Saturday, January 31, 2009

Apologies...

Okay, I'm apologizing, didn't mean to go all pity party on you guys. I think I just had kind of rough day on Tuesday or Wednesday or whatever day that was. Perhaps just one stare too many or something and I just got really frustrated. Some people have asked me if I feel the way I do, experience the things that I do, why did I even choose to live in Albania? And why I have I chosen to stay amidst some of the challenges?

Well answering those questions is actually kind of difficult but I will try. While I can quickly enumerate frustrations about being here, I can just as quickly (if not faster) list the reasons I love it so much here. Sure I made the decision to live in a homogeneous society where people rarely see others different from themselves. Sure I came to a country that was closed off for about a period of 50 years, with a literal wall built around the borders. Sure I came to live in a place that when people hear the name of the country, they squint, make a face and assume that I'm studying somewhere in Africa instead of revealing that they honestly don't know where I am. But all of these things, I knew before I came here. I can't say that I was fully prepared as to what the living experience would be like, but I was aware of these things. I had time to think about this, to try and get myself ready - thus here I am.

So yes, some days are worse than others, but the good definitely outweighs the bad. To be honest my real motivation for studying here is that Albania reminds me a lot of my home and Albanians remind me a lot of myself. I like the history, the story of the land and the people. Albania, like Mississippi, has been plagued by labels and certain assumptions that people hold true. Sure many things are true, but many things are false as well, it's only til you visit that you see for yourself. Similarly, Albanians have experienced horrible reactions from other people around the world simply because of where they are from...anyone from Mississippi, does this sound familiar at all?

Part of the reason I like living here is that each day is really unpredictable. Though I was complaining in the previous post about the predictable nature of the staring and name calling, you really can't foresee someone calling you Obama's cousin while you're walking in the street.
Because you never know what's going to happen everyday, you never know what you're going to learn. Though some days may suck, this happens for people everywhere, not just in Albania. Plus in the long run, it's not just me trying to learn about Albanians, but also, many Albanians are trying to learn about me too

Maybe things make a little more sense now, maybe they don't, but then again living here has taught me that many times, life doesn't make much sense at all, we're all navigating as we go along...

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

You Don't Get Used To It

It's been over 4 months now and yes, they're still staring! Every single day, every single day somebody gets in my face and someone has something to say. Before coming here I knew that people would look and point, I knew that people would have odd reactions to seeing me. I mean I had been to Albania before, I thought I was prepared for this. But I wasn't.
I guess previously I had only been here on trips, even if I got upset with the way someone reacted to me I could breathe deeply and remind myself that I only had a few weeks or a few days left. But 5 and a half months is a little different. I also guess I thought that eventually I would get used to it. Unfortunately I'm starting to think you don't get used to it.
It's hard to just shake it off or even to ignore things. I especially hate comments that people feel compelled to say to me, so about 3 months ago I started walking with my Ipod EVERYWHERE but now people feel the need to shout at me or just come stand in my face until I acknowledge them. Usually people just want to look at me, I guess to confirm that what they actually see is true, like I said many people around here have just never seen a "live in person Black female." It's not like I feel like I'm in danger I'm just tired of the looks.
I'm tired of the kids pointing at me, or yelling words at me from the school bus. I'm tired of men staring me down as I cross the street. I'm tired of girls whispering about me behind their notebooks. I can't get used to be called out of my name ("hey Black girl" "hey N-word") which I'm not making up, it happens, not all the time, but enough. Some people clearly don't know how to address me and out of innocence, don't understand how to address me. But there are others that know exactly what they're saying, and it's not cool, not at all. And being from Mississippi there is just some stuff that you hear and you're ready to go at it, right then and there...
I'm not depressed, I'm not having a breakdown, I'm just having trouble sticking out and honestly I want to know if anyone ever gets used to it...because I don't think I am...

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Gobble Gobble

This post has nothing to do with Thanksgiving but something so much more important. Yes people, it's true. I HAVE FOUND SLICED TURKEY HERE IN TIRANA. It may not seem like a big deal but until now I couldn't find turkey ANYWHERE. Unlike many American kids I didn't grow up on peanut butter and jelly, though many don't believe me, I never ate my first PB & J sandwich til I was 21 (I swear to this). I love PB & J now but honestly my favorite sandwich has always been turkey. ALWAYS ALWAYS! By the end of September I was already in withdrawals and had been going out of my mind without turkey. So imagine my reaction when I'm at the Italian grocery store yesterday and I came across it. There it was, ever-shining brightly, a ray of light just led me right to it and the package read: "yes Chelsi this is for you."

I bought all of the turkey they had. Sure the check-out looked at me kinda funny but everyone always looks at me funny so what else is new?

Friday, January 23, 2009

Praises for Dina!

I have a new friend here named Dina, she's from Mozambique. She's married to an American who works for the embassy and they just moved here about one month ago. Well guess what??? SHE USED TO WORK IN A HAIR SALON!!! Whoop whoop! So today I went over and she relaxed my hair because it was past due time (if you remember the last time was around November 12th and uhhh I'm supposed to relax it about every 6 weeks!). Anyhow, looks like Mindy and I didn't have to have a round two though I'm sure it would have made for some more hilarious videos!!!!
Dina's now searching for an Albanian salon that is familiar with hair extensions and sew-ins...I'll keep you updated as to how that turns out...

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Wait This Interview Is Live???

Ever since it was announced that Obama had won the election for president in November, I had to admit that though I'm having the time of my life, I was sad that I couldn't be in the states to celebrate. Nevertheless you can always count on the Sheraton in Tirana to remain true to its American roots. And sure enough the American Chamber of Commerce hosted an Inauguration party in the lobby of the hotel with a satellite feed of CNN on large TVs. I assumed that it was going to be this casual gathering of people watching the speech and ceremony but oh no, this was a minor scale cocktail party complete with drinks and there I was in my latest Barack Obama t-shirt that I had received in a package from my college's Black Student Association (thanks y'all). But I didn't care because I was "festive."
Well it didn't take long for people there to notice me and how I was dressed. Many Albanians came to ask for my picture and others took it without permission. So somewhere there are tons of pictures of me stuffing small ham sandwiches in my mouth. Anyhow though, this one lady came up to me asking if I could do an interview for a TV station, KLAN. She said that she wanted to ask me some questions about the election. Reluctantly I agreed thinking that she'd just ask a few things, we could edit here and there, and then later it would air on the local news. But just as I was prepping my mind, thinking about what I was going to say, WHAM, we were live! The lady was talking on the mic and I was just staring at the screen because there I was on live, NATIONAL (not local) Albanian TV...I just lost my words, which is even hard to imagine because I love to talk! I heard her say, "I'm here with a Black American girl who's supporting Obama by wearing this blouse, as you can see..."
Thankfully though I eventually began to ramble something about hope, change, history, you know the words that have marked this election from the beginning. She was asking me questions in English which was great but then at the end she goes, "So you say you're learning Albanian, can you say something about Albania for the viewers at home?" uhhhh uhhh, panic, panic, "I like Albania, a lot. And ummmm, when I'm here in this country I feel like I'm at home."

I guess that was the right thing to say, the only other sentence in my head was "the ham sandwiches here are very delicious." When I was walking around the city today a guy at a cigarette stand yelled at me, "Hey Obama girl, we saw you on TV." I guess Obama girl or cousin of Obama is just going to be my new permanent name.

Maybe it wasn't so bad after all...but I'm not wearing that shirt again for a while.

Monday, January 19, 2009

It All Started With a Bald Guy and a Guitar...

On Saturday night Ikuko and I went to one of Albania's finest "lokals" (nightclub, coffee house, cafe, bar - pick your choice) for some traditional Albanian music and wine that was advertised to begin at 9. We got there around 9:30 and found about 10 people sitting around with drinks and this one bald guy lightly strumming his guitar. One of Ikuko's coworkers is a waitress at this place, "Art 27" is the name, and is the one who had invited us. Though we were somewhat skeptical of the scene when we first arrived, we took off our coats and joined the crowd.
Eventually this guy with the acoustic guitar comes to the mic and plays a few songs, a pretty wide variety actually, Albanian music, then Metallica here and there. Now at some point this really nice older Albanian man comes to our table and demanded that Ikuko and I go to mic and perform something. Now I didn't think that this was open-mic night at Art 27 but apparently it was...for foreigners.
Before I knew it I was performing Chubby Checker's "Twist Again" (hey the guy didn't know that many songs that I could sing) and actually twisting, along with everyone else in the bar. Then after that Ikuko sang some song in Japanese while the guy just kind of played some background music. Apparently the people at the bar really enjoyed Ikuko's song because she ended up singing it 3 more times before the night was over. Apparently my performance wasn't so great.
Sure enough around 12:30 or 1 the rest of the musicians showed up and the "real" music begin. Though many Albanians consider me very different from them I guess we have CP time in common!
Now if it's one thing that Albanians know how to do is dance, and man did we dance that night. Once somebody brought out the napkin and began the line dancing it was all over. We must've weaved all through that restaurant, kicking up our feet, turning around, some of everything. You would have thought we were celebrating some huge occasion such as a wedding or something but nope, just celebrating life which is something I can always get down with. In addition to dancing we must've "gezuared" (which means cheers) a thousand times, to good health, to happy living, success in school, blessed families, and on and on.
At some point someone suggested we take a break and cool off from the dancing so the guy on the keyboard played some "light" music which turned out to be Mariah Carey. So at 2:30 a.m. I sat in a bar in Tirana, Albania singing Mariah Carey's greatest hits at the top of my lungs...nice!
Overall I'd say it's been one of my best nights here so far...gezuar!

Friday, January 16, 2009

Can't Say It To Save My Life

Zgjedhoj

I can't say this word to save my life. I've been practicing but it just doesn't seem to want to come out. When translated it basically means to conjugate a verb. So I'm thinking that I just won't learn how to say this word at all and if I ever have to say "conjugate" in Albanian, I'll just say something like, "change" instead....yeah I'm sure that won't work...

In other news, I found out today that you can't just say, "drive" in a sentence, according to my teacher. You must say, "drive a car." So for instance I said, "I don't want to drive in Albania because it is dangerous" and she corrected me by saying, "I don't want to drive a car in Albania because it is dangerous." This led me to ask myself, are we taking some kind of shortcuts in English or something? Why is it totally acceptable to just say drive? I mean what else can you drive? Actually this has been happening a lot lately, where I'll try to say something in Albanian the way I say it in English and it just doesn't work simply because in English we use a lot of "shortcuts" it seems...does anyone else run into this problem?

Sunday, January 11, 2009

They Must Not Know...

I feel more "Albanian" now because I ride the bus a lot. I know that may not seem like that big of a deal to some of you, but seriously, not many foreigners here ride the city bus often. Well I would like to replay for you an incident that happened on the bus a couple of days ago:

I get on the bus and sit down. The change boy comes around to get my 30 cents. He looks at me and says, "I spent 7 years living in England and I can speak English really well." "Bravo," I said. "I can tell you speak it well." In typical fashion of most guys around here he smiled and said thanks as if to say, "I don't need you to tell me, I know I speak English well." When he gave me my ticket I told him thank you in Albanian to which he asked if I spoke any Albanian. I explained, in Albanian, that I was living and studying in Tirana.

At the next stop, two boys get on the bus, one sits next to me, the other across from me. The change boy is standing in front of us, watching them stare at me.

Boy 1 (next to me): in Albanian. Hey, check her out, this girl.
Boy 2 (across from me): Yeah I see her
Boy 1: Where do you think she's from?
Boy 2: I don't know. What do you think she's doing here?
Boy 1: I don't know, I've never seen a girl like her here. Who is she?
Boy 2: I don't know but I think she's from Africa.
Boy 1: Why is she here from Africa?

At this point I'm smiling to myself and I look up at the change boy and he nods his head as if to say, "go ahead, say something in Albanian." So I looked to the boys and said, in Albanian, "I understand Albanian, you can ask me." Then all four of us burst out laughing, though I know the two boys laughed slightly out of embarrassment because YEP they got busted! The change boy laughed the hardest and said, "Nobody here would ever think that you know how to speak Albanian...

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

FINALLY!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Someone shout from the mountaintop, finally my packages from my mother and aunt arrived with..........................KOOLAID!!!!! Thus I can finally quench my thirst! You never really know what you're missin' til it's gone, I have a giant Koolaid smile on my face now I as I drink my fourth glass today!

No Place for a Mississippi Girl

As I said I also visited Skopje, Macedonia this past weekend and stayed with my friend Seth, another Fulbrighter. When we got there I immediately wished I had brought some boots with me...the place was covered in snow! Not only was I quite possibly the slowest walker in snow, but I also had a very nice fall not too far from Seth's apartment, which only now can I truly laugh at. Despite all of the cold weather I enjoyed my time in Skopje, especially Seth's stories about "ethnic issues" as I'll call them, here in the Balkans. Though only next door, Macedonia is quite a different place than Albania and is extremely interesting and complex when one examines the various groups of people who reside there (Macedonians, Albanians, Turks, Serbs, etc). Some things of note that Skopje has that Tirana doesn't: post offices that look like a game piece from connect four or a lego, wine bars (a fabulous idea by the way), taxis that only cost about a dollar, and oreos.
The difference that I most remember about the weekend though, is definitely the snow. For this reason I'm just not sure that Skopje is a city for a Mississippi girl!
Thanks for everything Seth!

The Honor of Being a Guest

As in many cultures, some Albanian traditions of the past have been abandoned as the country progresses further into the 21st century. One of those traditions that has not disappeared however, is the treatment of a guest in one's home. Being a guest at someone's home has more to do with just spending time with a family or staying the night - being a guest means that the family gives you the utmost respect, regardless of where you come from, your past, or your current condition. In fact Albanians hold the guest in such high regards that at one time, they were bound by law to avenge the blood of a guest if he/she was killed while a guest in your home (for more on this I recommend that you check out Ismail Kadare's book, Broken April).
Okay, I don't intend to freak any of you out (Dad), I just wrote that last part to emphasize how important it is to take care of guests here in Albania. Currently I am not involved in any blood feuds and as far as I know, no one is out to get my life...
Back to the original point - this past weekend I went to Tetova, Macedonia with my friend Enisa and was a guest in her home. Though they live in Macedonia, Enisa's family is Albanian, about 90% of Tetova is. Here's the layout of the weekend:

1. Friday night around 7, I arrived in the home of Enisa. Enisa's mother immediately came to the door, hugged me, and kissed me four times.

2. I joined Enisa's parents in their living room to talk and impressed them with my Albanian. Either that or they were just smiling at me to make me happy. Enisa's father commended "my people" on being such a good grade of individuals, informing me that he's watched movies about us and our lives in America, especially in Mississippi. He especially finds fascinating how dedicated "my people" have been to America over the past few centuries despite our struggles.

3. Around 8:30 that night we went out for coffee (after we had just finished coffee and tea at the house) and Enisa's father insisted that I have coffee and ice cream. Then he gave Enisa more money to take me out for another coffee.

4. I returned to the house to find that the family had set up their bedroom especially for me, and had even rewired the television somehow to get a signal for international CNN. They also set up the bathroom especially for me. When I got out of the shower I had warm slippers and a sweater waiting for me.

5. I slept like a baby, literally. When I awoke the next day Enisa's mother prepared a breakfast with meat, eggs, four different types of cheeses, milk, green tea, black tea, figs, kiwi, apples, oranges and bread. While eating she draped two different sweaters on my shoulders because she said I looked cold. Oh, did I mention that they also gave me special orange juice?

6. The family got dressed up to take a picture with me, the first American to stay the night in their home. Enisa's mom also presented me with a gift, a special apron for cooking in the kitchen (I guess she's heard about all of the cornbread that I've been making...)

7. Enisa's mother walked us out to the driveway because she and I were heading to Skopje (which is where I spent the rest of my time in Macedonia). She hugged me several times and said that she cannot wait for me to return again. She also said that she was excited about the next time that Enisa comes to America so that she can come to my house in Mississippi (get ready Mom and Dad).

So yes, in his book, Kadare says that every person, Albanian and foreigner alike, has the secret desire to really want to be a guest because of the amazing treatment that one receives from the hosts...after this trip I can definitely attest to that!

Friday, January 2, 2009

profile picture

Okay so you can barely see it but I've changed the picture on here because for the first time in my life I went inside of a bunker! Okay just wanted to note that...

Let the New Year Begin

It all began around 10 p.m. on the night of the 31st. I had dinner with Elvisa's family and her mom stuffed me with byrek (these Albania pies with stuff like spinach, tomatoes, but you can even make them with milk or beans), hen, potatoes, Russian salad (my new favorite thing), lamb, cheese, olives, cabbage, broccoli, and many many more things. She just kept putting more food on my plate though I literally thought I was about to explode. And laugh if you will but we drank boxed wine and I had never had it before but I love it now! Yes Nanny Garcia I'm sure you will laugh at me for that one!
At midnight the tradition for Albanian families is to toast with baklava and wish blessings and good will for the year. Then the sky EXPLODED with fireworks. Honestly I've never seen anything like this in my life, it was just a 360 show of lights in the sky, the city went crazy! We watched them from the roof of Elvisa's apartment building which is in the center of town. After the fireworks I went out with some friends and rang in the New Year, which included me learning some traditional Albanian dances that I'm sure I butchered. Again though people think I can dance well because I'm Black...
Yesterday for New Year's Day we went over to Ms. B.'s for lunch/dinner and I discovered that Albanians eat like 8 different kinds of salads on New Year's. Ms. B made a tomato and cucumber salad, Russian salad, white cabbage salad, red cabbage salad, eggplant salad, and some more that I can't remember. Needless to say that I was full from salad before any of the other food was ready! Like Elvisa's mom, Ms. B. continued to pile food on my plate though I insisted I'd had enough. The way one of my friends has explained it to me, Albanians begin eating on the night of the 31st and eat non-stop until the 4th or 5th of New Year's...good thing I'm heading out of here today for a couple of days!
So yeah I'm on my way to Macedonia now to hang out with some friends...ciao!

You Talking to Me?

Some kid in the street: Hey girl, girl...
Me: Walking, not really paying attention (because he's speaking in Albanian so I didn't realize he was talking to me)
Kid: Hey girl, Barack Obama's Cousin, hey girl?
Me: Turning Around...Me? Are you talking to me?
Kid: Yeah, Barack Obama's cousin right? Come here!

I guess this is how people will refer to me now over here. I had heard others before such as Barack Obama Girl, which many people have actually begun to yell at me in the street. But this latest one really intrigues me, Barack Obama's cousin...gezuar to that!

Saranda and Such

I know I've been gone for a couple of days but that's because I took a trip to southern Albania with Ikuko and one of her friends who's visiting from Japan. Going to Saranda, Butrint, and Gjirokaster reminded me why I think Albania is the most beautiful place in the world and why I love being here so much, becuase livng in Tirana I was starting to forget! But yes, to say that my tirp was amazing would be an understatement, and I'm going to try and post some pictures here now for you all to see but I don't even know if they will do it justice!
I am now taking reservations for whoever wants to come and visit me...these are some of the places that we can go: