Another day, another milestone.
Today I used a microwave for the first time in exactly a year, assuming that I microwaved something the morning I left for Albania. I probably did, right?…
Our newest trainees arrived yesterday, and then today marked a year since I left for staging. One year without microwaves. But more seriously, one year without seeing my dad or stepmom, and more for my sister. One year without seeing a lot of people who are really important to me, without walking down the streets of Charleston, without some of my favorite foods, without a lot of things. And some days that feels really rough. This winter, especially, has sucked in some ways, no way around it.
Thankfully, today at least, things are looking up, which might sound odd to those of you who have talked to me and heard my hoarse voice (I’m a bit sick, apparently). Besides spring starting to emerge from its hiding place, and the promise of seeing friends in the near future, this weekend has been pretty great. For the past few months, I’ve been helping my friend Heather plan the Youth Leadership Conference for 2015 as part of the Outdoor Ambassadors committee. Unfortunately, Heather had a medical issue that made her mostly immobile, though she was able to attend. Once we realized that she was going to be impeded for the weekend, my stress levels got pretty high. I was only the shadowing coordinator, I didn’t feel like I knew what I was doing, and the brains of the whole operation wasn’t even going to be able to be there for the first couple hours.
Somehow, we got through those first few hours okay, and by halfway through the conference, I was starting to feel semi-competent. That was a nice feeling in and of itself, but watching the participants was far and away the best part of my weekend. In between running around and coordinating materials and sessions and such, I caught glimpses of their activities. I got to hear some of their feedback and read their surveys about the event. I sat on the panel that gave them feedback on the training events they planned, so I got to hear their wonderful ideas and thoughts on helping their country. And best of all, I got to see some of them roast their very first marshmallows. I won’t lie, that was my favorite part.
It hit me this weekend that I’m so glad I signed up to work with OA and GLOW. I like a lot of my work at site, but it comes with a lot of frustration sometimes, it’s slow-going, and it’s hard to see results for most of what I do. I won’t kid myself that our efforts this weekend prepared the participants to be fantastic leaders. That’s slow-going as well, and I think that at best we can be a small part of it. But I can see some wonderful benefits immediately. They had fun, they got thinking, they practiced team-building, and they learned some new things. More importantly, through bringing in Albanian volunteer staff and a career panel, they got local role models. It doesn’t sound like much, but in a country with corruption problems, poverty, huge environmental issues, etc, it can be hard for Albanians to have hope for change. Seeing successful Albanians is really important because they need to know that they can make a difference (not that American PCVs can make a difference). Getting to see that in action was a privilege, and getting to gain valuable experience from it just feels like theft, like I don’t deserve to get to watch them AND learn from it myself.
Lately I’ve been pretty down, to the point that I suspect my family has worried (let’s be honest, especially Dad). But for the first time lately, I’m not just dreading trying to make it here another year. I’m looking forward to it again, seeing it as the gift it really is. Sometimes it’s really, incredibly hard to be here. But most of the time, it just feels like some ridiculous joke, like a ruse I’ve pulled on the US government- that I get to live here, to gain experience, to have the distinct pleasure of knowing my fellow PCVs and Albanian friends, and then also to witness some of Albania’s best young minds.
I know it’s cheesy, but this reminds me of a song I’ve listened to a lot over the past few months. I’m under no illusions that I’m the answer to Albania’s problems, but getting to play my small part, to be one of Albania’s many tiny cogs… it’s a privilege. Thanks, ‘Bania, for putting up with me.
As of yesterday, I’ve been in Albania 11 months. I’m not quite sure how to feel about that.
On one hand, it feels like it’s been much longer. I realized about a week ago that I haven’t seen my dad, stepmom, stepsister, or any of my closest friends from home in almost a year. Worse yet, because my sister was teaching in France when I left, I haven’t seen her since she returned there last January. And, for reference, my sister and brother are kinda my besties. We talk every week for a little bit, which helps, but knowing I haven’t hugged them, or “Harrison Ford”-ed Dad, or hate-watched wedding dress shows with Mom, in almost a year? It’s a little surreal, and not in a great way. In the past 11 months, I’ve fallen mostly out of contact with close friends (I love you guys, even if I suck at actually calling you guys), I haven’t tripped over the Charleston bricks, and I’ve craved flavor-blasted Goldfish. It’s been a long time.
And then it hasn’t. The next group of volunteers, G18, is arriving on March 15th. When I realize that, suddenly everything I was feeling a year ago comes back, and it feels like no time at all. I was majorly stressing out (G16ers like to remind me how neurotic I sounded via facebook…woops), trying to spend time with family, friends, and my ex-boyfriend, and eagerly/nervously counting down the days until I could get on the plane. I can’t believe that it’s been 11 months since I met my cohort, because I remember so much of it as if it was yesterday.
If there are any G18ers reading this…
Try to relax. It will be okay, one way or another. You will have find the things you need to find and do the things you need to do. You’ll learn Shqip, and then promptly forget most of it and use the same parts over and over again.
Spend time with your family and friends. That’s the stuff I remember of my last month at home (that, and the feeling of triumph when I walked out of my temp job for the last time), not the packing or lists or dealing with financial stuff.
Savor the moments. Try to journal them, or take pictures, or whatever you do to document your memories.
Take a deep breath. Try not to kill anyone during training. It will be over sooner than you know. That said, it will be the best of times and the worst of times. You’ll get to spend tons of time with your new friends (you don’t get nearly as much time with them later!), you’ll be in the honeymoon phase, and you get a ton of support from staff. It’s spring, it’s beautiful (when it isn’t cold rain outside). Hell, there are even doughnuts in Elbasan! And… you’ll be adjusting culturally, trying to learn a difficult language, and generally having way too much stimulation and not enough alone time. Plus the cold rain. If you try to see the positive, it will be better. But allow yourself the chance to grumble and get it off your chest.
that the people here really look up to us, and see our country as the model of democracy (even when our country proves deeply flawed). I wish more Americans felt the responsibility of positioning ourselves as a world power, and that we worked hard to make ourselves worthy of other countries’ respect.
Our volunteer reporting forms ask us this question three times a year. It tends to make me think about the way my views of my own country are changing as I’m here, so I thought I’d share them.
At this point it’s obvious that I suck at blogging. Nevertheless, I wanted to at least write down a few thoughts about 2014 before I forget any more. I think in a few years, I’ll look back on 2014 as being huge for me. I’ve had some very difficult times, of course, but overall it’s been great. I have seen so much, learned so much, and met so many wonderful people. When I think back on this year, my heart overflows, and if half my years alive measure up to this one, I’ll have an incredible life.
January– Shortly after 2014 started, I went with my Dad, sister, and brother to Miami to see the Tigers play in the Orange Bowl. It was my last Clemson game before I left, and despite the ridiculous refs, we managed to pull a win against Ohio State in the end. I also “volunteered” with Matt at the World Beer Festival in Columbia. I say “volunteer” because we got to go around tasting beers after our shift. Plus, we managed to snag a spot at the Highland Brewery table (my favorite brewery in the Carolinas) and got SWAG. Towards the end of January, it snowed a lot, and I built my first decent-sized snowman with Matt’s help.
February– Matt and I did a day trip to Asheville for an early Valentine’s day, where we ate delicious food (fancy chocolate!) and explored. My study abroad roommate, Amy, came down to visit Charleston, which was the first time I’d seen her since we left Italy. I went to Florence to say goodbye to Colleen and Daniel. I put the “freaking out about Albania” pedal to the metal.
March– tjqtjrthljn Left my temp job, tried to get all my loose ends in order before leaving, and said my goodbyes to friends. Stressful times. In between packing and all that jazz, I spent a weekend in Charleston, where I had a goodbye lunch with extended family, showed Matt around my alma mater and such, and had drinks and long conversations with my college friends. And tried not to cry. I mostly succeeded until I saw Charleston in my rearview, and then I fell to pieces (probably not the safest driving I’ve ever done). I had goodbye lunch with my stepmom and stepsister (and cried some more). On the 16th, I took Matt to his place in Columbia and bawled a good bit more (we had agreed to break up when I left). Later that day, my family and I went to the airport, said our goodbyes (more tears, surprise surprise) and I was off. Thankfully, I realized very quickly at staging the next day that my cohort has some wonderful people in it. One of my strongest memories of staging is that night, when a group of us were at a local bar drinking our last American drinks for a while. At one point, we were taking turns speaking in about 7 or 8 different languages to each other (obviously not just me), and my nerdy heart melted for these people. I had that feeling the Dutch call “gezelligheid” and knew everything would be okay. After we arrived in Albania, we had a whirlwind orientation and then were thrown out to the villages to begin homestay and training.
April- Training. I literally have nothing marked on my calendar (probably
because I barely used my computer). We got up, went to language classes, did cultural activities, went home, ate and chatted with family, went to bed, and did it all again. Some days we went to Elbasan for hub, which was exciting because a) not village life and b) we got to see the rest of the cohort. We did a weekend of volunteer visit, which I spent in Bilisht/Korca (eating awesome food) with a volunteer there. We had a lot of fun times (hanging out with my village group, coming to Elbasan) and not so fun times (practicum confusion, Kevin’s broken ankle), and towards the end of the month, a lot of anxiety over the upcoming site announcement.
May– Well, site announcement, of course. I was a roller coaster of emotions over my site (Oh yay! My site… Oh god it’s so tiny…But it’s not training!… But I’m re-opening it all alone). We had one week more of training (lots of hub days, Language Proficiency Interviews) after announcements, and then it was time. We swore in (and sang “Avash avash”) and then went to Durres for Counterpart Conference, i.e. the first time we meet our work partners for the next two years. Hava, who I think in retrospect was about as nervous as I was, left bright orange-red lipstick on my cheeks the first time she greeted me. We discovered that Steve was in Flubber. When it was time to go I was holding back tears over leaving my friends (yet again) but excited and nervous to see my home for the next two years. I saw it for the first time and thought, “This is gorgeous. Yes, yes I think I will stay.” And then we started. The next few weeks was a mix of fumbling through my first solo health lessons, loneliness, and Lliy Allen songs. Thankfully, volunteers around me were looking out for me. I went to Uje i Fhtote to meet up with Tyler and Laurel. At the end of the month, I went to Patos for a day or two and got Kajsi!
I started June off with my first trip further south. I helped out with the Delvine GLOW camp and got to hang out in the evenings with the wonderful volunteers in the area. I continued teaching a bit, got an Outdoor Ambassadors group briefly off the ground, and hosted two sweet Taiwanese couchsurfers. And then, after a Solstice party in Berat, it was time to return to Elbasan for more training. It was kind of wonderful to see my friends again- that first month was pretty difficult for me. The Gjergjan kids and I hung out on my family’s living room floor, soaking the cold from the tile and watching movies in the afternoons. Our cohort had a trip to Kruja.
July– Our time together quickly ended, but it was all right, because a lot of traveling happens in the summer around here. On the way back to site I stopped in Kavaje for the first Fourth of July party. I then went home for about two days, went to help at the Gjirokaster GLOW camp, hosted two Jordanian PCVs and Masha for a night, and then went back down to Ksamil for the second Fourth of July volunteer bash. Over the remaining three-ish weeks of July, I helped at the Patos GLOW camp, Write On! Gjirokaster camp, and the Roma camp in Gjirokaster. There was a lot of sleeping in my hammock at the Gjirokaster volunteer’s place. And a minor stomach ailment. Plus, somehow Joyce came for a night and Jessica came for a fun (albeit badly sunburned) weekend.
August started out slowly. A week or so in, I went up to Peshkopi to visit with friends. We made “hamburgers,” visited the local springs, and hung out. After Peshkopi I went to Outdoor Ambassadors camp for the week. It was exhausting (probably because it was blazing hot and I had a migrainey week) but I think the kids got a lot out of it. I’ll admit I had a bit of fun, too, and I even got a chance to pick up archery again. The next week I headed to Corovoda and Mt. Tomorri for Kulmuk with some Albanian PCVs and a couple recent RPCVs from Mongolia. Kulmuk was fun, and the stars were awesome, but after standing next to a pile of smelly sheep innards, I no longer feel any desire to consume sheep.
We opened September with my town’s first GLOW camp. It almost fell apart, but for Mira’s help rallying some girls together. Nevertheless, it was a hit with the girls, who got to do arts and crafts, play frisbee, try creative writing, and other fun activities with Paulina, Laurel, and I. A week later, a local girl named Megi and I went to the GLOW Convention in Durres. It was a blast! We did fun stuff, of course, but also lots of girls’ empowerment activities… and a healthy dose of dancing. I even got to teach a healthy relationships session, which is a topic I find even more important here in Albania. A week after that, I went back up to central Albania for my host brother’s wedding in Gjergjan. There’s an entire blog post on that, though. 😛
The second weekend of the month, I went with a local boy’s family to Tirana to support him as he took the YES exam- it’s for a program that would have him do a year of high school in America. Since I was already that far, I went up to Rubik for the Northern Dinner that night, which meant I saw a bunch of my friends who are normally too far to see often. The next weekend was Language Weekend, or two days of Shqip lessons in Gjirokaster. It was greatly improved by the company- all the volunteers from my cohort in the Deep South, plus one of the other Gjirokaster PCVs. The next week was my birthday, so that weekend I met up with Jessica, Erik, and Bruno in Tirana for birthday dinner and bowling. And then came Halloween, i.e. nobody shows up unless Meredith is unprepared. I held a Halloween party in a local assembly area, and I kid you not, at least 150 people showed up. Unfortunately, nobody ever comes to my other activities in town, so I was only prepared for about 40 of them. Obobo.
November started in Berat with the annual Halloween party. I went as the TARDIS, but apparently most PCVs don’t watch Doctor Who. Woops! It was a wonderful time, of course, as pretty much everything is in Berat. The next day, though, I was dancing around my apartment like an idiot… and fell and hurt my ankle. Not badly, but enough that my half-week of work before Language Refresher got cut down to no work that week. I packed anything clean and remotely professional, caught a bus to Tirana, and got checked out. The next day the Northern volunteers started showing up en route to LR, so we had a night out at an Indian restaurant (fancy!). Language Refresher was ehh. As it goes. We had a short trip to a picturesque village/park nearby, I managed to screw up the song Kelsey and I sang for the Talent Show, and we stayed up playing trivia at night. But it’s always nice to see friends. The next weekend I went to Vlore for OA/YLC business. And then my mother and brother came! My mom was here for a week, and we saw Tirana, Kruja, Elbasan, and the infamous Southern coastal road together. Alex came on Thanksgiving day, and we saw Gjirokaster and Kruja. Both got to meet my counterpart and see my town a bit, and Mom got to eat (a gigantic) lunch and learn circle dancing with my host family. We spent Thanksgiving evening with PCVs in Kelcyre, I think both look forward to coming back.
In early December, I spent my first full weekend at site in 2 months (toooo loonnngggg). It was a glorious respite. I then went to Taco Tuesday in Gramsh and prepared to head out on my Christmas holiday. I’ll make a separate post about the trip, but I went to Hamburg and Berlin with Alex, to Prague solo, and to Budapest with Erik and an awesome bunch of PCVs from Georgia (the country) and Kosovo. It was difficult to leave them. I spent NYE in Tirana with other volunteers, and that begins a whole new adventure… I mean year.
I realize writing this that it sounds like I haven’t been in my town since June (I promise I have). I’ve had a great time on trips, traveling around Albania, at volunteer gatherings, and yes, to an extent, at trainings. But I’ve also gotten some decent work done, and I’m looking forward to seeing it take off this next year. I’ve done tons of health lessons at the schools and kindergarten. My counterpart and I did a slew of breast self-exam presentations with women around town and a hypertension screening with pensioners. We managed to have a GLOW camp, and I suppose a Halloween party, though I’d rather block that out. And I’ve been thrilled to work with OA, GLOW, Write On!, and Roma camps/conferences around Albania.
This coming year is looking promising, as well. My CP and I are about to head to a project design and management conference that will help us convert our ideas to action. I’ve just found a school period in which kids are gender-divided and not busy, so I’ll be teaching some sexuality education in addition to general health lessons. The OA committee is gearing up for YLC, and a GLOW committee may be in the works as well.
This past year has flown by, but somehow I suspect this next one will be even faster.
In late September, I attended the wedding of my host brother and his fiancee. It was an awesome cultural experience, but definitely a bit overwhelming for an introvert like me. The weekend started with a party for the groom on Friday night. Lots of loud music, dancing, and for me, taking photos. I danced enough to embarrass myself, and then I found a niche taking photos, as the photographer wasn’t at this event. People loved having their pictures taken, even if the photographer wasn’t awesome. Woops!
The highlight of the evening was a tradition that we don’t have in the States. I’m not sure what they call it, but basically the groom ritually burns one of his shirts and dances around it with the other bachelors.
Saturday was fairly calm, which was nice. I liked the wedding overall, but it was just so energy-draining. Every time I was outside of “my” room, I had to interact constantly with Albanians. In Albanian. At least in my everyday conversation, people usually start talking to each other and ignoring me briefly because they assume I wouldn’t understand anyway. The benefits of people being used to you, I guess.
Sunday was the bulk of the celebrations. The day started with some music and dancing, and then the groom’s family went to get the bride from her family home near Librazhd. Interesting moments:
1) The women and men separate at the bride’s family home. I didn’t see the men’s room, but it seemed they were drinking raki and Turkish coffee. The women stuff money into the bride’s hands, bouquet, and even down the front of her dress as they congratulate her. Then some of the older women sang songs that (I think) were about the sadness of her leaving the family home. The bride cries, and I’m not sure if it’s legitimate sadness or half-show, as she will see her family again and was already living apart from them.
2) The caravan of cars that goes to pick up the bride is decked out in fabric and such, and they drive together, often leaning on the horn for long periods of time. At one point, the people in my car basically looked at me and said to sit in the window and wave a piece of fabric, like the people in other cars. (Sorry Mom and Dad.) The cars aren’t supposed to drive back the same way, so we drove the long way around, through another small city.
3) Someone from the family sprinkles alcohol ahead of the bride and groom. I don’t know why.
4) The bride and groom take their photos (alone) after this ceremony.
5) There was yet more dancing and music when we returned, followed by a quiet evening.
The main event was… big. Loud. Long. The bride’s family met us at the groom’s family home, and around 9:00pm, we set out for the lokal. I went and found a seat while the bride and groom made their entrance, and then we all started eating. And eating. And eating. There was a vegetable plate, surrounded by plates of bread, fruit, salce kosi, and other dishes. The waiters brought out sodas, unlimited beers, and bottled water. Then they brought out the meat. What meat, I’m not sure. There was one that tasted like breaded veal, and another that seemed baked, but I don’t know for sure. Then the dancing really started in earnest, mostly circle dancing. And the music was so loud, so numbingly loud, that I had to step out for 5-10 minutes multiple times throughout the night. But by this point I finally had the basic circle dancing step mostly down, so I was able to participate without (too much) embarrassment.
It was actually fairly fun, for the first few hours. After midnight, I wanted to go home. And it kept going. I had heard that maybe I could politely leave around 1:00am, but when I spoke to a girl my age, she said it wouldn’t be polite to leave before 2:00am. So I stayed. When I tried to get up around two, she said, “Stay a little longer.” I stayed fifteen more minutes… at which point they finally cut the cake. I figured I should stay to try the cake, but somehow, the servers missed my table. After about 10 more minutes, I got up and left along with a crowd from the wedding. And when I got back to the house? The guy who was watching it was asleep. And the door to get upstairs was locked. I spent 10 minutes waking up the guy (he was an incredibly heavy sleeper), only for him to tell me he didn’t have the key. After another 10 minutes or so of trying to communicate, me looking around the house for a key, and him finally calling someone at the wedding, he left to go get the key. And I just cried. I know, it was stupid, but I was so tired and so ready for bed, and I needed to get up around 8. Thankfully, the guy came back quickly with the groom. Why the groom had the key, when realistically he would never be the first person home, is beyond me.
Needless to say, I was happy with my decision to go to Tirana the next day. A bacon cheeseburger from the Stephen Center made everything feel a little better. The wedding was fun, but so very draining. I don’t know how some volunteers (and obviously Albanians) do this multiple times each summer.
The time is passing so quickly here, it’s mind-boggling! The past month or so has been a great mix of time at site and time away.
Towards the end of August I participated in a religious festival near Berat and Çorovode called Kulmuk, but all the volunteers here call it Blood Fest. Basically, we (and thousands of Albanians) head up Mount Tomorri, where thousands of sheep are ritually slaughtered and eaten. I did not personally slaughter any sheep, and frankly, I no longer eat sheep after my time there, but it was a great cultural experience nonetheless. A group of volunteers and I met up in Çorovode, where we spent the night, ate delicious pizza, and stargazed. A couple Mongolian RPCVs and an Austrian couchsurfer joined us, and hearing about their experiences was interesting. While we were on the mountain, we played games, stargazed some more, chatted with Albanians, and hitchhiked up to the very top, where there was a space for lighting candles and slaughtering sheep. The views from the top were incredible. I’m actually pretty sure I could see the ridges near my house from the top. Funny thing- it takes a long time to get around Albania, but it’s a very small country.
After we came down from the mountain, we were… we were disgusting. We only spent one night up there, but a) it was very dusty, b) it was hot out on the way up/down, c) no showers, and d) nasty, nasty bathrooms. A volunteer in Berat was kind enough to host a bunch of us. We showered, went to a tasty place where I had my first waffle in months, and had a small party that evening. The morning after, the Mongolian RPCVs, Austrian and I climbed to the Berat castle. I proceeded to Tirana for an appointment the next morning. I said before that I was putting off going to Tirana for fear that I’d want to go all the time once I started. And I was right. This particular visit, my friends Jessica and Lucy took me to the Stevens Center, a restaurant with American, Mexican, and Asian-style food. I dream of their bacon cheeseburgers and chocolate-almond milkshakes now. I also stayed at Andriano’s, the hotel PCVs here use most, for the first time. I got to use an air conditioning. It. Was. Incredible.
A couple weeks later, I held my town’s first GLOW (Girls Leading Our World) camp. Nothing huge- two mornings with arts and crafts, some simple activities on goal-setting, writing, and so on. In fact, it was looking like it wasn’t going to happen, as not many girls showed up. Thankfully, a visiting PC staff member is from the next town over, so she called a friend whose daughters gathered a few extra girls. After that, it went swimmingly. Some of the girls seemed really excited for the GLOW group during the school year, so hopefully that’ll work out.
The week after that was the GLOW Conference, and we were able to get one of the girls from my town in. The conference was a great success- I think the girls learned a lot, met new friends, and got motivated to succeed. Plus, the embassy awarded the GLOW program the ACT Now award, so all the girls got to meet Ambassador Arvizu and Minister Gjermeni, one of the highest-ranking women in Albania. Kat and I also led an activity on domestic violence, and it was awesome seeing how mature and insightful the girls are at such young ages.
Shortly thereafter, I attended the wedding of my host brother and his fiancee, but more about that soon!