|By Admin1 (admin) on Monday, July 14, 2003 - 3:11 pm: Edit Post|
Albania by RPCV Kathleen Stolle
Albania by RPCV Kathleen Stolle
by Kathleen Stolle
I told the Peace Corps placement officer that I wanted an assignment in Eastern Europe because I imagined it a fascinating place to live, not only from a political standpoint, but from a sociological one as well. I wanted a wider, deeper perspective on life; I wanted to experience a life unlike the safe, conservative, comfortable one I'd always known. He suggested Albania, and a year later I was a freshly trained, newly sworn-in Peace Corps Volunteer, living in a small town named Pogradec, on the Albanian-Macedonia border.
I lived in a wood-stove-heated concrete apartment on the second floor of a five-story Communist-era palatti, just a block from the shore of stunning Lake Ohrid, the deepest lake in the Balkans. My Peace Corps assignment was teaching English to high schoolers in a nearby village -- about 45 minutes along the lake and through some fields by foot. I loved the walk. Each morning as I headed from my palatti toward the lake, I'd pass a rusted Ferris wheel that stood forgotten on the lake's shore. The image triggered inside my head a haunting chorus of children singing in minor keys. The wheel was seemingly anachronistic in this town where horse carts rattled through the streets, and running water and electricity were sporadic. The country's decayed infrastructure belied its once productive and developed state. As a symbol of escapism and euphoria, the wheel was deeply ironic: Albania had had little to fete in the years of Communism, and little more in these fledgling, frustrating days of democracy and capitalism.
After I would pass the wheel, the music would give way to the soft slap of Ohrid's lapping waves. The path I followed to get to school hugged the lake and drew for a short passage, toward the prodigious and grand Mal i Thate. The snow-capped peaks of the range were an inspiring image that winter -- white and sparkling and proud. I journeyed each morning like this for nearly an entire school year, over time making friends with the café owners along the lake, the candy man in the park, the kiosk worker by the library, the janitors at the doors of my school, my colleagues in the teachers lounge, and my students at their benches. I journeyed until one morning in early May, when only a few steps along the path, past the Ferris wheel, a boy I didn't know caught up with me, breathless. Mesuese, hajda. Teacher, come.
As I stumbled along behind him trying to keep up, he told me that my colleagues from the village school were at the police station and that I was to join them. Despite a fascination with the Albanian language and a fair grasp of it, there were times, such as this, when I felt as though I were listening through a thick, warbled fog. The words I understood. But the collective meaning eluded me. Or the meaning I gathered made no sense. Why would my colleagues from the village be here, in town, at the police station? Many of them, like me, lived in town and commuted out to the village; perhaps one of them had arranged a ride from the police, I considered unconvinced. Or maybe it was another national holiday I didn't know about.
Puzzled, I followed the young boy from the lakeside, into town, and up a side street I'd never traversed before. Up the lane I could see my colleagues, the women sitting on the curb, their skirts tucked beneath their legs, the men standing, smoking. As I approached I heard a silence I recognized from the morning my grandmother had died and I'd found my sisters and parents sitting in the family room, staring in silence. My colleague and closest friend Odeta rose and flagged me toward her, then looped her arm through mine in warm, Albanian fashion. Together we squatted to the curb, my eyes searching her unusually tired, pale face. C'fare? I asked, not prepared for her answer. Our colleague Mondi and 13 students from the high school had drowned the evening before, while on a field trip to a neighboring lake, Lake Prespa. The fishing boat they'd been riding in had capsized less than 20 yards from shore, spilling the students, mostly seniors, and Mondi into the icy waters. Four boys had managed to swim to the shore, and they told of how the others—mostly girls, dressed in thick, hand-made sweaters, coats and boots—had screamed and thrashed, unable to swim, or too cold to, several clinging to Mondi. Only two weeks before, Mondi and I and another teacher had chaperoned a group of freshmen in the same boat on the same lake. The boat had been precariously overloaded with squealing, raucous teenagers who rocked the boat's sides to within centimeters of the lake's surface, and I could now envision how quickly and with what cold surprise the accident had occurred.
School was canceled for the remainder of the year; everyone was passed. Throughout the next few days, divers retrieved the bodies, and the families of the dead children held funeral services in their homes. As a faculty, the other teachers and I traveled from village home to village home, only the women allowed to enter the room with the body, to kiss the cheek or hold the hand of the dead child, to share condolences with the circle of wailing women—grandmothers, mother, sisters, cousins—crouched around the body. In Albanian tradition, the dead girls were each dressed like brides, with flower petals sprinkled on their faces and jewelry on the fingers and wrists. The dead boys donned their best suits, and held a cherished object. While a visit by me to a village home on any other occasion would have been the cause of great curiosity and pomp, my presence was insignificant in light of the tragedy—I was just another member of the faculty, perhaps for the first time.
As shock transformed into pure grief, for the first time in my many months in Pogradec I felt deeply alone. Though many of my American friends had heard about the tragedy—it was international news—none connected it to me or offered me their condolences -- it was, in their eyes, an Albanian tragedy. I realized then the purgatory I occupied. The odd mid-metamorphosis I was in. I was no longer just a Volunteer doing a two-year teaching stint. I was not, of course, Albanian either, and never would be. However, I was part of this. And this pain was real. More real than any label of nationality. I had touched young Enkeleda's cold hands with my own, had felt her mother's tears wash my cheek, had watched numbly as Mondi's bright red, hand-made casket was put into the ground. I was living every aching moment of this, just like the other teachers, just like the neighbors and friends of the village families. The depth of the pain revealed to me another kind of depth, for somewhere along that path between the Ferris wheel and doors of the school building, I had evolved into something more than an amerikenia or vullnetare. I was a piece of this heartbroken community, and like them, changed forever by the tragedy at Prespa Lake.
Kathleen Stolle served as a Peace Corps volunteer in both Albania and Morrocco. Currently, she lives in Denver, Colorado where she works as a Recruiter for the Peace Corps.