As the school year drew to a close, life became increasingly busy, and then it wasn’t busy at all. Nevertheless, it’s been a bit too long since my last update, so now it is time to bring people up to speed with things that have taken place.
I suppose it would be prudent to begin with what was a very special moment for me, the visit of my mother and sister. Much like my father’s visit here, it was something I had very much looked forward to, and after all the ordeals they endured just getting here, it was amazing to finally see them there, in the airport. Unlike their rough journey on the way to Albania (involving confusing Italian trains and a host of other traveling issues), the trip back to Librazhd from the airport went surprisingly smoothly. We got a taxi for about half what I was expecting to pay, we managed to get back in time for one of the buses going to Elbasan and even managed to sit together, and we managed to get a furgon home.
Once we arrived safely in Librazhd (Friday evening), we had dinner with my landlords, and prepared for a day at the market the following day (as well as dinner with my host family). The market was very interesting, and provided a lot of intriguing insight to daily life here (for example, mom and Lani both got to watch a young goat being carried upside down by its feet through the streets, something we wouldn’t see back home in America – particularly since we all knew where that goat was very likely heading that evening). Both my mother and sister were able to pick up some nice little pieces of jewelry (which I have and will be bringing with me), and it was an all around good day. Top that off with a nice dinner at the host family’s house, and it was wonderful.
Sunday was my sister’s birthday, and for her birthday we went up to the good ol’ tree hike in Librazhd, a hike that is very well-known throughout the PC volunteers here in Albania. Up near the top there is a village (Librazhd Katund) where we met two old grandmothers, one of whom was picking flowers to sell as medicine at the market, and one of whom was watching over a flock of sheep. The one watching over the sheep shouted at my mother, who was taking a picture of said sheep, whilst waving a small hatchet around (not threateningly, but more a sort of “You there! I say, what is it you are doing, there!”). My mother pointed to the camera and explained (in English, of course) she just wanted a picture of the sheep. The woman nodded in understanding, planted her hatchet in the ground next to her, and patted the space beside her, gesturing for mom to come have a seat. Mom sat, looked at the little scrawling of notes I had given her (survival Albanian words – yes, no, thank you, hello, goodbye), before saying “Uh, uh…Mirupafshim!” (goodbye), to which the old lady threw her head back and laughed. They sat there and talked, both in their native tongues (and probably not understanding each other verbally), but had a wonderful time, it seemed.
Later Sunday evening, we got back from the tree hike and got nice and dressed up for the party I arranged with some of my students, for my sister’s birthday. I think (though perhaps you may want to ask her yourself) she enjoyed it and was pleasantly surprised with the music they had there, as it was music she was quite accustomed to. Nevertheless, fun was had by all and it was a good night.
The next few days were mixed with Lani coming down with a sore throat and missing two days of meeting my students in classes, and actually meeting the students in classes. We did what we could with the time (and health permitting) we had, and by Thursday, it was time to pack our things and get ready for the next leg of their trip – Amsterdam.
Amsterdam itself was incredible. Getting there…was not. The worst part of the journey was arriving in Venice for our transfer, which was made extremely complex by the lack of signs in English, by people who spoke English and were somewhat helpful, but would help us halfway to our destination (before forgetting we existed and abandoning us where we weren’t supposed to be), and by the major problem of the fact we had purchased two sets of tickets, one set from Tirana to Venice, and a separate set from Venice to Amsterdam (meaning we physically had to leave the airport and check in again, before going through all the screenings and whatnot; without having known that, we tried to go through normal connecting flights, but we didn’t have tickets, and were confused about how we were supposed to get them).
But once we arrived in Amsterdam, it was an unforgettable experience. We were picked up by some of my sister’s friends from university (exchange students), and we went to stay with them for the two-three days we were there. We had dinner there that evening, and it was fantastic (this was Friday evening). Saturday morning, we all headed out and rented bicycles, which was an interesting experience in itself because I’ve never seen so many bicycles in my life. Thousands of them. Parked, riding, everywhere. Amsterdam is so wonderfully flat and level, that aside from the fact there are even special lanes for bikes, riding them is a pleasant experience because you can coast to get everywhere. And beyond that, the city is so incredibly clean and pretty, that riding through it is mentally relaxing. Of course, while we were there, we did some of the touristy things like stopping through the red light district, as well as browsing along some of the places where numerous dispensaries are located (not only for marijuana, but also for mushrooms as well). Whilst not purchasing or partaking in any of those things, it was really interesting to see how it’s done in a place where it’s legal to sell it; because it’s legal, the vendors are able to list every strain they have, and also give specific information about the effects of each strain. I thought this was a rather safe way of selling it, much safer than trying to buy it illegally off the street (particularly for people who are curious about trying it – they might be a little more prepared for what they’re getting into if they have some information about what they’re taking). Nevertheless, going through Amsterdam was an experience in and of itself.
The previous evening, though, I had asked my sister about what she’d think about me getting a tattoo to…”commemorate” the trip together. I viewed the trip as a pretty major point for me, because not only did we get everything together to make it happen, but we were there, together. Furthermore, being halfway through my PC service at this point, I wanted to mark that by getting something to display that. Lani said “Well, yeah, that sounds like a good idea, but have you given any thought to what you’d get? Y’know, how big you’d want it, where…They won’t just take it if you just decided it now…”
Fortunately, I had been thinking for the past 4-5 months about what I’d get if I ever got a tattoo. I knew I would want a phrase that we use here, something cultural. Most of the small phrases they have here tend to be Turkish (the Ottoman Turks were here for 500 years, so phrases like “Avash avash” and “Kismet” and “Taksirat” – slowly slowly, maybe, and fate respectively – are fairly common here). Personally, I only ever used avash avash and taksirat, so I figured it would probably be one of those. A previous volunteer had already done something with avash avash, though, and wanting to do something unique, I felt taksirat was also a better fit for my personality. Avash avash is an excellent phrase, as life here does happen slowly slowly. But you can’t use it everywhere – you can’t go to Germany or Japan and try to be “Avash avash” there because life is rather quick. Taksirat, on the other hand, has a meaning of “shit happens” without being vulgar. Basically, it means “Things happen, that’s part of life – good things, bad things, they always are going to happen”. And I liked that because it was true no matter where you were – it was something that was inherently always true (though generally people use “taksirat” in reference to misfortune). And so I had made my decision.
Saturday evening came and as luck would have it, we managed to get an appointment at a place that had been recommended to us (surprising considering usually you have to book these places days in advance). At 4:00 I showed up and talked with the tattoo artist, and he was quite funny, had a sense of humor. He gave a few design ideas and I settled on the second revision, and off we went. After an hour of what could only be described as feeling like I was being cut with a knife, the tattoo was done, and I had my first tattoo.
We had dinner at a restaurant and Sunday morning came, and before I knew it, it was time for me to leave. Getting to the airport was a nightmare, as there is no direct metro route to the airport from Amsterdam itself. And while everyone in Amsterdam speaks spectacular English, they all also have their own separate version of how to best get to the airport. So, after asking six different people, we got six different opinions on which way was fastest. The end result is we ended up needing a taxi. But, after begrudgingly hiring our taxi and arriving at the airport and checking in, it was time to say our goodbyes.
Despite some of the stresses incurred from traveling, the goodbye here with mom was as hard as the first goodbye we had when I left for Albania. It was hard, and we both knew it was coming, but that didn’t make it any easier when the moment finally came. Fortunately, checking in went smoothly (I actually had the required documentation, I think to everyone’s surprise including my own). And just like that, I was off.
The flights back home, first to Belgrade in Serbia (on Air Serbia) and then to Tirana, went surprisingly pleasantly. On a 1 hour and fifty minute flight, Air Serbia gave me some of the best beef goulash I’ve ever had (and it was included in my ticket price, it wasn’t an extra fee like some of the American flights I’ve been on). And my connection went very smoothly. Needless to say, I was stunned by the professionalism and courtesy with which I was treated, and would happily fly Air Serbia again.
After I arrived back home, very little happened until what we know as Kampi pa Emer (literally translated as “Camp without a name”). Kampi pa Emer is a camp run for some of the Roma community here in Librazhd (as I understand it, they do not have the opportunity to go to the beaches during summer like many other families, and a previous volunteer and his wife, who is from Librazhd, have been running the camp for the past 7 years). Alba and Joey returned from America again this year and camp was off. Each day, close to 50 children from all around Librazhd (though generally from the train-station area, near the Roma community) came to play games, do arts and crafts, and learn about treating one another with respect, even if they were different. And because Alba works in the dental field, they also got checkups; these checkups were something sorely needed, as it turned out many of the children were afflicted by severe gingivitis. Tooth decay was somewhat rampant, and due to lack of education about brushing teeth, it was too late to stop some of the early damage for some of them (some of the children lived with a lot of pain, daily). As such, oral hygiene was also part of the camp, as was free healthy meals to help give them energy for the daily activities.
By the week’s end, I (and I’d wager the other volunteers who took part) was completely exhausted. It was tiring, but the smiles and laughter from the kids made it all worth it. I hope to take part again next year, as this was my second time doing it and it was even better than last year (and also better because I can now talk to many of these children in Albanian, which I couldn’t do last year because I was limited in my abilities, still).
After Kampi pa Emer came to a close, it was time for my town’s high school to have their “Matura”, which can be loosely translated as their prom (they use the same word for the end-of-year exams for seniors, as well…it’s a bit confusing). But, because I had been a “teacher” there at the school, both the staff and all the graduating seniors kept asking if I was going to come…so I did! After dressing up and cleaning myself up a bit, I went to the town’s center and promenaded up and down the central street with the other Matura students, bringing with me one of my fellow volunteers and my host sister (who is just now going into 10th grade); my host sister was too young to be actually taking part, but it seemed to go fine because she and Jessica, the other volunteer, were walking with me (it was a sort of “Ehh…Why not?” moment). It felt awesome, and later, the after-party was also quite lively. I sat with the teachers and we circle-danced the night away (leaving around 2:30 AM, though I believe the students stayed until 4:00 AM).
That leaves me with the last thing to happen until now, the 11th of July 4th-of-July celebration in Ksamil. This year, approximately 20 something volunteers gathered to celebrate together down on the sunny beaches of Ksamil. I saw old friends, met new ones, and had a fantastic time. I even got a little bit of sun, something I need to work on more now that I have been going to the gym for almost 5 months now. What a trip, though! Well worth the long time spent on a bus.
Until next time, everyone. Likely, next update will have details about Budapest and my trip back home (Yep! Going back home, thanks Dad!)