Spring in Shushicë

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Greetings from the rural village of Shushicë, a farming town 15 minutes and 40 years from Elbasan, the third largest city in Albania.  I am two weeks into “life in Albania” and it’s quite an adjustment:  challenging, frustrating, fun, joyful and, above all, interesting.

There is so much to tell about the last two weeks….so many observations, so many questions.  Because my time on WiFi is limited, I will save in-depth topics for later and provide just a few vignettes of life in Shushicë.

I am living with Refik Koçi, his wife Rezeja, their three grown children Markelanda, Elson and Erlind, and Qemilla, our 86-year-old “gjysh” (grandfather).  Refik works in the local Komuna, the village hall, but I am not  sure what his job is — I simply don’t speak enough of the language yet to comprehend very much other than words/phrases related to daily life.  Although Refik has an office job, the household is very much a farming — subsistence farming — household.  They farm fruits, vegetables, dairy and meat, but simply to put food on the table.  We eat what’s in season and nothing more.  Dinners with meat are a big deal.

Last weekend, my host mom hiked up the mountain to help stake baby olive trees. I couldn't figure out why we were hiking with a scissors and a sheet, but it turned out that the family's farm land is in the mountains.
Last weekend, my host mom hiked up the mountain to help stake baby olive trees. I couldn’t figure out why we were hiking with a scissors and a sheet, but it turned out that the family’s farm land is in the mountains and that we were using strips of cloth as stake ties.

Our farmhouse has no hot water, no refrigeration and two propane burners for a stove; the oven is outdoors, adjoined to the chicken coop (see photo below).  And, of course there is no heat.  The family pretty much lives in the one room with a fireplace and everyone sleeps in the same room.  As the guest, I have my own room, but it is unheated and once evening comes, the house is a refrigerator.  It may well turn out that my Sierra Designs down sleeping bag is  my best and most needed piece of gear here.

As you can imagine, life at my house is beyond modest.  For the first few days here I had to psych myself up every time I needed to wash my face.  Now, the cold water is (somehow) less of a struggle.  I have showered only twice since I’ve been here (which is quite typical) and seem to be perfecting the art of the “bucket shower,” which is the only way to introduce hot water into the mix.

This morning I stopped at our neighbor Rehat's house. He is a gjysh who makes his living selling wood. He is outfitting his "gomar" (donkey) Fushe with a saddle-type device that's used to carry the logs.
This morning I stopped at our neighbor Refat’s house. He is a gjysh who makes his living selling wood. He is outfitting his “gomar” (donkey) Fushe with a saddle-type device that’s used to carry the logs. He told me that he used to chop by hand but now he has a chain saw.

I am in classes six days/week — either here in town or at the Peace Corps’ training hub in Elbasan.  We get to Elbasan via “furgons,” which is a topic for an entire blog post of its own!  Our training includes language, safety/security (which ranges from “how to avoid unwanted attention” to “how to handle an evacuation order”), and technical training (information that will help me do my job).  We also have projects and very little time to do them because so much of our time is spent in class or doing language homework.

The adjustment is considerable.  Doing well in language class is very different from trying to make conversation or navigate everyday transactions; the lack of amenities is a shock (literally) to the system; and there is so much information coming at me that my brain is like a wrung-out dishrag at the end of the day.  Nonetheless, I am enjoying the challenge tremendously.  It’s beautiful here, my compatriots are great, I am sleeping more deeply (in spite of the cold) than I have in a long time, and every little success feels huge.  I just wish there was less salt — way less salt — in the food!

Here are my fellow Shushicers standing inside a huge tree in the Byshek, a lovely, historical park in our village.
Here are my fellow Shushicers standing inside a huge tree in the Byshek, a lovely, historical park in our village.  From left to right:  Kyle, urban planner from NC; Pier, county planner from Peru from by of NC; Will, economist from KY; Hillary, urban planner from FL; Nicole, architect from NY)

6 thoughts

  1. Hi Sue, I was thinking about you this morning, “I miss Sue!” and it was great to get home from dropping off Liz and find your blog entry.

    I was shivering just reading about your new home environment. Having lived in an old farmhouse in Maine with little heat and having had a well that went dry which necessitated creativity with hot water, I can slightly relate to the huge adjustment in lifestyle required of you!!

    I’m noticing the disconnect for me when I think of Europe and life in your town. I continue to look forward to more stories and descriptions of the day-to-day there.

    Sending love and hugs.

    Julie

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  2. Hi Sue,
    Very interesting to hear how others live in other countries. Your experience is so different from the U.S. Sounds like you are adapting well and enjoying your time and new experience. I am happy for you. How long are you staying? Continue to keep in touch.
    Stacy!

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  3. Such a rich and exhausting experience you are having! And living with a family in a small village…what an excellent way to obtain a sense of place….. Do you have a set date for starting your own teaching, and will you continue to live with the family you are currently with once your teaching starts? We will look forward to each update! May spring and warmth come early.

    Mary Ann and Bill

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    1. I will receive my permanent placement in a few weeks and then begin that assignment in mid-May. I don’t yet know what exactly I’ll be doing but I will not be teaching: I am in the Community and Economic Development sector (we have two other sectors here — TEFL (teaching English as a foreign language) and Health. As a COD volunteer I will most likely being working in a “bashkia” (pronounced bahsh-key-jah), which is a municipal government. Some volunteers work with local government officials on women’s issues, others on youth development, others on urban planning, others on economic development. There is also a chance that I will be placed with an NGO whose focus is one of these same issues. For now, though, who knows…the big announcement is at the end of next week.

      Spring seems to be here but it hasn’t yet made its way indoors. The buildings are uninsulated and made of Communist-era cinderblock so we still wear long-johns and/or down jackets and/or gloves during our trainings!

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