Peace Corps volunteer in Albania: The contents of this blog are mine personally and do not reflect any position of the U.S. Government or the Peace Corps.

Monday, December 20, 2010

I really do try to make these short, ow well!

UNDP meeting for re-development of Industrial area. Mayor Mark is in foreground, and that is Nik behind him. The rest are staff and UNDP staff with me looking really interested!
Female pensionsits (that is the word in Albanian) they are waiting for government assistance at the post office. Check out the Mirditore clothing. We call them Ninja Gjushes (grandmothers)
Seth and I checking the sharpness of the knife before the slaughter.
Me and Seth after the first kill. It was raining so don't mind my awesome poncho.

Alex, Lesley (my site mate) and I after a grueling hike where we followed a sheep herding dog who got us lost and then we had to traverse a mountainside where there was a fire last year. People in town were asking if we got in a fight or if we were mechanics!
Rubik Christmas tree, put up by the crazy guy who lives in my building!
View from my office during the snow!

I really hope killing a lady bug is not bad luck because if it is, I am S.O.L.!!! My building has a problem. I probably killed somewhere between 10-15 lady bugs, or some sort of creature that looks like a lady bug, every night for the week following my trip to Turkey, we have had quite the problem. I realize that I am in no way, shape or form in danger from sharing living quarters with these bugs but they are everywhere. Call me what you will, my site mate Lesley said, “shame on you!” O’well, what can she say, she doesn’t have these things all over the place. I told her I don’t feel guilty because they are uninvited and they don’t pay rent! Alright, so following my trip to Turkey and Greece I tried my best to get right back into work. As I have written here before, I received a Small Project Assistance grant back in May or June. The project has been a bit of a head ache ever since. First, the Peace Corps and I had a paper work problem. The problem was their mistake and my actual problem. Without going into too much detail, I did not receive the funds for my project for over three months following the approval date. Issue one! The second problem or series of issues came with the municipality. As part of the SPA agreement, the agency requesting the funds (in my case the municipality, I may also call it the Shqip word, Bashkia) is responsible for 10% of the budget in cash and 15% in what is referred to as in-kind (something the agency already has access to, for example a current staff member, unused office space or electricity). Although the project was approved and the funding was in route, the staff of the Bashkia failed to take the initiative. I shouldn’t say initiative because I was constantly bothering one Director or another to do something. I waited patiently from June until November for something to happen. The only part of the project that was completed on time is a survey. On one of the rare occasions that every member of my Directorate was in the building I made sure we at least did the one thing that did not require any other office’s help. Sander (my counterpart and the director of the Office I work in) has always been one of the only employees of the city who actually does work, and he does good work. There are three other fairly young women who work in my office. Just to understand one of the problems that exists in Albania keep this in mind. Communism ended about twenty years ago and the education system in the country has never recovered. First, people who were educated during communism are now teachers and professors. They are also the leaders of the country in government, business, and the NGO sector. The communist education system in Albania, like in many other countries, was not all bad. Math, science, trades, and related areas were taught extremely efficiently from what I have been told and read. The problem comes with critical thinking. If you are not told what to do and how to do it, it simply does not get done. This is the same issue that troubles many, not all, of the youth currently. They are taught to regurgitate information and are never questioned why this? or why that?. I have had many conversations with the four most open minded and intelligent Albanians I work with (Mark the mayor, Sander my counterpart, his wife Bardhe, and Nik the Vice-director of the High School and director of the NGO) and they emphatically agree. Mark even went as far as to higher two new young women in their mid and late twenties to begin work in my office in an effort to shake up the work a bit. This outcome was not achieved but we are all working on it. Back to the point.

So we sat down to write this survey that would be given to 65 total people in the community among all three of our neighborhoods and a few of the villages. The survey would not be perfect of course but I wanted to make sure that the three women in my office and Sander understood what the goal of the survey was. My job in Albania is to develop the capacity of the people I work with. So I try to make an effort whenever I can to not do the work but to lead the people I am with to do the work themselves, facilitate you know! First I explained to them this exact point. I am the second volunteer one of the girls has worked with and the first for the other two. I initially attempted to find out what they knew of a survey and if they understood what the goal of our survey was. Ow, by the way we were trying to determine the quality of information dissemination throughout the community and then see if that quality is changed once the Information office is opened in February. Also by the way, I have never actually written a survey of any type before. I first started by asking them what kind of questions. This was a mistake. Nothing was happening. We sat there in silence for a bit. Then I decided, okay, I guess it would be better to start with answers. After discussing it, mostly me talking them out of things, I led them to decide 5 possible generic answers and one comments space. You know poor, fair, good, better than good, and excellent. This was in shqip so “better than good” sounds a lot better. This lasted about half an hour. We decided that the minimum amount of questions would be 10, and one of them would ask what the type of employment was. This question is not really important for the project but I was curious, hahaha. For the next hour we maybe got through 4 questions. Even though we had earlier established that all the questions, baring the one about employment, would have one of 5 responses the girls could only come up with yes or no questions. This was an easy problem to fix but I was baffled at the…um I don’t want to stay stupidity because I really just think it is a problem with the lack of critical thinking about anything. For example, they would give me a question in Shqip that was something like, “Are you informed about information related to the Bashkia’s budget?” A yes, no, or maybe question right? So then it would take another 10 minutes and some wrestling to realize that the question was good at the core, we just needed to reword it to fit our established answers. “How would you describe your knowledge about budgeting in the Bashkia?” A side note, this is a simple survey and there is a good chance that a handful of the people being surveyed would not know how to read or write well. Not to beat this horse any more but I think you get the idea. This process took us almost three hours to come up with ten questions, translate what I had typed from English to Shqip and then to proper Shqip with no spelling or grammar errors. I have found it easier to drive and take directions when working with Albanian colleagues (I type and control the computer while facilitating the discussion why they focus on discussing things and the task, plus I can understand Shqip better than I speak it so I find it more productive this way). After the three hours were over one of the girls told me I was a mean teacher, in ENGLISH! She is probably right, well slightly. Ah, good day I thought. Something was accomplished and I think the girls all left that day having learned something. Then I thought, oh great, now we have to distribute the thing. The next morning I had a café with Nik and discussed my frustrations with the project. He assured me he would talk to Mark and we would get things figured out. Then when I got to work I was greeted with a surprise. Without any one asking him to do so and without even thinking of this issue yet myself, Sander had sent around a memo to every directorate in the building requesting them to send any relevant information to us by the beginning of the next week. He had also made plans to distribute the surveys by that time. I was pumped, now that that was out of the way we were sailing straight. Monday came around and to the disgust of Sander, not one person in the building had given him anything. Sander however did distribute all of the surveys and put the results in a spread sheet. 50% is not bad I guess. That night, Nik called me and said Mark had requested my help with something at the Bashkia. It was about 7pm so I kinda figured this was not a work related matter. I was half right. The owner of the best winery in Albania, my opinion of course, is one of Mark’s good friends and was at the Bashkia.

We spent much of the night drinking his fantastic wine and eating meat in the Bashkia café while discussing various topics, one of which was the SPA project. We also discussed some other things that I have a problem with at the Bashkia. I am a really lucky volunteer in a few ways. I have friends in other municipalities throughout the country who have met their mayors maybe once or twice. I also have friends whose mayors refuse to take them seriously and in one case even worked to have the volunteer removed from the town. Mark is not perfect but I know he respects my opinion and has truly become a great friend. He really is a good Mayor as well. Having said that, we talked for a good while about the problems that exist in his government and the road blocks to alleviate them. Keep in mind, here is this 52 year old man who is at the end of his second term as mayor and is listening to advice from a 24 year old fresh out of college foreigner! The best part is he listened, but I will get to that in a minute. After the serious talk, we started to discuss the expansion into the States of Fran’s wine and he gave me a few bottles to take home. At the end of the evening, Mark assured me that the Information office was a high priority of his and that he “guaranteed” that the project would be completed. The next week Mark would be off in Switzerland for a conference related to the competition we won during the summer. The week Mark was gone; absolutely no work was done on the office or come to think of it in general.

I am also very lucky in the quality of my counterparts. Sander is my official counterpart but I also do a lot of work with Nik. Sander felt awful of the disrespect the Bashkia had shown by not turning in any information for the project and that we had not bought any of the materials yet, these are his words not mine. I didn’t see it as a disrespect but just laziness and incompetence. In Albania, most actions can be reduced to a show of respect. That week, Sander and I went to Tirana and bought the computer and other materials that needed to be purchased in Tirana. I was happy that we finally got the materials but I was a little nervous that we would have spent the money that SPA provided while not fulfilling the Bashkia’s side of the agreement. Fast forward a few weeks and Mark calls me into his office. It is the Tuesday before Thanksgiving and for the 3rd or 4th time I bring up my concerns about the office not being completed and the work that still needs to be done. At this point I was extremely unhappy and unsure if the project that Sander and I had fought for would proceed. Mark told me again that he guaranteed the offices completion. The previous times I had discussed the project with Mark we never set down a specific date. He knew that the final report is due in February but we never discussed any completion date. In my frustration during that particular meeting I asked Mark what exact day the office would be done by. Due to the holiday season he said he would like to complete the project following the new year but I explained that we have already waited too long and that if the Bashkia’s portion of the project was not completed before January, I would have to return the items purchased and the funds from SPA. Total lie, I would have asked for an extension. He conceded that the office could be ready by December 17th and that we would inaugurate it officially on January 17th. I had heard statements like this before so I asked him if it would be alright to invite my Peace Corps bosses (the country director and my program director). While still in the meeting I called them and got confirmation from both on their attendance. Now if the office is not finished it would be turp (shame) for both of us. Now that the office was in order, I headed for Tirana on Thursday morning to celebrate Thanksgiving.

Every year the various American ex-patriots who work in Tirana for the Embassy, Peace Corps, and USAID invite PCVs into their homes for Thanksgiving. Alex, James, Jenifer, 4 other volunteers and I were invited to the Albanian Defense Attaché for America’s home. He is basically the highest ranking American Military Officer in Albania. His wife is also a Embassy staffer and although she is overqualified for her position as the Integration Officer (not her actual title but how she described it to us) she took it so she would not be without work while her husband was stationed in Albania. In fact they were both Officers in the United States Air Force and actually met while in Helicopter school. They had an awesome house and it was excellent to spend a night in an atmosphere that was the most similar to home that I had experienced in almost two years. They had NFL on in the living room, a Butterball in the oven, A&W in the refrigerator and Ethan Allen furniture. This was maybe the first thing I noticed, not that I have the slightest sense of what Ethan Allen furniture looks like or anything but it was obvious that this was not Albanian furniture. It was comfortable and excessive in the best possible ways. Apparently the US Government has some deal with Ethan Allen to supply all American Government staff oversees with their digs. We had an excellent time and I got to talk with my family back home as well. The food was absolutely fantastic but the highlight of the evening was a tie. I can’t decide if I was happier with the NFL on TV (which I hadn’t watched for two years) or the pillow top oversized bed I got to sleep in! The next morning we awoke to brewed coffee (coffee made with a filter is also something we don’t really have) and leftovers. We thanked the family profusely and then headed to Burrell for our second Thanksgiving. The idea was for Seth and I to arrive in Burrell before the sun went down so we could slaughter the two turkeys that Rachel had bought. We arrived in Burrell on time but it was raining pretty hard and the power kept on going out. We elected that if we were going to be cold as hell, wet, and in the dark we better wait until we had a little courage in us. So we had a few cocktails and then decided it was time. I killed one turkey while Seth held the body and then we switched for the second turkey. I think because we gave Seth so much guff last year about his spastic nature he was well prepared this year and the killing went off without a hitch. The next day we prepared the turkeys but one of them was slightly dry. We had an issue with electricity and the oven shut off a few times during the cooking process. I joked that it was because Rachel was a vegetarian. She cooked one of the turkeys and I cooked the other at a separate house. Ya, that is right mom, I cooked a turkey, I am becoming quite domesticated. The night was a lot of fun. We had about 18 Peace Corps Volunteers, 4 Albanians, and 2 Welsh guests. It was a lot of fun to get together with the rest of the PCVs to talk about work and to not talk about work, hahaha. This is a good time of year if you don’t want to work but a bad time if you do. I do. This is my last few months as a PCV and I haven’t done as much as is possible, or at least it feels that way. So, Thursday and Friday were holidays for Americans and Monday and Tuesday were holidays for Albanians.

When I returned to work on Wednesday Sander handed me a memo that said there would be a Bashkia staff meeting on Friday and one of the topics listed were projects related to our office. This was only the 4th staff meeting that has been called since I have been working at the municipality. Two of these staff meeting were called to present my family both when my Mom and Uncle visited and the other when my Dad, Laurel, and her mother came. I knew what to expect for this meeting, or at least I thought I did. I knew it was basically a yell fest in which blame would be rationed out to all the staff members. What I didn’t realize is that some of the yelling would be over things I had mentioned and projects I had done. Not in a negative way. It’s not like I ratted anyone out or anything it was just things I had discussed with Mark or Sander that were brought up, using my name of course. I sat there in silence for three hours while occasionally adding my Po or Jo (yes or no) to the heated discussion, only about 1.5 hours of this was dedicated to issues relating to the information office, the foreign language lab, and a DLDP project that I am involved in. It even got to the point of name calling, “Fshatare,” “Rrenacak,” “Kot” (villager, liar, and worthless to name a few). By the end of the meeting it obvious that Mark, Sander, and I were not in least happy with the performance of the staff, who cares if I am happy or not I am just a volunteer. But apparently it matters. Then at the end Mark asks if there is any other business that needs to be addressed. Sander stood up and said that he would like to nominate me for “Qytetar pёr viten 2010,” (Citizen of the year for 2010). They all voted and of course, yes, I am the man of the year for Rubik and will receive a plaque and a gift on Christmas Eve during the annual concert at the cultural center. After the meeting Mark kept me after and apologized for the yelling and that they are all friends, but this is work. I don’t really understand the logic there but okay.

Friday, December 17th came just last week. This was the day that the physical office was supposed to be finished so we could move in the materials purchased and begin training of the staff member who would work in the office. I arrived to work as I often do sometime between 9:30 and 10:30am and no changes had occurred to the office from the day of the staff meeting a week before. Needless to say I was not very happy. The power had been going in and out so Sander and I had a coffee in the Bashkia café. During the coffee Nik dropped in so we had another coffee and talked for a bit. He was on his way to Tirana so after he left Sander, two of the other girls who work in my office, and myself were called into Mark’s office. We were there to discuss several things which started as usual with the problems with the 9-year school and the foreign language lab. We called in the Director of the school and arranged a meeting for me to go to the school and work out some schedule with the teachers to begin implementing the lab. Something that should have been done half a year ago, hahaha. After the director left we started working on a project proposal that is due in just a week or so. Perfect time to begin writing it huh? The project is a doosey as well, almost 80,000Euros! It is a program called Decentralization Local Development Program (DLDP) from the Swiss equivalent of USAID, the difference being that in Albania, DLDP has there ducks in a very nice and clean row. This has been the most important work I have done as a PCV. I am doing exactly what it says in the Peace Corps Act. Instead of leading the project and doing most of the work, I am helping them to write the project while teaching them how a project is written. We were cruising along and everyone was working together and submitting ideas, while helping each other decipher what I was trying to explain in Albanian, when Mark got a phone call about three hours into the process. Nik’s father had died just an hour before. This was awful news and Nik is a close friend to all of us and a former Professor of the two girls that work in my office. There would be no more work to do that day. I called Nik right away and expressed my condolences. I didn’t know what to say. Nik speaks English but I still wouldn’t know what to say. I asked Sander and Mark to be sure to call me if there was anything they were going to attend; I know that as soon as someone dies the house of the deceased is open for several days following. Sander said he would call me the next day and we would go together. On the way downstairs Mark, for reasons I don’t know didn’t tell me, but surprised me with a brand new door, window, and walk-up window in the Information Office installed and lookin nice! This was good news.

The next day, Saturday, Sander called me and said we would go to Lezhe to visit Nik and have coffee. During the furgon ride out to Lezhe, I asked Sander if there was anything I should now, culture wise before we got there. He told me that he would instruct me whom to shake hands with and he also told me something that I have heard before during training. We came into the apartment and Sander immediately told me who to shake hands with and told them who I was. We saw Nik and I gave him a hug and told him an Albanian phrase Sander had told me. He was really pleased and his Uncle was also surprised I knew the phrase. I was told where to sit in the living room, which had been set up with long benches and table for the occasion. A young male relative, the room had only males in it, came and brought Sander and I a Turkish coffee and a raki. I then cheered Nik a phrase I had learned a long time ago and the Uncle went on a speech for a few minutes on the respect it showed to Nik’s dad that a foreigner who had never met him would value his life and the respect I brought to their family. It was really sad to see Nik so unhappy, he would speak that his dad was more like his best friend. Don’t really know what else to say about it except it was a really sad and interesting cultural experience.

That brings me pretty much up to today. It has been really cold in Rubik and it even snowed for two days straight. It was so beautiful but then rain came and washed it all away. I have been freezing but it is great. Washing my clothes is a bit of a problem though. It takes a while for them to dry and even longer if they freeze! Alright, everyone have a good Christmas.

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