Category Archives: Peace Corps

The Glorious Blue Flame of the Good Stuff

One time, when I was in Albania, I set my fingers on fire to test my beverage.

I’ve mentioned before that when I was in the Peace Corps, raki was one of my favorite drinks. It’s basically a form of Ouzo, with a faint anise/licorice flavor, but with a lot more punch. It tastes good both at room temperature and chilled, and, for reasons we never understood, didn’t deliver a powerful hangover. Instead, you spent the day after stuck in slow motion.

The traditional way to test the quality of raki was to dip your fingers in it and light your fingers on fire. The bluer the flame, the better the raki. I did that once–but more on that later.

My best Raki experience involved a weekend that, in the short run, would cause me a lot of problems. However, at the time, I had a lot of fun.

I went to Elbasan to proctor an entrance exam for a local university. I was supposed to stay at a local hotel managed by the gregarious and funny Abdul (not his real name). However, as soon as I arrived in Elbasan, Abdul informed me the entrance exam had been cancelled but that I was welcome to stay at the hotel a couple nights.

The next morning, Abdul took me a to a local vineyard to see how Raki was made.

In a nutshell, grapes are crushed in a concrete vat and left to rot. At some point, and this is a key step, the rotting mess attracts flies. Eventually, though, even the flies are disgusted by the rotting mess as it swells up out of the vat and move on to a fresher rotting mess. Finally, the rotting mess deflates back into the vat and it’s time to distil it.

Because I was apparently the first American to ever visit the vineyard, I was given the honor of the “first drink” from the still. It was still a bit warm and was awesome. Unfortunately, or fortunately depending on your point of view, because I was the first American to visit, every Albanian who worked there or who was visiting (all 9 or 10 of them) wanted to toast with me.

Unfortunately, or fortunately depending on your point of view, there were only two glasses. I got one and everyone else shared one and took turns toasting with me. My glass was refilled for each toast. This meant that by 10:00 a.m. I’d had 10 or so glasses of raki and had developed the power to fly and shoot laser beams from my eyes. (More or less.)

This remains one of the best experiences I had in two years in Albania. I didn’t test the raki by lighting my fingers on fire. I’d do that later and discover I was drinking high quality raki.

It wasn’t as good as that trip to vineyard though. That was real quality.

The Unbearable Crowdedness of Lights

‘Tis the season to be wary, at least if you’re shopping in downtown Tokyo, are in a hurry and value all of your toes/both feet.

The reason you have to be afraid is now that Halloween is over and done (and we are waiting for the inevitable sales on Halloween candy) the season of Christmas lights has begun.

Although Japan is a nominally Buddhist and/or Shinto country, no one is particularly religious. They also have a Labor Thanksgiving Day, but it’s not that important of a holiday. However, the Japanese love an excuse to go out and do something that seems as if it’s important and counts as actually doing something. The result is impressive displays of Christmas lights (called “illuminations” here) that attract droves of young couples and photographers and families.

Omotesando's Illuminations and a bunch of cars.

Omotesando’s Illuminations and a bunch of cars, circa 2011. Taken from bicycle parking near a “no standing” sign.

Some of the illuminations occupy entire streets and are made up of a series of arches that require the viewers to look up to enjoy them. The problem is, that when everyone is looking up, no one is actually watching where they are going and this, kids, is when people get bumped, toes get crushed, feet get mangled and tempers get short. (Happy Holidays Indeed!)

The other problem is that, especially in the areas where you have to pay to see the illuminations, the operators close the streets and pack in as many people as they can which means all you can really do is walk through the illumination without stopping. This means you can see the illuminations; you just can’t enjoy them.

Random lights and decorations.

Random lights and decorations on Ometesando, circa 2011.

Our neighborhood is often decked out with lights, too.

The other interesting thing is how superficial it all is. It’s mostly an excuse to sell LEDs and draw people downtown during cold weather.

The day after Christmas, it all goes away and Japan gears up for the New Year’s holiday, which is one of it’s most important times of year (and the season in which Groupon committed business suicide, but more on that in another post).

Bah humbug.

The building is almost more impressive than the trees.

The building is almost more impressive than the trees. Circa 2011



Old Money and New Money and Confusion

Yesterday I talked about how living overseas can turn you into a minor currency speculator. Today I’ll talk about how, when I was in Albania, the Albanians clung to their old money but accepted new money.

When we got to Albania, one of the things we were warned about was the difference between Old Lek and New Lek. Basically, in 1965 or so, the then dictator Enver Hoxha (“xh” is pronounced “J” as “jump”) revalued the Lek and introduced new notes and coins. The new value was 1 New Lek for 10 Old Lek. If you had 10,000 Lek in the bank it suddenly had a value of 1,000 Lek.

The problem is the Albanians, being stubborn and prone to keeping their history close and alive, continued to price things in Old Lek and refer to them in Old Lek but would accept the New Lek value. For example, if the street vendor said “30 lek” he would take 3 lek. If the shopkeeper said “100 lek” she would accept 10 lek.

Adding to the confusion, the price tag on something you’d asked about would say 20 Lek, but the vendor would say “That’ll be 200 lek” as he handed it to you.

Note: When I was there $1 US = about 105 Lek.

It got confusing but most vendors, to their credit, were honest with us. With a couple exceptions.

For example, when we first got to Albania, one of my fellow volunteers payed 250 lek for rice (or some other kind of food). Our language trainers’ faces turned very sour and they made him take them to the vendor so they could help him get his money back. The price was actually 25 New Lek, but had been quoted in Old Lek.

In my case, I remember being confused about if the Chinese-made fountain pens I was buying were 150 lek each or 15 lek each and the vendor seemed to be encouraging the confusion. I gave the vendor 30 Lek and he seemed satisfied.

Of course, part of the problem was that we were seeing the prices as cheap, even when quoted in Old Lek. Despite that, we were instructed not to drive up the prices of goods by paying Old Lek for them.


Ask and Ye Shall Receive Surprise and Befuddlement

When I was in Albania I saw an American professor made speechless by an audience question. Everyone in the audience who’d been to a US university was speechless too.

For reasons I don’t get, students in the USA are taught that the most important part of a speech is the questions after. (In Japan, this even caused an acquaintance of mine from the UK to say “here come the Americans” when a speaker asked the audience for questions and several people headed to the mics.)

The theory behind questions seems to be that the person asking the question will somehow be able to either 1) coax an interesting answer out of a boring speaker; 2) give the speaker a chance to expand on a point; 3) trap the speaker with a clever question.

Unfortunately, what usually happens is the the questioner

1) repeats part of the speech creating a “no shit, Sherlock” look on the face of the speaker:
Early in your speech, in the second paragraph in fact, right before you compared bananas to eagles, you said that apples are not oranges because they come from different trees and therefore are essentially different races of fruit…etcetera etcetera. (Eventually the questioner gets to a question heard by the handful of people still awake.)

2) attempts to show off intelligence by becoming incoherent and jargony:
Hobart’s stringent treatment of the relationship between the dialogic materialism of materiality and the linguistic construction of the cisgendered natural jouissance of the Bullcrappian critique of capitalist urmasculinity must be a model for future work in the field. What say ye?

3) attempts to trap a professional politician with a question the questioner thinks is original:
Isn’t it true that you and your actions were responsible for the crimes in Antwerp in 1997 that left 25 people dead and caused the collapse of the Belgian government and caused untold suffering in the Middle East? What say ye? (Politician’s answer: No. It isn’t true.)

(Author’s note: to the best of my knowledge, nothing actually happened in Antwerp in 1997.)

However, the question I heard in Albania was none of these. A Hemingway expert from Some University in the USA (not a real school) came to Albania and gave a lecture. The Albanians, hungry for something not on the official Communist reading list, crowded the small room.

To this day I don’t remember the subject of the lecture, although I do remember the professor was a nice guy and he was a friend of a friend. What I mostly remember is that one of our Peace Corps language teachers, a gentleman name Berti (the “e” has a long “a” sound as in “scare”) was called on to ask a question.

His question: How would your country be different if it had adopted Hemingway’s values?

We were all speechless, which is not normal for a roomful of academics. The question managed to be both different and topical. It was also simple to the point of being anti-academic and gave the professor a chance to shine.

Or it would have if he hadn’t been dumbstruck by the question.

He managed to mumble something about it being more manly or more macho or more people would go fishing and hunting or something and long for women who didn’t love them and then would get drunk and kill themselves with shotguns. (I might be misremembering that somewhat.)

After the lecture, I talked with my friend and the professor. He was in “I should have said” mode but he also knew he’d never get a question like that again. I knew I’d never hear a question that good again.

Don’t Report the Crime if You Don’t Have the Time

When I was in Albania I got to take part in the investigation of my own mugging.

All I really wanted was my money reimbursed.

Some time during my second year in Albania I got offered a free ride to Skopje, the capital city of the (Former Yugoslav) Republic of Macedonia. I’ve probably written in down somewhere, but I can’t remember the names of the people I traveled with. He was somehow involved in the development community and she was his translator or employee (to this day I still don’t understand the relationship). They gave me a tour of some interesting sites and then told me how to get a bus back to Albania.

The bus arrived in Tirana after dark and I proceeded to the Hotel Arberia, which was my home away from home. About half way between the bus and the hotel, a man I’d seen lurking near the bus approached me from the front, at the same time his accomplice tried to grab my bags.  I was carrying a book bag and a small carpetbag. I locked my arms together and held on to both bags whilst having my arms and shoulders kicked. Since they’d seen me get off an international bus, they knew I had a US passport and were hoping for a quick store (which is why no knives were involved.) Luckily, it was winter and I was wearing a heavy coat that absorbed most of the kicks.

In the end all they got was my decoy fanny pack–which I carried for moments like this–and some cash that I’d lazily stuck in the decoy.

To get the cash reimbursed from the Peace Corps I had to fill out an official police report. Unfortunately, the person I was supposed to meet was on either a vacation or a honeymoon and I got the wrong person.

Important tip: when dealing with a bureaucracy, never get the wrong person.

This complicated things. The other complicating factor was one of the policeman who’d interviewed me had seen one of the muggers on the street before he mugged me. I was then invited to a late night investigation/man hunt which involved walking with the police and saying “not him” “not him” “not him” and going into bars to check out the patrons.

I kept mumbling that I didn’t want justice; I just wanted my cash back.

In the end, I had to go back to the police station where I eventually found the right person and I got my money reimbursed. The police never found the perpetrator and I never saw him again.

The only catch was, a month later I got a note from the police saying I had to be present at a hearing and if I wasn’t present I could go to jail. The hearing had taken place three days before I received the note. A few phone calls later and everything was cleared up.

Or there’s still warrant for my arrest in Albania.

A World of Choices With Five Bubbles

When I was in Albania I decided I wasn’t in enough debt so I decided to study for a Ph.D. when I finished my Peace Corps service.

To do this I had the interesting joy of applying to graduate school from a developing country with a dodgy mail system. My mad plan, and some day I’ll go into full detail about how mad it was, involved getting a “regular” Ph.D. in a school with a strong creative writing program.

Somehow I managed to acquire applications and the money to pay for applying (see first paragraph about debt) and ended up applying to the University of Mississippi (Ole Miss) which had a good creative writing program that included the late, great Barry Hannah, a connection to William Faulkner and John Grisham’s plantation. To do this, though, I had to take both the ordinary GRE and the subject specific Literature in English GRE.

Luckily, one of the books I received from Norton Publishing was a college algebra book. I was therefore able to what I’d been unable to do at university: learn math above the basic level. This helped me do well on the ordinary GRE.

The Literature in English test was more difficult because it tested both breadth and depth of knowledge. Also, incorrect answers actually counted against my correct answers. At times it was better to not answer a question than to risk getting it wrong. It also tested both breadth and depth of knowledge. Luckily, I had an entire library from Norton to help me review.

Unfortunately, because I was in Albania, I had to take both tests on the same day. Since, at the time, both tests were about three hours long, I spent a long time in a chair filling in bubbles.

I ended up doing surprisingly well on the GRE, even in the math section, and did pretty well on the Literature in English. Luckily, I happened to be familiar with a couple of the works in the analysis section. I did worse in the part that had poetry conventions. “Is the following an example of iambic pentameter, sprung rhythm or boogie woogie do wop?” (Something like that. My choice, for the record, was F for “Who f@#king cares?” which means I didn’t answer it.)

At the end of the day, the entire world had five bubbles next to it and I found it difficult to answer a question without being tempted to choose D All of the Above or E None of the Above.

In the end I managed to pass both tests and was accepted to Ole Miss which was an interesting time of the kind you curse your enemies with.


Partying in the Capitol With Drugs

Warning: Today’s might be kind of gross. You have been warned.

One of the odd things about Washington, D.C. is that everyone walks as if they have some place important to be.

I learned this thanks to a medical evacuation.

When I was in the Peace Corps, one of the things you could count on was that you’d be sick, really sick, at least once with something people usually don’t like to talk about. You could count on the fact that the unnamed condition would be a major topic of conversation among the expats, as there wasn’t that much to do in Albania.

You could also count on the fact that the unnamed condition would be given a name. In our case we called it the “shpejts” (shpayts) which means “quickly” in Albanian. (For the record, I take credit for that name.) A day without the shpejts was a good day indeed.

I managed to avoid the worst of it until near the end of my tour when, all of a sudden, the water people in Tirana decided to swap the water and sewer lines for a day and even Albanians were getting sick.

I personally ended up with two different kinds of shpejts, the contagious bacterial kind and the amoebic kind. I lost enough weight that if I’d stood behind a barbed wire fence I could have been mistaken for a refugee and caused a NATO invasion. (I weighed around 152 pounds/69 kilograms.) Eventually I was medically evacuated to Washington, D.C. They sent me that far so they could out-process me easier if I wasn’t medically cleared again.

I ended up staying at the Virginian Suites Hotel right beside Arlington National Cemetery. I had easy access to the Capitol and even managed to have dinner with a relative. My mother and grandmother came to D.C. for a couple days to check on me/persuade me not to go back.

Unfortunately, about the time I met the doctor, I was put on drugs and told I couldn’t drink.This meant I had to experience Washington D.C. sober, which not even many of our politicians have done.

I toured all the usual places Capitol, Air and Space Museum, Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Lincoln Memorial Etc. I also tried to find the place Ronald Reagan bought Crack back in the ’80s.

While I was there I could see how everyone walked quickly with a “get out of my way, I’ve got important meetings to attend” stance and speed. I found myself imitating them as I moved around the Mall between the various Smithsonian museums.

In the end, I was in D.C. three weeks. One week for check ups; one week to wait for the doctor to finish vacation; and a week to get medical clearance and return to Albania.

It wasn’t long after I got back that I realized I probably should have listened to my mother and grandmother.

I Partied With Lawyers and the Booze Won

When I was in Albania, I would hang out with lawyers. Surprisingly, they were actually a lot of fun.

In order to reengineer itself after communism, Albania, through various sources, imported a bunch of US lawyers to help write the new constitution and advise the development of something resembling a justice system (insert joke about starting at home first).

Because I was in the capital, and English speaking people in misery love the company of other miserable English speaking people, I fell in with some of them even though we had nothing in common other than location.

The interesting thing about lawyers is 1) they like to argue 2) they like to drink and 3) they like to talk. As result I found myself sitting quietly–I was as surprised as everyone else–while they debated various random things triggered by fact number 2.

A few of the interesting things I learned:
–If  you want to get a police officer’s undivided attention, make eye contact with one and then run away. Police are programmed to chase after you. This is more effective than calling for help.
–If you run from a police officer and dump something in the trash as you’re running, they need to jump through legal hurdles to access what you threw away because the cop made you do it. If you see a cop, dump something in the trash and then run, they can use what you threw away because you did it yourself.
–The jury system is the worst system ever.
–Lawyers don’t really give perfectly spoken summations, especially ones that don’t actually refer to the case.
–Shooting a corpse you know is a corpse is not a crime (unless you made the corpse a corpse in which case the situation becomes problematic). If you shoot a corpse because you thought it was a sleeping person, that is a crime.
–It is remarkable that I am not in jail.

(disclaimer: this information is 20 years old. Consult local authorities and laws before staking your future on any information given in this blog.)

My favorite moment in the 1)2)3) talks happened when the topic, for some reason, turned to Turkey and the movie Midnight Express. The prosecutor from Brooklyn immediately went into a small rant about how the protagonist deserved everything that happened to him after he got caught smuggling hashish. Her strong rant horrified the handful of defense attorneys in the group. They didn’t try to defend it. I pointed out that Turkey changing the type of crime and the length of sentence as his sentence came to an end was the problem, because even though I’m not a lawyer, I’d had enough to drink to play one.

Her reaction, well, let’s just say it convinced me to never, ever get in trouble in Brooklyn.



Earnestly Important Follows the Disappointment

One of the first things I did when I started teaching British literature in Albania was disappoint my students.

I think they had expected me to arrive with boxes of books that they hadn’t read before. (The boxes would eventually arrive, but it took some time.) Instead, I had to try to put a different spin on the “approved” texts that survived from the Communist era. (Lots of George Bernard Shaw.)

At one point I was invited to a radio interview program and encouraged to read a couple poems. I chose Emily Dickinson’s “Because I could not stop for Death” (I don’t remember why but I’m sure the reason seemed pithy and wise at the time) and William Butler Yeats’ “The Second Coming” because I felt it described the state Albania was in at the time as the old rules fell away and new rules came into existence: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold” and later “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last / Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”

The broadcast was well received and I found myself making copies of the Yeats poem for several students.

Somehow, I managed to acquire some copies of Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest” which I like to count as being the first blatantly non-political satirical play taught in Albania. (Can you prove it didn’t happen?)

I had to walk the students through some of the jokes, but was impressed at how many they got.

Then, the woman who ran the British Council library at the time (which was just down the hall from my classrooms) suggested I have my students perform a staged reading of excerpts from the play. I agreed and it grew to a reasonably well attended event.

The students rocked. They read with energy and had good timing on the jokes. One woman even managed to pull off Lady Bracknell’s “A hand-bag?” line with the proper amount of horror and contempt.

I didn’t yet realize that I wasn’t technically supposed to be helping out Britain–I didn’t yet realize the extent of the rivalry between TESOL and the British Council–but I heard about it soon after that. Then again, my entire Peace Corps experience was full of little political pitfalls such as that and I tended to walk right into them.

That night, however, was awesome.

A Library Unto Myself of Books Not My Own

I once had a book company give me a lot of books. I then had to figure out how to give them away and keep them safe.

Back when I was in Albania, I sent a letter to Norton Publishing in the UK asking if I could get a couple sample copies of one or two of their anthologies. This was a tactic often used by university students to acquire books back when university textbooks only cost an arm and a leg.

I was surprised, then, when Some Big Shot at Norton (not his real name) offered to send me dozens of books if I could pay part of the shipping. Despite my bad relations with our country director Bitchy Punt, I somehow managed to convince her to pay the portion of the shipping (only the equivalent of fifty dollars or so) and the books arrived at my apartment.

I then had to figure out how to distribute them. I gave a stack of them to the library at the Foreign Language faculty in Tirana, and also presented a set of anthologies to the library director as a, well, incentive/kickback to keep the rest of the books safe and in the library and, more importantly sometimes in Albania, to actually let them out of storage. I was then able to send my students to the library to borrow the anthologies for use in class. I also had my students write letters to the Big Shot at Norton thanking him and his staff for their generosity. (Occasionally, I do learn a few things about working with other people.)

Unfortunately, I was also living in Elbasan and, after giving away another huge chunk of books to the excellent library there, I still had five boxes of books in my apartment. Now if I’d been smart (shutup) I would have immediately taken them to the black market and set up shop. However, since I’d already told my students I’d do book checks and fail anyone without a book if I saw any of the books in the black market, I figured it was a bad idea to go sell them.

In the end, because I left the Peace Corps under angry terms, I donated more books to the libraries and told my students they could keep the ones they had. The rest ended up at the Peace Corps office and I don’t know what happened to them.