Disappointed

It’s what your parents tell you they’re feeling when they want you to reflect upon your actions and to feel a bit ashamed.  It’s also coincidentally how I currently feel about America (and people in general).

I’ve just read Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut and before that I finished The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett. I cannot deny their immediate influence on my lack of hope for the future (man Alayna, Peace Corps really changed you, huh?).

It seems that man has such a terribly short memory and a very inflated notion of itself. Given all of the available literature, education, and knowledge of past historical events, you would think we would do a better job recognizing a piece of shit when we saw it.

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I was mistaken

I think that America has been sick for a long time suffering from chronic racism, sexism, and bouts of xenophobia (among many other things) and Donald Trump is just one of its latest symptoms.

I know many people are speaking out against Trump, but I’m actually more upset with his supporters, my fellow Americans. I think that Trump’s campaign for presidency is a terrible orchestra of fear and hate and it is a damn shame that he is still able to find an audience in our “developed” country.

Man has been unkind to one another since the beginning of time “so it goes” and as Vonnegut seems to suggest in Cat’s Cradle, maybe we should stop expecting anything different.

“The Fourteenth Book is entitled, “What can a Thoughtful Man Hope for Mankind on Earth, Given the Experience of the Past Million Years?” It doesn’t take long to read The Fourteenth Book. It consists of one word and a period.

 
This is it: “Nothing.”

I suspect fear is probably the root of most of these blunders, fear of not being in control, fear of difference, fear of the unknown, fear of weakness, the list goes on and on. But the way to heal fear isn’t to react to it, but to discuss it, to understand it, to support each other, and to move past it with conscious acknowledgement.

I’m disappointed and tired because I live in a country whose people (nearly) worship America and its freedom, yet with all of our freedom, we’ve never looked more incarcerated by our own fear and stupidity.

 

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Seek and You Shall Find

My cat escaped last Thursday from my flat. He opened the screen, jumped from the window (3rd floor) to a balcony across the way and then scaled a tree down to the ground (I know, cats are impressive). I was in Pristina at the time and when I heard that my cat wasn’t to be found at home I became inflated in panic. After the first few several hours looking for my cat, I hastily concluded I would never find him and found myself dwelling on this Murakami quote from Kafka on the Shore. “What I think is this: You should give up looking for lost cats and start searching for the other half of your shadow.”

I felt panic.  Not just because my cat was gone, but because I suddenly realized that there was an expiration date on my current situation in Albania. The panic really began to set in when I realized that I have to make decisions about my next move.  That once again I need to explore myself, my thoughts, feelings, wants, needs, and desires. I realized that after a year and a half any course previously set has been altered or dismantled. I’m once again starting new.  I am once again, new.

I have a chance to once again shape my future, but instead of feeling excited about it, I feel nervous. I’m trying to get better acquainted with myself and my shadow too, but it’s hard, and I don’t always want to do it. Sometimes I’m not happy with what I find.

As the search expanded and I talked with more people I got a lot of different responses, my neighbors asserted that my cat must be dead, other community members didn’t know what to do with all of my emotion (and tried offering me kittens), young children made finding my cat their mission of the evening, and almost everyone laughed heartily at my lost cat posters. I found myself entering all of the abandoned buildings, spaces cluttered with trash, and generally scary places for humans but potential sanctuaries for a cat. I didn’t like searching for my cat, it was uncomfortable, sweaty, depressing, and I continued with very little realistic hope of finding him.

I would like to be able to conclude this post with a miraculous realization, a light bulb moment, but it hasn’t quite come yet.  Self exploration it seems isn’t quite so straightforward. It involves a lot of wandering, patience, and courage. To be honest it feels a lot like looking for a lost cat. You don’t know how or when he’s going to turn up. The only thing you can do is to start looking.

I don’t know exactly what I want or where I’m going, but I’m looking, i’m listening, i’m giving it my best.

It’s a start.

Niku

I did find my cat though.

: )

Czech Tourists Killed in Albania

In Albania, news and gossip travels quickly, but tragedy travels even faster.

On July 4th two Czech tourists were killed near Theth, a beautiful region in the Northern Mountains of Albania. The hikes and sights of Thethi are some of the more popular tourist attractions in the still developing country and many tourists pass through during the summer months. The couple was shot and killed, allegedly by someone who was travelling with them. A suspect has not been caught and an investigation is still being pursued.

I understood all of this information not from the news, but from conversations with Albanian friends. Everyone that I have spoken with today is disgusted, angry, horrified, and ashamed. The people that I spoke with today expressed with sadness and anger how upset they feel for the terrible loss of life that happened within their borders.

In time past, Albanians, specifically Northerners, operated under a book of law called the Kanun. The Kanun provided a code of law for living, behavior, culture & tradition, and provided consequences for actions disobeying the laws. Written within this book is the concept of “Besa” which means trust or promise (though in a very deep unbreakable kind of way). To give Besa and then to break it would be an unspeakable act and would result in very harsh consequences.

During WWII, under Besa, many Albanian families hid, sheltered, and cared for many Jewish families. Rejecting a guest in need would have been incredibly shameful and it would have been even more shameful for them to hand their guest over to their death. So they didn’t. In fact, “Up to 1,800 Jews were living in Albania at the end of the Second World War, it is estimated that the country emerged from the War with a population of Jews eleven times greater than at the beginning.” In other words, Albania was one of the only countries that had a higher population of Jews after WWII than when the war started.

Besa is still ingrained in Albanian culture and tradition and is often linked to the warm hospitality you will commonly find here among the people. It may be the very reason that so many Albanians are so fundamentally shocked and saddened about the death of two tourists in their country. So how does this great story about Besa and Albanian hospitality bring back the lives of two people?

It doesn’t.

I hope healing and love finds the families and friends of this couple, but I also hope that i’ve prevented you from jumping to a hasty conclusion about Albania or Albanians.  What happened was a terrible tragedy, but a tragedy that could have happened anywhere.

“S’ka pyll pa derra” is a very common Albanian expression which means, “There isn’t a forest without pigs”, or in other words, you will meet a few pigs in your lifetime, but don’t let those pigs dictate your perspective of the entire forest.

Please don’t let one news story damn an entire people.

Shkoder Citizens Pay Homage to Czech Tourists

Czech

The Playlist of a Year

If I were to equate myself to Rocky Balboa (ridiculous, I know) and getting into the ring meant getting out of my bed in the morning, then these are the songs that either get me into the ring or cheer me up when I get knocked out of it. I’ve been in Albania for more than a year and these are some of the tunes that can be heard blasting out of my communist style apartment without repentance. Thank you Annsleigh for the cool idea! Check it out here Annsleigh’s Awesome Playlist

1. Freddie Mercury – Living on My Own

I spend a lot of time with myself, more than ever in fact, and it’s a struggle, a daily frantic struggle. I have to support myself and feed myself positivity for breakfast or it can be hard to get out of my house and out of my head. I would do better if I had Freddie Mercury’s pants.

2. Jimi Hendrix – Little Wing

On slow days I like to close my eyes and pretend that Hendrix wrote this song for me. It makes me feel light and cosmic, like an important piece of space.

3. Dubioza Kolektiv – No Escape (from Balkan)

This is a band from Bosnia. It’s the saxophone that does it, but those sheep are pretty cute too. I’m not trying to escape the Balkans, in fact I may have fallen a bit in love. Learning about another way of life is and has been a very good experience for me.

4. Warpaint – Disco/Very

Sometimes a grungy girl pick me up is in order. When I feel like shouting at men for staring at me I think about starting a girl gang, taking over the town, and having a dance party.

5. Bob Dylan – Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright

Sometimes things just don’t go. They stop abruptly or don’t work out the way you planned. Drop the anger and find a way to forgive yourself and others in the largest and smallest of ways. It is alright and it will always be.

6. Xavier Rudd – Follow the Sun

This song reminds me to do the simple things that I often forget to do, like breathing.  “When you feel this crazy society, adding to the strain. Take a stroll to the nearest waters edge and remember your place. Many moons have risen and fallen long, long before you came.  So which way is the wind blowin’, and what does your heart say?”

7. Salt ‘n Pepa – None of your Business

In a small town everyone knows what you ate for lunch and wants to know what you’re going to make for dinner. Everyone is up in everybody else’s business and sometimes it’s just. too. much.

8. Vance Joy – Riptide

Because sometimes you need to put the volume on loud, dance around with your cat, and pretend that you are a quirky and interesting character in a Wes Anderson film.  Imagination is good for you and so is dancing.

9. Maya – Motrat

Some of the meaning escapes me, but the main idea is that a girl has fallen in love. She is so happy and her girlfriends want her to tell them about it. It’s a celebration of love and friendship. I enjoy it because I’ve found a closeness with the people here that i’ve never experienced before and this song carries with it that same warmth. After all, Motrat means sisters.

10. Laleh – Colors

Really open your eyes and get your heart moving again, scrap off the stuff that’s weighing you down, preventing you from seeing all that is truly before you, all that you can do, all that you can be. “Just because it’s black in the dark doesn’t mean there’s no color.”

An Open Letter to G16

The air is finally beginning to carry with it the hope of spring. A tickle of sunshine whispers like a lover who lives far way, “don’t worry, I’ll be there soon.” Spring ensures me that the days will get longer and warmer, but still a rock of anxiety has settled within me. I’ve been in Albania for almost a year and sometimes I can’t recognize the person I’ve become. I am different now as I’m sure you are too.

I don’t know all of you, but for those of you I do know, it’s hard for me to describe how much of an impression you have made on me in this last year. You will leave soon and it will be different without you.  You have been to me, a pair of snow boots silently trudging ahead, making my path and the path of those that come after me just a little less difficult.

What I mean is that you mean something, something that I can’t express through words. All I can thing about is Slaughterhouse V and bugs trapped in Amber. A golden light that warms me all the way up. A cup of soup on a cold day. Whether intentionally or unintentionally, you were the first people that helped convince me that I could do this.

For this, for you, I am thankful. I hope that I can be as much of a resource, friend, and example to the new group as you have been to me. So here’s to fighting the good fight, the only one that’s worth fighting, the one that’s for each other.

Shine on you crazy diamonds, wherever you may go. (I hope one of you is a Floyd fan)

A few special xoxo’s

Heather- We don’t always understand each other, but I know we always try to. I’ve been lucky to have such a fearless site mate as you. You immediately accepted me into Çorovodë, stood up for me when I couldn’t do it myself, cooked me wonderful Mexican food, protected me when I’ve been too shy or awkward, listened to 100+ hours of complaints and non-sensical ramblings, taught me how to make bomb ass pop-corn, and provided loads of travel advice/worldly knowledge. Whenever I go to Xhamaika’s for Fasule I’ll think of you drinking a coke and smoking a cigarette, figuring out how to take over the world. I will miss you, but I know you’ll soon be off on another grand adventure. Take your time and listen to yourself. Also keep wearing that fabulous leather jacket.

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Dan – You’ll always have a place in my heart because you let me pee at your house and then let me blab about my life anxieties on that random day I showed up outside your door. You probably don’t even remember what instance I’m talking about because sincerity and kindness is your default setting. For me it is always relievingDan to speak with you. You have an incredibly wonderful sense of humor and an honorable way in which you face life. But don’t be too flattered, I haven’t forgotten about the time you left me and Kelsey melting in the middle of a Berat summer while you and Quinn took a nap… I’ll miss you Dan, and so will Berat.

Mary –The first summer of my service was rough, like being tossed around in an ocean and not sure if I was going to make my way to shore.  Then you showed up to GLOW in Çorovodë and Berat and it was like having a ray of sunshine over my shoulder. On the days I saw you interacting with the GLOW girls I was amazed at the strong, positive, motivated, and loving individual I saw before me that was so dedicated to others. You set a wonderful example for me while I was in my baby stages as a volunteer and I won’t soon forget you, thank you.

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Mark – It happened on the hike to Mt. Tomorri. We had just laid out our sleeping bags and the stars seemed to be having a conversation with us, when that dog got really angry and demanded we leave his turf. We fled with sleeping bags in hand. Like a prized idiot I walked into a thorn bush and scratched my neck. A thin line of blood dripped from my neck and then the rain started to spit on us (I wasn’t very pleased). On that entire hike though, you just kept moving forward. I’ve always been very impressed with the way you face challenges and I’ve tried to take a page from your book. Before I came to Albania I’d never climbed a mountain, now I’ve climbed two (and this has been partially your influence). You’ve showed me with your compassion, understanding, and strength, that if I want something (specifically, the ability to communicate in Albanian), go and get it. You impress me and inspire me to do the work to get to the top. I’m glad you’ll be sticking around for another year.DSCN2594

Much love to all of you,

Alayna

Racism is an Abstract Noun

“Concrete nouns are tangible and you can experience them with your five senses. Abstract nouns refer to intangible things, like feelings, ideals, concepts and qualities.”

Racism is technically impossible to see, hear, taste, smell, or touch. Because of its abstract nature it is difficult to identify, to discuss, to understand, and to stop. So how do we know what it is? Do we rely on concrete manifestations or examples of what we think racism is in order understand it? Can we ever truly understand what racism is without first understanding ourselves?

Is racism the death of an unarmed black man by a white police officer?

Is racism an abandoned football game between Albania and Serbia due to escalated violence?

Is racism the graffiti below?

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I’ve walked past this graffiti near my flat several times, but I didn’t really see it until I began to understand where it came from.

Before living in Albania I knew very little about the Balkans, the countries, the people, and the complicated relationships between each nation. For those of you that also might be a little uncertain, feast your eyes. The Balkans refer to the Balkan Peninsula and usually include Albania, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Greece, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia.Balkan_topo_enI recently read Balkan Ghosts, a political travelogue through the Balkans by Robert D. Kaplan in order to extinguish some of my ignorance and to better understand the Balkans. I have much more to learn about the history of this region, but it is becoming clearer that in the Balkans, just like in America, the past isn’t quite the past.

Balkan Ghosts has given me some insight into the graffiti near my flat, why it is there in the first place, and the importance that history plays in current events as they develop around the world. Though before we go too far back in time, allow me to explain what happened more recently between Serbia and Albania that has brought the past once again into the present.

On October 14th, 2014 Albania’s football team played Serbia’s team in Belgrade. Because of previous tensions between the two nations, Albanian fans were prohibited from attending the match. During the match this flag was flown above the field.

autochonous3

On the flag is the word “Autochothonous” which means “Indigenous”. The red portion depicts what is considered by Albanians to be a “Greater Albania” including parts of Macedonia, Greece, Montenegro, and Kosovo. The man on the left is Ismail Qemail, responsible for declaring Albania’s Independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1912 and on the right, Isa Boletini, who fought for Albania in Kosovo during the 1910 revolt against the Ottoman Empire.

Upon seeing the flag, Stefan Mitrovic of Serbia grabbed/swatted the flag down (Depending on your perspective) whereupon Andi Lila and Taulant Xhaka of Albania attempted to grab the flag from Mitrovic. This initiated fighting on the field. Watch for yourself, because it is better than me explaining, the Albanian team is in white.

In the aftermath of the abandoned match there has been much controversy. “UEFA awarded Serbia a 3-0 victory, but docked them three points and ordered them to play their next two home games behind closed doors. In addition both teams were fined 100,000 Euros. Both authorities have appealed against UEFA’s decision.”

The match has not only been heavily discussed but has inspired questions and conversations about current race relations between countries. Captured on video is the crowd chanting “Kill, slaughter, so Albanians don’t exist.”

Is this racism?

In the aftermath of the match there were instances of violence on both sides. “In Austria after the match, about 50 Albanians threw bottles at a Serbian coffeehouse in Vienna. Several cars, including police cars, were damaged.”“In Serbia, after the match, several bakeries and snack bars owned by ethnic Albanians were set on fire in Sombor and Stara Pazova, and a bomb was used in one case.” Are these instances of racism?

Where did all of this come from? When did the relationship between these two countries become so cold? Why is there still conflict today? For the sake of brevity, I will summarize the issue, but I encourage you to do your own reading on the matter to more fully understand the conflict.

In Tito’s former Yugoslavia, a chunk of Serbia’s land (Kosovo) was given to ethnic Albanians in order to balance out power between ethnic Serbians, Croatians, and Albanians. Or more eloquently put by Mr. Kaplan, “Yugoslav nationalism, as Tito defined it, meant undercutting the power of the numerically dominant Serbs in order to placate other groups, particularly the Croats and the Albanians. By giving the Albanians their own autonomous province, Kosovo, and by placing this province within the Yugoslav Republic of Serbia, Tito thought he had reconciled the aspirations of both the Albanians and the Serbs. The Serbs thought differently.”

After Tito’s death, Slobodan Milosevic rose to power in Serbia and Yugoslavia with a campaign aimed at giving power back to Serbians and stripping Kosovo of its autonomous state. Ethnic violence between Serbs and Albanians escalated as the Kosovo War began in 1998.  Ethnic Albanians in Kosovo fought against Serbians with the help of Albania and NATO. The fighting stopped in 1999, and Kosovo decalred its independence in 2008. Serbia still does not recognize Kosovo’s independence, and this is where the conflict rests today. As a large amount of ethnic Albanians live in Kosovo, Albania considers Kosovo a brother and is generally displeased with Serbia and their previous treatment of Kosovo.  This is obviously not giving you all of the important details, if you are interested click on this link for more detailed information Kosovo Timeline

So why did I simultaneously bring up race relations in America with race relations in Serbia, Kosovo, and Albania? What do they have in common?

History, regardless of the nation is relevant and powerful. In order to end racism and to understand how it manifests within our society we must begin to understand historically and more importantly, personally, where racism comes from. If you are questioning whether or not something is racism, dig deeper, go further into the issue. This means that we all must be willing to look inside ourselves to find the problem and also the solution. In this way we will be able to heal ourselves and the world in both an abstract and concrete way.

“How do you fix Ferguson is the question?”

“We have a chance to make a real difference, or we could die doing the same thing we’ve been doing over and over expecting different results. So the question then is what have we not done? Everyone’s worried about changing this, changing that, what’s on the outside, right? But we’ve forgotten about that which is looking outside, which is ourselves. Who are you? Is the question. Who are you in the deepest sense? I’m not talking about your fucking race, your ethnicity, your heritage, your fucking ancestry, I’m not even talking about your experiences or your memories, who are you in the deepest sense? Because, figure that out, because there will never be external peace if there is not first internal peace, and once you figure that out, I promise you the entire world will transform, will change, and as more and more people find themselves, mankind has the opportunity to transform into kindman.”

No Place Like a Motherland

You know those days when you prefer to fill every quiet second blaring music because you are mildly obsessed with a sound? Yea. I’ve been living in my speakers for over a week. The obsession started when a fellow volunteer brought this video to my attention.

Dubioza Kolektiv is a band from Bosnia and Herzegovina, but many of the cultural elements and themes within their music culturally apply to other Balkan countries. Now that I live in Albania, several things about this video immediately resonated with me. I felt like I understood. I understood the rocky green and open country side, the importance of Raki, the fresh air from an open truck bed, the smell of sheep cooking on a pole, circle dancing forever, the white large dolly-like cloth on the drum set that might have been hand crafted by one of their mothers (2:22), and despite what you may have heard, “Opa!” isn’t just used by the Greeks.

What impresses me about this band is their outspoken, strong, and culturally referential lyrics, though internationally intriguing and relatable sound. This band has much love for their motherland, but with that love there is criticism too…and this impresses me even more.

dubizoa

“Initially, the concept of the band came through an urgent need to voice the problematic issues in Bosnian society, while showing the rest of the world that life in the Balkans exists outside of the familiar and overused media stereotypes. Understandably then, many of Dubioza Kolektiv’s lyrics revolve around themes of peace, understanding and tolerance, alongside an extreme criticism of nationalism and injustice; but what gives these lyrics weight is that they speak with the authority of direct experience.”

I think that most people don’t know very much about the Balkans (I didn’t know very much before moving here, but maybe you’re more informed than me).  I am actively learning more everyday, but I still have a long way to go. Though from what I discern the region is more complicated than to simply be explained as a powder keg.  It’s more than that. The countries in the Balkans have been ripped apart and sewn back together. In the process this has created cultural overlap, tension, and misunderstandings. Yet I think overall, a raw and rather beautiful pattern.

Though I am living in the Balkans, (and love it) there are problems here (as there are everywhere).  One of the primary issues rampant in the Balkans and especially in Albania is corruption; corruption in the government, at the borders, at work, and at school. A history of corruption and misguided leadership has resulted in a crippling lack of trust and faith in the government.  Many people are without work and don’t have hope of finding any.  Many are bored, anxious, and depressed. Many don’t believe that a better life is possible in their home countries, so many leave if they get the chance.

I can’t tell you how many people have asked me to help them get to America, or told me that “living in America is my dream”, or asked me “would you like to marry me so we can go to America together?” It’s not a joke and it’s nowhere near funny. I now more deeply understand immigration from another perspective.This is a very large group of people that feel abandoned by their country, people that feel they have nothing to gain or give to their homeland.

“I am from Bosnia
Take me to America
I really want to see
Statue of Liberty

I can no longer wait
Take me to United States
take me to Golden Gate
I will assimilate

The grass is always greener
in neighbors’ courtyard
I wish to leave this nightmare
go to a Promised Land
Please, take me to your leader
I want my green card
I want to fly over
Like a rocket from the Balkans

I want to start all over
and turn a new page
Forget this dreadful story
Escape the Stone Age
I’m waiting for a chance
to get out of the cage
I feel like a slave
on a minimal wage”

While I will never really know what it is like to come from the Balkans, I am doing my best to understand what it means to live in the Balkans, and for me that sometimes means feeling paralyzed by a suffocating apathy present in society. It is like quick sand. People understand that they want things to change, but they don’t know how to demand it. They have not been taught to express themselves, how to express their ideas, or how to demand change. But now it’s time.

Dubioza Kolektiv knows this, they are paving a way and setting an example through music for other Balkan countries and people to raise their voices too. They have shed themselves of apathy and take on an active role as leaders. The solution isn’t outside of your country it’s inside your country. The solution is you.

“DK is well known in Bosnia for practicing what they preach, lending support to Bosnia’s first grass-roots civil society group “Dosta!” by organizing a huge protest concert before 2006 general elections. Their album release party for their fourth album “Firma Illegal” took place in front of the Bosnian Parliament, in a powerful statement against government corruption and garnered massive coverage in the national press. Finally, in 2010 the band spearheaded a national voting drive with concerts in all of the major Bosnian cities, aimed to increase the turnout of younger population in 2010 elections. Time Magazine and the BBC have both recognized the group as a legitimate voice of Bosnia.”

I wish I could speak Serbo-Croatian so that I could better understand some of their other songs, but I can still feel, and when there is real passion and energy in the music, it doesn’t need to be translated (though typing things into google translate can help give you a little bit of an idea). I think that Dubioza Kolektiv is so impressive, because for a people previously silenced by communism, they’ve quickly and meaningfully discovered their voices to sing out and to rock on. They see their country as it is, love it tremendously, and demand it improve now rather than later.

Or as they sing near the end of their song “U.S.A”

“One day when you reach the end
One day you will understand
One day back to roots my friend
No place like a motherland”

Unexpected Adventures

“For me, running is both exercise and a metaphor. Running day after day, piling up the races, bit by bit I raise the bar, and by clearing each level I elevate myself. At least that’s why I’ve put in the effort day after day: to raise my own level. I’m no great runner, by any means. I’m at an ordinary – or perhaps more like mediocre – level. But that’s not the point. The point is whether or not I improved over yesterday. In long-distance running the only opponent you have to beat is yourself, the way you used to be.” -Haruki Murakami

If there is anything I now know for sure about myself it is that I need physical exercise in my life. I noticed a serious emotional withering and physical slumping after being replanted in the soils of Albania. I think big life changes can have this sort of affect on people. I could feel myself being buried under some heavy feelings and a general feeling of malaise and disuse. Without the consistent yoga practice and community of support that I’d developed in America I felt like a gasping fish out of water. I knew that I needed to find a way to better address my physical, mental, and emotional needs instead of succumbing to a mild depression. depression

So when I heard that some other volunteers were planning to run the Istanbul Marathon in November, I signed up too. I knew this would be my chance, to prove to myself that I could run a marathon, to get back into shape, to better handle my emotions & stress, and to cross “run a marathon” off my list of “cool things to tell people i’ve done”. Running isn’t unfamiliar to me. I ran throughout high school and for a year in college, but when my freshman year of college running began and ended in a pathetic fashion, I non-verbally swore off running for quite some time.

the truthNow half-way through my training I recall with intense clarity what a consistent running practice feels like, shit. It usually feels like shit.

Though the struggle is real, it is rewarding, and this I remember too. This dose of consistent and sustained exercise has lifted my spirits, helped me stumble into several chance encounters, only a few uncomfortable situations, and plenty of new friendships. I am grateful for running because it gets me out of my house, out of my head, and into my community. Here a few vignettes of slight discomfort, surprise, and occasional delight that I never would have experienced had I not gotten myself outside. These are stories you don’t have to read with intensity, maybe make a cup of tea and then come back to them when you’re in the mood.


My host sister is walking behind me as I run (the equivalent of an invisible kid leash) to make sure I don’t get into trouble or that trouble doesn’t find me, it is sweet of her, though a strange and new experience for me. A Furgon driver (bus driver) confused as to why I’m running stops his van. He wants me to stop running. He wants to give me a ride. Where am I trying to go?

I’m running laps on a football field. The field doesn’t curve the way a track does, it is a rectangle. It feels a lot like running down a corridor and deciding at the last minute, like Derek Zoolander to dramatically turn left. After my run I stroll past the masons working on my street. One of my favorite old men and his wife are walking towards me. We approach and greet one another. He is pleased that I have gone running. He starts rubbing his wife’s belly and indicating that she should join me on my runs. I look at the women and without a word we have reached an understanding. She will not go running with me and her husband better stop rubbing her belly.

I’m successfully passing three old women (it’s the small victories in life) on their evening xhiro (stroll) when I say good evening. One old woman looks at me with amusement and says to the other “Hold my bag”. She starts running with me. I start laughing. I don’t know what else to do. Then the other two women start laughing and running. I am beyond happy about this arrangement. We go on like that running, smiling, and giggling for a few minutes until they settle down and we part.

There is a beautiful river flowing parallel to me and the light is twinkling in the early morning. I am running towards a bridge in town that exists like a ghost from the past. I feel a little awkward in my running shorts and think that I should have gotten up earlier to avoid the stares. I wish that I wasn’t alone on my run. I come to a turn in the road and see a dog headed towards me shaking with enthusiasm.  I can tell he will be friendly. I make his acquaintance and he follows me. I am grateful to have a companion. I stop. He stops. I turn. He turns. Not surprisingly he soon finds something more interesting to investigate and is on his way.

Four pairs of curious eyes stare at me. I say good evening.  I can tell they want to engage with me, so I stop. They ask me if I know where I’m going, if I know the road. I tell them yes, it just goes straight and then keeps going. They talk amongst themselves. I infer from their conversation that I’ve misunderstood the question. Unexpectedly the man asks in perfect English, “Where are you from?” I say I am from New Jersey. He laughs, “What the hell are you doing here?! You haven’t gotten married have you?” We chat for awhile and have a lovely conversation. I discover that he lives in upstate New York and is from Peqin. I was born in upstate New York and lived in Peqin during my first 2 months in Albania. His upstate New York accent reminds me of my family.

The first thing I realize is that this dog is very well fed and not happy to see me.  I see that his herd of sheep is grazing close by and I am a threat to them. I would like to sensibly explain to him that I have no business with his sheep, but he doesn’t seem interested in what I have to say. I have been snarled at by this dog before, but now he’s brought 3 others with him and they are also very well fed.  I stop running to try and minimize the threatening appearance of myself, but they keep getting closer and louder. Uh-oh. I don’t really know what to do, maybe I should smile at them? I am beginning to feel frightened when I hear a shepherd yelling from the hills. Two of the dogs back down.  The leader though, can’t hear his master over his own barking. I try to walk away but the dog persists, now following me and snarling. The shepherd is running down the hill now, still yelling forcefully at the dogs. I turn around and yell with force “Mos!” (Don’t!) I surprise myself and am even more surprised when the dog stops advancing and starts wagging his tail. I come away victorious with all of my limbs intact. Ha!

I am running in slow motion. Ok I’m walking. Sometimes that’s what running looks like. An old man is drinking coffee on his porch and invites me to join. He beckons his daughter to bring me a drink. He is respectfully dressed and in this moment I wish I looked cool in my athletic attire instead of just sweaty and gross. We are chatting and I am grateful for the kind way he encourages me to speak. I meet his two daughters. They bring me a bag full of grapes from their garden.  After he’s finished questioning me I say thank you and tell him that I really must go. His daughter escorts me half way home, gently, as you would a child that looks a little lost.  She suggests that I come again.

I have finally gathered a tiny group of high school students to go running with me on short runs. After about 2 minutes of running, 3/4 of the students start walking, though one continues with me. As we pass a tree she looks up and says “A beaver!” I say, “Really, a beaver, in the tree?” She insists, “Yes, yes, look there.” I look and see that it is a squirrel. I tell her that it is a squirrel and explain the difference between them. We laugh. She tells me that this is only the second time in her life that she has seen a squirrel. That explains why she A, was so excited and B, confused it with a beaver. We continue onward and I am surprised by her level of endurance. I ask her how she feels and she says “I am tired, but I don’t want to give up”. I smile. That’s all I could ever ask of her.


Actions sometimes speak louder than words and I hope the act of running in my community, though I get a lot of attention for it, will begin to set an example for others in my town. I hope to ride the wave of mild discomfort to begin to make small changes in the mentality of those around me. Exercise is important for the body, mind, and spirit and I hope that at some point my community will begin to understand that it is completely normal to exercise, if not an a very cool thing to do.

As for the marathon, well it’ll be on November 16th. I do not dread it, I train for it. I’ve got about a month to go and I am more disciplined than I ever was before. Now I simply focus on the run for the day, because as it turns out, each run is a bit of an adventure in itself.

If you need some external motivation to get out there. Start here. Just type that in to Google, you’ll find all you need.

9/11 in Another Country

The day has crawled into night and I am sitting by my window.  Only eleven days into September and the air has become cold when the sun goes down. My windows are mostly closed, open just a Li-i-iTTle bit so I can smell the air.  I feel anxious and excited waiting for school to start, for the trees to change colors, for the autumn weather that will make my nose cold and runny and encourage me to burrow my hands deep into my pockets.

September is, and will probably always be my favorite month of the year. I enjoy the colors of September and the beginning of school. In fact, before my first day of elementary school I was so excited that I went to bed with my sneakers on. I wish I could share that photo, but it’s lost somewhere. The photo exists now only as a story to describe how much school has always meant to me.

September also marks the beginning of the slow migration indoors. From now on the sun will fade faster and people will literally stay inside more frequently. For me the fall also sparks the beginning of a metaphorical migration inside.  With more time indoors I spend more time with my own thoughts and grant myself more time for reflection. Like any good human I hibernate in the fall/winter and am not as active as in those sweaty summer months. I don’t spend as much time outside with others (because I’m too busy beefing up for pre hibernation with soup and bread), thus I have more isolated and concentrated time to think and to possibly become depressed.

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I knew today was September 11th, but I hadn’t decided what I wanted that to mean.  When I was very little 9/11 meant that school had started and that I would still be relishing in the bliss that is new school supplies. As I got a little older and could comprehend a bit more about those around me (aka the realization that I am not in fact the center of the universe) that meant that 9/11 was the wedding anniversary of my parents (Happy Anniversary Mom and Dad!). When I was in 5th grade the meaning changed again. This time it meant my first year at a new school, in a new state, the year the planes hit the Twin Towers.

I was in class and all of a sudden we stopped learning. Students were pulled out of class and a radio was turned all the way up. I was confused. I remembered that my Dad was traveling, or at least I thought he was, my mind leapt towards worrying. I got home and my Mom was upset. I still didn’t really understand. The T.V. stayed on way into the night. My Mom saved the newspaper from the next day and it rested on the bookshelf like a coaster. I still didn’t understand.

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If you’re reading this you’re old enough to remember. Where were you?

Tonight I received a text from the Italian teacher at my school, she wrote. “Ellen, today is an important date. Many people died by attack of terrorism in America. Long live the American people.” I was so honored that she would take the time to recognize the date and to send me a message, it was beyond thoughtful.

Though I was moved by the message, it reminded me that in Albania I am seen by many people in town as “The American”.  Men I don’t know call out “Hello American”, people that know me only vaguely will say “oh, that’s one of the Americans”, and people I do know will say “Oh that’s Elena, she’s American.” Living in Albania is the closest I will ever get to being a celebrity and for now my nationality has become a part of my name.

I was surprised by the new addition to my name, because to be honest, I never felt very American before living in Albania. My Dad is from Canada and my Grandparents on my Mom’s side left Ireland when they were in their 20’s. I’ve spent most of my life telling people that I’m American, BUT really  I’m half Canadian and half Irish.

My Grandmother, Susan Conlan Gillooly at an Irish parade in Buffalo. 

Grandma GilloolyCanadians play hockey, right? Each winter my family rents out a rink for a couple of hours and we play hockey. More or less I pretend to play hockey and pathetically stop myself by running into the boards. My Dad, a few of his brothers, and me.canadians

I identify with the heritage, traditions, and practices of my family, and as I’ve grown up they have helped me understand and shape my identity. But now that I have spent almost six months away from the states, I am beginning to see myself differently. I am evolving (yes, like a Pokémon) and so is my understanding of my cultural identity.

Being misunderstood and misunderstanding while experiencing and exploring all the cultural nuances of the Albanian culture, I have finally realized, “Hey! I am actually very culturally American” and for the first time, I really feel something when I say that. Stepping outside of America has actually helped me better understand myself as an American.

I went about today with the heavy feeling of having forgotten something important. I didn’t forget the day, but I forgot what it meant to me. The meaning of 9/11 has shifted again and for me it not only means a moment of silence for those that have passed, it means a moment to recognize, honor, and identify with my country the way I never have before, it means a moment of gratitude for my life and the people in it, it means  a moment to reflect on what it means to be an American, and  finally, it  means a moment to listen to Jon Stewart, because he always seems to hit the right note.

“The view from my apartment was the World Trade Center and now it’s gone. And they attacked it. This symbol of American ingenuity and strength and labor and imagination and commerce, and it is gone. But you know what the view is now? The Statue of Liberty. The view from the South of Manhattan is now the Statue of Liberty. You can’t beat that.”

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Peace.

It’s Your Fight Too

We began planning a GLOW camp in Berat a few months ago. It started when a male friend and fellow volunteer approached me and another female volunteer and said something like “I want to get involved with GLOW… but I’m a dude.”

GLOW or Girls Leading Our World is a camp typically run by girls, for girls. This camp provides girls with a space to comfortably explore concepts of gender equality,  female health & healthy lifestyles,  leadership,  as well as myriads of other topics that might be difficult to discuss in the presence of males. More than anything, the camp creates a community of empowered girls that can support each other as they develop the skills to change their lives and the world.

To my inspiration, my male friend and fellow volunteer jumped right in and actively contributed to the support and empowerment of the girls. He discovered his role in the fight and supported myself and the other female volunteer all throughout the week as we facilitated the camp. In fact, he even presented to the girls on the three waves of Feminism.

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To me the GLOW camp in Berat was an example of men and women working together to advance gender equality. It was the thesis of cooperation and collaboration.  Additionally I was honored to be able to spend so much time with a group of strong, motivated, and powerful girls as well as an inspirational team of fun, open, and caring volunteers, both male and female.

When you teach, you learn, and as the week progressed I remembered things I had forgotten. I remembered that I was strong, that I can lead others, and that together we can lift each other to a higher plane of existence.

Have you forgotten something powerful about yourself? Maybe it’s time to remind yourself that you are awesome.

The motto for GLOW camp is: I am powerful and beautiful. I can change my life. I can change the world. DSCN2620

My male friends initial dilemma on how to get involved in a camp to empower girls reminded me that it can be discouraging to get involved when you don’t feel like you have a role to play. As a white woman I have felt this way about racism in America, how do I speak out against something that doesn’t really happen to me? Something that I don’t completely understand?

The answer is simple. Try to understand and then try some more, you do have a place in the fight. As the Beatles fabulously put it in their song, I am the Walrus, “I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together.” Begin to see yourself in someone else and there you will find compassion. Then act on itthreatAs Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, “I am cognizant of the inter-relatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

The voice of a man for gender equality is equally as important as the voice of a woman.  The outrage of a white man or woman against racism is as equal and powerful as the outrage of a black, brown, or red, man or woman. The outcries of a straight man or woman for LGBT rights can be as commanding as the protests from the LGBT community. This way of thinking stretches around the world and hits everything and everyone in between. We are ALL responsible for creating a better world and the fight is for everyone, everywhere.

Gender equality still has a long way to go. Here are a few facts & excerpts from the novel Half the Sky detailing gender based violence and oppression that reflects the current reality for women around the world. For more facts and information visit Half the Sky Fast Facts I suggest you read the whole novel, but the above link will get you started.

“One in five women will be a victim of rape or attempted rape in her lifetime”

 “More girls were killed in the last 50 years, precisely because they were girls, than men killed in all the wars in the 20th century. More girls are killed in this routine gendercide in any one decade than people were slaughtered in all the genocides of the 20th century.”

“Worldwide, an estimated 51 million girls have been married before the age of consent. In many parts of the world, parents encourage the marriage of their underage daughters in exchange for property and livestock or to benefit their social class”

“Between five hundred thousand and two million people – the majority of them women and children are trafficked annually into situations including prostitution, forced labor, slavery, or servitude. Only 93 countries have some legislative provision prohibiting trafficking in human beings”

 “In the nineteenth century, the central moral challenge was slavery. In the twentieth century, it was the battle against totalitarianism. We believe that in this century the paramount moral challenge will be the struggle for gender equality around the world.”

The most important thing for ending gender based oppression, violence, and suffering is education and the key to a thriving country and successful world is the integration of all its resources, women not excluded. These eleven empowered girls are now involved in the advancement of gender equality…are you?

Here are some photos and a video, enjoy as you ponder your role in the fight for gender equality.

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