for snuggling in on a rainy day), a flannel pillow case from my childhood (because the sheets here kinda suck), my bible, samples of my perfume (unbreakable-ish AND you get to smell clean and nice and like yourself), and my lucky travel buddy Hogan (the stuffed puppy...dude, I love that thing. Also he's my Valentine this year. Forever alone.). Bring things that you don't think you can live without or that are just comfort items. I didn't bring my infamous* fleece pajama pants because I had a more multi-purpose pair packed; and I found I actually missed them. And when my mother sent them to me in the mail, I didn't take them off for days.

The pink pants. Not just a style, but a way of life.

For the lady volunteers:

Bring some good bras. You can't find quality ones here, and getting stuck with a crappy old stretched-out bra is no fun. Especially when your replacement options only come in neon orange, studded, or star-spangled-banner.

As for what hemlines and styles are appropriate in your community, that really remains to be seen. But it can be pretty lax, especially in the summertime - most girls wear short dresses or skirts. Bare shoulders are always a taboo, however, so bring a couple light cardigans for work days when it's hot. (But feel free to wear a white see-through crew neck and fluorescent pink bra because that's somehow considered modest). I will say this: men and boys here tend to stare like it's an olympic sport, regardless of what you're wearing. One of my favorite moments happened when Megan and I were returning from visiting another volunteer for the weekend - so no makeup, wearing our wrinkled travel clothes, unshowered (me), tired - and as we walked home from the bus stop after our 3-hour trip we passed a bar with a bunch of young men. They all swarmed the door and one called out (to our backsides, just after we passed), "Do not be afraid of me!" Because yes, nothing's as appealing as when a guy tries to pick you up using a kidnapper's line.

Additionally, there is a ton of pressure within the female community to always look your best. Say goodbye to running to the grocery store in your sweatpants...because everyone will know and ask you if you're feeling better, because only the deathly ill would go out looking like that. I know some female PCVs who have been sent home from work to put on make-up because they weren't wearing enough that day. I wear eye liner every day now...while this time last year I could barely put on mascara without stabbing myself. Additionally, the brighter and sparklier the clothing, the "fancier" it's perceived to be. My most successful item of clothing is my sparkle dress - it was a graduation splurge before I left to live in my Peace Corps mud hut (at the time I didn't know where my assignment would be), but after I got wind that Albanians like sparkles, I packed it. I've worn it to almost every important event I've attended, and am frequently asked "how the dress is doing" and if I've worn it lately. (That last part is mostly Lena. The average shqiptare isn't nearly as idiosyncratic.)

At my host sister Florida's wedding last August. See: sparkle dress.

Also (verging on the TMI): DIVA CUP IT UP. Seriously. I can't say enough good things about the Diva Cup. Buy it now so you can practice it once or twice before coming here to get the hang of it in a familiar environment (i.e., your own private loo). I would also bring just a few tampons/liners just in case you're like me, and there's always at least one day where you can't be bothered to put on pants let alone deal with cleaning out a diva cup and you're just all, F*CK IT ALL. In case you missed the video on Facebook, watch this epic rap video and be convinced:

What not to bring? Your toms shoes (because I have yet to meet an Albanian who wasn't embarrassed for me when I wear them in public, plus I have another great pair of walking shoes), sunlight battery recharger (even if your uncle bought it for you and shipped it special cross-country), and kitchen tools as gifts (my host family preferred the candy...and my host mom and sisters LOVED the scented lotion).

Don't worry too much about it. What you can't find, someone else will have. Or you can buy it. You can't get care packages until May (due to lack of working address), but after that, tell your family/friends to use flat-rate USPS shipping. But I promise you, you'll survive. Even when you feel like you won't (hello, long-term relationship with a sinus infection), there will always be someone to cheer you up - be it your new friends in PC or your host mother banging on the door with buttery tea, hand-knit socks, and a few local kids.


*TRUE STORY: I've had these pants since sixth grade. (I was a tall twelve-year-old.) My last semester of college, after living with a group of girls for three years, I overheard someone make a comment along the lines of, "...Mary...bitch pants...chocolate." And so I indignantly barreled into the kitchen and demanded to know WHAT DO YOU MEAN, unintentionally proving their point that when I wore my pink pants, it meant I was in a sour mood. And then I laughed because, dude, it's so true.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Valentine's Day!

I kind of have my shqip together and got this out right on time! At Megan's and my English Club last night, we hosted a Valentine's Day smorgasbord. Albanians are just starting to widely celebrate the holiday, but it's still mostly reserved for engaged and married couples. So in keeping with Peace Corps Goal #2 (teaching host country nationals about American traditions), we pulled out the markers and glue and hearts and cookies for a love fest with our teenage besties.

We made Valentines out of magazines, paper, markers, and glue and decorated sugar cookies. I'd never considered how strange it is the way we use that one word "Valentine" to refer to the day, the love cards, and the person you love... that is, until we tried to explain it to the girls. 

Happy Valentine's day! From "Master" Cupid.

This one got right to the meat of things: "Love day is for everyone...and 'love doesn't know color.'" Rock on, Kaltra!

Megan's lovely Albanian pick-up line Valentine.

As for the heart-shaped sugar cookies, I made some pink frosting to decorate them, using red cabbage, vinegar, and water for the coloring. (Smash it all together - muddle it like a cocktail - and let it sit for a good 12-15 hours for an almost black-purple dye...which turns the palest pink when you mix it into the frosting.) Add a little homemade plum jam to hide the not-so-sweet taste of gjalp et voilà!

We had so much fun and made such a huge mess and fought about Justin Bieber and One Direction (it's getting to be a weekly thing) and I ate too much sugar and it was lovely.

Earlier in the day, I had Lena (and her best friend, Lena) over for coffee so she could talk to her daughter in law and granddaughter in Italy. Since Lena doesn't really have access to internet, she rarely gets to see them. I caught a little bit of her on video. It was one of the sweetest, happiest things I've ever seen. She was just over the moon happy, and the baby girl was laughing and jabbering and knew just who her grandma was, even via computer screen. What a world we live in!

Happy Valentine's Day! I love you all! 
(And for those of y'all at home, know that I miss you. Dreadfully. But thank God for skype!)

Friday, February 14, 2014

So, other than reading all day...

(May I take a second to ask a rhetorical question? How hard is it to fix a simple-circuit lamp? Apparently too hard for this idiot. I mean, come on. Didn't we all do the lemon lamp project in elementary school? (Didn't I take calc-based physics in college?) All I wanted to do was reattach a loose wire in my lamp so I could have some nice ambiance (aka, not ugly hospital hallway white) lighting in my apartment...and it blew up. Even worse, the same thing happened to me when I tried to fix my bathroom lighting. I mean, what gives? What am I, an idiot? Or can I blame the stupid current surges here?) I ever do anything here? Yes, I do. I eat cookies, sleep, put off doing laundry, let dishes pile up in my sink, and spend way too much time on the internet I do do real stuff. It takes such a long time to accomplish anything here for many reasons:

1. Political turnovers every election year (from director on down, every single public sector employee is either moved or replaced according to the whim of the winning party)
2. Communist mindset (the word of the director is absolute law - creative thinking definitely not encouraged)
3. Apathy (there are so many problems - so how can anything ever change?)
4. Corruption (whose pockets must be lined for something to occur - for approval, for employment, for resources, etc.)
5. Lack of resources, lack of funding, lack of training, and lack of planning skills

(just to name a few)

This is by no means universal and there are plenty of hard-working, inspiring, and determined Albanians I've had the pleasure to meet and work with. But as projects involve so many different individuals, just one or two contrary minds can throw a giant wrench into any plan. Thankfully, PCVs are all encouraged to have secondary projects - both to increase our reach and involvement in our communities as well as maintain our sanity.

My two big non-work projects are Piano and English. I currently have eight piano students (!!!), one private English student, and facilitate two English groups with Megan. These are the students I feel I impact the most and these are the activities I know would not occur without my presence here in Lushnje. (So when I feel like a useless miserable failure, I remind myself of these kids and feel a little bit less like a useless miserable failure.)

I have piano lessons on Monday, Tuesday, and Friday afternoons in a church and two private homes. An Irish missionary who works with Victory School brought piano books for me to use with students, which has been such a wonderful gift! (I've discovered that although I studied piano for 13 years, I never really gave a thought to how I actually went about first learning it.) Some are utterly new beginners - including one six-year-old who is adorable and who totally does not get the whole "repeat after me!" thing - and some have a small background in music reading and solfeggio. (Side note for musical types: their version of solfeg is constant regardless of the key and it drives me insane.) But I get to play around on pianos keyboards and share my love and adoration of music and the piano with these eight kids and I LOVE IT.

This is actually a cheat sheet I made for a coworker and friend who want to start piano lessons, too.

I do English stuffs on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. On Thursdays, I go to the home of a pediatrician who works two doors down in the D.Sh.P. to tutor her 9-year-old daughter. The doctor, Elda, is practically a single mother because her husband and older son live in Tirana during the week for work and school; I have mad respect for this kickass Albanian lady changing what it means to be a modern woman in a conservative town! She insists on feeding me dinner and I've never been successful at insisting that no, please don't worry, I have dinner ready at home...because she can see right through that bald-faced lie and before I know she's put half a chicken on a plate in front of me and demands I eat. To which I oblige. Of course, there's an English lesson in there with Petrina, then often ballet dancing and hand clapping games and hair braiding.

Sorry for the crappy photo, but this is a screenshot of a freezeframe from an Instagram video. File sharing between devices in not my strong point. Don't judge.

Ina's voice kills me every time. Here she is doing eenie-meenie-minie-moe (shqiptar style) and 
reading from The Aristocrats (gotta practice pronunciation!)

Lastly, Megan and I run one English group and are helping out with another independent group. The latter group is a few students who want to make an ad for English education in Lushnje...and the rest of the country. Big dreams - planning skills = pipe dream. But the team leader was determined to get a hold of me and eventually, we met and I jumped on board. Hopefully I can share the results soon! The other group is mine and Megan's BFF English Club (they named themselves), which started out with about 7 guys and gals aged 13-16. It's now shifted to include 12-16 and is all girls - which is great, because then we have more time for Disney movies and debates featuring One Direction vs. Justin Bieber. This Friday we're decorating sugar cookie hearts and making Valentines - Albanians are just starting to celebrate Valentine's Day, but it's mostly reserved for married and engaged couples and our girls wouldn't have a reason to wear every pink-colored, heart-adorned item of clothing they own and mindlessly consume endless amounts of chocolate.

Idea mapping, mad libs, and goal lists with our crazy Friday night BFFs English Club.

...Question 3: what are some goals you have for this semester? "I want to say to everyone: I go to a place where I have fun and u don't!!! HaHaHa!!!

Monday, February 10, 2014

EuroTrip Adventuretime 2013/2014! Part VI

I can honestly promise, cross-my-heart-hope-to-die, that this is the second-to-last installment of the holiday shenanigans. There are just too many awesome pictures and stories and people and buildings and histories and castles and foods and all that other grand stuff that I am simply incapable of paring this tale down, hubris be damned.

We started the next morning - New Year's Eve - at a church we'd only heard about the day before which had been closed...but had something we had to see to believe.


You see, this gorgeous church above is best known for its particular method of deterring theft - the 500-year-old severed arm of the last idiot who tried to rob the place. Charming, no? Legend has it that the thief, not satisfied with stealing all the valuables at ground level, wanted a special crowning achievement - literally, the crown of Mary seated above the altar. He somehow scaled the marble pillars, arrived at the Holy Mother, and reached up for her crown...whereupon the figure came to life and grabbed the offending wrist, preventing the thief not only from stealing her crown but also from escape. 

The poor fool dangled by his arm from the re-inanimate grasp of the statue through the remainder of the night, until the priest arrived for services the next morning. Mary's grip was so strong on the thief's arm, however, that no one could remove it - and, given the choice of maiming either the Mother of God or the idiot who tried to steal from her, the priest chose to spare the former and severed the arm of the latter...which hangs to this day over the entrance to the church, half a millennium later.

Fittingly, we found this door just down the street.

Did you know the sugar cube was invented in Prague?

We made our chilly way across the river to spend the day exploring the castle side of Prague. It's situated, as castles tend to be, on high with incredible views of the city and river stretched before it. (Except the weather was so crummy we couldn't get a good picture of it, boo.)

St. Vitus Cathedral within the castle walls was stunning. It wasn't completed until the 20th century, almost 600 years after it was started. Thanks to that (centuries-long) delay, this cathedral boasts the only carven figures wearing three-piece suits on any major church in Europe! (The final architects had themselves carved over the entrance.)

Also, this window. THIS WINDOW. Art Nouveau, hand-painted, stained glass. I just stared at it awkwardly until I started drooling realized everyone had left me behind.

We returned home, napped, and re-grouped before a night out on the town to ring in the new year!

Russian Kate is Russian.

Fireworks. EVERYWHERE.

He's hard to see, but there's a six and a half foot tall, epically-bearded security guard smoking a pipe. Epic security guide is epic.

Happy 2014!

New Year's day, Emily and I went out together to do a special something, just the two of us. We wandered the city a bit, looking into what shows we could catch, and happened upon the concert hall where Mozart's Don Giovanni had its international premiere...and they were showing the opera that evening! We were sold. We had quite a lot of time to kill, and so wandered over to Wenceslas Square (below). Where I discovered multiple bookstores. Which were all closed. There may have been tears. 

(I like to buy a book in every city I visit. Of course, not just any book, so that complicates things. And I hadn't been able to find any open bookstores in Budapest and so that just ensures that I MUST RETURN...if only to buy a book.)

Emily and I stopped in our tracks when we saw this sign - it was like running into (our amazing and wonderful friend) Cecily Konicek in Prague! Bonus points: the surname Konicek means "little white horse" and so we geeked out even more. And by "we" I mean me. Emily is much more dignified in public than I am.

gaaaaaaahsdkljf Emily, you are so cute and I'm SO HAPPY I got to look at your cute face for three weeks.

Outside the concert hall!

More fireworks because why not?

I love adorable old people.

We got our seats up in the nosebleeds, the lights went down, and the three-piece wind ensemble took their seats and began to play the overture...of Marriage of Figaro. Which is not Don Giovanni. It turned out to be a special program highlighting Mozart's famous arias - which was great, and the two actors performing them were hilarious and talented and entertaining - definitely not an opera, but still a really cool experience with which to end our adventures in Prague.

The next morning saw us on a plane heading back to Albania...Part VII, coming right up!