Last weekend may have been the most bizarre, surreal, exhilarating 48 hours of my life.
TEDx Tirana was an incredible experience thanks to lots of hard work by all the terrific speakers and staff. Earlier that week, I had started to get really nervous about my speech–and by “got nervous” I mean I experienced a series of minor mental breakdowns–but after a comfortable rehearsal on Friday afternoon, I was on cloud nine. Giving the speech itself was a lot of fun and people had really nice things to say afterward. I also had the opportunity to meet some really impressive people, both my fellow speakers (including the former first Lady of Albania, architects, artists, CEOs, doctors, fellow expats, etc.) and those who attended the event. However, it wouldn’t’ve been the same if I hadn’t had some awesome friends attend with me, and my people Jill, Mark, and Masha came through. I had a great time with these three and was so happy that they took the time to support me!
It’s also been great to receive kind comments and messages from friends back home, and it’s good to know that there are people who care, but so many have asked me over and over: “Where is the video of your speech?! I want to watch you!!” Please keep in mind the fact that I don’t know when it will be posted as I have no control over that, and the more I’m asked the more guilty I feel that it’s not up yet. Things move a little slower over here.
But there’s a whooooole other juicy, ridiculous chunk of this 48 hours that I’m better able to delve into here on my blog. I got invited to appear on TV with the TEDx organizer to promote the event about three days before my talk. Consistently having a “What the hell?” attitude as a byproduct of Peace Corps, I decided to go for it. The show–Zone e Lire (“The Free Zone”) on KLAN channel–requested that I give a mini-speech on my (in)famous “10 Albanian Habits” post during a live interview to show people what the event will be like and to get them interested. I got the absolutely insane idea of translating it into Albanian and then memorizing it all in the span of three days, which the organizer thankfully talked me out of. Instead we opted to add Albanian subtitles to my English talk.
I had seen Zone e Lire before, but only briefly, because it wasn’t one of the three-or-four shows my host family in Librazhd watched every night and I’m too lazy to figure out how to hook up the TV cable in my flat. So I had no idea what to expect. Even when the organizer (Iris) picked me up on the way to the studio and I asked her what the deal was, she said, “I have no idea what he [Arian Çani, the host] has planned for us.”
We arrived at the studio where we met another one of the speakers from 2013’s TEDx Women conference named Emanuela. They took us all backstage, where a couple stylists liberally applied various layers of makeup onto us. I watched as the artist swiped bronzer onto my cheekbones, contoured my nose, and sculpted me some Cleopatra eyebrows and realized that I’ve been doing my makeup ALL WRONG for 24 years and I should get to a Sephora immediately.
We were then equipped with microphones and ushered onto the stage. The Zone e Lire studio is a large, white room with columns and velvet curtains, and there are two semicircular tables set in front of “Çani,” the host. The audience sits around them, dancing and clapping and cheering as a DJ blasts club music. Çani welcomed us in, kissed us, and then invited us to sit down.
Across from us at the other table were three women. There was one INSANELY HOT model (I later learned that her name is Dhurata Ahmetaj, from Kosovo) and her two friends that I gathered were promo girls for an Albanian energy drink called Golden Eagle. Dhurata was wearing a short dress with a plunging neckline that ended just above her navel. (If I looked like her, I’d wear stuff like that too.) The cameraman seemed to really enjoy filming her, even when she wasn’t talking, and seemed to particularly enjoy her chest area, zooming in on the Golden Eagle can positioned conveniently next to her breasts. I’d say about 75% of the interview consisted of shots like this.
After about half an hour–during which Iris and I sat and watched the super hot girl participate in dirty games like “Zogu apo Macja?” (literally, “Bird or Cat?”–slang referring to female body parts) and being treated to a few pretty raunchy music videos she’d acted in–Dhurata and her girls left the studio to cheers from the audience, and it was our turn. (For the life of me, I could NOT wrap my head around the format of this show. There were constantly guests coming and going, coming and going, waiting at the tables while the other people talked, switching back and forth who was being interviewed and about what, etc.) It’s always interesting for me to observe how flagrantly sexual the media in Albania can be, while at the same time so many people here are sexually suppressed.
Iris spoke about TEDx for a few minutes and Çani interviewed Emanuela about her speech last year and the Down Syndrome association she chairs in Albania. Before the next commercial break, Çani announced that a “topless DJ” would be joining us next on the show. (I didn’t even know that was a thing. Clearly I’m out of the loop.) There was only one empty chair, and it was next to me. I turned to Iris, confused. “Oh yes, there will be a topless DJ coming, and she’ll sit next to you,” Iris confirmed. Sure enough, after the break the club music started blasting again and out walked a tall, dark-haired woman with super long decorative eyelashes. She was wearing clothes, but only a sheer, nude-colored dress that left very little to the imagination. Her name was also Kate, which I found funny.
At this point I was imagining how ridiculous I looked to all of Albania, in my lil’ button-up/sweater combo and pearl necklace, next to yet another super hot, scantily-clad woman. Topless DJ Kate, we soon learned, was Ukrainian and didn’t speak any Albanian and didn’t say anything in any language during the show, so I can only speculate about the reason they invited her there. (P.S. The reason is: “boobs.”)
By the time it was my turn to speak, I realized that not only was I completely delirious from getting only 3 hours of sleep the night before, I was mentally exhausted from trying to follow 45 minutes of swift chatter in a second language, and I had no idea what was going on about 95% of the time. I had been warned that Çani liked to ask “spicy” questions, and one of the first things he asked me was about being Mormon. Uh, what?!! Where did that come from? I mentioned going to church in Elbasan in a single blog post over a year ago. At this point I was sure that his producer had gone through my blog with a fine-toothed comb.
With the help of Iris, we sorted out the fact that I wasn’t in Albania as a missionary, and from then on I was able to answer the simpler questions: where I’m from, why I came to Albania, where I live now, what I do, and of course: am I married, engaged, or single? Then I talked briefly about my speech the next day, explained that I would be giving a live speech on the show tonight, but that it would be a different one about 10 Albanian habits I had picked up since living here.
Whoever was manning the subtitles did an excellent job because the audience reacted in perfect timing as I spoke. (I did notice that there were a few English speakers here and there as well.) Seeing everyone smile and laugh and enjoy what I was saying made me feel really good, and after I finished Çani shouted, “Bravo, Kate!” as the room burst into applause. That four minutes was worth the other 50 that I spent overcome with nerves, my heart pounding under the studio lights.
When we returned backstage, I could already hear my phone vibrating violently in my purse across the room. I had approximately 12 text messages from my students, friends, co-workers, and bosses, all screaming: “KATE WE SAW YOU ON TV!!! You looked beautiful!” (NOT true, by the way. If you ever need a hit to your self-esteem, just appear on live TV, and not only will you look 20 lbs. heavier but you’ll be uncomfortably aware of every single flaw on your face. It doesn’t help if you are sitting next to a beautiful person whom other people pay to see half-naked.)
I COMPLETELY underestimated the impact that this TV appearance would have, and I was ignorant to do so. My Facebook started blowing up with people from around the country sending me messages and friend requests. When I returned to site, every single person I saw–my neighbors, the other teachers at school, all of the students, even random people on the street–all mentioned that they had seen the interview. I got phone calls from people I know in other cities saying that they watched me as well. Another Volunteer in a village way up north told me that people were coming up to her and asking her if she knew the girl in Kavajë who was on TV. Absolute. Insanity.
Even though I felt really uncomfortable at the time, looking back it was a fun and definitely unique experience to have and I’m glad I did it. Even more importantly, people seemed to enjoy the “habits” speech and several people told me that I made my town proud, and that means the world to me. My neighbor Mohammed pounded on his chest and proclaimed, “You are half Albanian now!” And I can’t help but think that he’s right.