Albania Day Eight

Today Natalie, Chris and I met Manjola, Edita and Zamira for second breakfast to discuss how to do Vacation Bible School here next summer. We all agreed to call it English Camp. It would be clear to the parents that we would be teaching the kids about the bible, but that the children would be learning the songs, and stories and doing the crafts and playing the games in English. The main problem we see is that the week they want to have it (the week in June both American and Albanian schools end) is one of the busiest of the year for people at our church. We are running our own VBS and also because American kids are out of school, it’s harder for people without children to leave their kids for a week than it would be if they were still in school.

As I left the hotel today I thought “I’m going to take my passport and my toothbrush just in case, because I don’t know what the day will bring.” I’m such a planner, but there’s no way you can here, and I think that’s good for me. Zef showed up as the meeting was ending and drove us (The whole team except Jim and Jason, plus an Albanian friend Lorenc) to Durres, which Lorenc described as “Albania’s San Diego.” It is the start of the Via Ignacia which is the Roman road stretching from Durres through Greece to modern-day Turkey. The apostle Paul certainly took this road, and they believe Titus was martyred here. We talked, planned, and ate. Zef is really happy about the Leadership talks Chris has given, the medical talks Ted has given, and he is especially happy about the major construction and painting that Jim and Jason are heading up. Many people from Emanuel and a few paid workers have worked alongside these guys, and they have made the space so much bigger and more useable

It was good to be with Ted again. We’ve hardly seen him! We heard from  Lorenc how Emanuel would like to start a high school, and would like to partner with US churches for the students to spend their last year of high school in America. The kids could live in our homes and attend our schools. They would go back to Albania with more understanding of what’s possible and if there were enough of them, they could make a huge difference in Albania’s future. People here feel so powerless and need good role models of how to take your power to achieve great things instead of being fatalistic and blaming corrupt leaders. Interesting idea.







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Albania Day Seven


View of Tirana from Mount Dajti

Jason and Jim continued to work on the church building today. There is so much to do, but the Emanuel members really stepped up to help. We haven’t seen Dr. Ted since Wednesday night–Zef keeps making him drive all over Albania to talk to different groups. I had told the team that sometimes in Albania there’s a lot of down time. You have to make your own fun because the Albanians aren’t free to entertain us all day.  Today Chris, Natalie and the boys and I all went up Mount Dajti in a cable car for a spectacular view of Tirana. We all loved seeing the old stone homes on the way up, the communist-time bunkers, the shepherds with their flocks, and the woman with a huge metal pot over an open fire washing her clothes. The boys’ extravagant enthusiasm is so fun to be around.

I told Jim today that I’m not sure if I’m DOING anything this trip. But he immediately responded that I was the glue of this trip, and pointed out the multiple ways I’m organizing and making the trip meaningful for everyone else. Since Jim isn’t usually quick with the affirmations, I can only believe I am helpful, but I do feel like everyone’s working harder than me. I’ve had a lot of fun, and there have been really meaningful interactions with friends here, but it’s always the tension of “Am I doing all I can????”


I taught the women’s group tonight. I had them break down into groups of three, share their dreams, then share the barriers to those dreams. Of course, the dreams are the same in all cultures–for our children and grandchildren to grow up following Jesus, that they would get a good education and find meaningful work. That the materialism and immorality of the culture wouldn’t negatively influence them. At this point the whole room got into what looked like an Albanian shouting match over whether things were better under Communism. The morals of the society were better. (According to a friend here, there is a new study out showing most Albanians become sexually active around age 12. Aaack!) There was less jealousy and coveting and factions because no one had anything. But all agreed, the ability to follow their faith is easier today. My point was that regardless of how much the society degenerates (and I don’t believe that it’s the worst time in history), one book has brought people truth, comfort and encouragement for over 200o years. And we need to be reading the Bible more, and sharing with our believing friends the things we are discovering from it. All nodded when I asked “Would you find it encouraging if a friend told you what she learned today from the Bible?” There was more loud-ish Albanian discussion among themselves, and I think they learned more from each other than they ever could have from me, an outsider. Some felt that the pastor should teach them all they need to know and they don’t need to read the Bible for themselves. (Hmm, sounds like remnants of Communist thought–the government will tell us what we need to know.) I felt really good about what we accomplished tonight. I love these women. Some of them bought Baby Lydia presents. Awww.


Emanuel Women sharing their dreams and barriers in small groups.



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Albania Day Six


Dr. Ted at Emanuel Church, explaining how depression is a physical problem with the chemistry of the brain. Zef is translating.


Brayden and Spencer playing chopsticks. It’s a finger game involving math and strategy.


Brayden, Natalie, and Spencer in front of the National History Museum. (The boys were only slightly disappointed when they realized we hadn’t said “Natural History Museum”)


This is how I picture Chris–in deep conversation, holding someone’s hands. People really feel cared for after talking with her.


Emanuel Church used to have a bakery on it’s lowest floor, and the guys came across the old sign for it.


This rain damage is on the front wall of the church, just above the pulpit. Not what you want to look at while the pastor is preaching.


Wait, Jim, did you say this is BETTER than it was when you started???!!! On the back wall you can see the old bakery oven.


At the meeting last night Dr. Ted talked on depression. It was shocking to hear from the four doctors and one psychologist in the audience that in Albania doctors prescribe only medications like Valium and other depressants for depression. Although Prozac has been prescribed in America since 1988, it is rare here. Even the doctors were asking questions like “Can you still drive if you are taking anti-depressants?” There are only a couple of psychologists in all of Tirana (a city of half a million people), and they wouldn’t take any insurance, nor would people go to them openly because others would assume they were crazy. One woman said “From your description of depression, I think we all have it” and almost every head nodded.

Today it was pouring rain. Jim and Jason worked at the church. There is enough to do to keep expert contractors busy for months, but we only have a week! The guys worked very hard patching damaged areas, fixing standing water issues, getting rid of rooms full of junk, and preparing for the church work days ahead.

Sometimes in Albania there’s just not a lot to do, and you have to fill your time while people are at work. While our husbands labored, Natalie and I and the boys headed to the museum. The boys loved the museum and I was impressed at how much history they knew.

We had coffee with our Albania friends–both doctors, husband and wife. Chris taught at the church on how to take charge of your own education. (Sometimes the professors here don’t show up to class, or don’t care about their students, or just aren’t great at teaching.)  She is so intense that one of the Albanians said “She is like an American, only 100 times as much.” The university students loved her and afterwards had some deep conversations with several individuals.

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Albania Days Four and Five


Coffee on the pier at Vlora


Where the Ionian Sea and the Aegean Sea meet.


Jim admiring the beautiful view in Vlora.


The promenade in Vlora.


Marsh on the main street in Berat. On top of the mountain behind me is the castle.


Marsh, Pastor Clodi, and Jim in Berat. You can see the Ottoman era homes in the background.


Berat. After an earthquake in the Middle Ages the traditional Albanian homes were replaced by Ottoman-style homes.


Berat Castle


Orthodox Church at Berat Castle.


Jim on the castle wall.


Jim’s taking of picture of this hill that says “NEVER” in big letters. It used to say “ENVER” (the first name of the Albanian communist dictator), and it was too expensive to remove.


Inside a different Orthodox church.

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Jim, Chris and I left Tuesday morning at 6 am, intending to go to Berat, where Chris was speaking, and return to the hotel the same evening. Through a series of, um, circumstances, we ended up spending the night in Berat. It was really fun and a bit stressful. I discovered what I would miss most if my suitcase were ever lost and I didn’t have a packed carry on: phone charger, passport, and medication.

Berat is a UNESCO world heritage site–a city that has been continuously occupied since 2400 BC. Whenever we say we’re going to Albania, people either say “Where’s Albania?” (or perhaps “Why Albania?”) OR (if they travel a lot),they say “OH!!!! To see Berat???!!” I’ve wanted to go for seven years, but we aren’t really here to be tourists. So when I heard that Pastor Zef had arranged for us to go and meet with people there, I was excited. On the way there we stopped in Vlora, a beautiful university town where the Aegean Sea meets the Ionian Sea. We had a great time with the InterVarsity staff there. The husband, Julie, came to know Jesus at age 13, after someone had put a gun to his head in front of his dad, threatening to shoot Julie unless Julie’s dad gave money. We always hear hair-curling stories here. They inspire me. Hopefully we encourage them.

We then took a bus on communist roads, through flocks of goats, sheep and wild turkeys, for two and a half hours to Berat. After church, where Chris spoke, we had dinner with the two pastors and their wives–all four are amazing, wonderful, warm, spirit-filled people. (And they loaned us deodorant,  toothbrushes, a razor for Jim, and something for me to sleep in.) We learned so much from them, and I hope we encouraged them half as much as they encouraged us.

Because we didn’t get to see the 13th century castle–the main tourist part of the city-the first day, one pastor and his wife offered to take us in their private car up the mountain and show us around all morning. the next day. The castle area where people still live was filled with many Byzantine churches and mosques, winding narrow cobble streets and ancient (continuously occupied) homes. During World War II Hitler sought a sixth century illuminated manuscript of the gospels, but monks risked their lives to hide it in one of the church’s floorboards, and saved it. I feel really lucky to have been able to see all this history.

Then the pastor took us in his own car to Tirana.We offered multiple times to take the bus. It’s a two and a half hour drive. One way. He is the only pastor of the only church in the city. Even though he is an extremely busy man, he insisted on taking his entire day to drive three Americans he had just met back to their hotel. The people of Albania inspire me and humble me.

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Albania Day Three

The morning started with a nice devotional led by Natalie from John 14 about how God doesn’t leave us as orphans. My heart was touched because I really feel like an orphan–my parents and siblings are all dead. There’s so much sadness about what could have been and the inability to fix what was broken between my brothers and me. Yet I am continually reminded that God is in all this and I am not alone. Slowly He is healing me of the grief.

Natalie and I had a great time over coffee with friends from Emanuel. One is Kelly’s age and told us how the Albanian Civil war in 1997 started in her home town of Vlora. There was shooting in her neighborhood. Once, her dad went out on the balcony and threw a little rock at her window, and she was sure it was a bullet and was so frightened, and then he came in laughing. When I asked how they got food, she said “Oh, every day from 8:00 to 10:00 am they would stop the war so we could go out and buy food.” Very civilized.

Today was the start of university and Dr. Ted was to give a talk about depression. Three hundred students came, which was more than came to the dean’s opening speech, so she closed it down before he started. He said the students realized it was about jealousy and had good conversations with them and was able to tour their medical facilities, so the time wasn’t lost. He will give the same talk at church on another day and perhaps some will come.

Jason and Jim spent the morning surveying the significant damage to the church building–mostly from a leaky roof, standing water seeping into the walls. It’s not a two-day project, and it’s hard to know what jobs to tackle.

I was able to Face Time with Baby Lydia for a few minutes today, and now she stares at the phone and laughs and smiles. She’s really interested in this talking picture. So precious.




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Albania Day 2

This is our fifth trip to Albania and so far it’s been my favorite for a number of reasons. For a long time Jim and I have wanted others to catch our vision, but have not succeeded when we’ve talked to different people about going with us. First of all, people hardly know where Albania is. (North of Greece, east of Italy.) Second, when we explain, people aren’t that interested. (“Drink coffee? Make friends? Encourage people? No, thanks. I’d rather build an orphanage or do something IMPORTANT.”) Two months ago when Zef, the pastor of Emanuel Church in Albania, came to our church several people were inspired by him. Slowly we formed a team. First to commit were Jason, Natalie and their two boys. Jason is an electrical contractor who has flipped houses, so knows some about construction, and Natalie is an expert at home-schooling. These are two skills that Emanuel Church says they really need right now. Their two boys, ages 10 and 8 are an important part of the team. Then Ted volunteered. Dr. Ted is aFamily practice physician in Ventura. Zef has already scheduled him with too many teaching opportunities with medical students in various cities around Albania, plus preaching Wednesday night and Sunday morning. Last, was Christine, a university professor and published author with an expertise in Christian leadership. The flight over was uneventful. It’s taken only seven years to find the perfect routing–14 hours LAX to Istanbul, one hour layover and a one hour flight to Tirana. We arrived at 7pm, unpacked and got eight hours of uninterrupted sleep, and have had very little jet lag. Today was full of wonderful experiences, but as I start writing about it, I think “Did that happen TODAY?” because it seems like we’ve been here so long. Church, coffee after with our good friends, lunch, church in Vaqarr (the village outside Tirana) where Jim preached, watched a football (soccer) game (Emanuel against the Catholic team–they lost) and then crepes with our team. For lunch we invited our Albanian friend Schpendi, saying “OUR TREAT” because he paid our coffee today and has often treated us in the past. We picked a nice restaurant, and Jim arranged with the maitre d’ to get the bill. But as it turns out the maitre d’ is a friend of Schpendi’s and we were out-maneuvered. Schpendi picked up the bill for all 10 of us, while the maitre d’ laughed at the double-cross. I’m happy that Dr. Ted is the perfect travelling companion–always eager to do whatever he is asked to do without complaining. I’m happy that they boys have been angels and a real asset to the trip. I’m happy that Natalie and Jason are already glad they came and are saying things like “The next time we come….” I found I hardly took any pictures. (And some of the ones I did take won’t upload. Grrr.) Most of what I’m excited about now is people and the great talks we’ve had. It’s hard to photograph these things.


Dr. Ted, Jim, Marsh, Natalie, Jason, Spencer, and Braydon


Jim preaching in Vaqar with Zef translating.

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J’apprends le Français

I can remember even as a young child wanting to learn French. I studied Spanish in school instead of French because it was more “practical.” I went on to major in Spanish, which turned out to be an excellent career move. I was chosen over other applicants for every job I have ever had because I could speak Spanish. But French was always my longing. Give me a French podcast over a beautiful song any day. In Paris, I’d rather hear French than eat a chocolate croissant–and that’s saying a lot! If I’m at a random foreign museum and a French tour group comes through, I get a rush. J’adore la langue française.

It always seemed too impractical to spend time learning French. I had little kids. I was paying for college. I had a husband and a job. Who had the time and money to run off to France and learn French? In April Jim strongly encouraged me to do it.

“Study French and go live somewhere to be immersed in the language?”


“For a summer?”

“Well, for perhaps six weeks.”

“But we’d be apart!!!”

“I could come over in the middle!!”


So, I’m relentlessly studying French in every spare second. I traded in my frequent flier miles for a flight to Paris. Today I read this from Flirting with French:

Not only does the ability to acquire a second language become greatly diminished after adolescence, but the degradation continues linearly. That is, with each year, each decade, that I didn’t get around to learning French, the goalposts have moved further away. What was once a relatively easy fifteen-year field goal has become fifty-seven-nigh going on fifty-eight years, even by NFL standards a long kick.

Great. Why do I have to be so PRACTICAL???? Why couldn’t I have allowed myself to start learning French when it was easier? My only comfort is that learning new things is really good for your brain. Now, where did I hear that? And where are my keys? And what did I come in this room for????

I’ve already made some good progress. My heart leaps with glee when I speak in French and native speakers understand me. They think I’m cute and they are a little patronizing, but still. Language learning is so much easier than it was in the seventies. We couldn’t just look stuff up on the internet–we had to actually use our 15 pound Spanish-English dictionary, and our 501 Spanish Verbs. I refuse to give up!!

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