Hey, Everyone! I got exciting news this week: I finally learned the date for my Peace Corps Close of Service (COS). Not only did I get my first choice of dates (there were three), but so did everyone else in my cohort. 🙂 I’ve already shared the exact date with my family and friends via email. Here, I’ll just say that I’m going home in mid-July!
On Monday, I was really excited to get my date. I got the email while I was on the bus and when I got to my house, I immediately began looking for flights home. Then Monday night, I cried as I got ready for bed, thinking of leaving my friends here. Then Tuesday morning, I woke up feeling restless and bored and wanting to just leeeeeave already. Such is the roller coaster of PC emotions.
Media consumption this week:
I read Where Men Win Glory by Jon Krakauer after two different friends recently brought it up in conversation. It tells the story of Pat Tillman, who famously left the NFL to become an Army Ranger. Though I don’t have an interest in football or war, I thoroughly enjoyed this book.
I found a copy of Stealing Buddha’s Dinner by Bich Minh Nguyen in our Peace Corps library. It is the writer’s memoir of growing up as a Vietnamese refugee in Grand Rapids, Michigan during the 1980s. She is only a few years older than I am and though I’m from eastern Michigan (I don’t think I’ve ever been to Grand Rapids), I could relate to much of what she had to say about growing up in the state.
I wrote another article for LinkedIn about my experiences with mindfulness as a Peace Corps volunteer. If you’d like to read it, click here.
And finally, I am heading to Ireland on Saturday! My friend and I are spending 3 days in Dublin and 3 days in Galway and then returning to Dublin to fly out. We have tours booked for Trinity College, Kilmainham Gaol Prison, and the Guinness brewery. We’re playing the rest by ear. Can’t wait!
My plan is to take two weeks off from blogging and be back online Monday, April 16 with posts about my Ireland trip. I’ll be traveling next week and then the week after, I’d like to spend time making changes to the back-end of the blog.
As always, you can follow along with me on Instagram. I’ll be sure to post some photos from Ireland along the way. 🙂
The book’s author, Michael Booth, is an Englishman married to a Danish woman. After living in Denmark for several years, he decided to write a book about Scandinavia. As he noted: “A journalist writing in the British Sunday Times recently described this part of the world as ‘a collection of countries we can’t tell apart.'”
This book is laugh-out-loud funny in parts. “In Sweden, the concept of being ‘fashionably late’ is akin to being ‘fashionably flatulent.'” (I think Booth is a funnier writer than Bill Bryson.)
Haha. Here are some fun facts I learned while reading this book:
People in Denmark like hygge (pronounced “hooga”) which, according to this book, basically means you sit around with your friends and family and make endless hours of small talk while avoiding more interesting and potentially controversial topics of conversation.
Iceland underwent a major financial crisis in 2008 when all three major privately owned banks defaulted.
Norway used to be a land of fishermen and farmers until they struck oil in 1969, which means it now has: “the largest sovereign wealth fund in the world. And I don’t mean per capita — we are talking in absolutes.”
According to PISA, Finland has the best education system in the world. Why? It isn’t due to classroom sizes (average) or the length of the school day (only four hours). It is because all of their teachers have master’s degrees. “In Finland, teaching attracts the brightest students … teacher-training courses can be harder to get into than those of law or medicine.” I also learned that Finns are extremely taciturn but blunt when they do speak. I think these might be my people.
“Swedish women have subsequently seen their position in society advance even more comprehensively thanks to a raft of policies concerning gender equality, childcare, and positive discrimination.” Can I move there?
This book contained many more interesting facts about Scandinavia. I wish I could include them all here. Maybe you should just read the book. 🙂
Edit 3.19.18: I saw a book about Hygge written in Albanian at a bookstore in Pristina!
Happy St. Patrick’s Day tomorrow! I’m not sure if I have any plans to celebrate but I’ll be in Ireland in two weeks anyway. 😉
“Extreme hospitality overwhelms me.” — Edith Durham, speaking about her time in Albania
My awesome friend Val bought me the book “Albania’s Mountain Queen” by Marcus Tanner because she knew I wanted to read it. I never read history books, except for the very occasional historical fiction novel. I am someone who prefers to experience history rather than read about it in books. I’d rather visit Gettysburg than read a book about Gettysburg, for example.
However, after living in the Balkans for nearly two years, I have grown very interested in the history here. Tanner writes about the life of Edith Durham, an Englishwoman who became a passionate crusader for Albanian rights. Durham was born to an upper-middle class English family. While her younger siblings went on to fantastic careers, Durham was something of a late bloomer. She was stuck in England caring for her ailing mother. She hated her life and decided to set out on an adventure, visiting the Balkans in the early 1900s. She went on to become a writer and reporter, urging British politicians to take notice of what was happening in the Balkans. (And so much was going on at the time … the Ottoman Empire was collapsing and different countries were trying to invade each other. I was having a hard time keeping it all straight).
As Winston Churchill once said: “The Balkans produce more history than they can consume.”
Tanner gives an unflinching look at Durham’s life and influence in the Balkans. At times, I get the feeling he didn’t like her much, though of course he never met her and was writing about her after her death.
Despite not liking history books in general and at times being overwhelmed by the amount of information, I greatly enjoyed this book and learned so much about the history here. It gave me a greater insight into much of my own observations of Kosovo and Albanian culture.
I highlighted a good deal of the book as I was reading. I’d like to share some quotes I found especially note-worthy. Please note that anything in quotes are the words of Marcus Tanner, the book’s author.
On the Albanian language:
“Language … also isolated Albanians from the outside world … the Albanians inhibited a linguistic island and spoke a language that had no close relationship to any Indo-European tongue. Albanian was also split into two very different, usually mutually unintelligible, dialects: Tosk in the south and Geg in the north. Very little was written in the language.”
On religion (April’s note: I found this particularly interesting because I live in a Catholic minority village):
“In 1468 … the Ottomans completed their conquest and most of the population [of Albania] converted to Islam. In the mountains of the north … the Catholic church retained a foothold. The clergy were a poor asset … some were beggars … most did not teach, or appear to know, elementary Christian dogmas.”
The poet Byron visited Albania and said of the people, “Their women are sometimes handsome also, but they are treated like slaves.” Byron’s companion, Hobhouse, further remarked that “Albanians … treated their women like animals.”
“None of the Albanians [Durham] had met had objected to the choice of wife that had been made for them because they considered all women the same — put on earth only to work and breed.”
“Of all the Ottoman vilayets [provinces] in Europe, Kosovo was reckoned the most lawless and dangerous. The Serbs regarded Kosovo with longing as their ancestral homeland, and the feeling of longing was increased by the fact that Kosovo was out of reach, under the thumb of the Ottomans. They wanted it back.”
“Crossing the lawless providence of Kosovo all the way to Peja and Decan in order to gain a more complete picture of Serbian life was a feat of a different order. Peja was one of the few places in the Balkans where Durham ever confessed to having felt afraid.”
“[Durham’s landlady in Macedonia] got on Durham’s nerves, creating a fuss when she needed a wash and took a bowl of water up to her room. The Macedonians observed this with suspicion. They rarely washed, and when they did so, conducted the ritual outdoors and with solemn ceremony, one woman pouring a little trickle of water over the hands and face of the other. The women of Macedonia did not remove any of their heavy and elaborate garments for this infrequent event and were alarmed by reports of the action involving bowls of water that was said to be going on in Durham’s bedroom. An even bigger scandal followed when her landlady discovered she slept in a nightgown. Macedonian women slept in the same gear they had worn all day and that they had probably worn all year. The idea of lying in bed, semi-naked, in a flimsy shift, horrified them.”
“The Macedonians’ passive resistance to learning or trying almost anything new got on her nerves. When Durham decided to vaccinate as many of the refugees as possible against smallpox, the refugees wanted nothing to do with it. As she had found out earlier with the affair of the indoor washing bowl, Macedonian women considered it indecent to remove any of their cumbersome drapes, and would not even bare their arms for any inducement.”
Some things never change …
“[Durham] had to avoid the packs of wild dogs that roamed everywhere, attacked strangers and fought until 4 a.m. every night.”
On differences between Albania and Serbia
“Overwhelmingly illiterate, possessing only a handful of schools, without roads that anyone could use in winter, the Albanians were divided along almost every conceivable line.”
“The comparison between Albania and Serbia, which had liberated itself from the Ottomans in the 1830s, spoke for itself … Serbian towns now had electric lighting, decent roads and trams, and were linked by railways, while everywhere phalanxes of uniformed school children were to be seen marching off to school.”
On Enver Hoxha, the dictator who ruled Albania from 1944 to 1985
“Hoxha had a cosmopolitan background. Born in 1908 to a Muslim family of land-owners and cloth merchants … [he was educated in France, and traveled Europe surviving on family money]. He was also intellectually superior to most of his Eastern European comrades. His belief in his own superior knowledge fixed in him a determination to become the Soviet bloc’s ultimate pedagogue. This was a task he never laid down and in the pursuit of which he created the most paranoid and xenophobic regime in Eastern Europe.”
“Hoxha’s goal was … to extirpate religious belief and practice … Albania was proclaimed the world’s first atheist state. Not even China had gone that far.”
“In April 1985, Eastern Europe’s longest serving leader [Hoxha] died of diabetes.” The book notes the positives Hoxha’s leadership brought, including increasing the literacy rate, creating railroads, providing electricity even in remote villages, and a rise in overall life expectancy. But … “the population paid a high price …” There were labor camps, the death penalty could be handed down for 34 different offenses, and whole families were punished for the crime of one member.
In reference to Albania during the Cold War years: “The west … all but ignored the country. Occasional reports referred in a semi-jokey fashion to a ‘hermit kingdom,’ as if it were some kind of Shangri-La, not a boot camp. The Albanians of Kosovo and Macedonia were preoccupied by their own struggles inside Yugoslavia, and some romanticized the situation in Albania. When the Albanians of Yugoslavia were finally able to cross the border, many were shocked by what they found there.”
On Durham’s life and legacy
“Edith Durham never returned to Albania, or to anywhere else in the Balkans. She was only in her late fifties but her health had been damaged beyond repair by years spent in Albania in all weathers. Now lame and in constant pain from sciatica, she found travel difficult. Almost a quarter-century of life lay ahead of her, but for the rest of it she was often housebound.”
“Over the border in Kosovo, Durham’s name and likeness made an equally sudden reappearance. She was less associated with Kosovo than northern Albania. After all, she had been Queen of the Mountains, not Queen of the Kosovo plain.” (April’s note: Funny to hear Kosovo referred to as a “plain.” This Midwesterner thinks of Kosovo as being mountainous. But anyway … ) Her denunciations of Serbian atrocities in Kosovo in the 1920s ensured that she had a following there, too … as power finally passed into the hands of Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian majority.”
On the region today
“[Durham] had not wanted Albania to remain a fossil and she had not idealized the traditional Albanian way of life. She had always been appalled by the poverty, dirt and disease, and by the stupider superstitions. She had condemned the custom of taking child brides and perpetuating blood feuds, and she had deplored the lack of education. What she did not care for in the new Albania was … a tendency in certain traditional societies to lose their equilibrium and ape the cheapest aspects of western society.”
“Whether Durham would recognize much of today’s Albania, or Kosovo, is another question. Pristina [Kosovo’s capital] and Tirana [Albania’s capital] are alike in their embrace of flashy modernity and apparent indifference to history. ”
I disagree with Tanner’s statement here. While it is true that Pristina and Tirana are westernized cities, anyone traveling to one of Kosovo or Albania’s villages (or anyone living in a village, like me) will notice many customs and traditions that are stuck in the past. Even Tanner himself notes that: “Many men still expect to marry virgins, and there are still a few ‘sworn virgins‘ around. The code of blood vengeance lingers on in the form of honor killings.”
(I once had a Kosovar man tell me he wanted to marry a woman who hadn’t had a previous boyfriend, even if she was still a virgin. Good luck with that, buddy!)
I have visited Tirana, Albania a number of times and I love the beauty of Albania and the richness of its capital city. It is shocking to remember that as little as thirty years ago, no one was able to cross its border, either going out or coming in. Albania has long been a remote part of the world, first because of its inaccessibility due to its mountains and poor roads, and later due to Enver Hoxha’s dictatorship. I feel lucky I have been able to visit there.
Someone once told me that she likes her birthday, March fourth, because it is a sentence: March forth!
After a mild winter with almost no snow in my village, on Monday I awoke to a large accumulation with snow still falling. It kept falling. We got Wednesday – Friday off school!
Want to know something funny? My most widely-read blog post, by far, is Jennifer the Unicorn. Sometimes I can see the Internet search terms that lead people to my site. I was curious to know what this resent Cyrillic search term meant, so I Google translated it and …
Hahaha! People love crocheted unicorns, I guess.
Media consumption this week …
I FINALLY finished reading the 800-page behemoth that had overtaken my life: The Revolution of Marina M. by Janet Fitch. I was determined to finish it because Fitch wrote my favorite novel of all time, White Oleander. “Marina” had none of the poetry of “Oleander.” I didn’t like the main character, found much of the history confusing (it is set during the Russian revolution), and the ending takes a bizarre turn. It also isn’t much of an ending, as Fitch is apparently working on a sequel. UGH. (Are you ever glad when a book is out of your life? That’s how I felt about this one.)
I watched a documentary titled The Search for General Tso, which goes into who the man was and how the famous chicken dish came to be named for him. Watching this was pure torture because the food looked delicious (and there is no Chinese food to be found in Kosovo). 😦 Still, this was a quick, informative film.
Speaking of food, I invented a salad. (Being a poor Peace Corps volunteer forces one to think creatively.) I bought a package of frozen broccoli, warmed it with water from my electric kettle, strained it, and added a can of tuna salad from a care package my parents sent me and crushed some crackers on top.
Before I joined the Peace Corps, I looked at a few other people’s blogs and always wondered why their care package wishlists included food. Now I TOTALLY get it. I use my care package food to supplement my often poor diet. Also … it wasn’t until I joined the Peace Corps that I realized so many Americans are crazy about peanut butter. I’ve always had a take-it-or-leave-it attitude toward the stuff, but lately, I’ve been scarfing peanut butter like nobody’s business. My body is like EAT. MORE. PROTEIN.
This week, I bought plane tickets, much to the dismay of my battered and bruised bank account. A childhood friend is traveling from L.A. to meet me in Ireland for my spring break. I realized this will probably be the last time I will be on an airplane until I fly back to the United States for good. It is a strange feeling. I have become so accustomed to European travel being inexpensive and quick. But soon, European travel will once again become expensive and time consuming.
I am so grateful for all the travel I’ve been able to do recently. Traveling was always a goal of mine, but I didn’t take my first international trip until I was 31.
Another volunteer commented that I seem to take a lot of weekend trips and asked how I’ve budgeted my vacation time. I told her my longest trip was my first Christmas break (9? days in Paris). My only other longish trips were spring break last year and a week I spent in the U.S. last summer. Aside from that, I didn’t travel at all in the summer. I was afraid of blowing through all my money at once. It was hard at the time, sitting in my boiling-hot bedroom with a fan pointed at me while many of my friends were off traveling. But taking shorter, more frequent trips this fall and winter have done a lot for my mental health.
Now that my time serving in the Peace Corps is starting to wind down, it is hard to think about all the places I didn’t get to see while I was in Europe. But, I don’t have unlimited time or money (who does?). I am happy with the places I’ve been able to go and to be able to spend time with my family and friends.
Let me know if you have any food/fun suggestions for my Ireland trip! Talk to you on Monday. I read an interesting book about the Balkans and will be sharing more about that. 🙂
Hi! I am in Amsterdam! Yay! I am here for the long weekend (tomorrow is Kosovo’s 10th anniversary of independence, hence, no school on Monday) to visit a friend. Expect an Amsterdam-related blog post or two in the coming weeks.
During this time last year, I was going through a long depression. I told myself that this winter, I would take a trip over independence day weekend in order to break up my service time more effectively. 🙂
Also, I was especially excited to learn that Amsterdam has Dunkin’ Donuts. DD’s Valentine’s Day donuts are my FAVORITE, and I didn’t get one last year because, you know, I live in Kosovo. I don’t do drugs, but I am all for a nice sugar high. 😉
Media consumption this week …
In continuing on a Daniel Day-Lewis kick, I watched The Last of the Mohicans. I hadn’t ever seen it. I was surprised by how much I liked it.
I hope you all enjoyed Wednesday’s “Love Letter” for Valentine’s Day. Writing the letter and filming the video put me in such a good mood. You all have done so much for me and it was a joy to reflect on the people I know and love and can count on for support.
“God tells us not to judge one another, no matter anyone’s sexual preference or if they’re black, brown or purple. And if someone doesn’t believe what I believe, tough sh*t.” — Dolly Parton (I read this great article about her.)
Is anyone ever sad to see the back-end of January? Happy February, everyone! As the days go by, I think to myself that I will never have to spend another winter in Kosovo after this one!
It’s been a quiet, uneventful week … not in a bad way. Sometimes, uneventful is the best kind of week there is. I’ve been doing a lot of crochet. Things are fine at home and at school. Tonight, I am looking forward to visiting some friends in Peja. And … that’s about it.
Have a good weekend and I will talk to you on Monday!
Several Peace Corps volunteers in the group ahead of mine told me that their second year of service was easier than their first. I fantasized about my service becoming easier once I started my second year of school. But, for me, it has not been true. My emotions are as up and down as they’ve ever been. I feel like I am constantly having to re-set my own mental health button, and constantly having to set boundaries with other people. (Gee, you and your wife want to come to my house so I can give you free English lessons? I am afraid I am busy all of the days.)
This week, I have consciously made a series of small changes in an attempt to cheer myself up:
I got a haircut. Back in Chicago, I would get a haircut every four months (so, three times per year). I’ve really let my standard slack here in Kosovo. The water at my site is particularly bad (Peace Corps gave me a boiling filtration system so I can at least drink it), and it’s wrecked havoc on my hair. I was going to put off getting a haircut until I returned to the U.S., (kind of a disheartened “what’s the point?” feeling), but this past weekend I bit the bullet and got a much-needed trim. My hair feels better, and so do I.
I’ve made small changes to my morning routine, including switching up my breakfast food (I like variety) and trying to keep a “gratitude” journal. Given how faithfully I’ve kept up with this blog, it may surprise some of you to know that I’ve never been a big journaler. Any time I tried in the past, my entries became dull lists of daily activities, or they would devolve into complaining. But this week, I’ve taken to jotting down a list of things I am grateful for in that moment, and I try to be specific (“I am grateful for talking to this person”) rather than general (“I am grateful for my family and for my health.”) I also list any goals I think of for the day or week.
Furthermore, I have been trying to start my day with ten minutes of yoga. I used to feel guilty if I didn’t do a full-on routine, but this week, I tried to get in the habit of just loosening my muscles and joints first thing in the morning.
I re-arrange my bedroom furniture again, to give myself a fresh perspective.
I signed up for an online course through Coursera titled “Buddhism and Modern Psychology.” I’ve signed up for online courses in the past and have had varying degrees of success in sticking with them. But I am determined to finish this one!
Media consumption this week:
I finished the last Harry Potter book. It is one of my least favorite in the series and I didn’t re-read the whole thing, just skipped around to different parts.
I’m a fan of the Netflix series “Orange is the New Black,” and so I read the book (same title) on which the series is based. Perhaps it isn’t nice to compare the Peace Corps to prison, but I was really having trouble drumming up sympathy for Piper Kerman and her fifteen-month prison sentence. (I was like, “Oh, her family visits her in prison every week? I haven’t seen my family in months!”) Once I got over my own superiority complex, though, I enjoyed the book.
I watched The Shape of Water. Though I didn’t love it as much as Guillermo del Torro’s other fairtytale, “Pan’s Labyrinth,” I enjoyed it and think it is worth seeing.
I watched The Disaster Artist, and it was every bit as funny as the book. If you’re a fan of the cult movie “The Room,” you really should see this movie.
And finally, I crocheted this Hello Kitty toy from the book Whitney sent in my recent care package. Toys are so hard to make! I have a much easier time with scarves, headbands, and purses!