Sunday, November 7, 2010

The timing couldn’t have been better

And so November begins… and the task of completing my last 7 months of service is here.  It’s amazing to see the changes that have occurred since March of 2009.  My thoughts then were filled with “what ifs” and questions as to what my future might hold.  But being here has provided more insight.  I have seen the importance of building respectful relationships. I have learned that patience is a crucial component to accomplishment.  I never thought that coming here in my thirties would be so challenging.  Many think it’s an escape, I mean why would anyone in their right mind leave their home/job, etc.  for 27 months to “explore other opportunities”? What does that even mean?   Well, I have that answer now – and the timing couldn’t have been better.

This experience has prepared me for the next chapter.  It has allowed me to understand the importance of this period in life. The period of knowing that it’s not all about what people think or say. It’s about listening and having the confidence to speak up. It’s about not buying into the antics of others just to be accepted. It’s about sincerity, inner strength, and building a life that, when looking back, you can say you’re proud of. Because in the end, isn’t that what we all want?

As for post Peace Corps, plans are in the making, and exciting times are on the horizon.  Of course the more options the better, as we all know not to keep those eggs in one proverbial basket.  But the things here that I’ve seen, these are things that are making a lasting impression on me.  The look of a child (or adult) learning English for the first time, the smiles of my neighbors when I greet them every morning, the opportunity that is here to create an environment for people here that they never thought possible.  This is why I left.  And for the next 7 months, it’s all about getting things done. 

So – what’s to get done? Well, we (meaning the local government office) just received funding from Peace Corps and USAID to prepare a 10-year strategic plan for the city of Elbasan. This includes plans in all areas under government authority, including urban planning, environment, housing, infrastructure, education, culture/tourism, small business development, social services, and transport. An important element is to address how Elbasan is going to change over the next 10 years in order to meet EU standards.   As part of this plan, we will use data from a local government citizen survey that is being developed by the Institute for Development Research and Alternatives. This allows us to gather information on how citizens view local government, and what areas are in need of improvement.  

This is a huge project, and many are skeptical about these plans. Do cities actually follow them? Or are they just put together as coffee table books, eventually put on the shelf to gather dust? In preparing the grant proposal, this was a big concern. One way to address this is to make sure that the annual budget process is based on the contents of this plan.  We also have enlisted the help of an outside consultant, who is working with each department to ensure conformity and accuracy. Another aspect of this project is to make sure we inform all employees within the local government office about what the plan entails and how they play a part in implementation. In order to do this, we will train over 300 employees. This will include a comprehensive presentation of the plan, and give employees the opportunity to ask questions or raise concerns.  The goal is to finish this project before my close of service. It’s not just about finishing the plan though; it’s about what happens in the next 10 years.

In addition to this project, we are also anxiously waiting to hear from the European Commission if we have received funds for a cross border project with a local government office in Macedonia.  We submitted the application for this in July, after 2 months of collaboration with our Macedonian counterparts.  (Click here for a story featured by USAID). The Elbasan municipality submitted two proposals, one for a new tourism office in Elbasan (worked on with the city of Tetovo, Macedonia) and one for enhancements to culture centers and cross-culture promotions between Elbasan and the city of Mogila, Macedonia.  This was a learning process for all of us (I worked with Mogila, my sitemate worked with Tetovo, and our co-workers in the Elbasan office of Economic and Strategic Development also were involved).  We attended multiple meetings in Macedonia, including a training session that took us through the application process (the final proposal submitted was over 70 pages). Hopefully I will have good news on this soon! 

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Artwork by Eri

Since I have been in Albania, I have met some very interesting people. One of these is my friend Eri. He lives in Elbasan, and is currently studying multimedia - photography, video, and graphics. His work has been exhibited at Shpend Bengu Multimedia art studio in Tirana (capital of Albania). He is a great talent, and I really feel privileged to have met someone like him here.  Check out some of his works below. If anyone is interested in purchasing, please let me know!
Faith and flames - monotype

Red fish - monotype
I want to believe - mixed media
Portrait of Dorian Grey - mixed media
Last day on earth - linocut
Words won't pass - mixed media
Dragon heart - monotype

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Some pics

So....since I haven't blogged much during the past 4 months (summer break?) here are some recent pics.  :) It's been a great few months, and now that the hot weather is almost behind us it's time to get back to a busier work schedule.                
Birthday - photo by Eri :)
Blowing out the candles!
Another shot by Eri...

Albi - one of his favorite spots to hang out
My team of turtles
Kyle and I
Elbasan 5K run!
Eric and I 
working on cross-border grant project in Macedonia
Pogradec with Kyle and Jason
The lake in Pogradec
Catherine and I in Permet - at the hot springs

The hot springs in Permet
Hot springs...well worth the 15K walk
PDM training in Durres
Swearing in ceremony for Group 13
Diamanta, Diana and I 
New sitemates - some people think we look related...
Elbasan summer camp
Running with the kids
Teaching them how to stretch :) 
Model UN - our team with American Ambassador Withers
Model UN team
Catherine and I - Tirana
The journalists working on the Model UN newspaper 
Model UN 

Monday, April 26, 2010

13 months in...

Now that the winter has (finally) subsided and I am defrosted, I can actually form thoughts to write. It’s hard to believe that I’ve been here in Albania over a year now – the time has gone by fast and before you know it I’ll be making plans for the next steps of life…  From a work perspective, in the last few months I finished a tourism development project, continued work on a new website for the mayor of Elbasan (check it out at, attended the Albanian Model UN Conference, and worked on Albanian – English translating for the upcoming 2009 Bulletin, which highlights all the work that the Municipality has done in the past year. This includes improvements in infrastructure, education systems, social services, sports and culture, and more.  Just over a month ago, 50 new American trainees arrived in Elbasan, ready to embark on their own journeys.  I have been fortunate to be involved in several training sessions for the new group, and after they swear in at the end of May there will be over 100 volunteers working here in Albania.  A very encouraging number, albeit challenging for finding communities to accept volunteers, as this country is only the size of Maryland. One of the projects I work on here is the PC Albania newsletter, which consists of interesting and funny stories from fellow volunteers. Check out the latest edition here

 I’ve managed to do a bit of traveling in the past few months as well. In the beginning of March I went to Rome, where I met up with my friends Jess and Jeff.  J&J took a long vacation, beginning in Rome, then to Egypt, then to Barcelona. So I met them on their first leg. Rome was beautiful – we visited most of the tourist spots including the Colosseum, the Vatican Museum,  St. Peter’s, Trevi Fountain, the Pantheon, the Capitoline Museums, Campo de’Fiori (a huge flower and vegetable market), and more. And of course I can’t leave out the fabulous restaurants and wine bars ;) On our last day we ventured to the northern part of the city and visited Villa Borghese, Rome’s most famous park.  It was there we finally gave in to our gelato craving, while people watching and navigating around (Jess you are such a great navigator ;)).  The trip was too short, and I didn’t get to spend much time with my friend who was kind enough to let me stay at her house in Rome. I look forward to going back at some point! 

Monday, March 1, 2010

Christmas in Plovdiv

Day 3 & 4 – December 24 & 25, 2009

In order to get to Sofia, Bulgaria, we had to get up at the crack of dawn to catch a 7 AM bus.  Unfortunately the bus was cancelled since it was Christmas Eve, despite the man at the hostel telling us “Bulgarians don’t celebrate Christmas on the 25th.  In reality they do, albeit contradictory to the traditional Eastern Orthodox celebration of Christmas on January 7.  The wait was worth it, because the bus to Sofia actually had heat.  Once in Sofia, we quickly had to locate the train station and get tickets to the city of Plovdiv.  I approached the ticket window and asked the woman if she spoke English. She looked at me and said “No.” Ok then…. since it seemed that the next train was in 15 minutes we didn’t have much time to waste.  Standing there relatively clueless, I heard a woman say, “Can I help you get a ticket?”  She was a savior – she helped us get tickets, then walked with us to the track and even showed us which car to get in. Yes, there are kind people in this world who will go out of their way to help strangers!

The train was pleasant – I think I could easily travel all of Europe via train, as it is very comforting and also gives ample time for diving into your favorite book. Once in Plovdiv, we dared to take a taxi – but this time the driver actually dropped us off right at the hotel.  Hotel Hebros – wow what a great place. The staff awaited our arrival, handed us sparkling wine, and since we had missed the lunch, they quickly informed us that lunch would be served for us on Christmas day. This would become the theme of Hebros – as all of our interaction with the staff was telling them what time we wanted to eat!  The dinner that night was a traditional Bulgarian Christmas Eve meal – it’s a vegetarian meal that follows the 40-day Advent fast.  It includes grains, vegetables, fruits, and nuts. Walnuts, in particular, are found on the Bulgarian Christmas Eve table. The nuts are cracked in order to predict success or failure for the coming year. Another special aspect of the Bulgarian Christmas Eve meal is the round loaf of bread, into which a coin is baked. The person who finds the coin will be rewarded with good fortune. The 7-course meal included:
o   Bread (no coin was found inside L)
o   Pickled vegetables
o   Cabbage with rice
o   Peppers stuffed with beans
o   Mushroom/ apricot medley
o   Pear and apple soup
o   Pumpkins with warm walnuts
Just writing this is making me feel full again.  Needless to say the food coma set in and Christmas Eve ended, only after watching a little History Channel.

Christmas Day was a continuation of the feast – with a fresh European breakfast.  Afterwards it was time to walk around Plovdiv.  The 2nd largest city in Bulgaria, Plovdiv was developed on seven hills, and is referred to in Bulgaria as the “city of the seven hills”.  Walking through the narrow cobblestone streets you can find over 200 archeological sites, a Roman theatre, churches, mosques, museums, and 30 art galleries.  It is a major cultural center, and is host to many musical, theatrical, and film events.  It also has a modern appeal, with the main street in the center of town consisting of many modern clothing and accessory shops, and of course, a McDonalds. (Talk about McDonalds ruling the world – did you know there are only 7 out of 50 countries in Europe WITHOUT a McDonald’s, including Albania, Armenia, Northern Cyprus, South Ossetia, Iceland, Vatican City and Kosovo).   

As we explored the city, we found a treasure – a health food store that sold vitamins, supplements, and other hard-to-find-in-Albania ingredients and foods. (They actually sold peanut butter there but it was pretty expensive).  After touring the city it was time for the last official meal at Hebros - a lunch of potato soup, stir-fry with curry and baklava.  If you’ve never had baklava before, you’re missing out.  It’s a very rich dessert with layers of phyllo dough filled with chopped nuts and sweetened with syrup or honey.  I never had it before I came here, and it’s tradition in Albania to make it for the holidays.  Ok, enough food talk.  With Christmas over with, it was time to leave Plovdiv and head back to Sofia.


Roman theater in Plovdiv
Streets of Plovdiv

downtown Plovdiv - only 8600 km to Columbia, SC!

Hotel Hebros

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Oh The Places You Will Go...Day 2 – December 23, 2009

After getting about 3 hours sleep, it was time to hit the town.  The development of the city was amazing, or so it seemed since I’m not used to seeing street signs, regular traffic lights and – dare I say – McDonalds! Of course that was the first stop, and even though the menu was in Cyrillic I don’t think anyone can misunderstand “fries”.  It was heavenly and although it was quite a shock to the stomach it was worth every bite.  After that we wandered over to a fabulous bookstore, followed by a walk around Skopje, viewing Christmas decorations, the old bazaar, mosques, churches, and the dominant landmark in the city, a huge fortress called Skopsko Kale, which was built during the rule of the Romans.

Towards the end of the day we found an Irish pub, but they were out of Guinness. At first I couldn’t believe it but since it was Macedonia and not Ireland it was a bit more believable.  The menu was filled with large varieties of food, from Mexican to Indian to chicken fingers (again, not your typical Irish pub). It was quite a change from the pizza and pasta options that are the staple menu items in Albania. 

In search of a particular shopping center in Skopje, we ventured down one of the main streets since we were convinced it was towards the end, and not too far (on the map anyway).  After about an hour of walking, we stopped in a cafĂ© to have a hot chocolate, only to be told that the store we were looking for was all the way back near where we had started.  Taking a taxi to retrace our steps, it turns out the store was literally right around the corner from the bookstore we had been in earlier.  My navigation skills were put to the test during this whole trip and it turns out they need some polishing…

Back at the hostel, there was another guest that had arrived.  Strangely I never met the guest, only heard “its” voice outside in the sitting area.  The interesting part was, I couldn’t tell if it was a man or a woman.  Just when I thought it was going one way, the voice would either get higher or lower in pitch and throw me off even more.  After a while I made it a point not to see “it” so that I could continue the sound test.  Unfortunately the answer was never discovered. What was revealed however, was a random black sock on the back of the toilet seat.  Was this a sign? A warning? Had “mystery guest” known all along it had been subject of a guessing game?