Tirana, Albania: Today

This is the third post in a three-part series I am writing about my recent trip to Tirana, Albania. — April

Monday morning, my friend and I were trying to decide how to spend our last day in Tirana. It was raining, but all of the museums were closed due to it being Independence Day. A man on the street overheard us and stopped. Turns out, he is a tour guide, and he took us on an impromptu tour of the city.

We made several interesting stops along the way, including the Albanian parliament. We were standing outside of the building, talking, when the guards invited us inside.

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As I posted yesterday, Albania was under communist rule until 1990. Today, its government consists of two parties, the Socialists and the Democrats.

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One thing that really struck me about Tirana (and Albania in general) is the mix of influences you see. Like Kosovo, Albania is largely Islamic (due to influences from the Ottoman Empire) and has a minority Catholic population. Our tour guide told us that under communist rule, religion of any kind was banned. The churches and mosques in the city today are all new.

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This mosaic of Mother Theresa is made with seashells.

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This pyramid is a famous source of controversy in Tirana. It was built by Albania’s communist ruler, Enver Hoxha, as a tomb for himself. He died in 1985. His body was entombed in the pyramid for only a few months, and was then moved to a cemetery outside the city in order to discourage protests. There has been much debate about whether to tear down the pyramid, or to keep it as a reminder of history. According to our tour guide, Tirana plans to begin restoration on the building sometime next year, and turn it into a museum.

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One thing to note, while our tour was interesting, our guide was evasive about the price until the end. My friend and I both feel like he overcharged us. So I would say if you’re a foreigner traveling in Tirana, use extra caution and insist on prices up front!

Tirana, Albania: History

This is the second post in a three-part series I am writing about my recent trip to Tirana, Albania. — April

Disclaimer: Some of the images and descriptions in this post are graphic in nature.

When we were talking about things we’d like to do in Tirana, my friend suggested visiting BunkArt. I didn’t do any research on it beforehand, and kind of assumed it was an old bunker turned into a modern art museum.

Boy, was I wrong.

BunkArt is a museum dedicated to teaching about Albania’s communist history. When it comes to Kosovo, I feel like I finally have a grasp on at least the country’s recent history. But when it comes to the rest of the Balkans, I am only just beginning to learn.

While Kosovo’s population is largely ethnically Albanian today, Kosovo and Albania have had very different recent histories. Kosovo was a part of the former Yugoslavia and fought a war against Serbia, whereas Albania was not part of Yugoslavia and was under communist rule until 1990.

I am no historian. I can’t pretend to be an expert on Albania’s history. But here are some pictures I took at BunkArt, along with descriptions of those pictures.

“The weapons displayed in this room have been deactivated and turned into museum objects.”

This coat was used to train dogs to attack people trying to illegally cross the border.

From a posted museum description:
“Throughout the communist regime, police dogs were considered as a strategic element to the aid of the police: there were more than 200 dogs that were used along the border mainly to signal those trying to leave the country, or those trying to enter illegally … The use of dogs in the border was so important that, if one of them got sick the General Commander should be informed, until reaching to the level of the Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs.”

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It is hard for me to begin to wrap my mind around such horrors. And Albania was under communist rule until 1990, which means it happened in my lifetime, not in some distant past.

I’d like to end this post with a quote from Mother Theresa (who was Albanian):

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“Evil settle(s) roots when a man begins to think that he is better than others.”

Tirana, Albania: Nature

This post is the first in a three-part series I am writing about my recent visit to Tirana, Albania. — April

Hi, everyone! I am back home in Kosovo after having spent the last three days visiting Tirana, Albania. Tirana was high on my list of places I wanted to visit here in the Balkans. I was thinking I would visit there for spring break. But then my friend (who has been to Tirana several times) asked me if I wanted to go for a long weekend, and I figured, why not go now?! We (the Peace Corps) have been on a travel restriction since we arrived in Kosovo in June. But the restriction ended this weekend, so now we are free to start using our vacation time. (If you’re curious, volunteers accrue 7 weeks of vacation for the 2 years we are serving. That sounds like a lot until you realize we don’t get weekends off … any travel done outside of Kosovo counts against our vacation time.)

My friend and I left Pristina, Kosovo on a 6 a.m. bus on Saturday. We arrived in Tirana at 11:30 a.m. After we ate lunch, we took a long walk through the city down the main boulevard.

Tirana is bigger than Pristina. The streets are much wider. The city was decorated for Independence Day (November 28).

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Tirana is south of Kosovo and has much milder weather (it’s been freezing at home … I wore my winter coat last week.) I had debated whether to pack my peacoat or my winter coat for the trip, and am glad I opted for the former. We lucked out with the forecast, too. It was supposed to rain all weekend, but it only rained on Monday.

The weather still felt like autumn. In Kosovo, the trees are all bare, but in Tirana there were still pops of color everywhere.

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As I said, my friend has visited Tirana several times in the past, and she was commenting on how much the city has changed since her visit 2 years ago. She said it was much cleaner than she remembered.

At the end of the main city boulevard, we reached the city park.

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My friend was also telling me about the recent changes made to the park, which included the addition of an awesome playground.

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After walking through the park, we reached Tirana’s (man made) lake (which is still very pretty).

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Stay tuned for more posts about Tirana this week! I’ll be writing about history, art, and the city as it is today.

TEFL Activities Using Little to No Resources, V2

(**I compiled the following list into a downloadable PDF file: tefl-activities-requiring-few-to-no-resources-v2)

Telephone
How could I have forgotten telephone on my first list? Classic. If you’re unfamiliar with this game, have your students form a line or circle. The first student thinks of a sentence in English, and then whispers it to the next person (and so on). The last person to hear the sentence has to say it out loud. (And then everyone laughs at how much the sentence has changed.)

Four Corners
This game is adaptable to any lesson plan/vocabulary. Choose four vocabulary words, and write them on four separate pieces of paper. Post one word in each corner of the classroom. Select one student to be “it.” He or she sits in the center of the room with their eyes closed (or blindfolded). The other students disperse to the four corners of the room. The “it” student says, “Everyone in the (vocab word) corner, sit down.” Any students standing in that corner must sit at their desks. The remaining students change corners. The pattern is repeated until only one student is left standing. That person becomes “it” for the next game.

Listening to a Song
I brought my iPod + portable Jam speaker to school to play a song for my students. I had them listen to the song once all the way through. Before the second listening, I wrote a list of words on the board. When the students heard those words during the second listening of the song, they had to raise their hands. (If you have access to a printer, you could print the lyrics and delete certain words. Then, have students fill in those words as they listen to the song.)
Choosing a song can be challenging. Things to take into consideration are appropriate lyrics (obviously), choosing a song students would like (I’d say, stick with pop music), and also finding a song where the lyrics aren’t too fast/can be clearly heard. Here are a few songs I would suggest:
Popular by MIKA and Ariana Grande
Beautiful by Christina Aguilera
Happy by Pharrell Williams

Counting (Warm Up Activity)
Have students stand. Count aloud to ten as you shake your right hand ten times, your left hand ten times, your right foot ten times, and your left foot ten times. Repeat the exercise counting down 9, 8, 7 …

Preposition
Have students come up to the front of the classroom one at a time. Give them an object and let them place it under, beside, between, below (etc.) the desk or a chair. Have the other students use the sentence in a preposition. (Example: “The ball is under the desk.”)

Create a Story
Have each student write a sentence on a piece of paper. Then have students pass papers to their left. Give students thirty seconds to read what their neighbor wrote, and then add a sentence to the story. Then, pass papers to the left and repeat. When the papers complete the circle and the student has their original piece of paper back in front of them, go around the room and have students read their stories aloud.

You can see my first list of resources here.

Nature Walk in Peja, Kosovo

A few weeks ago, I went on a nature walk with four other volunteer friends in Peja, Kosovo. I have visited Peja a few times now. It’s one of Kosovo’s biggest cities and it’s in the northwest part of the country.

Previously, I went on a hike in Peja. This time, we took a less strenuous path, one that is paved and flat. We walked about 8 miles total.

Autumn is my favorite season by far. I had a wonderful day, getting out and exploring.

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We came across this art display made of trash.

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We stopped at an adorable log cabin restaurant for pizza.

Then we continued walking a bit further.

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It was a autumn lovely day spent with lovely people! 🙂

Newbie Week: What We Know Now That We Didn’t Know Then

I’m devoting this week’s posts to useful information for the next group of Kosovo volunteers, who are starting to get their acceptance letters for the Peace Corps. –April

I polled my fellow volunteers to ask: “What do you wish you’d known about Kosovo before you moved here?” I recorded their responses below. For privacy reasons, I decided not to include names, though I promise, this is actual advice from other actual volunteers. (And not just stuff I made up.) Based on the responses I received, I broke them into different categories.

Language

“I wish I’d appreciated the importance of learning Kosovo dialect sooner because Kosovar Albanian is significantly different from standard Albanian.”

Pre-Service Training

“The lack of independence for 3 months is real.”

“Be prepared for a lot of walking and lots of sweating.”

“Keep in mind PST (pre-service training) is nothing like your service, and remember to slow down.”

“In PST (pre-service training), though it’s important to be inquisitive and to ask questions, don’t burden yourself with more information than necessary. In other words, I don’t think it does you any good to get too far ahead of yourself. It’ll make your PST (slightly) less hectic.”

“Non-specific and overly general questions to staff, PCVs, and/or your LCFs will yield non-specific and overly general answers. If you paint with a broad brush, you will absolutely receive the responses: ‘It depends,’ ‘It’s different at every site,’ and/or ‘This is a single story.'”

Food

“Don’t tell your family you like something because you will get it all of the time. Be upfront about your likes and dislikes or be prepared to just put up with it for 3 months.”

“My advice is to be prepared for more bread than you imagine. Even though we were warned … ”

Host Families

“Alone time can be really hard to manage sometimes without offending your host family; figure it out early and avoid unrealistic expectations.”

“I hesitate to ask about it but, in my experience, I’ve seen that Kosovars don’t have too many qualms about bringing up their Kosovo War stories, sometimes unprompted. It’s important to only listen with an open mind and an open heart.”

“The families here are absolutely wonderful and so loving. Prepare to be taken into your family completely.”

“The respect you receive simply for being an American can sometimes be overwhelming and humbling. We are very lucky here. Appreciate it and try to live up to those expectations.”

Packing

“Pack clothes that are versatile, and to lean more conservatively because of the likelihood of being placed in village.”

“Bring warm pajamas for the winter.”

If you’re in CD, bring more professional clothes than you’d possibly ever believe you’d actually wear during your service in the Peace Corps. You’ll regret it otherwise.”

Most of my suitcase space was used for normal clothes and outdoor gear. Considering that Kosovo has all seasons and beautiful, mountainous scenery, I’m happy with this decision.”

“Bring long running shorts, index cards, and Ziplock bags.”

Life in Kosovo

“My feminist beliefs being challenged daily is exhausting and although expected, wasn’t prepared for this degree of difference in thought.”

“Bring a hobby that doesn’t require battery or power cause the power goes out all the time.”

“You will have Internet or probably be able to buy a package for a decent price.”

“You WILL be placed with a host family as a trainee and volunteer. As a trainee for the first three months you’re given the housing payment, €2/day walk around allowance, plus transportation if you’re in a village outside the training site. As a volunteer you will be making around €200/month after housing payment.”

“Smoking is widespread in Kosovo, even in restaurants and some other public places.”

“Dating, while more common in the city, is not the norm in most areas. My Pre-Service Training (PST) host parents were married after two months of knowing each other, and PST host sibling after six months.”

“If you own an unlocked smart phone, bring it. You can simply pop in a local SIM card to use it here. Peace Corps will help you set it up and pay for your first package. After that, I’ve been paying €2.50 every two weeks for two GB.”

“Most major libraries (like NYPL) have an option to digitally check out books, but you need to get a card beforehand (which is free). Something I should have thought of previously, since I keep running out of books … ”

“Once you get here, buy a pack of wet wipes or toilet paper and always carry some with you. It will be a hot, sweaty summer and you’re very likely to encounter restrooms with no paper.”

“I would say, “‘Don’t do any research at all.'”

April: My own piece of advice similar to the above: Try not to anticipate too much what this experience will be. For me, I read one book about Kosovo and started practicing my Albanian language with Pimsleur’s Speak and Read Essential Albanian CDs. I thought I would do a lot more prep, but I didn’t. I didn’t even reach out to my fellow volunteers on Facebook much. I wanted to wait and meet them in person before trying to create any sort of opinion about who they were.

Newbie Week: Budgeting at Your Permanent Site

I’m devoting this week’s posts to useful information for the next group of Kosovo volunteers, who are starting to get their acceptance letters for the Peace Corps. –April

I wrote a previous post about money during pre-service training. Now that I am at permanent site, I have decided to keep an Excel spreadsheet to track my expenses.

Back when I was still living in Chicago, we had a conference call with the Kosovo Peace Corps staff to address any lingering questions. One of mine was: “How much is our living allowance?” for which I received a cagey response: “It’ll be enough to live on.” Hahahaha. So funny, Peace Corps.

Well, I am going to tell you exactly how much we get paid here in Peace Corps Kosovo: $353 Euro per month. (A full-time teacher here in Kosovo earns $500 Euro per month.)

Peace Corps directly deposits the money into the Kosovo bank accounts they set up for us. From that, we are responsible for paying our host families. The minimum amount we can pay them is $130 for rent, and then we negotiate the cost of food with them (some people, like me, eat the majority of meals with their families. Other people buy their own groceries and don’t eat with their families at all.) This past month, I gave my host family $50 Euro for groceries, which is the average amount most of us who eat with our families pay.

After paying $180 to my host family, that left me with $173 Euro to spend however I wanted. You can see my spreadsheet of expenses here: october-2016-peace-corps-budget-sheet (6)