An afternoon in Ohrid

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Blessed Springtime

Berat at night
The storks are back!  As I ride the bus north, there they are, fussing in their nests, rebuilding them, making a new home to lay their eggs in.  Although the weather has been 70 degrees some days, we've had a couple of light snows since April began.  But the trend is there, the mountain are greening, and flowers are blooming.
A couple of weekends ago Elona, Kerry and I took a quick weekend trip to Albania.  We had the best time - it was so gorgeous.  Albania is warmer than Macedonia, and the farmers were planting, the valleys were green, and the high mountains still covered in snow.  The first night we were treated to a feast by Elona's mother.  Her family is so very sweet and gracious!  Then early the next morning we climbed on a combi to Tirana and then another to head south to Berat.

The trip itself was exceptional - down steep and narrow mountain roads, through the river valleys, and up again through cracks in high mountain ranges.  Shqiperija, the Albanian name for Albania, means home of the eagle, and you can see why.  And as I've said before, I love taking local transportation.  There's a degree of unpredictability and adventure that appeals to me.  I must admit, however, that I was happy to reach Berat.  We picked up a family outside of Tirana, and 5 of us plus a baby were squished into a seat meant to hold 3.

We stayed in a hostel in Berat that was lovely.  The owner gave us Rakija under the grape arbor in the garden, and at night sang opera and danced with us.  During the day we wandered around a castle, parts of which are still being lived in.  As you can see above, it's a beautiful city.

Kerry taking a picture by Enver Hoxha's old house
Then another early morning, and off to Gjirocaster.  Interestingly, we went through some oil fields.  All through one valley there were derricks upon derricks - some active but most not.  You could smell the oil that was being pumped and processed, a strange counterpoint to the green valley.  We passed by Trebeshina Mountain, massively framing one side of a valley, and finally into Gjirocaster, named for a woman who leapt to her death rather than be captured by the enemy.  It is known both for its castle and the houses.  Rich families lived there long ago and seemed to compete with each other in who could build the most beautiful house.  The castle/fort was also interesting - it was used as late as WWII both by the guerillas and the Nazis.  We again stayed in an amazing guest inn.  When we went up to the castle, we told the owner we would be back in 3.5 hours, and when we returned his mother had fixed a wonderful traditional Albanian meal for us.  We felt completely spoiled.  Both Berat and Gjirocaster are UNESCO heritage sites, and it is hard to describe how beautiful they are. 

Students lined up for their turn to spell
Last weekend was the National English Language Spelling Bee.  I've helped organize it for the past two years, and I must say, it is an amazing event.  It's not like our national bee.  We have qualifying bees all over Macedonia, and this year over 4000 students tried out, and 905 qualified.  Over 92% of those showed up in Skopje for the bee, an incredible percentage considering that they, their school, or their municipality had to find transportation to get them to Skopje.

Aleksandra gets her certificate from Ambassador Wohlers.
Our bee had winners in 6 grade categories, 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th, first and second year of high school, and third and fourth year.  We started at 10 and ended at about 6, and considering how crazy it was with last minute room changes and adjustments, it went very well!  The kids had a ball, and one of the things I love about our Bee is that it gives some of the kids from villages the chance to see Skopje for the first time ever and compete with kids from all over Macedonia.  This year I'm happy to report that one of our girls from Gostivar was national runner-up for year l/ll high school, and was presented her certificate from our new Ambassador.

And tomorrow I'm off again on another trip, this time a Danube river cruise from Bucharest to Budapest.  There's too much to see, and too little time!

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