Honeymoon Bliss

After a whirlwind weekend of emotions, pure bliss, and fairytale moments, we were emotionally spent to say the least. The next couple days allowed us a chance to catch up on sleep and begin packing for our honeymoon, a.k.a. ‘muaj mjalti’ (honey month).

We left Kucove at 4:30 am on a bus bound for Greece. The bus stopped several times to pick up fellow travelers. The sun was up and blazing by the time we reached the Albanian-Greece border. After a grand total of 9 hours we arrived in Patra, Greece and were transported by van to the travel agency where we purchased boat tickets. Out boat wasn’t set to depart for four hours so we found a trendy coffee bar to relax and escape from the heat.

When we finally reached the island and made it to our hotel in Tsilivi, Zakynthos we were beyond exhausted and very pleased to find that our room had been upgraded to a suite! Sweet!

We spent the next two days enjoying the all-inclusive amenities: buffet meals, poolside bar, complimentary pool towels, snacks, and library. Nothing but sunshine, sunscreen, and relaxing. It was such a relief to find ourselves in our own little paradise.

After we recovered from our long travels to the island, we got ambitious and booked some tours. Our first tour was a morning boat trip to explore the northwestern side of the island, including Shipwreck Beach. This popular tourist attraction, also known as Navajo Beach, is home to a an abandoned freightliner that ran aground in 1980. The story goes that the ship was smuggling contraband cigarettes and alcohol when a storm drove it into the cove, where it has stayed ever since.

Our second boat excursion was with the infamous Captain Spiro, a local expert on all things Zakynthos. He took us to the southern tip of the island where we found sea turtles. Such amazing creatures! Did you know that they can hold their breath up to 30 minutes? As a result, they do not often surface for air, but we did manage to see two when they came up to get a breath of air. We relaxed for a bit on Turtle Beach, thus named because it is shaped like a turtle and coincidentally a popular place for turtles to lay eggs. We were also taken to the Blue Caves where we had the chance to dive in and explore. The last leg of our trip was spent at St. Nicholas Beach, where we enjoyed a Corona with Salt & Vinegar Pringles, the perfect combination! Give it a try!

IMG_2131

I think my favorite excursion was the day we rented a four-wheeler and took a spontaneous roadtrip along the coast. With nothing but swimsuits and some snacks, we set out late morning and beach hopped around the island. We stopped for lunch at Banana Beach, enjoying mussels, seafood pasta, and prosecco. The beach was stunning and we couldn’t help but spend some time soaking up the sunshine. As the sun started to go down, we made our way back up the coast, stopping in Zakynthos town for pistachio ice cream. We had heard about a village nearby that supposedly had an amazing view of downtown and the ocean so we used our best navigating skills and found a sign marked ‘Panorama’. Panorama turned out to be the name of a hillside bar with, no surprise here, a spectacular view of the city.

We also played mini golf, drank cider, went to an ABBA tribute show, walked the beach, got to know some of the hotel staff, enjoyed air conditioning, bought cheesy tourist beach hats, and spent quality time as newlyweds.

We give our newlywed stamp of approval on this beautiful Greek island! Zakynthos is the perfect mixture of relaxation, adventure, comfort, and culture!

Advertisements

A Mermaid Marries Her Unicorn

I remember being a student at Texas A&M University and mapping out what my future was going to look like. It sounds cliche, but I really thought I was going to meet my future husband at A&M, get engaged under the Century Tree, graduate, find a job, and one day get married on the beach and have all the babies. Or is this a predestined list of expectations sculpted by society? Food for thought.

Nevertheless, I thought I could plan out my love life like I did my education and career path.

But God laughed at my silly plans.

That is how I came to be the only American in a town of 30,000 Albanians, wearing my heart on my sleeve, and hoping beyond hope that I would find a way to make it work.

And I met my unicorn.

We were married June 10, 2017 at Our Lady of Good Counsel Catholic Church in Kucove, Albania. It was the most perfect day, not because the temperature was ‘Baby Bear’ level (not too hot, not too cold), but because I said “I do”, and with these words married my best friend.

My dress ripped right before the ceremony began. I interpreted it as good luck, because Pam had a similar wardrobe disaster before she married Jim and you can’t get any better than Jim and Pam! I met my dad right outside the church. I think my first words to him were “Dad, I’m going to throw up.”.

I had said the same thing to my mom just minutes before and this is the advice she gave me:

“Just look at Xhuli and everything will be fine”.

She was right.

We locked eyes and I practically floated down the aisle, simultaneously trying to remember how to breathe. It was as if everything suddenly fell away. I barely registered my brother’s voice as he sang Noel Paul Stookey’s ‘Wedding Song’, nor the cries of my friend’s baby boy. All of my attention was focused on Xhuli…and not tripping over my own dress. My dad placed my hand in Xhuli’s, gave me a kiss, and the ceremony began.

Church wedding ceremonies are very rare in Albania, thanks to its history as an atheist country during Communism. I think this is why the church was packed to the brim with friends, family, neighbors, acquaintances, and the random passerby. Standing room only!

We are lucky in the States – church wedding ceremonies are not uncommon and we grow up witnessing our loved ones wed in this very special and sacred environment. I have always wanted this experience for my own wedding and I am so grateful that we had the opportunity to have a church ceremony in Kucove.

The ceremony was intimate and beautiful. There were a couple hiccups, as is to be expected, but nothing could rain on my parade. I will never forget the great sense of God’s love that overcame me on this very special day. Time somehow sped up and I reminded myself to diligently soak up every second that flew by. Deep breaths, eyes wide open, senses alert. I did not want to miss a single detail.

Fourteen of my friends and family were able to make the journey to celebrate with us and I am very grateful for their witness of love. A big thank you as well to my Albanian friends and my Peace Corps family that were in attendance.

The reception was exactly what I had hoped for when I planned this Albanian-American fusion wedding. Of course, most of the guests were from my husband’s family and circle of friends, but the Americans made me proud on the dance floor! Our DJ did a good job pleasing both cultures, playing all types of music ranging from traditional Albanian folk to classic rock. After all of the countless hours I spent planning and worrying, it was a great feeling to see how it all came together – and how much fun everyone had! As they say, weddings are not really for the couple; they are for the guests.

Regardless, I married my best friend. It was perfect. And I will never forget our wedding day nor the feeling of pure happiness as we began our lives together as husband and wife…

Mermaid and Unicorn.

Forever and ever. The End.

 

#weddingday #church #bride #groom #specialday #bestwedding #studiobleta @studio_bleta_film_photography

A post shared by Studio Bleta Film&Photography (@studio_bleta_film_photography) on

5 Truths I Learned While Planning My Wedding in Albania

1. What the bride says does NOT go.

As a newly engaged woman planning her wedding I had certain assumptions about how the experience would unfold thanks to an early education in bridal reality TV shows. Number one being my omnipotent role as THE bride which gives me veto power, the right to have emotional tantrums, and my overall role as ‘baller shotcaller’. Not that I planned to take my bridal responsibilities to the Bridezilla extreme, but I did expect to wield a certain amount of influence, and rightfully so.

giphy (4)

However, I quickly realized that instead of being asked what I wanted or what I thought about any given wedding planning topic, people were making their own decisions without me. If I offered a peep of disapproval, they were quick to bombard me with reasons why their idea was infinitely better than any idea I might concoct. You can imagine that this exchange, which continued to play like a broken record, very often brought me to tears. All I wanted was for someone to ask ME, the bride, what I wanted.

Hello, cultural differences! I quickly realized that these interactions I was having with Albanians were not malicious nor intended to usurp me from my self-imagined throne of bridal power. The reality is that, in Albania, wedding planning is a family affair. It is not something the bride and groom do on their own (thus guaranteeing a certain amount of freedom and decision-making).

giphy (2)

2. No deposits!

Most of my wedding checklist items (ex. venue, cake, flowers, DJ, etc.) did not require a deposit. Several of these businesses did mention a deposit, but it turned out to be more of a friendly suggestion than a requirement. Additionally, I felt we had more freedom when it came to ‘negotiating’ with these businesses.

A lot of businesses in the American wedding industry will offer a desirable list of services but they are also quick to have you sign a contract that very explicitly outlines what they will not accept from their clients. In Albania, it is no secret that things are a bit more ‘loosey goosey’.

giphy (1).gif

3. It’s cheaper – KA-CHING

One of the biggest draws to living in a developing country is the cheaper cost of living. This translates into most facets of life including groceries, dye jobs, car rentals, and wedding planning. Our most expensive wedding checklist item was our photographer, followed by my two rented bridal gowns, followed by the combined cost of reception venue, food, drink, and decorations. Of course, you have to keep in mind that a lower cost of living does not necessarily make things more affordable because salaries are also low.

giphy

4. Bigger is better.

I remember doing a bit of bridal dress scouting in Tirana and happening upon a particularly gaudy bridal shop. The ceiling was adorned with golden trim and hand-painted cherubs, so…I rest my case. I was ushered to a plush couch worthy of Marie Antoinette’s best pastry chef and given a dress catalog. While perusing, I could not help but notice a group of women fawning over their ‘bride to be’ who had just emerged from the dressing room in a fairy-tale ballgown, complete with a bejeweled bodice and sparkling tiara. It suddenly occurred to me that this is the expectation for brides in Albania. The higher the hair, the fluffier the dress – the more beautiful the bride.

giphy (3).gif

5. The reception is not really about the bride and groom – it’s about the guests.

Like a glutton for punishment I was really stubborn about coming to a healthy place of acceptance when it came to the proactive management of satisfaction guests would potentially be having at our wedding. In other words, I did not think that it mattered whether or not the wedding guests would be ‘tickled pink’ by the decorations and favors we had picked out, but I was swiftly and insistently told otherwise.

Weddings in Albania are not only planned by the entire family; they are also paid for by the community. How so? In the weeks leading up to the wedding friends, work colleagues, neighbors, and family visit the home of the groom and bride (separately) to offer their well wishes, drink a Turkish coffee with the family, and leave a monetary gift. That money is collected and used to pay for the wedding reception. This is at least one of the main reasons why the family pays very close attention to their guests and the ways they can make the wedding more enjoyable for them.

I think this is also true in other countries – in varying degrees, of course. Even in the United States, we want our guests to enjoy themselves. That ‘party anxiety’ is tough to shake, especially when you sometimes feel you are working against tradition.

Hello, Stranger

It’s been a hot minute since the last time I wrote a blog post. I think one reason for my silence, if I’m being honest with myself, is that I have completed my Peace Corps service. As a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (RPCV), the assumption is that because I have moved on to a different life chapter I therefore no longer have an exciting international culture/travel story to share. In many ways, this assumption holds true. A lot has changed over the last year. But I find that I still have something worth sharing.

Number one being, I GOT MARRIED.

The plan was always to finish my Peace Corps service and move back to the U.S. to join the working class and start doing some ‘normal adult things’. However, about one year into my service I found myself seriously dating a red-headed Albanian barber in my community. When my status changed from PCV to RPCV, I was not ready to leave. I had too much to lose. In a town of 30,000 people, 6,000 miles away from my beloved Texas, true love had found me.

After a 3 month trip to the U.S. I returned to Albania and began assistant teaching at an international school in Tirana. The salary was acceptable, but I grew increasingly unhappy with my job as time went on. My love and I played hooky for Valentine’s Day and on our way out for dinner that evening, he asked me to marry him. We quit our jobs one month later and moved back to the small town where we first met.

After months of wedding planning tears, highs, lows, and getting his new business up and running, we got married.

And that is the first story I would like to share.

Coming soon 🙂

All We Ever Do Is Say ‘Goodbye’

This past week proved to be one of the most emotional experiences I have had as a Peace Corps Volunteer. The Close of Service Conference marks a pivotal point in a volunteer’s service journey; a point at which we realize how far we have come and how much our lives will change in the very near future.

IMG_4736

For some, this is an exciting and rewarding result of two years’ worth of weird rashes, work conflicts, and stress-induced peanut butter comas. For others, it’s an alarm in our brain reminding us that all good things must come to an end. And our panicked and heartbroken response is proof that we aren’t ready to say goodbye.

The COS Conference itself focuses mostly on the logistics and administrative tasks associated with ending one’s Peace Corps Service. Final medical appointments, readjustment allowances, flights back to the U.S., and landlord agreements were some of the main topics of conversation (and confusion). A lot has to happen before a PCV in Albania steps onto that airplane and returns to American soil. The ‘to-do’ list can be divided into two categories: physical tasks/duties and mental steps to take in an effort to avoid an emotional breakdown at the airport. Like it or not, this period of preparation inevitably includes saying goodbye to the people who have made our experience in Albania what it is.

Having lived overseas, I have experienced these types of farewells – the kind that you try to avoid because the reality of being thousands of miles away from the people you love is like an anvil sitting on your heart. One of the most difficult goodbyes I’ve had to experience was watching my mother walk down the stairs of my college dorm room and begin her long journey back to Azerbaijan. Starting university without a nearby home base was scary, but it made me stronger and it was never really goodbye. If “all we ever do is say goodbye” (cue John Mayer moody swoon), is it a real farewell?

In other words, a goodbye implies a disengagement; a finality in at least the physical nature of a given relationship. But if you do intend to reconnect at a later date, it makes more sense that your “goodbye” is in fact a “see you later”.

It is very likely that there are people I have met during my PC service that I will never see again. Those are authentic goodbyes. But for those that I have adopted into my international family of gal pals, thoughtful coworkers, travel buddies, fellow foodies, gym rats, mermbabes, and friends of a feather, this is not goodbye; merely a “see you later”.

You aren’t rid of me yet.

20160209_204830

Christmas Cheer and Culture Shock

A very merry and belated Christmas, and Happy New Year to you, dear reader! After a blissful two weeks in the United States, I am now back in Albania. The skies are gray and my well-worn boots are caked in mud, but I am happy to be reunited with my Albanian family and return to work.

I was reflecting on my time spent in America and realized how much I was able to see and do with the limited time I had, as was my intention. To better illustrate my productivity, here is my homemade calendar that I diligently followed while back stateside:

 

Monday

Tuesday

Wednesday

Thursday

Friday

Saturday

Sunday

21 22

Arrive in Houston!

23

Family Christmas in Port Arthur

decorate the tree

24

Make Christmas cookies

Star Wars – The Force Awakens

Christmas Mass

25

Christmas Caroling at the nursing home

Family Dinner

26

Escape Room in Houston

Niko Niko’s for lunch

Dinner with B downtown

The Nutcracker-Houston Ballet

27

Visit Collin in Austin, TX

Rainey Street

28

Yoga class with Adriene in Austin, TX

Drive back to College Station

29

Sugar Loaf Mountain 

Lunch at Fuego

30

Mail hair donation to Pantene

Shopping for Albania

31

White Christmas

make bread with Dad

drinks at  Fox  & the Hound 

NYE with the family

1

Visit A in Fort Worth

Get lost in Central Market

First slurpee experience at 7 Eleven

2

Breakfast with twinsies

Family Photo Shoot

Texas A&M Men’s Basketball Game

Family Beer Pong

HOMEMADE FALAFEL

3

Mass at St. Mary’s

Visit family friends in Katy, TX

4

Rest and pack

5

Depart for Albania

 

Robotic? Maybe. But at least a bit impressive, right? In 6 months I may be woefully unemployed and open to a personal assistant position if you are somehow in need of an organized, candy-fueled, and detail-oriented employee to make sense of your mess. You think I’m joking.

I’m not.

My trip was a good reminder that at the end of the day, what really matters is people. Sure, I wanted a Chipotle burrito the size of my face and I also wanted to drizzle Kahlua over a pint of Blue Bell ice cream…and greedily consume every motherloving last drop. I also wanted to go pond hopping and line dancing. But more important to me was spending time with people I love; reconnecting with the beautiful souls that know me to my core and inspire me to be a better version of myself. You know, the kind of people who offer hugs and forgiveness when culture shock turns you into an emotionally-drained and crazy-eyed Looney Tunes character.

I experienced culture shock most viscerally when my family and I went to see the Nutcracker Ballet in downtown Houston. While walking to the theater, I saw a homeless woman sitting on a bench surrounded by her many bags. I stopped to ask if she was interested in the Christmas treats that I had been conveniently carrying in my bag. She was concerned about her nut allergy, but after assuring her that the cookies were safe for her to eat, she accepted. Five minutes later, a homeless man approached my dad and asked for money. I handed him a tupperware full of baklava and wished him a good evening.

We arrived at the theater and I was overwhelmed by what we found upon entering: hundreds of twinkling lights, 10 foot Christmas trees, floor-length ball gowns, diamonds, expensive cell phones, and a whiney 8 year old eating Chick-fil-A in her fanciest party dress. The contrast broke my heart. While these theater-goers were busy taking selfies and drinking $8 glasses of wine, there were people just outside and down the steps who had no home, no one to protect them. There are a lot of things about America that I love, particularly the diversity, freedom, and options (in food, schooling, careers, dating partners, hard candy, etc.), but there are also parts about our culture that I have not missed, namely the consumption and waste. It feels excessive; as if we think that the phones/cars/TVs/designer underwear will fill a gaping hole that has ripped through our souls. It’s equal parts confused, happy, and conflicted. Shaken, not stirred.

This holiday was, in a sense, a bittersweet homecoming for me. I met with old friends, visited my grad school stomping grounds, and ate the foods that once cured my homesick heart. Everything was the same, and everything was different. Well-known establishments have gone out of business, only to be replaced by newer buildings. Thirsty Thursday is still a thing. So-and-so got engaged. The Century Tree still stands. Popular culture has coined new words and phrases. And so we hold on to the old while welcoming the new.

May 2016 bring you fewer worries, more joy, less doubt, and more adventures.

IMG_4419 IMG_4485 IMG_4521 IMG_4554 IMG_4597IMG_4594

 

 

 

 

 

 

Give Thanks!

Thanksgiving is a time to give thanks (duh). In other words, we shamefully ignore the upsetting history of this American holiday and instead focus on the positive practice of reflecting on our blessings. It’s probably not an uncommon tradition among American families to ‘go around the table’ and ‘say something you are thankful for’. I remember dressing up as a pilgrim and reciting adorable poetry that my 6-year-old brain had produced. And as an adult, thinking about, and even writing down, what I am thankful for is not only a positive use of my time, but also an important exercise in identifying priorities. Does how I spend my time match up with the items on my Thankful List? Food for thought.

I would argue that most adults would list the following when asked to share what they are most thankful for:

– Family
– Friends

Solid. Who isn’t thankful for good people? These are the saints who forgive us when we throw up in their car, motivate us when we have no will to leave a Netflix-induced couch coma, and laugh with us when we make complete fools of ourselves. I’m sure many of us have a tribe: a group of talented, brave, smart, and compassionate individuals that make us better people. I know I do. It makes sense that we put them at the top of our list.

But what about YOU? This Thanksgiving, are you thankful for you? Does your current reality reflect a practice of self-love and acceptance?

One of the most challenging realities of being a PCV is learning how to handle loneliness. Serving in Peace Corps can be an isolating experience and we often spend large chunks of time alone. So when it’s just you, are you happy with the company? When you are left to your own thoughts, quirks, paranoia, idiosyncrasies, and flaws, do you embrace them?
If we are intentional about the relationships we have with others, should we not also be intentional about a relationship with oneself?

Being thankful for friends and family is not difficult.

Being thankful for who you are and the skin you’re in is.

May your Thanksgiving be full of love, self-acceptance, and pie.