Two days ago (February 15) marked the end of my 11th month in Albania. The next cohort of Peace Corps volunteers arrives in a few weeks and it’s like a trip back in time to hear their questions (“should I bring travelers checks?”…”is a sleeping bag really a necessity?”…” can I get high SPF sunscreen there?”) and sense their anxiety (“I’m really worried about the cold”…”how strapped will I be for money?”). On the one hand, the last 11 months have passed so quickly and on the other, all of my worries about suitcases, long underwear and how many pairs of socks to bring feel like they were part of a different life — which they were.
It’s been months since I’ve posted about what I’m up to, not because of lack of interest or intent, but because time flies when you spend five full days a week at the office, 90% of your transportation is on foot, 30% of your laundry is hand-washed, there are virtually no labor-saving devices in your kitchen (dishwasher, food processor, etc.) and there’s no Chipotle or take-out Chinese food when you don’t feel like cooking. There’s also refilling the water filter, refilling water bottles with filtered water, boiling the filtered water needed for hot compresses (for the blepharitis affecting my eyes), sitting for 20-30 minutes a day while applying the hot compresses, moving electric heaters and extension cords around my apartment in an effort to keep warm and mopping up after each shower. Oh yeah, and washing lettuce. Not only is there no pre-washed, pre-packaged lettuce here, the straight-from-the-farm, unprocessed lettuce turns brown after about two days in the fridge. I feel like I spend a lot of time washing and drying lettuce!
Yet, at this 11-month point, so much of this seems normal. The many adjustments I had to make have settled into a set of regular (albeit time-consuming) routines: I now know how far in advance of a shower to turn on the water heater and no longer forget to turn it off; how often to stop at the grocery store so that I don’t end up carrying more groceries than I can handle; which streets are least puddly in the rain; which stores sell meat that won’t go bad within 24 hours; and by what time I need to get to the bakery to ensure they still have my favorite bread. I am doing much better at carrying enough cash in this no-credit-card economy and, perhaps most important, my relationship with time has shifted to accommodate transportation-on-foot.
What doesn’t yet feel normal is the disconnect between appearances and reality, between how things look and how they function. Much of Albania wears the trappings of a modern country (smart phones, Mercedes, stylish clothing, sleekly upscale bars and cafes) but, under the surface, things are less well developed than they seem. The longer I am here, the more I understand the why and the how of it, but at any given moment, I can still be jarred by paradoxical realities. A few examples:
- As you’ll read below, I moved recently. My new neighborhood is a bit farther away from the center of the city and I wanted to find out about bus routes in case I was coming home late at night. Tirana has an extensive city bus system, but there is no (I repeat: NO) route map, not even on the city’s web page. In theory each route is posted inside the bus-stop shelters for that route, but some routes — mine included — have no shelters. After asking around, I realized that the only way to figure out the bus route — and the location of the stops — was to experience it for myself. So, a couple of weeks ago, I went to the center of the city, found the bus that goes to my neighborhood, got on and rode the entire route — round-trip — so that I could figure out where the stops are and make sure I knew the route in each direction.
- Last weekend I made my first trip to Mt. Daijti (dye-tee) the mountain/national park at the edge of Tirana. There is a cable car to the top (~5,000 feet), where there’s a brand new hotel, a nice lodge-style restaurant and a number of family-friendly attractions, including a playground, a BB-gun shooting range and horse-rides.
But alongside the area with the attractions is a field littered with trash: plastic bags, plastic bottles, cans and food wrappers. There is a huge trash problem throughout Albania, but the complex at the top of Dajti is a commercial endeavor geared to visitors and tourists and no one in the shiny silver hotel with the rotating restaurant makes it a priority to keep the entire area looking good.
In a similar way, Albanian shopkeepers and cafe owners will go to great lengths to keep the entrances to their establishments clean and shiny: they are forever mopping the steps, polishing the mirrors and cleaning the glass. But, oftentimes, there is trash accumulating just outside the entrance that doesn’t make it onto the proprietor’s “keeping it pretty” radar.
- Albanians are known for their hospitality and genial concern for others. There are endless pleasantries in Albanian life. But, try to get on a bus without shoving and elbowing and you may end up standing on the street after the doors close. Stand in line at the post office and you will still be standing there an hour later if you don’t push your way up to the counter, defend your turf with your arms spread and violate the personal space of the young woman behind the counter by holding your ID within several inches of her nose. And even then, someone who just walked in the door (most often a male) may shoulder their way up to the counter, extend their ID and simply expect to be taken care of — which is good enough for the young woman behind the counter.
Long overdue — here’s the latest:
Of All the Gin Joints in All the Towns in All the World…
A while back I posted an entry recounting my difficulties navigating the Albanian medical system while trying to manage my Tirana-induced chronic eye irritation (a condition called blepharitis). Around Thanksgiving time I gave up trying to fix the problem and accepted that keeping it under control was the best I was going to do while in Albania. I did a bunch of research on how to manage blepharitis, which led to a series of questions the doctors here in Tirana couldn’t answer. I reached out to the Peace Corps doctors in Washington DC to see if they could answer my questions and that led to a not-particularly-funny comedy of errors that took months but did nothing to answer my questions.
Earlier this week, I was shocked, shocked to learn that the only way to get my questions answered is to allow myself to be “medevac-ed” to Rabat, Morocco where there’s a Peace Corps-vetted ophthalmologist who meets U.S. standards of care. I pushed back several times, saying that it seemed extremely cost-ineffective to send me to Morocco for a few simple questions but it appears that there are larger issues than efficiency at play here and I finally realized that if I didn’t start working with, rather than against, the system I might regret it. Maybe not today; maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of my life.
So…Casablanca here I come. It seems silly to me to go all the way to Morocco to discuss eyedrops and hot compresses but I have reframed this as just one more part of my Peace Corps adventure. I am still waiting to hear about my travel arrangements but sometime in the next week I’ll be getting on that plane where I belong and looking forward to hearing the words, “here’s looking at your eyes, kid.”
(If you can figure out a way to work one of my other favorite linea: “the Germans wore grey, you wore blue,” into this, I will give you a
dollar 100 lek.)
Oh Baby, It’s Cold
What they say is true: during winter, it’s really cold inside Albanian homes! Albanian buildings — even new ones — are made of concrete block and are completely uninsulated, nor do they have central heating. If you’re lucky there is a “conditioner” (heating/cooling) unit installed in the wall of one room, but many houses don’t have even that. Add high-gloss ceramic tile floors to the equation and any room can be its own refrigeration unit.
Compared to Chicago, Tirana is not particularly cold in the winter: nighttime temperatures usually range from the mid-30s to the mid-40s with daytime temps in the 50s. With the exception of two short cold-snaps with temperatures ranging from mid-20s to mid-40s, I have been wearing my unlined raincoat — not my down coat — this winter. But, inside is a different story — it’s cold and damp, and comfort requires layer upon layer upon layer of clothing.
Depending on how cold it is, I may also have a hot water bottle with me.
In the morning, the temperature in my apartment (measured with my trusty yogurt-making thermometer) is anywhere from 46 to 55 degrees. At night before I go to bed, I pre-position my space heaters so that I can jump out of my sleeping bag in the morning, turn them on and get back in bed for 10-15 minutes while they make things more tolerable. Inside my sleeping bag I am wearing heavy Smart Wool socks, woolen long johns (top and bottom), flannel pants, and a half-zip fleece. Depending on how cold it was the night before, I may also be wearing a fleece vest and/or have a hot water bottle with me. A couple of times I’ve slept with a hat and gloves, but mostly I don’t.
When I get out of bed, the first thing I do is refill the hot water bottle and use it as part of a multi-phase process to warm up the clothes I am going to wear that day. Overnight the clothes get really cold and a bit damp and so, in turn, I wrap the pieces of clothing around the hot water bottle so that I can put them on without jumping up and down and squealing from the cold.
Fortunately, showering has turned out to be less of an ordeal than I had expected. I run a space heater just inside the door of the bathroom for about 15 minutes before I shower and that helps a lot. I have also figured out a way to hook the “telephone” shower-head over my shoulder so that I get a constant stream of warm water running down my back while I’m washing my hair.
Many mornings I open most of my windows — and also my closet and cabinet doors — before leaving for work. Unless there’s rain, the air outside is usually dryer than the air inside and so I leave the windows open in the hope of preventing mildew. Even when I’m home, it often feels a bit warmer to have the windows open.
At night, when I return, I am pretty warm from the walk home and the apartment isn’t yet super chilly — even if the windows have been open. I quickly change into my sleeping get-up and then, as the evening goes on and the apartment gets colder I add layers: fingerless gloves, maybe a hat, perhaps a down vest over my fleece vest and often my “indoor coat,” a used full-length quilted coat that I cook and clean in without concerning myself with whether it gets dirty.
*I know that others have already used this header, but I couldn’t come up with anything that did the job quite so well.
There’s No Place Like Home
There’s no place like home….unless your home has mold creeping its way across your living room walls…in which case you find another home (translation: move).
In November and December, as the weather got cold and damp, the two outer walls of my living room began to develop mold and over a period of weeks it started creeping behind the bookshelves and couch and eventually along the entire length of the couch. I did a bunch of research to try to figure out whether it was the dreaded black mold and, either way, what I should do about it. I learned that without testing it’s pretty hard to tell what type of mold it is, but that there was a good chance the mold already existed inside the walls and so attempts at remediation would be fruitless. Also, as the mold got worse, my eyes — which are already itchy — started to burn and I had a cough that only bothered me when I was home.
Over New Year’s weekend, I decided that I needed to move and move quickly. Using the Tirana equivalent of Craig’s List (but with no pictures and usually no information on prices) I started to look around. My spoken Albanian isn’t great and talking on the phone is a nightmare for me, so I wrote up a text message in Albanian and sent it to people who had apartments for rent. The last part of the message said, “If you speak English, call me and we can talk, but if you don’t speak English, please write back so that I can translate what you are saying.” It worked great and I was able to set up a bunch of appointments for the next day. What wasn’t so great was trying to duplicate the many advantages and amenities of my mold-afflicted apartment. The first day I looked was really discouraging: everything half-way decent was more than my Peace Corps stipend and the places within reach were dark, one-room hovels. That evening I got a call from Kadri — who has since become my landlord. He doesn’t speak English but was willing to speak slowly and repeat himself and we worked out an appointment for the next day.
Kadri and his wife Bardha own what’s called a “villa,” a private multi-floor home built post-Communism. They live on the third (of four) floors and have subdivided the other floors into apartments. It was clear from the moment I entered through the front garden that Kadri is extremely particular about taking care of his place and that things are well maintained. The apartment itself — much brighter than my old place and with a view of Mt. Dajti (rather than a dumpster) — showed the same care and I felt pretty confident that mold would no be an issue. Kadri wanted more for the apartment than I could afford, but after a couple of rounds of negotiation (mostly in writing, via text message) I succeeded at getting the price within reach. There are things about the apartment that are less user-friendly than my old place, but on net it’s a big improvement and the location is in the same general area — just about 10 minutes farther from work.
Although my new apartment is less damp, it’s as cold — if not colder — than my old place. About a week ago, I came home to find scaffolding circling the house and over the following days, there were workmen doing something to the facade of the building. This made no sense to me because the outside of the building was in great shape.
Then, late last week I discovered what’s up and it’s an amazing, unexpected bonus. If you look carefully at the picture below, you’ll see that they are attaching styrofoam-panel insulation to the exterior of the building. This is extremely rare in Albania and very exciting — I feel like I hit the Albanian lotto. The installation isn’t done yet but there is already a difference in both temperature and dampness.
Until Next Time….
There’s plenty more to tell: Thanksgiving, Kira’s visit during the holidays, work at USAID and other projects — but I’ll save those for next time. Rumor has it that I am going to have a lot of time on my hands in Morocco and so I can catch up on posting there.