Service Trip to Albania, Macedonia, and Greece — Reflections by Kathy Parkison

Service Trip to Albania, Macedonia, and Greece — Reflections by Kathy Parkison

“All you have to do is twist the silver wire into curliques and shapes to fill the mold.” The artisan expressed how “easy” it was, walked away and left me struggling with the tweezers, the incredibly fine silver wire, the mold and a less than perfect understanding of how filigree was made. Turns out, you need to have enough curliques and ovals and circles so that they will stay in the mold when the mold is raised – much harder than it looks. We won’t mention how many times I lifted the mold and everything fell out! As a result, I have a much deeper appreciation for the delicate workmanship of filigree, the patience it takes to make it look right, and the time and talent needed to make a piece of jewelry. My piece of art is shown below!

Intricate filigree art leaf

Woman working on filigree art project

I was participating in a cultural camp with Cultural Heritage without Borders (CHwB), Albania – a non-profit that is dedicated to keeping cultural heritage alive in the region. CHwB brings students and recent graduates from around the region to work on projects. This year’s project was arts and crafts – so we studied filigree, rug making, dry and wet felt making, and embroidery and then the students then take those crafts and develop a business plan. Albania has a very high unemployment rate and small businesses are viewed as key to the future – but entrepreneurship is not something most have been taught prior to this two-week camp. As Americans, we have a chance to tour a beautiful country, learn about its long past, answer questions on America and owning a business, and most importantly, develop friendships that last a lifetime.

For many, Albania would not be on the short list of countries to be visited but that is a mistake. The country is lovely, the people are friendly, and the food is excellent – all desirable attributes in my mind. But participating in a cultural exchange with the camps of CHwB, adds a level of interest and interactions that a regular tour cannot hope to match. And that is what makes a Fulbright Association trip so different – the ability to interact with a county and its people at a much deeper level than just touring.

If you are familiar with the Balkans, you know that the area has been the center of unrest for much of the 20th century. In fact, World War I first broke out in the Balkans before engulfing the rest of the world. So the hatreds and unrest run deep in the area. CHwB brings together students from across the area, has them live and work and study together (in English), with the hope that they will learn that “the other” is not to be feared. In addition, as these are credit bearing college courses, there is content and grades for the students. This year’s camp in Kruja, (said with the j having a y sound), was focused, as noted above on traditional Albanian arts and crafts.

But the market for selling the traditional arts and crafts is somewhat limited so part of the camp was examining ways that these crafts could be updated and sold to new markets. Albanian men, for example, used to wear traditional felt hats with each village having its own distinctive design. A man could recognize where a man was from simply by looking at his hat. But today’s men do not wear the traditional hats, so other than tourists, there is not much of market for these hats. BUT, the artisan has worked with a designer in Paris, France to turn these hats into lamps – a creative use of a traditional product!

The Fulbright program was begun after World War II with the goal of helping Americans understand the world by sending us to live and work abroad AND by bringing students and professionals to the United States to understand us. As members of the Fulbright Association, we share the vision of increasing understanding and developing friendships across our countries.

Many of us love to travel but touring through a country without truly interacting with the locals is not my idea of traveling. For 9 of us, this trip gave us the opportunity to meet with students, help them develop their business plans, and see a country that most Americans know little about. Thus, a trip with the Fulbright Association is not a regular touring trip (if it is Tuesday, it must be Belgium type of trip) – it is a deeper interaction with the people and culture and history of the area. We came home with a much deeper understanding of the region and an appreciation for its issues.

—Kathy Parkison

A group of smiling travelers stand outside a van. They are holding a Fulbright Association banner and a placard for Cultural Heritage Without Borders.

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