The Mixed Salad

My favorite part of the cuisine here in Macedonia is the Mixed Salad: vegetables, olives, cheese, sometimes meat, like pastrami, and little mounds of small salads.

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This one below is a little different. I had this one in Gevgelija, near the Greek border. One of the little salads was similar to melitzanosalata, the Greek eggplant dip. Instead of potato salad, they served oven-browned potatoes. The cheese was fried, reminding me of saganaki.IMG_4480.jpgIMG_6133.jpg

The sheep cheese that is on each of these plates is made locally:IMG_4375.jpg

The white bucket is full of yogurt that is made first.IMG_6174.jpg

It is then put into cheesecloth.IMG_6176.jpgIMG_6178.jpg

It is tied up, and drains for a while on this drainboard. Then it is hung to finish draining.IMG_6180.jpg

In the blue tub are cut blocks of cheese, which are packed into the tins with brine. IMG_6181.jpgIMG_6182.jpg

The tins are stored for many months before they are ready to be sold.IMG_6184.jpgAlmost every day here, you can see people on the street selling cheese in these tins.

The Farmers’ Market here is brimming with locally grown vegetables now, which I hear are grown without pesticides. The mixed salad is available year round. Some of the ingredients vary with the season, but most do not, now that greenhouses are used for winter growing. After experiencing the mixed salad here, I know it will always be part of my cuisine, wherever I am.

“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” – Michael Pollan

Knitting Time

Knitting, as an art or craft, has been around for a while. The earliest known knitted items were found in Egypt and are from about the eleventh century. But the origin of knitting as we know it is believed to be the Middle East, when Muslim knitters were hired by Spanish Christian royal families to knit clothing  and other items for them. The pieces that have survived reflect a high level of skill. Some pieces have 20 – 23 stitches per inch! My eyes hurt just thinking about that!

Art projects have always been one of my favorite ways to spend time. I’m oblivious to what’s around me while I’m working on something, and the rest of my life takes a back seat. From ceramics to textiles, anything involving color captivates me.IMG_2065.jpg

I first taught myself to knit when I was ten years old. I found an instruction book in the library, used my allowance to buy a skein of yarn and a pair of size 8 needles, and sat down to learn. That was sixty years ago. There were many years when I didn’t knit, but I always came back to it.IMG_2606.jpg

About seven years ago, I started knitting bags and felting them. I used Brown Sheep wool yarns, the best I’ve found for that purpose, both for their eagerness to felt and for the amazing colors available.IMG_1940.jpg 285.jpg283.jpgIMG_0164.jpgMoving along, I started learning about different fibers, and what they could do. I experimented not only with wool, but alpaca, llama, silk, and cotton. I discovered Malabrigo, Madeline Tosh, and other high end yarns of amazing colors and quality. I made shawls, sweaters, hats, and items inspired by Miss Fisher twenties style outerwear. IMG_2273.jpgIMG_1925.jpg

I even started using beads – what a joy!

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While knitting doesn’t always satisfy the artist in me, it’s a great date with color and it’s a good way to mark time. This was how I spent the fourteen months between my time in Peace Corps in Mongolia and the start of my service in Macedonia.

I brought good yarn with me to Macedonia, along with all my needles and instruments. But somehow this yarn was never appropriate here. Even if I were to make something and figure out a way to block it, I couldn’t give it as a gift because no one here knows about this kind of care of knitted treasures, and most of them don’t knit at all, though their grandmothers did. Not to mention, these yarns aren’t available here. But shortly after I arrived at my site, I realized that I could make hats and mittens for refugee children.

A friend introduced me to a yarn store in Skopje near the old bazaar, where you can buy the highest quality of yarn available in Macedonia, that I know of. This yarn is similar to Encore in that it is an acrylic-wool blend, but it’s not as soft. I started buying this yarn, and knitting hats and mittens.IMG_5432.jpg

Other volunteers often talk about how Macedonians are usually late for agreed meetings, and that the unexpected keeps happening, leaving them waiting with nothing to do. I have rarely been inconvenienced by that because I take my knitting with me everywhere I go. During coffee breaks at school, I knit. While I’m waiting for people to show up, I knit. And all these knitted items are going to refugees and poor children. So it has become a secondary project. Win – win!IMG_5493.jpg

I also made hacky sack balls for teachers to use in the classrooms,

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and a few pussy hats, when the need arose.

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Soon after I arrived in Macedonia, I was told that if I sit and knit in a group, people will take offense, and think I am ignoring them. But I found that my teachers became accustomed to my constant knitting, and they really believed in my helping the refugees. Albanians have a history of taking in refugees, most notably during the Holocaust. True to that tradition, when I scheduled a trip to take the first batch of hats and mittens to the refugees in Gevgelija, the people here brought me boxes and boxes of winter clothes, coats, and blankets to take, too! There were 15 boxes in the end! And I have a dozen more awaiting the next trip.

During the fall, I had the idea to teach knitting to some students, not knowing if anyone would be interested, since it has been mostly abandoned. I invited the students in one of the 6th grade classes, students I had taught last year as 5th graders. To my surprise, eight students out of a class of ten signed up. Four boys and four girls have been working on their first projects since November.IMG_5450.jpgIMG_5451.jpgIMG_5454.jpg They are knitting scarves for themselves. They rarely miss a class. My idea was to teach them, so that they could take home their finished project so their grandmothers could see them. One student told me that she started a knitting project with her grandmother over the winter break. Success!

While I am knitting, I think a lot, and as time passes, and the project progresses, I emerge in a new place. Truly, knitting is a marker of time.

Meanwhile I’m packing up my best yarn to be used when I return to America.IMG_4334.jpg

If you want an interesting and entertaining short history of knitting, here’s your link: http://sheepandstitch.com/the-history-of-knitting-part-1-mysterious-origins/

Keep Calm and Carrion

Excellent words from Ms Wolverine, RJ Watters, who studies wolverines in Montana and Mongolia:

The Wolverine Blog

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If today feels like the beginning of the Resistance to you too, Ms. Wolverine has some words for you to live by over the next few years, inspired by the posters that the British designed to remind people to go about their business and not to panic even as they faced a Nazi invasion. If it feels to you, too, as if we are fighting over the carcass of American democracy in the face of a fascist invasion, the time has come to be like a wolverine: grab the pieces you can, and go stash them someplace where they won’t decay, and where they’ll continue to nourish you until we’re out on the other side of all of this. Keep doing the work you do to make this world a better place, without falling into despair. Act out of love but make no compromises. Be tough. Be fierce. Be smart…

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Lovely Fall

Fall is my favorite season of the year. It brings colored leaves, golden sun without the intense heat, cozy clothing layers, apples, harvesting and preserving, a new school year, and my birthday. This year, at the start of my second year here, is no different. I’m ready for cooler weather, making ajvar, eating apple pie, and for celebrating my continued presence in this world. After the heat of summer, some travel, and two months of working alone on school projects, I am also ready to be back among the students and teachers, and I am particularly ready for the classroom.

Signs of fall are everywhere. The walk to school serves to remind me that the mob scene of summer is truly over. I can walk anywhere at any time of day and have plenty of space. The Americans have gone, everyone has gotten married, and the children are all tanned and rosy from summer activities. Shops and street sellers have stocked school backpacks, farmers are bringing apples to town, and the shop that sells school supplies is busy all the time. IMG_5232.jpgHouseholds are ordering their wood for winter for heating and cooking. The wood is dumped like this:IMG_5305.jpgThen this machine (or the one in the above picture) cuts it up:IMG_5144.jpgLeaving it in pieces like this that will fit in the usual stove here:IMG_5307.jpgIMG_5317.jpg

My school has a divided day. The younger students come from 8am to 12:30pm, and then the older students start at 1pm, finishing at 6:45pm. After two weeks, the schedule flips. The first day back, I visited with students I taught last year in fifth grade and had coffee with other teachers.IMG_5255.jpgIMG_5256.jpgIMG_5257.jpg I didn’t teach the first days, as there was no schedule worked out yet. My fifth graders had transitioned from being the oldest in the lower grades to the youngest in the higher grades. Unfortunately, I won’t be teaching them this year, except for special projects. This year, I will be assisting my counterpart with fifth and seventh grade English. I will be continuing with the children’s chorus, and I hope to start an English club in which we will knit and speak only in English. Knitting is associated with grandmothers and great-grandmothers here. I am hoping to spread my joy of knitting, and perhaps surprise those older women when their young family members bring home their projects.IMG_2420.jpg

In addition to my work with the primary school, I will be spending time at the high school working with the school psychologist. My assignment there is to help her come up with ideas for teaching students with special needs. But I also have another idea for the high school. I want to help provide guidance for students who are interested in applying for university programs abroad. I learned that no one at the high school currently has access to that information, and that the students feel discouraged facing that daunting task.

Just as I did last year, I will be participating in making Ajvar, the red pepper spread that’s a staple of every Macedonian kitchen. Last year I helped my host family with all aspects of it. See the blog post here: https://kathleenkendrick74.wordpress.com/2015/10/06/ajvar/IMG_2801.jpg

This year, I want to have a larger role, which will happen anyhow because I will be making it with my friend Qanije, who works on Saturdays. It will be up to me to do the first day’s work myself – the coring, roasting, and peeling of the peppers. I have even bought my own wood paddles for stirring the ajvar. The largest one measures 3.5 feet!IMG_5310.jpg

Also up this fall is a significant decade birthday. I will celebrate seventy years of life on this beautiful planet. When/How did this happen? Just this year, I have been seeing people I think look old, and I learn that they are my own age, or even more surprising, younger! But I still feel like the same person inside. Sure, I’ve learned a lot, and would probably make some different decisions, given the same opportunities as before. But I would also resoundingly make some the same. Well, now I am going to celebrate all of that, along with celebrating my current life in Dibër, which now includes a cat,IMG_5219.jpg the marvelous fact that I managed to return to Greece,IMG_4666.jpg and that I’m healthy and happy. Cheers!
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About the cat: I have rescued a kitten from an uncertain future. I was walking home from my friend Qanije’s house, when I heard a kitten crying. I couldn’t immediately locate it. I checked a nearby dumpster because sometimes in their eagerness to forage, they fall in and can’t get back out. I looked around everywhere. Finally, I just stood still to locate the cry. Then I saw a little black and white kitten on top of a post, crying loudly for all it was worth. I was able to reach it by standing on the dirt mounded at the base. It was so little that I was pretty sure that it had help getting up there. I took it back to Qanije’s, where it ate eagerly and licked the wet pavement to get water. Fortunately, Qanije’s family loves animals. She agreed to keep the kitten until I could get my house ready.

This picture is from a week later. The grey wouldn’t wash off.IMG_5248.jpgLittle pink sock:IMG_5296.jpgIMG_5290.jpgIMG_5245.jpgThe veterinarian declared her female and gave her a clean bill of health after giving her a shot and an anti-parasitic pill. This cat has a very even temperament, affectionate without being needy, and she plays hard. The only name she has so far is Maca (pronounced Matsa), which is Albanian for cat. We play, eat, get crazy, sleep, and go for walks outside together. I’m so lucky!

This picture is from now, over three weeks later:IMG_5311.jpgIn many ways, this fall is one of the best I can remember. I’m living in a beautiful area of the Balkans, I have friends, a lovely house, a job I love, and I have a cat. And I’m in constant contact with my support system back home. Seventy is a very good year.

I’m not twenty
and won’t be again but ah! seventy. And still
in love with life. And still
full of beans. –
Mary Oliver

Summertime, and Dibër is Busy

The population in Dibër is about 15,000. People say there are easily 15,000 more Dibrans who live abroad. Many of these people keep houses or apartments here to use when they return during the summer holidays. It seems like every other house is closed up, shutters lowered 24 hours a day because the family lives usually in America, but also in Germany, Italy, or Switzerland.IMG_4793.jpg

Dibër, while designated a city, feels like a large village. Everyone seems to be related to most of the other people here, and the rest are their old classmates, or family of school friends, or neighbors. People here are very family-oriented. If a mother here doesn’t hear from her grown son who lives in America for 24 hours, she starts worrying. The expats, for their part, use their summer annual leave time to return home here, staying anywhere from two weeks to two months. Needless to say, the population swells here in the summer in a big way.

During summer, there are more people shopping for groceries during the day than usual, making my trips out for food a little more complicated. But this population surge is most noticeable in the evenings. Crowds are out walking the main street through the center, pushing strollers, or having coffee or ice cream at one of the many places that line the street. Above the general buzz of conversation, there is the crying of babies, the squeals of toddlers, and the conversations being held by two people across the street from each other. The pace of the walking is slow, more like a stroll, and it grinds to a halt unexpectedly at times.

My personal preference is a little more space when I’m walking through town. I’m usually on a mission, and alone (how American!). Passing the mobs of people is nearly impossible without going into the street. So I have made most of my forays out, like shopping for groceries, in the morning.

But my favorite time to go into the center is about 5:30am, when nothing is open, and when bits of trash, the remnants of high spirits of the evening before, flutter like ghosts on the street and sidewalks before the cleaners have started their shifts. I like to wander the streets, just looking around.IMG_5119.jpgIMG_5159.jpgIMG_4847.jpgIMG_4803.jpgIMG_5130.jpg

While the people are sleeping, the dogs roam the city in groups. They horse around with abandon, unhindered by the crowds that come later.IMG_4849.jpgIMG_4810.jpg IMG_5167.jpgThere are usually jackdaws and barred doves somewhere along the way, and cats dart here and there along the outskirts of my attention.IMG_5126.jpg IMG_5160.jpgSo in the early morning, Dibër belongs to the animals and me. I’m in excellent company!

For a while on these early morning walks, I was bringing food and water to a cat that seemed to be raising her kittens in the cemetery of a beautiful old mosque in town. It was a lovely spot, with greenery and flowers as tall as me that she could hide in. I was just at the point of thinking the kittens must be weaning age, when a gardener came into the cemetery and cut down all the beautiful lush foliage, including removing the cheap cat dishes I was filling there. Now there was nowhere to hide the food, and it would sit in the sun. I asked someone who lives adjacent to the cemetery if he had seen her, and he hadn’t.IMG_4741.jpgIMG_4750.jpg

On my return trip through town, I see the cleaning people with their brooms and hoses, having thrown wide open all the doors of the restaurants and coffee shops. They clean not only inside the restaurants, but sweep and wash the sidewalk out front as well.IMG_5129.jpgIMG_5132.jpgIMG_4807.jpgIMG_5128.jpg

By this time, a few men have arrived at each of two coffee shops that open early.IMG_4805.jpg Occasionally, I see one or two men still in their evening wear, heading for their cars to go home to sleep.IMG_5121.jpg In the quiet of the early morning, it’s hard to believe that until 2 or 3 hours ago, this place was hopping!

Soon, the cleaners will head home, shops will open, and a new day will gear up.

Today, as usual in summer, there will be several weddings, and cars honking their horns will drive through town, Albanian flags flying, through the afternoon, even if it rains.IMG_5153.jpgIMG_5155.jpg And in the evening, there will be a full on Dibra style summer night.

I may be at home, enjoying my solitude, my books, and my knitting, perhaps listening to music if there’s an internet connection,IMG_5189.jpgor I could be at a friend’s house enjoying a meal.IMG_3500.jpg

Albanian Alps: Ngadalë – (Alb) slowly

For fast-acting relief, try slowing down.Lily Tomlin

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I love hiking. When I was in college, I had the great good fortune to work in Glacier National Park, Montana, for two summers. It was here that I learned the joys, the pains, and the incredible sense of wellbeing that resulted from being out trekking along mountain trails.

Glacier Park (photo credit: Brycen Ek):13879453_10100681331373699_1988519040051869150_n.jpg13873103_10100681328130199_2503417092764961337_n.jpg13882351_10100681331453539_8427396619562412058_n.jpg13892154_10100681328758939_1841310965484185609_n.jpg Hiking has always been, to a greater or lesser degree, a part of my life since then. Eugene, Oregon, my home base for the last 21 years, has supplied me with a very rich environment of hiking opportunities over the years in its lush green forests.IMG_1808.jpg

Being in the Peace Corps for two of the last three years, I haven’t had access to a car, which limits the availability of hiking trails, both in Oregon and in PC countries. I live in a mountainous area now, and a local hiker promised to show me some good trails around here, but so far that hasn’t happened. The result is I’m not in peak hiking shape right now. But when my landlords invited me to travel with them to Valbona, Albania, aka the “Albanian Alps,” to go hiking last weekend, I jumped at the chance!

The pictures of the area showed them to be breathtaking. These mountains are mainly limestone, with white rocks all over the mountainside and around the river at the bottom of the valley, and, as I was to discover, on the trail itself. The “Albanian Alps” are the southern section of the Prolektije Mountain Range that extends north into Montenegro and a little east to Kosovo. Valbona Valley National Park itself sits on the border with Montenegro, and isn’t far from the Kosovo border. A group has formed in the area to create a tri-state park involving all three countries, calling it Balkan Peace Park.

I had a few concerns about not being in great hiking shape. However, my enthusiasm usually gets me pretty far. My hosts had a reservation at Tradita, so I hopped online to reserve a room also. The only website for Tradita was in Shkodër, which I figured was a nearby community, and I made the reservation.

Our group of ten went in two cars from Skopje – three women and seven men. This trip was done differently than I’m accustomed to. I usually pack what I need for food so I have minimal stops, and beeline for my destination. This trip was slower, and involved a few stops: two were at farm stands to buy fresh fruit,IMG_4882.jpgIMG_4881.jpg one was for lunch in a sweet little rural place in Kosovo, where we ate Flija, a layered savory pastry, part of the local cuisine of Albania and Kosovo.
IMG_4880.jpg Of course, there were the photo stops: IMG_4895.jpgIMG_4892.jpgThen there was a coffee break when we were about 45 minutes away still. I was watching the clock during all this, as I had told the hotel when I would arrive, based on it being a four-hour drive. It actually took us a little over 6 hours to get there.

We turned in at the Tradita sign, and I was confused. There was no hotel, just cabins and lots of ground with tents everywhere.IMG_4903.jpg When I asked, my hosts said there was no hotel there. I told them my hotel was Tradita in Shkodër, and they immediately saw a problem. Shkodër was almost 200km away from where we were. I had nowhere to stay. I asked if we should check in to see if I could get a cabin. The wife half of my team said we should just sit at the picnic tables, have a coffee, and relax a few minutes. Then we could decide what to do.IMG_4899.jpg I took a deep breath and slowed down. It always takes me a little time to adapt to changes of plan – a common occurrence here. I finally recognized that I was at the threshold of an adventure, and decided to go with it, and enjoy the ride. As we sat there at a picnic table, I looked around, and saw that we were surrounded on four sides by beautiful mountains. I concentrated on loving the mountains.IMG_4905.jpgIMG_4911.jpgIMG_4918.jpgIMG_4920.jpgIMG_4922.jpg

Before long, the husband half of my landlord team returned saying it had all been sorted. The three women were to stay in a cabin. The 2 husbands would stay in a tent. Being immersed in my own process of adaptation at the time, I didn’t understand until later that I had bounced my host from his reservation with his wife. We set about putting our things in the cabin. There was no electricity, no internet, and I don’t have a smart phone, but I needed to notify my hotel 200km away that I wasn’t coming. I borrowed someone’s phone and sent a message on Viper.

I’ve noticed that here, there always seems to be music over a sound system at events. This was no exception. In America, I remember staying in a campground in the Tetons, where there were a lot of hikers staying. It was so quiet in the evenings and at night. Then the next morning, hikers began rising at first light to get a start on the trail. Here in Valbona, the music played loudly until 11:30 on Friday evening.IMG_4907.jpg Then breakfast next morning was scheduled for 8:30. Slowly, after breakfast, everyone prepared to go to the trailhead.IMG_4923.jpgIMG_4925.jpg

Saturday was a beautiful day! The sun was shining, and we could hear cow and goat bells in the distance as we started out, about thirty of us.IMG_4937.jpg I was full of enthusiasm as we started the climb up the trail, following the markers.IMG_4938.jpgIMG_4943.jpgIMG_4944.jpgIMG_4945.jpg It was fairly steep in places, changing elevation quickly. Then there were places like this, where we searched for the markers:IMG_4949 (1).jpgThe trail consisted mostly of large white rocks that had fallen down the mountain over the ages. Hiking on these rocks called on muscles in my feet, ankles and legs I didn’t even know I had, to constantly adjust to such a degree.Yes, this is the trail:IMG_4976.jpgIMG_4995.jpgIMG_5042.jpgOccasionally, we would get a break, and the trail would be like this:IMG_5036.jpgThese mountains are absolutely gorgeous!!IMG_5018.jpgIMG_5017.jpgIMG_4987.jpgIMG_4983.jpgIMG_4975.jpg

Over the first three kilometers, I was taking pictures, then hiking the way I usually do, pushing myself. This sometimes involved passing other hikers on the trail, and leaving my hosts far behind. The thought occurred to me as I passed that I might be overdoing it so early in the hike, like the hare that overtook the tortoise initially, but it felt so good to be hiking! But this was tough. I’m spoiled. I’m accustomed to the hiking trails in America, where there is reasonably smooth surface to walk on, whether it’s dirt, gravel, or wood chips.

Fatigue set in, and it was hard to make my knees go up high enough to avoid tripping on the higher rocks on the trail. By the time we approached the four-kilometer mark or so, I was feeling the imminence of a brick wall. My muscles were shaking at times, and I needed to stop and take deep breaths to keep my breathing regular. As she observed my struggle, my host said, Ngadalë, which is Albanian for slowly.IMG_5009.jpg For the next two kilometers, she kept repeating, Ngadalë, ngadalë. I saw the wisdom of this, but still found myself at times unconsciously pushing myself up the mountain. Then she would remind me, Ngadalë, ngadalë, and I would adjust my stride, repeating, Ngadalë.

I realized that this word ngadalë was a theme on this trip, from the first evening coffee, through the starting schedule of the morning, and now on the trail. Ngadalë also is a reminder not to jump ahead so much, but to live in the present, enjoying what’s right in front of me, like this:IMG_4993.jpgIMG_4961.jpgIMG_5022.jpgIMG_5040.jpgIMG_5035.jpgAnd even this – fresh wild raspberries – delicious!IMG_4994.jpg Ngadalë is a lesson I’ve been trying to put into the rest of my life as well.

The four of us made it six kilometers up the mountain, and then took a prolonged break.IMG_5011.jpg They began nibbling on the snack we were provided, but I couldn’t even think about food. I immediately lay down in the grass in the shade. Eventually my body slowed down enough that I had a short nap. When I opened my eyes and looked around, they were all napping. I lay there enjoying the view of the tree branches above me, with the sun filtering through them, twinkling as the branches moved in the breeze.IMG_5013.jpgIMG_5012.jpg I figured my kilometers hiked were really worth a lot more than the actual number in terms of the hard work of hiking on this kind of trail.

Most of the hike was spent hiking with these lovely people:IMG_5007.jpgIMG_5000.jpg

We headed back down, and I found myself taking frequent breaks. Going down required more attention than climbing up, but even so, I kept tripping because I couldn’t step high enough to get over some of those rocks. But I kept my eyes on the incredible view as much as I could, and felt so grateful to be there, in spite of my discomfort (misery).IMG_5045.jpgIMG_5043.jpgIMG_5048.jpgMy whole body was very grateful to reach the road. What a relief for all my muscles!IMG_5050.jpg

In America there are strict rules for hiking in national parks. These rules are understandable and necessary, given the number of people hiking. Here, this is how things work:

1.Don’t let the hike get in the way of visiting. There is much to be enjoyed in the company you keep while hiking. The people connection here is so strong.IMG_4957.jpgIMG_4942.jpg

2. If you see a shortcut, by all means take it! Sometimes this may also be the function of the obscurity of the markers along the way, but half the time it isn’t.IMG_4958.jpg

3. Carry fresh fruit (from the market stand), not boring dried fruit. One of our group packed in some pears from the market stop, and cut them up on a break. I have never tasted a pear that was so sweet, juicy, and restoring! Perfect trail snack!IMG_4985.jpg

4. Go off trail if you like, especially if you can get a better photo or if you need a break. We lounged in the grass off trail, and it made for a very comfortable nap. This was such a relaxed approach.IMG_4980.jpg

5. Harvest the herbs on the mountain, take as much as you like. The flowers were beautiful and plentiful! Many of them are part of the traditional herbal pharmacopeia of the southern Balkans. The main one I was aware of is called Mountain Tea. There are several kinds of plants that constitute the Mountain Tea category. The one below, I’m told is one of many varieties of oregano. There is another local plant, Sideritis, or ironwort, which has yellow flowers, and is very popular and expensive to buy at the market. Sideritis is the main herb throughout the Balkans that is considered Mountain Tea.

Mountain Tea is rumored to be a panacea. After researching a bit, I discovered that there have been scientific studies showing Sideritis to have many benefits to health, as it is found to be anti-microbial, anti-inflammatory, and anti-oxidant. It seems to be an aid to digestion, the immune system, and it suppresses the advent of the common cold. Some even say it lowers anxiety and decreases pain. The people here believe the same is true of this oregano Mountain Tea as well. No wonder they were all harvesting it in huge quantity. Right now, July, is the peak time to harvest it, when the flowers are in full bloom.

This was such a human, delightful, and kind way to do a hike.

On Saturday evening there was a program back at Tradita that included Albanian traditional music and dancing. At the end of the program, the people all joined in to dance in the traditional way. People were in very high spirits, and the dancing reflected that. Of course, the music was completely inspiring.IMG_5063.jpg This was followed by completely uninspired rock music until 1:30am. But I was relaxed, had a good book, and was fine.

My core hiking team:IMG_5058 (1).jpg

My landlady and I spent time at the Valbona River early both mornings before many people were up, and in the evening as the sun was setting.

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On Sunday we made our way back to Skopje. This was our first traffic issue: IMG_5075.jpgIMG_5076.jpgMinutes after leaving, we stopped at a beautiful spot where the river was deep and fast-moving. Some of our group wanted to wade in the water.IMG_5085.jpgIMG_5084.jpg About halfway home, they parked the cars and broke out a big watermelon they’d been cooling under dripping water of the shower in our room. We sat or stood in the shade and ate it, arms and chins dripping. It was perfectly sweet and juicy! That was lunch, and it was just right.IMG_5074.jpg

Some time, I want to return to the Albanian Alps. Meanwhile, I’m so grateful to my landlords and their friends for including me on this adventure. I was the recipient of a great amount of kindness and generosity this weekend. And I think ngadalë is a lovely word.

And my abandoned hotel? They never got my Viper message, so Booking.com charged me full rate, as if I’d stayed there. Sigh . . . I am slowly getting used to that loss.IMG_5056.jpg

 

Beans: Jewels in the Kitchen

“Let thy food be thy medicine and
medicine be thy food”
– Hippocrates

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Beans have a very long history with humans. For 10,000 years, people have been eating various kinds of them, prepared in various ways. Beans as an agricultural crop pre-dates ceramics. From remnants found in ancient graves to written referrals, including The Iliad, the bean has long been present and valued, if not cherished, for its role in human nutrition. For the Mayans, the importance of saving seeds of beans and corn, thus insuring their survival, is integral to their understanding of their place in the world and in time.

Beans have a history in my family as well. As the number of children increased, beans appeared more often on our dinner plates. My father was convinced of the nutritional superiority of beans. John Steinbeck was too, as he illustrated in a couple of choice scenes in Tortilla Flat. It turns out they’re both right – beans boost fiber, provide antioxidants, and can lower cholesterol, among many benefits.

My mother dutifully boiled up navy beans in a big pot almost every day for the family repast, despite the fact that her digestive system didn’t tolerate them very well. We would have digested the sugars in them better, and experienced less flatulence, if my mother had known to cook them with carminatives like cumin, fennel, anise seed, or coriander seed, or if she had known to drain off the first water. But we didn’t know then what has since become common knowledge. Of course, the responses to beans among us children varied greatly, from eating them with gusto to a downright gag reflex. A few of my siblings, to this day, can’t tolerate the sight of beans. I am fortunate. I love them.

I have explored the bean dishes of various cuisines, far beyond my mother’s uninspired version of them. In fact when I am studying a culture, one of my curiosities is how they use legumes. I am rarely disappointed. I have enjoyed the many ways they appear in Mexican and Latin American food.
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I love the little mounds of beans put alongside other delicious foods on injera in Ethiopian cuisine.

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When I lived in Greece, I fell in love with fasolia, beans.

They could be baked with tomato and olive oil (gigantes),gigantes.jpg made into a cold salad (black-eyed peas or lentils),

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simmered into a warming fasolada, or bean soup (cannellini or navy),images.jpg or the common Lenten lentil soup, fakes.

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Peas also flourish in the Greek kitchen in soups and as dips, like the dish from Sifnos I found on a recent trip to Athens (yellow pea, or fava). Those are pickled vegetables on top, and a pool of olive oil all around. This dish calls for a crusty bread.IMG_4615.jpg

When I knew I’d be coming to Macedonia, I looked forward to Tavche Gravche, Macedonia’s national dish, made of beans and red pepper. The name means literally  beans in a shallow pan (baking pan) or baked beans. Albanians living in Macedonia make grosh, which is like a soup or stew, cooked on top of the stove, usually with ground red pepper and sunflower oil, occasionally with little bits of other vegetables.IMG_4826.jpg Both dishes are usually made with cannellini beans, a white kidney bean. Because I live in an Albanian community, I ate plenty of grosh before having a chance to sample Tavche Gravche. But then I stayed in a hotel in Skopje near the Gama Restaurant, where I discovered this dish to be even tastier than I’d imagined. Combined with green salad and bread, it was deeply satisfying.IMG_3683.jpgI found another delicious one in Ohrid.IMG_4189.jpg Later, I discovered a different take on Tavche Gravche at a hotel breakfast buffet, also in Skopje. This time, red kidneys were used, and again, it was delicious!IMG_3840.jpg

I recently stumbled on the existence of a Macedonian bean soup, called Graff. How could I have been in this country for 10 months without hearing about this? For the same reason that I didn’t have a chance to eat Tavche Gravche early on. I live in an Albanian community. I enjoyed grosh, wondering why the Macedonians didn’t have a bean soup. So I was delighted to discover Graff. My fellow PCVs tell me it’s really good, too. It has red Balkan chilies (pictured below) and mint!KGfAk.jpg

At the Old Bazaar in Skopje, I visit a vendor who sells many kinds of dried beans. I always buy at least one thing – usually several. Most of what she sells are single varieties of beans each in a big bag. However, she sells one combination of large beans that is excellent, both in hot meals and in salads.IMG_3839.jpgIMG_3838.jpg I’m still trying to learn the local names of these beans. My Macedonian has been put on the back burner, and Albanian in this context is very regional and imprecise, in my experience. But whether I ever learn the names or not, these beans provide me with a wealth of nutrition that is easy to make into delicious dishes.images-5.jpg220px-3_types_of_lentil.jpg

Here are some ideas I’ve tried here, where the resources I’m accustomed to are limited:

  1. Just throw the cooked beans on top of a mixed salad. This works with large or small beans. Don’t forget to add salt only after the beans have cooked, or they won’t soften.
  2. The sky’s the limit on this one. It’s a little like chili, unless you don’t use any tomato and depending on the spices you use. These spices make it more Mediterranean. Cook the beans, usually smaller ones, like cannellinis or smaller, though I have also used large ones. In a separate pan, sautee onions, garlic, celery root, and some spices, like oregano, basil, marjoram, thyme (and meat, if desired). If you want soup or stew, any liquid can be added at this point, like tomatoes or broth. I also like to add cinnamon and a pinch of cardamom as well (a little Greek influence there).
  3. Favas: cook yellow peas until they are mushy and the water is not separate in the pot. Sautee red onion, garlic, and thyme until the onions caramelize. Mix them into the favas. Add salt, olive oil, and lemon. This one is great with pickled vegetables on top. If you don’t have any, just capers are great, too.

I’d like to try cooking some beans with a more eastern flair to get the flavors of some other spices I love, like cardamom, ginger, curry, or turmeric, for example. I’ve been browsing the internet for this combination, and I found a few things I’d like to try.

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Të bëftë mirë!                                                       Пријатно!

New Home!

It was time to fly the coop. After 3 months with a lovely family in Tearce and 7 months with my kind host family here in Dibër, I got that feeling butterflies get when it’s time to leave the chrysalis, that fetuses have when birth must happen now. I needed to move to my own space. Now!

In Dibër I had my own unit within the family home. I had a modicum of privacy, and my host family was able to help me, for example, with calls for a taxi, a reservation on the kombi (van) if I needed to travel, and with many other aspects of getting to know the ropes. Lidi, my host mom, brought me occasional servings of food she had cooked, telling me their names, and she is an excellent cook. The walls of the house were thin, so I could hear conversations, especially loud ones, and I could also hear Lidi’s wonderful laugh. My space was too small, and it had many problems, but it eased me into my life in the community. But now it was definitely time to move.

At first I wasn’t sure I could find somewhere else to live. The market in Dibër is tight, and a lot of landlords don’t want to be paid Peace Corps rates. But just before being completely discouraged, all of a sudden I had four good places to choose from!! It was quite a luxurious situation. After thinking it all over, I decided to opt for the one I loved, though any of the four would have worked fine.IMG_4811.jpgThere are disadvantages to the one I chose. It’s farther from my school than my previous residence. It will probably be more challenging to heat because it’s big and old. It hadn’t been lived in for some time, so some features needed repair. This could be an ongoing discovery process. But I kept coming back to its spacious feel, the fact that it has a yard, that is has wonderful big windows that, when open, make the room feel almost like it’s outside. And a huge plus is that it stays cool in the heat of summer. I also really like the landlords, a lovely couple nearing retirement, and who now live in Skopje.

With help from my friends and the horse taxi, I transported my goods only a few blocks.IMG_4778.jpgIMG_4779.jpgI moved into the first floor of the house, though they said I could roam the whole house if I liked, looking for things I needed.IMG_4837.jpgIMG_4838.jpg The big windows are covered with curtains that I hear came from Greece years ago.IMG_4869 (3).jpgMy windows’ version of double glazing:IMG_4868.jpg There is the long sectional couch that’s in every Macedonian or Albanian home.IMG_4829.jpg Plus a sitting room.IMG_4820.jpgThe bed is big and comfortable.IMG_4833.jpg I have perhaps the nicest bathroom in Peace Corps anywhere.IMG_4822.jpg And a big win: I have a real kitchen with a real stove that has a real oven!IMG_4839.jpgIMG_4840.jpgI even have a balcony!IMG_4841.jpgSoon I discovered that one of my favorite spots in the house is at the window of my bedroom. The view is gorgeous!IMG_4878.jpg If I stand at the window and look down, I am looking just beyond my back yard at the neighbor’s chickens and vegetable garden.IMG_4834.jpgIMG_4870.jpgThe chickens provide a soundtrack to my days here, with the rooster crowing at various intervals, and the hens announcing loudly when they’ve laid an egg. The rest of the time, they’re just singing like chickens do.

Some birds have a nest in one of the big trees back there, and are quite busy throughout the branches. I haven’t yet gotten a good look at them to see what they are.IMG_4835.jpg There is a big pink rosebush near the entrance of the house.IMG_4874.jpg Aromatic alfalfa grows all around the rosebush.IMG_4875.jpgIn the back, I have sweet-smelling red clover, and the bees are always busy back there.IMG_4872 (1).jpg So after repairs, visiting with cups of coffee, some worker no-shows, more coffee, and some adjusting of the house contents, I’m now getting settled. A washing machine is coming, as are screens for two of my windows. I can now start personalizing the space. First things first: I have a water dish outside that started out for the birds. But once I realized the birds can fly to the continually flowing water here, it ended up being for the cats that visit my yard frequently and lie in the shade.IMG_4877.jpgTypically when I have a yard, I have constant thoughts about what I can plant. And a creeping thought is floating in and out with frequency: how feasible would it be to get chickens, just a few? But my thoughts are always framed by the fact that I’m not here forever. Inside the house, I’m trying to decide where to hang all the different-sized sheep bells I’ve bought.IMG_4871.jpgOne of my main projects this summer, aside from learning better Albanian, is to make games and activities for my school. These will be materials I will leave with the school for future use when I’m gone. This house is very conducive to that kind of work, with its big table and open floor space.IMG_4850.jpgIMG_4832.jpgAnother feature of this house is that I have no less than four fold-out beds from the extensive couch situation in my living room and sitting room. Three of them are doubles. This is not counting the big couches in the lower level, or the 5 beds on the second floor. I can have company! I can have a family reunion!

I can stay here a while!

“If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy, don’t hesitate. Give in to it!” –Mary Oliver

 

 

Bird Update for Summer

During the last few weeks, I have seen an increasing number of new birds. I can’t imagine this is a seasonal occurrence, as most birds are now witnessing their young begin to fledge. Perhaps I’m learning how to see them. With the help of the good pictures from Wiki, I can put the information here.

Every time I go to the lake, I see and hear the Bee Eaters, which I wrote about before. These days, the Thrush Nightingales are being quiet. Instead, I’m learning to hear other birds that perhaps were masked by the songs of the nightingales before.

European Bee-Eater:

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The Black-Eared Wheatear is a very elegant bird, and an insectivore. This is a picture of the male. The female is browner. This one is a common sight these days, even in town:

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One morning I saw a flash of solid yellow. It was a showstopper! The whole body was yellow except for the wings. It turns out that it is a Golden Oriole, the male easily identified. The female is green. They eat insects and fruit.

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Another bird, slightly larger than a sparrow, is the Red-Backed Shrike. I usually see it on the top section of tall grasses or on fences, as it keeps a lookout. Apparently this bird is nicknamed the “butcher bird” because it impales beetles, lizards, and frogs on thorns, which it keeps in a “larder” for rough times. The female, as usual is not as sharply colored:

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A large-sized resident here is the Hooded Crow, which measure 19 – 20 inches in length. Just like other crows, these birds are very smart. They are scavengers. They can watch another bird hide a stash, and then return to it to raid it when the other bird is gone. Here is my picture of this bird, followed by Wiki’s picture:

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I’ve been seeing European Goldfinches, too. The males and females are colored very similarly, with the females’ spots of color slightly smaller than the males’. The first picture is of a male. The second of a pair. The difference seems slight.

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A few days ago, I was sure I heard a Kingfisher.  Apparently, the Common Kingfisher, also called the Eurasian Kingfisher, is the size of a sparrow! So small! I didn’t see it. The road I walk is up pretty far from the banks the Kingfisher likes to hang out in. If I had seen it, it would probably have looked like this:

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On every walk I take at the lake I meet at least one new bird. This area has amazing variety. It’s very difficult to tell the small brown birds apart, but they are all more distinct than the Little Brown Bird category I’ve known before. I’ll keep trying to identify them, and post them here as I learn.

What joy these little creatures bring me!