Sheep's head

My Very Own Food Blog

One of the biggest adventures that Peace Corps Volunteers face is food. No matter where we are placed, we have to learn an entirely new diet which we often end up loving. The following slide show is a homage to the new, interesting, strange, and sometimes gross food that I regularly eat here in Albania. Click each image for more information.

Të buftë mirë.


Memories of Preservice Training

The clock is ticking as our new volunteers patiently wait to begin their journey. In just a couple of weeks they will get to experience Albania all for themselves. As that date approaches, I find myself caught in reflection of my own Preservice Training (PST).  While “every volunteers experience is difference”, hopefully my memories can provide a sort of foreshadowing of what is to come for future trainees.

DSCN0178Everything you need to know about PST you learned in High School.  Mostly because PST is exactly like High School.  First, you will wake up earlier than you want to and have to go to school.  Secondly, you will form cliche-ishly strong friendships with the other trainees in your site (or passive-aggressively hate them, who knows).  Thirdly, the same silly High Schools questions will be asked all the time… “What lesson are you guys on”…. “Who is your teacher”…….  Fourthly, Instead of going home and studying, you will sneak out with your friends and drink beer. And finally, remember that moment when you are sitting in class and realize that you didn’t do your homework, which causes a fundamental moral dilemma of whether to lie about it or fess up? Yup. That again.

Its hard to sum up PST because of its immense duality. Many of my favorite IMG_0262Albania memories come from PST.
From complaining about the absurdity of Albanian with buddies to going on hikes after school, to ‘Elbasan Sundays’.  I really cherish the memories and friendships formed.  At the same time, PST is a special kind of hell. I mean, the underlying principle is to stress everyone out while making them spend nearly every waking moment together. After a month and a half of that, they ask you to plan and implement a project together. If you aren’t screaming at each other at that point, you are probably not trying hard enough or are a scary type of a calm.

This leads me to my advice.

Ben’s Superexcellent Keys to a Successful PST

1)  Keep calm and don’t take things too serious.  Yes, you should try. You don’t want to me that one car (if you get that you are going a good job with your Albanian) who is refusing to learn the language or integrate into his/her training site. However, don’t freak out. If you are willing and putting forth an effort, the language will come. Avash Avash and enjoy the ridiculous journey.

2) Try everything. Go on hikes with the kids, talk to strangers. Ask the waiter to bring you something really traditional and don’t ask where the meat came from.  Go to a church service on Sunday even if you aren’t religious; they are interesting and a great way to learn the language (note – when you hear the word qoftë, they aren’t talking about sausages). Those are all memories you are going to love later. Never say no (unless of course, a çun asks you to do it, then never say yes…shaka….kind of).

3) Take a day and explore the hub city. You will be living in a village and that is where you will spend most of your time, but do not forget to explore Elbasan. There is more to PST than just studying. One of my favorite days was a Sunday where a couple of us hitchhiked….I mean paid for a furgon… to Elbasan in the morning. After going to church we randomly ran into a language teacher and had coffee.  We followed this up with lunch and then played games in the castle. All-in-all a pretty fantastic day.  Elbasan has a lot to offer, you just have to find it. Oh, and as incentive, there is a delicious bakery that has bomb donuts somewhere in Elbasan. I just won’t tell you where. You have to find it for yourselves.

This this being said, you will be fine. The packing madness seems stressful now, but I can guarantee that you don’t need 40% of what you think. I get that there is no mitigating the predeparture panic, but do not let that get in the way of enjoying your last couple of weeks in America.

Shifemi Shpajt. Hadje Shnët,


Bonus pro tip – Never finish a dish at your host family.  They will bring you more.  Also, if you tell them you are full (u ngopa) at the 3/4th point, you will leave room for the inevitable extra bread that will be forced down your throat.

The mountains of Albania

Pro Week

The Peace Corps is difficult in ways that you can never expect, which is why HQ supplies us with this magical graph.Cycle of vulnerabilityIts kind of creepy how accurate it is.  My Peace Corps experience has followed this graph to a t.  During the low weeks, it is relieving to look forward and see that things will inevitably look up.  During the high weeks, the graph is a terrifying premonition (joking….kind of).

The point being, for every struggle, there is a high point.  Eventually, and its unavoidable unless you hide inside all day, every volunteer has that week where they think “this is why I joined Peace Corps”.

I just had mine and I am going to use this post to brag a little bit.  If you are wondering what I have been working on in Albania, this is a post for you…

1.  Community Banking – So my primary project has been promoting different community banking models.  Several months back I partnered up with another volunteer and a fantastic non-profit in northern Albania and they agreed to give the project a try. Since then we have been slowly researching, planning, and organizing.  As of Sunday, the project has officially begun!  For a test project, we created a hybrid of a ROSCA and an ASCA.  For now, the members are all contributing towards a common fund and every meeting one member takes home the entire fund (feel free to contact me for more details).  Slowly, we are working to improve member trust and develop a lending mechanism.  With the test project started, I can finally start to train other groups around Albania and create a network of small community banks!

2.  Peshkopi Youth Center – Nothing is better for a volunteer than when a HCN (host country national) comes to us with a project.  Most of the time when we come up with a project idea, we struggle to find the support needed to implement or sustain it.   So when motivated, intelligent, young people come to us looking to make a positive mark on their community, it makes us want to cry with happiness.  On Wednesday, such an individual approached me and pitched me his very well thought-out idea for a youth center similar to an American Corner.  It will be a place where youth can study, hang out, read, and play games.  The community can also use the room to hold lessons and clubs (such as my Chess Club).  Several of the nonprofits around Peshkopi have offhandedly mentioned the need for such a space, so I agreed to help him!  While we are still in the planning stages, I am excited to see where it goes.

3.  Integration – Living in a heavily Gheg town can be very difficult.  Every Volunteer faces moments where they feel alone and outside of the community.  This week though was the opposite.  I have recently gotten into a nice daily pattern including lunch at my favorite “diner” and then working in my favorite cafe with a magnificent view of the snow-capped mountains.  The nice part of my annoyingly unchanging routine is that the waiters and regulars all know my name and we have built up relationships.  Its nice to sit down and hear the waiters and a couple regulars turn and say “Pershendetje, Beni (Hello, Benny)”.  Kinda of like my own personal Cheers.  Also helps that my Albanian is finally becoming functional.

4.  Dumb luck – Nothing can go wrong this week.  Exhibit A) Someone is sending me real BBQ sauce and mustard.  B) My pierogies came out great.  C) And finally, when I was walking hom last night in the dark, I missed falling in a huge death-trap of a hole by about three inches.  Invincible.

The moral is for new volunteers and potential trainees.  Your first year is going to be some degree of hell, but it will all come together, and when it does everything will be well worth it.

PS. If this is the apogee of my service, where is the nadir?  Is “Beni meets a hole: the sequel” quickly approaching?

Winter In Peshkopi

Since I am from Pittsburgh, I didn’t worry too much about an Albanian winter.

That was my mistake.

While the States are being slammed with snow, ice, and subarctic temperatures, we Shqiptars (Albanians) are semi-silently suffering inside. Peshkopi is a large town situated in the mountainous north of Albania (see here for a map).  For most of the winter, we have had a couple of inches of snow and temperatures have been between 20-30 degrees Fahrenheit.  Not to shabby, eh? Except there is absolutely no insulation or central heating. 20°F outside means 40°F inside. That, shokë (friends), quickly becomes very cold.  I have heard many volunteers refer to a specific coat they own as their ‘inside coat’.  Its still cracks me up to walk home, hang up my coat, and then immediately put on a different one.

I’m not trying to complain, rather I’m trying to note how difficult a relatively mild can be if you are never really warm. It creates a whole new series of problems.  Luckily though, us Peace Corps Volunteers are a creative bunch and have come up for some fun sA couch next to a stove is the best way to stay warmsolutions.  This here is mine.  From my couch I can reach my wood stove for warmth and my electric stove for food (the two most important things in my life). This is also where I sleep (the third).  Worried that this is a giant fire hazard?  So is my mother.  Don’t worry, I have a bucket of water next to the couch for ’emergencies’.

There is one silver lining to Albanian winters, and that is how peaceful it can be a night.  After a full day of trying to stay warm, it is nice to curl up on a couch in front of a fire and read a book.  Often the power is out for the neighborhood, so the only light visible is from the fire.

Owning a wood stove is a life saver, though.  While it isn’t particularly efficient and takes several hours to warm up the whole room, basking in the immediate radius of the burn is pretty fantastic.  I feel for the couple northern volunteers who do not own one.

The prevalence and necessity of a wood stove creates an interesting environmental concern. During the months leading up to winter, there is heavy illegal logging well beyond any sort of environmental equilibrium. I often wonder if that is the primary reason there really aren’t many large trees left standing around Peshkopi. If you climb any of the town’s surrounding hills and look over the city, you see a familiar metropolitan haze.  But instead of from car exhaust or industrial pollution, it is from wood stoves. Gas lines are nonexistent and electricity is too expensive to use. Wood pellet stoves would be a nice solution, but the stoves themselves are outrageously expensive.

There is moral to my somewhat coherent rambling about the cold and paucity of solutions, and that is global sustainability.  We Americans are slowly realizing the environmental unsustainable of our lifestyles, but we do not often think of the environmental consequences of the developing countries who comprise most of the world.  These countries often face harsher environmental conditions (freezing winters, scorching summers, monsoons, etc) and do not have the financial means to adequately deal with them, thus they often resort to poor environmental solutions (click here for humorous example).  At the same time, they often look to America, or at least the developed world, as a model of development. We not only have a responsibility toward our own future, but to provide a path for others.  Sustainability is not only finding clever, environmentally-sound solutions, but also affordable solutions that the rest of the developing world can easily replicate.

Environmentalism is, at least for me, way more than innovation and producing solutions. I believe it is a sort of modern twist on Occam’s Razor. To make an impact on the developing world we need to look less at gizmos such as electric cars and LEED-certification (don’t get me wrong, these are great things) and more at our lifestyles. We already know a lot of the solutions, we just need to practice them. Setting an example for waste disposal, water conservation, and our environmental footstep would make large, tangible impacts on the actions of millions of people in developing nations. We still seem to value consumerism over sustainability, and developing nations see our priorities and aspire towards them. Environmental cynics often look towards the infallibility of the market for defense, but the market is a reflection of our collective priorities. I believe that change will begin in the margin. Individual actions will not change the world by themselves, but they will start to change mindsets and realize a sort of truth in composition.  This sort of globalized thinking and Humanism will produce the solutions that will change peoples lives.


5 Reasons Future PCVs Should Be Excited to Come to Albania

Since the newest batch of volunteers have received their invitations (urime) and are getting ready to start their adventure with us in Albania, I have been thinking about the beginning of my service.  If I could go back in time and talk to myself before training, what would now-Beni tell past-Beni to be excited about?  What would I tell past-self to be careful of?

Yes, this is going to a January reflection of my last year.  Original, I know.

5 things future PCVs in Albania should be excited about

1) The hiking.  Even if you are not a big outside person, the nature here is stunning.  The landscapes of Northeast Albania are essentially untouched.  Sometimes the mountains, streams, and shepherd’s paths remind me of scenes from Lord of the Rings.

2) Furgons.  I may be the only volunteer who really likes furgons.  There is an inevitable point in every furgon trip where you hear people loudly talking about you.  Which is funny, because while they don’t know that you understand Albanian, the Albanian word for American is Amerikan.  So, duh.  Anyways, own the situation.  You will make friends and have awesome conversations.  I technically promised a lady she can give me a wife if I haven’t found my own by March 2016.  I gave her my contact information, so I am excited to see what happens.  You all will be invited to the wedding, don’t worry.

3) Albanians and PCVs.  Very much related to the above.  Albanians are generally incredible hospitable, nice people.  You will make long lasting friendships with people from your training village and placement site.  There is no avoiding it.  It is going to happen.  As for us volunteers…  While we primarily talk about what goes into and comes out of our bodies and communicate with a seemingly random combination of English and Albanian, I think we are a pretty stellar crew.  I know I have made some fantastic friends, and so will you all.

4) Never completely understanding a menu.  That is if you are lucky enough to get one.  I generally try the item that I understand the least and have the most trouble pronouncing .  The results have been satisfying.  Even if you are picky eater, deal with it and just try something new, I bet you will be happy for the memory if not for the lunch.  Also adding a pak more vinegar to Pace Kokë is delicious.

5)   Host family feeding frenzy.  Get ready for the best problem you will ever face.  I hope you all like bread.

5 things future PCVs in Albania should watch out for

1)  Holes.  Albania has this way of destroying things.  Namely computers and bodies.  I am pretty accident prone and Albania has taken full advantage.  Heads down, newbies.  Eyes on the sidewalk.

2)  Old and New Leke.  When people talk about prices, they normally multiple the price by 10.  Something that is 10 Leke becomes 100 Leke.  Something that is 200 Leke becomes 2000 Leke, etc.  But not always, some people will speak in new Leke.  Written prices are normal (10 Leke is 10 Leke), unless you are looking at official Instat government statistics, then it is in old Leke.   Confused?  Don’t worry, you will get use to it; it is kind of fun.  After ten months I even use old Leke when I talk.  I have some Albanian friends at site that will use old Leke in English to mess with me.  “How much is are these veggies?”  “50 dollars, Bengji.”  Oh, 500 Leke, got it.  Newbies, you should try using “old dollars” around your homes in America to mess with your family and ‘practice’ for Albania.

3)  Gheg.  You will all learn Tosk Albanian, but a bunch of you will be placed in the North, which speaks Gheg.  Is it similar to Tosk, you might ask?  Other than the multitude of different words and different ways to pronounce some letters, sure.  It can be pretty difficult when transiting to site when you realize you suddenly are back to virtually zero Albanian comprehension skills.  There is a silver lining though.  Whenever you are in a conversation with Albanians where you are no idea what is going on (or just want to make a good impression), purposefully slip in a couple Gheg words and they will laugh and love you forever.    Careful though, do it by accident to your southern PCVs and they will just regular laugh at you.  All in all, Gheg is pretty majr.

4)  Hoxha’s Revenge.  The water in most sites is drinkable, but there are definitely places to be weary of, Tirana being one.  Nothing is worse than losing the Tirana Water Challenge right before getting in a furgon.  With that, I drink the water everywhere.  Normally I am fine, but I have had some comically bad results.

5)  Meat byrek at the corner bakery by Hub.  You will figure out what store I am talking about.  Its fantastic, but heads up, when you they say meat byrek they mean a hot dog jammed inside a croissant.  On a side note, I just learned that egg roll in Albanian is ‘byrek kinez’.  Pretty entertaining, huh.

-Shifemi Shpajt!

Why Communism Is Making Me So Cold

Sometimes Albania can be a wacky place, but winter has seems to have really brought out the nuttiness.  Since coming to Albania in March, I have wondered why shop owners are constantly hosing off the sidewalk in front of their stores.  My town is on a water schedule (I only get three to four hours of running water from the municipality a day), but the city is constantly wet.  There is even a truck that drives around watering the roads during the summer.  At first, I figured that it was an oddity that would eventually be logically explained once I had the language skills to ask.  Now that I do have the skills,  people say that it is to wash away the dust and help keep the city cool.  Sure, I’ll buy it.

But now its winter.

And the sidewalks are still being washed.

I now live the middle of a city wide ice rink.  Its really a kid’s dream, but an adult’s nightmare.  No longer am I told by my neighbors to put on a coat or to make sure I have an umbrella with me, but rather they warn me against walking around with both of my hands in my pockets.

I believe that the lack of individual responsibility for ice removal may be a bit emblematic of Albania’s struggles as a post-traumatic society.  Its a real life Tragedy of the Commons.  Individuals “are mostly interested in grabbing what they can for themselves instead of digging out the nests of corruption”.  Each action, whether it be shop keepers maintaining the space in front of their shops or local government taking responsibility, assumes certain risks and rewards.  Unfortunately, communism seems to have depleted any sense of solidarity (aside from superficial nationalism), so in the absence of tangible benefits, the sidewalks go unsalted.  Everyone is waiting for someone else to deal with the problem.  As Albania grows, I believe that an incipient Utilitarian mindset will also develop, but at the moment it is gravely missing.

But this is just my opinion.  Maybe it is as ridiculous of pouring water on a sidewalk during winter.


Quirky Culture

Culture is fun.  Integrating into a new one is difficult and strange, not only due of its, well, newness, but also because of your own cultural subjectivity.  So here is a list of cultural quirks that I have noticed whiling trying to integrate into Albanian culture (at least from an Americans point of view) and some oddities about American culture that I haven’t really noticed before.  Of course this isn’t a complete list.  Culture is so more expansive than 10 item.  Some of items even fall into both categories, depending on situation and intensity. Enjoy!

*As a note, this is all in good fun and is certainly not meant to speak in generalities or offend anyone.  Rather, this is a compilation of culture that I have experienced both in Albania and America.  My subjectivity very much determines what I notice, so if you disagree with anything, please let me know!

5 Cultural Quirks that I Probably Shouldn’t Take Back to America with Me

1) “Lets get physical”.  There is a lot of cheek kissing, hand holding, and uncomfortably long handshakes in Albanian culture.  Unfortunatly, Americans like having their own space when they talk, which, much to our chagrin, does not exist here in Albania.  I’ll subdivide this section into three categories

  •  Handshakes are loose and should last over twenty seconds.  Somebody please try that back home in America and see how the handshake recipient reacts.
  • Arm holding.  Americans want at least two feet between themselves and their interlocutor with no touching.  In Albania, it is completely acceptable for two people to hold hands or link arms while talking.  I have even found myself grabbing arms when I talk to people.  That will definitely make someone uncomfortable when I return home.
  • Cheek Kissing:  Girls cheek kiss girls, guys cheek kiss guys, and girls can cheek kiss guys.  Just make sure to go to the right.  Always go to the right.  Always.  Its strange that Americans are uncomfortable with cheek kissing since we have such a hugging culture.  As a wise, fellow volunteer observed, a cheek kiss is simply lips on cheek.  A hug is one person touching another person with his/her whole body.  Maybe hugs are creepier.

2) Tsk Tsk.  This is one habit that I want to bring back with me, but will be pretty heavily frowned upon.  You know those hated, awkward moments when the waiter comes over and asks if you want anything while you are in the middle of a conversation?  Albania has an answer!  You can “tsk tsk” or just waggle your finger.  I do both!  It seems a little more deliberate that shaking my head no.  I know that I am going to struggle to stop it when I’m home and I accept that a waiter is probably going to spit in my food.

3) Bluntness. This is another one that I thought about putting in the “bring back home” section and I believe that it would be good for Americans.  However, it probably wouldn’t go over too well.  Americans tend to pride themselves on being able to speak their mind, but in reality we have a pretty passive culture when it comes to conversations.  In Albania, so much more in on the table.  Want to know how much money a stranger makes?  No problem!  They may not always tell you, but you can always ask.  Money, politics, religion.  S’ka problem.  Looking for a wife?  Gjyshe will hook you up (but she probably already offered you one at the beginning of the conversation).  After originally being a bit horrifying, it has become pretty fun.

4) Stop!  Sorry, I couldn’t think of a clever pun for the title of this section.  Actually, my mind couldn’t decide between a terrible MC Hammer or Vanilla Ice pun.  I cannot overstate how much I need to stop this habit and how little I understand why it exists. In Albania, if you see someone you know and want to say hello, you can stop and engage in a long handshake pretty much anywhere regardless of who you are getting in the way of.  I once saw a car stop in the middle of the street and block all the other cars in order to shake someones hand.  Only after the other cars starting honking, did he pull over, all without stopping the uncomfortably long handshake.  Peshkopians (and now I do too) regularly stop in the middle of a sidewalk and block everybody.  I am not sure if this is acceptable to everyone, but I see it all the time and people generally do not seem to care.  They just find a way to go around.

5) First come, first serve.  Much like the topic above, I am not sure if this is generally acceptable, but it happens a lot here.  American’s have a very predetermined notion on order and lines.  You can even get kicked out of amusement parks for failing to observe the proper order.  In Albania, its, uh, a little different.  Cashiers often check people out based on who has the smallest basket or if they know someone.  This certainly does not happen all the time, but enough to be entertaining.  The first time I reach around someone in front of me to pay in the States, I am going to get socked in the nose.

5 Cultural Quirks I Probably Should Take Home

1)  Tolerance. I could believe in the Flying Spaghetti Monster and nobody would care.  Albania is an inspiring example of religious tolerance.  The country is predominantly Muslim, but has a significant Christian minority, all without religious strife.  That is why the pope decided to start his most recent European tour here in Albania.

2)  Hospitality.  If there is one reason to go to Albania instead of any other country in the world, it would be their hospitality.  More than once, I have hitchhiked (sorry parents) and ended up being given coffee or meals.  I accidentally bumped into an old lady on a bus and apologized.  Her response, “Don’t worry about it, have an apple.”  It’s amazing, heart-lifting, and ubiquitous.  Lost tourists are often invited, free of charge, to stay at people’s homes.  It is really something worth experiencing, not just for the free stuff, but the for the attitude.

3) Xhiro.  Once a day, often at dusk, people dress up (or at least make themselves look presentable) and walk up and down a predetermined street.  In most towns, the local government takes extra good care of this street and it is often pedestrians only.  It is an enjoyable activity in community unification, a fun way to see friends, and an easy way to meet people.  This is most likely something I will do at home, even if I will be xhiroing alone.

4) Coffee Time…All the Time?  Ok, maybe not all the time.  Albania may go a little overboard on coffee time, but it is a great idea.  Rather than meeting in an office, it is more normal to go drink a coffee together.  This mix of social and professional allows relationships to be created which often help whatever business needs to be accomplished.  Eliminating the stress of an office also helps spark ideas.  To the dismay of whomever hires me when I return home, I will try and continue professional coffees.

5) Filial Piety. Deference…veneration… eh. To the best of my knowledge, English does not really have a word to describe this, which is kind of the point.  Albanians have a large amount of respect for their elder family members, particularly their grandparents.  Its existence is obvious in language.  To call someone a nënë (mother) means to that that person is a master of something.  Instead of sir, you can say xhaxhi (uncle).  The words gjyshe and gjysh (grandmother and grandfather) imply a singular amount of respect.  This may be an ideology that we want to adopt in America.