Returning to Greece After 40+ Years

Greece has been a central influence in my adult life, though I haven’t lived there except for a single year over 40 years ago. There are so many images associated with the mention of the country’s name: the cradle of civilization, the best olive oil, blue and white, the Parthenon, music, beaches near sparkling clear water, mythical gods and goddesses, great wine and ouzo, all those islands, Never on Sunday. But these images only hint at aspects of the strong tie I have with it.IMG_4669.jpg

Greece came into my life initially on a whim. It was 1973, I was living in Chicago, and I had disposable income I wanted to invest in something that would affect the rest of my life. I didn’t need a car, wasn’t into clothes, and worked evenings in a restaurant, so didn’t eat out much. I found the idea of investments incredibly boring. There were Greeks in the kitchen where I worked, and I loved the sound of the language. So I decided I would learn Greek. I promptly called up Berlitz in downtown Chicago, and I began receiving private tutoring from an excellent teacher. After about 6 months, I thought I should really go to the country that speaks the language, and booked a 3-week holiday there. No sooner did I emerge from the Athens airport than I fell head over heels in love. I told myself I needed to sell my belongings and move there. And that’s what I did 5 months later. With the blithe innocence of the young, I assumed that, once I was there, I would find work teaching English. Which I did! I spent a formative year with Athens as my base, visiting other places on Sundays, my day off.

Living in Greece was my first experience living in another country, or even traveling outside the US, apart from Canada. I grew up with French in New England, and had played with Spanish (necessary in the restaurant business at the time), but the Greek language was my first experience learning a language I needed every day to survive. I fell in love with it, too. Surprisingly few people spoke much English then, including the man I was dating.

What I witnessed in Greece changed the way I saw the world, and life. I first understood American excess there. Things in Greece were on a human scale, in size and complexity – from items used in the home, and how they were used, to the cars they drove, if they had a car, all the way to the maintenance equipment used to maintain the public spaces and utilities.

Human scale:

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Having worked in upscale restaurants, I was familiar with a broad spectrum of food. But in Greece, the food knocked my socks off. It was the best I’d eaten ever, and it was made with simple raw ingredients that were locally sourced. This was the birth of my interest in, not only cooking (though I rarely cooked while I was there), but in sourcing local foods and farming. In addition, I was charmed that meals were served family style, with everyone digging into the serving dishes on the table with their own utensils, rather than everyone having their own serving on their own plate.

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I taught English in Athens, and found most Greeks, children and adults alike, to have warm hearts and a well-developed sense of humor. The language lends itself to humor because of its structure, but there was a devil-may-care attitude about the people I was teaching that I really appreciated, being an earnest, hard-working, serious person. It relaxed and softened me, and helped me not take myself so seriously. I learned that I loved teaching English – at least to Greeks.

I encountered a different kind of family dynamic there. There was a closeness, a fierce love and loyalty, in many families I met that I hadn’t witnessed before. Families tended to live together, with extended family close-by (even if they fought loudly), unless someone emigrated. And even then, the emigres stayed in close touch, often intending to, but always longing to, return to their homeland and to the bosom of their families. When a child came of age, that child generally lived at home until marriage, which, for males, often extended beyond the age of 30. Unfortunately, this close bonding is one influence that I was unable to incorporate into my own family life. But the awareness of it contributed to sharp feelings of inadequacy in that area throughout my child rearing years.

There is plenty of truth behind all the humor portrayed here:

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And then there’s the music. Early on, I developed a passion for Rebetika, the music reflecting the hardships and heartbreak of the Pontic Greeks who were forced to leave their homes in Asia Minor and be relocated within current Greek borders in the 1920s. This music was closely associated with drugs and alcohol, and the life of the mangas, a working class man with a tough exterior, who survives all the pain and heartache, drinking and dancing with his fellow manges. The lyrics were often beautifully poetic. Women were also rebetika musicians. And the music itself? It gave wings to my soul!

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I left Greece at the end of my year to do a road trip through the US and Mexico with British friends I’d met in Greece. I met my children’s father, and didn’t return. For years, I longed to go back, but my life didn’t lead me there until now – forty-one and a half years after I left.

This is my son, Brendan, and his wife, Nok:

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This is my daughter, Molly, and her partner, Vic:

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I think they are worth the wait to get to Greece!

What was I searching for in my desire to return? I wanted the simplicity I experienced there, I wanted the warmth of the people, whether they knew me or not. I wanted to walk into the little shop where I bought feta, and have the shopkeeper’s familiar smile light up his face as he hurried over to the barrel of feta I liked best. I wanted to see carcasses, yes, hanging carcasses from which I could choose my purchase, even though I don’t eat much meat any more. I wanted the light as it is in Greece, the blue water, the soft gentle October. I wanted to feel my toes in the water of the sea. I longed to hear Greek spoken all around me and speak it back. The list goes on, but I think overall, I longed for a simple, hands-on, beautiful, and human-scale life, lived while speaking Greek, the most beautiful language on earth. Thus, I was returning to Greece with a heavy package of history and expectations, while at the same time knowing much of that wouldn’t exist any more, and questioning any expectations based on new information.

The evening before I entered Greece, I was in Gevgelija, just across Greece’s northern border, and I was nervous. I knew that Athens had become a hub in the area, and that many people with businesses there are not Greek, but are immigrants. I doubted very much, given the state of the world today, that Athens, that safest of cities in the world when I lived there, was so safe any more. Many of my favorite rebetika singers are gone. I had heard and read that there was a lot of graffiti in the city, which I found completely understandable. I also knew that the Parthenon had scaffolding on it. I didn’t plan to go there. The history, though I found it interesting, was never at the heart of my love of Greece.

I took the bus into Thessaloniki. Following an amazing meal of grilled fish, rice pilaf with mussels, and marouli salad, followed by the requisite watermelon “on the house,” I spent an evening and a night there. The city had some things I enjoyed, but as a whole, I didn’t really care much for it. Of course one overnight stay isn’t really a fair length of time in which to judge. Still, it was wonderful to hear Greek spoken all around me!IMG_4508.jpgIMG_4510.jpgIMG_4511.jpg

I was happy to board the train headed for Athens. It was scheduled as a 5-hour trip, but we were hung up along the way, and I arrived 1.5 hours late. In spite of that, it was a comfortable ride. My Airbnb host, bless him, met me at the train station in Athens with his car and drove me to his (my) neighborhood.IMG_4512.jpgIMG_4513.jpgIMG_4527.jpg

Back in 1974, no foreigners lived there except one other American who left while I was there. Now there are many immigrants there, African, Pakistani, Asian, all speaking Greek. Many of the vendors I bought things from were immigrants. At first, it felt strange to be speaking Greek to a Pakistani or Asian person, but it was easy to get used to. There are many from other countries as well, but they were less visibly different to me – Albanian, Polish, Australian, Bulgarian.

The neighborhood was very busy and very loud, even in the night. I used a table on the balcony when the heat of the day relented, and there were dogs barking, children crying, people talking, scooters screaming, and other curious loud noises late into the night. I don’t remember the noise being quite so intense there, nor the neighborhood being quite so densely populated. The drone of my fan helped, so I could sleep.IMG_4602.jpg

When I lived there, garbage was picked up, and folks would put little bags of it on the curb. Cats would sometimes get into it, but it was easily cleaned up. Now there are huge dumpsters in the streets, usually one for recycling and one for garbage side by side, and garbage overflows from them. In the heat (my first day, it was 103 – 107, depending on who you talked to), the garbage smelled. My thought about the volume of garbage I was seeing was that either there are more goods, especially packaged items, available to buy, or there are more people. Maybe both. And keeping the recycling separate? Not so much.IMG_4583.jpgIMG_4577.jpg

I had to look hard to see what I had known in the midst of all this. I walked around a lot, and some areas were somewhat familiar, some not at all, and a few I remembered well. My apartment building was surrounded by some renovated buildings, so I didn’t recognize it until I went right up to the door to peer in. As my host said, in the 90s there was a big boom and then a bust. New buildings were built, old ones torn down or renovated. IMG_4580.jpgIMG_4582.jpgIMG_4568.jpgIMG_4584.jpgIMG_4585.jpgIMG_4579.jpgIMG_4574.jpgIMG_4578.jpgWhen I lived in Athens, new buildings were continually being built up around old ones, a trend that is ongoing. I don’t remember well enough the specific old buildings around me back then, but now there are many that are in serious decay. One in my neighborhood, a lovely old thing, is being restored. Some appear to be occupied.IMG_4573.jpgIMG_4575.jpgIMG_4586.jpgIMG_4590.jpgIMG_4594.jpgIMG_4595.jpg

None of my old shops still sell what they sold in my day. The little grocery store is now a shoe store, the butcher shop sells some kind of sports wear, the little yogurt shop is locked up, not being used. The place where I bought souvlaki and retsina with a pop top is a clothing store, too. Unless it was the shop in the next block??? But I discovered a nice little ouzeri where I had a great gin and tonic after a hot day.IMG_4572.jpgIMG_4570.jpgIMG_4569.jpg

Some of what I love is still there, like balconies overflowing with flowers and plants. A farmer drove his truck full of watermelons through the neighborhood, announcing his presence through a speaker on the top of his truck. There was still some traditional Greek food to be found in neighborhood restaurants. Cheap but delicious wine abounded, one with the dubious name Nectar of Piraeus, which was really quite lovely. People were friendly and helpful. The heat there felt different than it does elsewhere. It’s hot, but it’s bearable. In Eugene, Oregon, my hometown, 95 feels less comfortable. One morning, I stepped out of the building and smelled a familiar hot smell of the city – a good smell that really took me back.

Koliatsou Square is very beautiful these days, with tables and chairs under the shade trees to accommodate the surrounding coffee shops. In fact, there are several places throughout the neighborhood with seating in a space free of traffic – little oases from the din and hustle here and there. A big student dormitory sits in the middle of a miniature forest of tall trees and gardens.IMG_4597.jpgIMG_4599.jpgIMG_4600.jpgIMG_4588.jpgIMG_4593.jpg

I visited the Syntagma metro station with an American woman who has lived in Athens for 30 years. This is the location of the ruins discovered during preparation for the Olympics, and they are being preserved. In many places, the floor is made of glass over what remains. It was interesting talking to Karen about the changes in Greece, and Athens specifically, over the years. She seems to have a firm grasp of the politics of Greece, and had a fairly lively political discussion with our taxi driver (who was Albanian), which was fun to listen to.IMG_4603.jpgIMG_4604.jpgIMG_4607.jpgIMG_4609.jpgIMG_4612.jpgIMG_4614.jpg

The time in Athens was challenging, as I tried hard to adapt to the current situation by immersing myself in it. I felt gratitude to Greece for allowing the immigrants to make a safe and productive life there. I enjoyed interacting with them. I was grateful for the loveliness of the people always so available to help. But I also felt sad about the loss of innocence of the city I once loved, of the whole country, in fact. Which is probably in large part down to the corrupt politicians that sold Greece down the river. I am no expert on Greek politics, and the whole world has changed, not only Greece. I came to an uneasy peace with what is, even as I felt the urgency of changes needed.

After a few days in Athens, I decided I needed to get out to some water and away from the crowded, hot city, so I booked an Airbnb in Galatas, in the Peloponnese across from the island of Poros. What a great decision! I took the Flying Cat, a fast ferry (an hour and fifteen minutes) to Poros, where I caught a little boat taxi to the port in Galatas.IMG_4627.jpgIMG_4670.jpgIMG_4671.jpgIMG_4700.jpgIMG_4703.jpgIMG_4673.jpgIMG_4677.jpgIMG_4678.jpgIMG_4666.jpgIMG_4662.jpg

The time in Galatas was spacious, like a retreat. The house was situated uphill out of town a good distance by car, but only a 15-minute walk to town down the mountain. I went down to shop for groceries and poke around Poros, and the hike back home was a fabulous cardio workout! My host, a woman my own age who lives alone, cooked all my meals with ingredients I shopped for down in the town, added to what she had on hand (not the usual Airbnb arrangement).IMG_4629.jpgIMG_4630.jpgIMG_4631.jpgIMG_4632.jpg

Part of the path down to town:

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Lemon trees – Poppi made homemade lemonade that was delicious, using these lemons:

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The light and scenery around the house changed beautifully from morning until night. In Greece there is a softness that comes with the sun going down, and there is an almost pinkish hue that falls over everything (maybe it’s my rose-colored glasses?). I just drank it in, delighted to acknowledge for myself that I was right all along about Greece. Each day, I spent the mesimeri hours (naptime) sleeping, serenaded by the cicadas. After waking, I did some writing and reading. When I was ready to launch the evening, I emerged. The house was beautiful, my room perfect, and I found my beloved Greece there in so many ways, thanks to the location and to my excellent host, Poppi.IMG_4710.jpg

My perfect room:

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On my last night there, as we were drinking wine, listening to (and singing along with) Rebetika music, and talking, I felt profoundly grateful.IMG_4679 (1).jpg

After this trip, I feel peaceful in my relationship with Greece, at long last, and full of hope as our relationship resumes.IMG_4706.jpg

 

Education, an Excursion, and More Birds

In the Macedonian education system, there is no support for children with special needs. Often these children are ignored in the classroom, as the teachers have no information on how to help them, or even what their experience is. They are passed from grade to grade, and often graduate, unable to read or write.

In April, my director requested a workshop from Peace Corps on working with children with special needs, and made attendance a requirement for all the teachers. We are fortunate here in Macedonia to have someone, Sara, who has been working for six years with these children in Bulgaria and Macedonia. She speaks Macedonian, and, since most teachers here know some Macedonian, this worked well.IMG_4144.jpg

 The first part of the workshop involved tasks to do in which the person had some kind of setback:IMG_4158.jpgIMG_4161.jpgIMG_4118.jpg

After this, Sara described several of the common difficulties that children with special needs have, and what the teachers might do to help these students. The teachers recognized their students in her descriptions, and they want Sara to return and work with them in their classrooms. We are hoping to arrange that.

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I spent Orthodox Easter in Ohrid, as there are very few Macedonians here in Dibër to celebrate with. It was a lovely trip with good food, a comfortable Airbnb, cats, rock walls with flowers blooming on them, a boat ride, hiking, knitting, and visiting just a couple of the 365 churches there.IMG_4195.jpgIMG_4251.jpgIMG_4330.jpgIMG_4317.jpgIMG_4293.jpgIMG_4220.jpgIMG_4336.jpgThis was in my room when I arrived:IMG_4198.jpgBy the time I left, my Macedonian language was beginning to come back.

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Today, I headed back to Dibër Lake to do some birdwatching. First, I learned that what I had called a grouse last time is, in fact, a crested lark.bird1.jpg

I returned to the wall where I had seen Barn Swallows and Hoopoes, and discovered a new bird entirely that is sharing the nests there as well.IMG_3942.jpg

I first heard its communal murmuring. Then I saw these beautiful, colorful birds that were in a large group: Bee-Eaters! I’d never seen a Bee-Eater before, but I had studied a book on birds of Australia, and these looked related to the Bee-Eaters there. Apparently, they nest colonially, and remain in groups all the time.

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Here is a picture I took of them on a wire that’s hard to see because of the fog.

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These birds get cranky at times. Several times, I saw one peck another bird and take over its position on the line. These birds were mesmerizing, with their comforting sound and their brilliant colors. Later, I learned that they eat bees, wasps, and hornets. A true friend!

As I wandered along, I saw a pair of Common House Martins perched on a wire,

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some Eurasian Blackbirds in the grass,

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and my old friend, the Hoopoe, which I watched for a long time as it visited many of the holes in the wall. It also used its sharp beak to dig into the ground for insects.

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As I walked further toward more brush, I heard what I knew was a Wren. But I never saw it. Likely, it looked like this:

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Leaving the area, I could hear the Thrush Nightingales I wrote about in my last post, such an energizing and upbeat sound!

As I listened, I could hear so many bird sounds that I didn’t know, so I recorded some of them, but I can’t share them here, as this blog doesn’t have that capability.

I stopped at Hotel Leon on my way home to have coffee. IMG_4363.jpgAs I sat there, I saw yet another new bird. I still don’t know what it was, but it was a lot like this one:

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This is a European Goldfinch, but the one I saw had no red on its face. Someday, perhaps I’ll know its name.

(All the good pictures of birds are Wiki pics.)

Birds!

Spring is well and truly here. People are walking in a more leisurely fashion along the main street now, pastry/coffee shops have opened their doors wide and put ice cream freezers on the pavement.IMG_3932.jpgThere is a new sidewalk and there are new trees planted.IMG_3929.jpgPeople are buying new furniture and having it delivered.IMG_3933.jpgAnd in the midst of all this, I woke up early this morning bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, with the lake calling my name. Camera bag on my shoulder and binoculars around my neck, I walked out into the quiet, sunny morning in Dibër. I soon turned onto the lake road.IMG_3934.jpgIMG_3935.jpgIMG_3936.jpgIMG_3937.jpgA little more springtime spiffing up:IMG_3938.jpg IMG_3939.jpg

There was birdsong everywhere! There were some old friends, the barn swallow,

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a friend that I met a couple of weeks ago, the white wagtail,220px-Motacilla_alba_-Kazakhstan_-adult_and_juvenile-8.jpg

and three Hoopoes, one of my favorites!

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(Wiki pics)

Hoopoes usually nest in walls, buildings, or cliffs, but no more than two meters off the ground. This is the kind of place that both the Hoopoes and Barn Swallows would nest:IMG_3942.jpg

For a long time I listened, mesmerized, to a soft tan/gray bird with a white underside. This bird had such a varied song! It sounded like so many other birds that, at first, I thought of mockingbirds. After doing some research, I believe it was probably a thrush nightingale.

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I walked past some frolicking goats on a hillside,IMG_3946.jpgand some beehives.IMG_3948.jpg

As I was leaving the area, in the midst of the nightingales’ songs, I saw a silent bird walking on the ground, eating. It reminded me a little of a quail. It didn’t hop; it ran. It was a bit plump, with a fine speckled pattern of brown, sometimes reddish. It had a crest. I think it was a Hazel Grouse.

Here’s the Wiki picture:

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And here is a fuzzy enlargement of the one I saw:IMG_3949 (1).jpgI continued walking toward home.IMG_3951.jpgOn the way, I stopped at one of my favorite restaurants for coffee, and I was served by the cleaning staff. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a picture.

What an uplifting morning!

Around the Countryside

Today was the third in a series of seriously beautiful sunny spring days. My friends and I decided to explore some of the small villages in the vicinity of Dibër. We took the road south toward Struga. Things are just beginning to turn green, and the cherry blossoms are out in full force.

We visited villages in which the people were Albanian and Muslim, but spoke only Macedonian. In others, the people speak only Turkish, although older people may know Macedonian or Albanian. In others, like in Dibër,  predominantly Albanian is spoken. The surprise to me was that these villages aren’t very far apart to have such stark differences. IMG_3708.jpgIMG_3717.jpgIMG_3712.jpgIMG_3720.jpgIMG_3726.jpgIMG_3753.jpgWe had a delicious picnic lunch at the water’s edge.IMG_3754.jpgIMG_3763.jpgIMG_3757.jpgIMG_3761.jpgThere was lots of color.IMG_3805.jpgIMG_3795.jpgNote the Turkish symbol high up on the mountain.IMG_3794.jpgTurkish and Macedonian flags flew together.IMG_3793.jpgIMG_3779.jpgIMG_3827.jpgLater in the day, we stopped for a coffee break. This is the non-smoking section.IMG_3801.jpgThe smoking section:IMG_3800.jpg

At the last village we visited, Novak, we went into a gorgeous mosque. Turkish artists were brought in to do the painting and decorating.IMG_3809.jpgIMG_3815.jpgIMG_3822.jpgIMG_3820.jpgIMG_3813.jpgIMG_3811.jpgLeaving Novak, we visited Ataturk’s father’s house. It is a museum now, but it wasn’t open today. IMG_3831.jpgIMG_3829.jpgIMG_3833.jpgI would be remiss if I didn’t mention the animals that brought me so much joy today.IMG_3710.jpgIMG_3764.jpgIMG_3787.jpgIMG_3730.jpgIMG_3746.jpgIMG_3747.jpgIMG_3748.jpgI also made the acquaintance of two new birds, the Rufous-tailed RobinRufous-tailed_scrub_robin.jpg

and the Eurasian Jay (Wiki photos).

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My camera isn’t great for photographing birds, but I captured the color of this jay on its nest (middle of the photo).IMG_3741.jpgThis was a spectacular day, the first of many we have planned.

White Stork

I love birdwatching. I am willing to stay put for long periods of time just to see birds, to watch them do what they do. In Oregon, my home state, there is great birding, from all the migrating ducks and water birds to the elegant song birds, and flycatchers, finches, woodpeckers, and all the rest that grace our state. In Mongolia, there were the huge vultures, cranes, hoopoes, and wagtails, to name just a few. Now I am in Macedonia, and a whole new world of birds is opening to me as spring arrives.

I’ve been keeping company with these two all winter:220px-Pica_pica_-_Compans_Caffarelli_-_2012-03-16.jpg300px-Coloeus_monedula_-Ham_Common,_London_Borough_of_Richmond_upon_Thames,_England-8.jpg

 

 

 

 

 

They are the Eurasian Magpie and the Eurasian Jackdaw. I have been hearing what sound like Choughs, too, but haven’t determined yet what they are.

 

 

I have wanted to see a stork for years. When I lived in Greece (41 years ago), I wasn’t paying attention to birds. Now, however, I know that I am in stork territory, and I’ve been eagerly awaiting my first sighting. I have been seeing stork nests, which have given me great hope all winter. One such nest is in Gostivar along the highway between Dibër and Skopje. Each time I have looked at the nest, I have known that one of these times, there would be signs of life. And yesterday it happened! I peered up at the nest as I sped by in the vehicle, and there was an adult White Stork standing on it! It looked like this:

images.jpgJust back from Africa, after a trip of about 49 days.

These birds are big! According to Wikipedia, they measure from 100–115 cm (39–45 in) from beak tip to end of tail, on average, and have a wingspan averaging 155–215 cm (61–85 in). They weigh up toward the weight of a small turkey at about 2.3–4.5 kg (5.1–9.9 lb).

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Spring and the urge to nest will probably inspire this kind of behavior in the weeks ahead:

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Storks are carnivores, eating close to the ground and in shallow water.

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Both members of the pair build the nest and incubate the eggs. Both parents feed the young.

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These new storks may live more than 30 years. Good luck to them! They’re magnificent!

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Festivities

I love festivals! Monday and Tuesday this week marked Teachers’ Day (March 7) and International Women’s Day (March 8). On these days, there were minimal attempts to have a few classes at the school, but mostly these days were for celebrating. Read: food, coffee, music, and dressing up.

In the days prior, I could never get a straight answer from anyone on when classes were scheduled for the day. Finally, I was told to be at the school on Monday at 9:30. Teachers’ Day dawned pouring buckets of rain, which ran like a river down the street. IMG_3601 (1).jpgWe all met at the school, where there was a display of Albanian, Macedonian, Turkish, and Roma traditional costumes.IMG_3589.jpgA student program featured quiz questions, answered by teams of students, followed by a student dance performance.IMG_3592.jpgThere were lots of photos taken afterwards. I took a picture of my new counterpart, Danira, on the right, who I’ll be working with as well as my current counterpart.IMG_3593.jpg Then we all met in the center of Dibër at the statue of our school’s namesake, Said Najdeni. Burim, our director placed flowers in front of his statue and said a few words.IMG_3595.jpg We then went for coffee, a regular ritual here, followed by lunch at one of my favorite restaurants.IMG_3597.jpgIMG_3598.jpgThere was abundant food and drink. The beverage of the day was red wine mixed with coca cola, a favorite here. (I didn’t mix!!) There was a lot of noisy and high-spirited visiting. It was such a fun time!

On Tuesday, International Women’s Day, we had sunny skies and perfect temperatures. Qanije invited me to celebrate with her family: her mother, aunt, daughters, and sister-in-law. We went to a restaurant on the lake. The setting was magnificent!IMG_3604.jpgIMG_3605.jpgQanije’s three daughters are below: Arlinda, Besa, and Ejona.IMG_3615.jpgQanije with her aunt (left) and her mother.IMG_3625.jpgThe music played during the meal was a line-up of some of the most beautiful Albanian songs.

After the meal, some of us wandered outside at the edge of the lake.IMG_3617.jpgIMG_3616.jpgIMG_3620.jpgI didn’t realize Besa was taking a picture of me. IMG_6997-01.jpegWhat a festive day!

Debar/Dibër Part 2: People

I love Dibër. While the scenery, the architecture, the visual evidence of how people live their lives are exciting to me, the heart of the place is always its people. As I’ve met and gotten to know the people in Dibër, I have discovered a community of warm, welcoming people who are always willing to help, to visit, to give directions, or just to have coffee. Some of them want to hear about my family. Others tell me long stories of the history of the Albanian people, or of their families. Most tell me about their relatives living in America. They are often perplexed by my willingness to be here away from my children. Here are some pictures.

My host family, a mother and her grown son, Lidi and Burim, have provided me with a home. This picture is from New Years Eve dinner before they went out to the festivities.

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This is Tina, Lidi’s sister, at her salon, where I get my hair cut.IMG_3206 (1).jpg

Here is the school director’s wife, Qanije, and their children Besa, Ejona, and Arlinda.IMG_3293.jpg

Close-up of Besa.IMG_3458.jpg

Qanije taught me how to make leek burek – so delicious!IMG_3454.jpg

Briefly, Arlinda had a rabbit. Grandpa started feeding it immediately. However, the rabbit was nixed at home, so it went back to the farm.IMG_3453.jpg

Afrim, Tina’s husband, and Burim, the school director, and Qanije’s husband.IMG_3437.jpg

Teachers at the school are sitting around the table on break. Notice the teapot on the table. This is for “chai rusi” or Russian tea. It is served in small tulip shaped glasses (see the glass in the foreground). The Turks brought tea with them during the Ottoman Empire, making it in the double decker pot. When they left and the communists took over, it was illegal to import tea from Turkey. So Russia imported it from Asia (Ceylon), and the name Russian tea stuck. During the school break, Turkish coffee is also on offer.IMG_3195.jpg

Teachers huddling around the radiators before classes. My counterpart, Adhurim is at the back of the picture. Lindita, front left, has befriended me. Her husband owns a restaurant with delicious Albanian food.IMG_3391.jpg

Adhurim meditating on his iPhone next to the radiator.IMG_3425.jpg

The radiator serves a dual purpose. Sometimes teachers put bread or a cheese sandwich in it to heat up before break.IMG_3211.jpg

The children put on a performance on December 29, the last day of school before the winter break. IMG_3288.jpgIMG_3283.jpg

I am planning some activities with the music teacher, and I visited one of his sixth grade classes. They had difficulty carrying the tune, but they seemed to enjoy singing very much.IMG_3460.jpg

On Saturdays, the music teacher volunteers his time to students who want to learn an instrument. I visited his lesson on a couple of Saturdays, and found a warm environment, where children could explore music in any way that interested them. The teacher went from child to child, giving them instruction.IMG_3443.jpg

The child at the keyboard did a beautiful job of playing a couple of pieces, and was applauded when she finished.IMG_3446.jpg

Musicians in the making.IMG_3447.jpg

After our big snowstorm, I found children sledding on homemade sleds wherever they found a hilly street.IMG_3398.jpgIMG_3397.jpgIMG_3408.jpgIMG_3410.jpg

This is Senad, the man I buy honey from. When he sees me, he greets me in Albanian with, “Good Morning, Professor!”IMG_3411.jpg

This is a common sight in Dibër. People in coffee shops deliver Turkish coffee to the vendors in the area at various times of the day.IMG_3438.jpg

These two were having a high time, just sitting in front of this coffee place. When I asked if I could take a picture, they said sure, but why? I just shrugged and smiled. After the picture, they started talking animatedly as I left.IMG_3435.jpgQanije took me to visit relatives, where we were served “chai rusi” and lots of little snacks.IMG_3450.jpgIMG_3451.jpgAlthough she doesn’t celebrate Christmas, Qanije made Christmas dinner for David (Fullbright teacher) and me.IMG_3226.jpg

Burim’s mother and me at Christmas dinner.IMG_3225.jpgThese two are the last survivors of seven siblings.IMG_3497.jpg

The man in the middle here is Mustafa, who has a döner (gyros) shop that I like to go to. His friend Adrian (left) told David (right, Fullbright teacher) and me lots of stories about the dynamics of the Balkans and about Albanian literature. Mustafa promised to take us into Albania in March, and Adrian will be showing us some good hiking in the mountains come spring.IMG_3493.jpgThen there are my fur people. That last one is such a cuddler!IMG_3390.jpgIMG_3406.jpgIMG_3439.jpgIMG_3389.jpgIMG_3470.jpgIMG_3412.jpgThere is a lot of heart here.

Dibër/Debar Part 1: Places

Dibër (Albanian name) is about 6 kilometres from the Albanian border. I moved here in early December after swearing in as a Peace Corps Volunteer. I had visited here a few weeks earlier, when we all got a peek at our new sites, our new homes, and met our counterparts. I fell in love with this city (more like a large village) when I was visiting, and this has continued now that I’m here permanently. I can walk anywhere, even after dark, everything I need is close, except for the school. But that is great because I walk 20 – 30 minutes each way, and I need that activity. Of course you’ll often find me wandering this city, sometimes getting lost, but always finding my way back again.

Dibër has a small one-way street running through the center. The traffic is usually quite slow. Along this street are such a huge variety of shops, no two alike, all pretty small. I never tire of this walk because there is always so much to see. And now there are New Year decorations up. This being a predominantly Albanian community (Muslim), there is no Christmas here.IMG_3221.jpgIMG_3192.jpgIMG_3203.jpgI have barely begun to scratch the surface of this place with my camera, or on foot, but I am posting what I have thus far. I hope these photos relay some of what has captivated me about being here.

First, there aren’t many Macedonian flags here, but lots of Albanian flags flying everywhere.

 Flag_of_Albania.svg.pngIMG_3210.jpgIMG_3190.jpgIMG_3186.jpgIMG_3187.jpgIMG_3188.jpgIMG_3189.jpgIMG_3191.jpgIMG_3184.jpgThis horse drawn taxi had me excited for a bit. I envisioned, on a warmer day, taking a ride. But I’m told it’s not for carrying people, only things like refrigerators.IMG_3193.jpgSome days, the fog is really thick, and I wake up to see everything coated with ice and crystals, like the branches of this tree.IMG_3230.jpg

IMG_3242.jpgIMG_3231.jpgThis is the ruins of an ancient mosque that is not being cared for. My friend, Qanije, said that she used to live in this neighborhood, and she would keep trash picked up, and would try to keep it looking nice, but no one is doing that now.IMG_3235.jpgIMG_3250.jpgIMG_3251.jpgIMG_3257.jpgThere is water running continually in a lot of places throughout the city.IMG_3244.jpgIMG_3248.jpgThe city is built on a hill, and there are interesting steps everywhere.IMG_3262.jpgIMG_3265.jpgIMG_3264.jpgIMG_3266.jpgThere are mosques of different ages, some quite old. Others more recent, like this one, which was built in 1978.IMG_3275.jpgIMG_3273.jpg

This is the grave of the man who is the namesake of this mosque.

IMG_3258.jpgIMG_3259 (1).jpgIMG_3268.jpgOne day, I was leaving school, when I heard cowbells behind me. I turned and saw that a herd of sheep was heading down the street toward me. As I watched, I saw a lead dog, escort the sheep to the gate of the school, and then leave to scrounge for interesting tidbits on the street. The sheep flooded into the schoolyard, the rear brought up by two other dogs. Then the shepherd joined them all inside the fence, so that legitimized it. The sheep spread out, eating the grass. I laughed out loud!IMG_3185.jpgIMG_3183.jpgIMG_3216.jpgIMG_3219.jpgI’m so lucky to be here!IMG_3278.jpg