Monthly Archives: July 2014

Monestery of Saint Naum

So I decide to walk over to Macedonia this morning.  I head heard there is a lovely little monastery a mile past the border.  I am feeling a bit lost without a faith community here and am thinking a six mile walk and border crossing might be what is required to find such a community.

I arrive at this lovely spot.  The church is tiny but beautiful.  No pictures are allowed inside but I go in and meditate for a half hour.  Eastern Orthodox churches don’t’ seem to have actual services.  I have sat in the one in Pogradec and watched people come in and out but they do no more than cross themselves and kiss the saint’s portraits.  Not exactly what I was looking for.

I come out of the church to find this group eating lunch.  There is another woman hovering around and I ask if I can order lunch as well.  With my broken Shqip and a bit of English, I figure out they don’t serve food here.  This kind group then offers me some of their meal and I have new friends.

As I sit to join them, the other woman approaches and scolds me.  She speaks only Macedonian but I understand her message.  My skirt is too short and I should not be in the church.  She is absolutely right and I am mortified.  How could I have made this mistake?  I know better.  I say goodbye to my new friends and the woman escorts me to the edge of the property and makes sure I leave.  My spot in hell is secure.

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This professional woman walked by me one morning paying no attention to me.  The duck in her bag turned back and quacked at me.

This professional woman walked by me one morning paying no attention to me. The duck in her bag turned back and quacked at me.

Cultural learning

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I spent a few days last week helping another volunteer with her GLOW camp.  GLOW stands for Girls Leading Our World, the camp motto is I am strong.  I am beautiful.  I can change my life.  I can change the world.  Albania is a country where the women and girls are invisible.  GLOW brings girls together to explore, play, laugh and learn about health, leadership, civic responsibility and self-esteem.  I thought this would be a great place for me to add some selfdefense training.  The curriculum was already set before I joined so I was just going to assist this week and maybe add selfdefense to another camp.  Instead I got two days of cultural awareness training.

Albanian culture is not American.  Months of cultural training have taught me how American I am.  Knowing my own culture is the first step in understanding another culture.  I am at the very beginning of the first step as I learned this past week.

Day one of GLOW camp, 30 girls ages 13 -17 arrived excited and ready for fun.  They were given information packets which included blank journals and some reading material.  We began the morning with discussions of rules and then launched into defining the difference between passive and aggressive.  The girls broke into small groups to role play conflicts exhibiting one or the other behavior.  Many girls acted out conflicts with their sisters or friends a couple of pairs acted out a conflict with their mother.  No one presented any conflict, passive or aggressive, with a male.  Conflicts with brothers, boyfriends or fathers simply weren’t presented.

Midmorning we had some technical difficulties and needed to fill some empty time.  A leader suggested volunteers introduce themselves.  I am not big on endless talking so when it came my turn I had every one stand up and we did the Hokey=Pokey.  You would have thought I had invented dancing.  Needless laughter, ongoing requests for more rounds, even requests for the words.

So I thought, “Okay.  I can teach some American stuff here: skipping rocks, hop scotch, double dutch jump rope.  I have a few ideas”.  The next day was football (soccer).  After a couple of hat hours of football, we offered the girls watermelon.  I offered to teach the girls to spit watermelon seeds, a time honored American skill.  A couple of other volunteers joined in and we started spitting away.  The girls would have none of it.  Albanian men spit, women do not.

I didn’t get a chance to present anything else.  I have seen girls jumping rope so I need to get a couple of jump ropes.  I live on a lake with good skipping rocks but am not sure I should teach that during tourist season.

My learning continues much like hop scotch.

No birds…

This is one of the marshy areas along Lake Ohrid, note the building in the background, that is the Macedonian border crossing. I hiked out here one Saturday morning, binoculars in hand, hoping to see some nesting activity. As I sat here listening to frogs but seeing few birds I was aware of a lone bicyclist passing behind me. I looked at him as he rode by and watched him turn around and come back towards me. I assumed he was going to ask to borrow my binoculars and I quickly got my Shqip together to explain I don’t share my binoculars.

I continued to look for birds and as he approached he said nothing but rather embraced me from behind. I screamed, broke the embrace, turned and punched him and then lunged to punch him again as he stepped back. Using the full force of my lungs and the best of my American profanity, I lunged at him again. He took a few steps back, spit off to the side and then left on his bike. He didn’t say a word and showed no reaction.

I was furious. How dare he interrupt my quiet morning? And me of all people? All my training in self-defense should make me immune from ever having to actually use my skills.

Peace Corps has a well-earned reputation for handling volunteer assaults poorly. A particularly gruesome tragedy a few years back resulted in a volunteer being murdered. As a result of the outcry, Peace Corps has revamped their entire safety and security system and has instituted a victim advocacy program. Now I was going to find out exactly how this new program works.

I reported the incident to the PC Duty line. They offered an immediate intervention and I assured them I was fine and really just wanted to get on with my weekend plans. I had to head into the PC office for more training on Monday and met with the Safety officer, Rudy. She and I role played the incident a few times and I was still perplexed by the lack of reaction from my assailant. Rudy explained that Albanian women simply don’t fight back so Albanian men don’t know how to react. We concluded that my self- defense skills are well developed and for that I am grateful. However, I also concluded I do not understand this culture and need to always be aware that I don’t understand.

Rudy wrote up an incident report that I edited. She then sent it to Washington. (HQ as we call it here) HQ responded quickly with an email expressing concern and offering services in-country or in DC. I declined to be medevac’d but am going to find out more about what might be available here in-country.

I refuse to have my Peace Corps experience defined by an assault. That would be giving one creepy guy too much power. However, I have been sharing my experience with other volunteers. If you gathered all the female volunteers in Albania together, I would be voted “least likely to be assaulted”. And yet I was at 9 am on Saturday morning on a developed road in plain sight of a border crossing watch tower. If it can happen to me it can happen to anyone. Maybe just one other volunteer will make a better choice as a result?

Fellow PCVs have expressed interest in my self-defense training. (I can’t believe American schools don’t teach basic self-defense in PE classes but that is a different topic.) Peace Corps should recommend if not require this kind of training prior to service. That won’t happen anytime soon and certainly not soon enough for current volunteers. I asked Rudy about doing some training and she hedged…again PC rules.

But here is an idea! What if PCVs taught Albanian girls self-defense? To teach is to learn twice. Currently, PC hosts day camps for girls all over Albania. A couple of hours of basic self-defense training would be a fun activity. So now I become a teacher trainer.

I like this idea so much that I am now working in Pogradec to find an empty room at the bashkia that I can use as a classroom. Albanian women and girls will not exercise or even meet any place that is not set aside just for women. A community classroom would solve this. I have found a couple of empty rooms I could use and now am trying to meet with the mayor to get approval, electricity, some way to clean out the trash….this is going to be my summer/fall/entire two year service project.

So maybe an assault is going to define my Peace Corps experience but as a source of inspiration.

I still go to that spot and there still aren’t many birds.