All good things must end

COS is hard.

For those non-Peace Corps Volunteers who may be reading, allow me to explain. COS is one of 623 million government acronyms that we like to use. It stands for “close of service” (or “continuation of service” for people who extend and stay another year in country). And it’s the best and worst time of a PCV’s 27 months in country. I’m speaking from personal experience here, as this will be my last blog post. I return to the US next week.

Never in my life have I been simultaneously ecstatic and depressed, filled with excitement and overwhelmed by dread. One minute I’m jumping up and down at the thought of eating sushi and burritos and hugging my mom, and 3 minutes later I’m sobbing at the thought of never stepping foot in my school again and never having coffee with my counterpart. My poor little brain can’t handle it.

You see, part of our job as PCVs is to integrate into our communities. They tell us over and over again during training that to be successful we have to adapt our habits, adjust to Albanian customs, get used to new cultural norms. We have to forge new relationships and find a way to feel at home while abroad. We have to bring pieces of America here and take pieces of Albania with us. So we do that, and we do it well. But then just 2 years later they tell us it’s time to go, and inside I’m thinking “Wait! I’m not ready! First you tell me to make Albania my home and now you’re telling me I have to leave? How is that fair?!”

We have so many times in our lives when we have to say goodbye and move on. We graduate from high school and go to university. Then we graduate from university and get  a job or go to grad school. Maybe we get married and maybe we move. Over and over again we go through this process of ending one chapter and starting a new one. But for some reason this feels different. I can’t just hop on the metro and see my college friends again. I can’t just take a road trip and a long weekend. Yes, America is a big place but people travel, it’s not that uncommon, so saying goodbye is easier. Leaving Albania is different.

I now have 2 homes and 2 families- one in the US and one right here. How can you say goodbye to people you love who’ve supported you and been there for you and built you up to the person you are today, and never know when you’ll see them again? I won’t be there to celebrate their future successes or hug them when they fail. I won’t get to encourage them to take a risk or stop them from making a big mistake. And that’s the hardest part. Not saying goodbye to all the memories but missing out on what’s to come.

If you had asked me 2 years if I thought I’d become so attached to this place I would’ve have laughed and say no way. I thought this was just a job. Just something I’d do for 2 years before moving on to the next thing. I never thought a little country in the Balkans would come to mean so much to me and become such an integral part of who I am. But somehow these people and this country and this language and this culture became a part of who I am. I get excited when I see Albania in the news or hear a reference made in a TV show. And I keep having to tell myself “Danielle, you’re not actually Albanian, remember? Calm down.” But I can’t, because I feel like I belong here. And that’s all thanks to the wonderful students and teachers and friends who I’ve met in Shkoder who welcomed me in and made me their family.

I’m so thankful for the opportunities I’ve had here as a PCV and as a Shkodrane. I’ve made some incredible friends who I will never forget. And I hope somewhere down the line our paths will cross. Because in the end that’s the only thing that gives me the strength to get on the airplane. I just have to hope I made a difference and hope I left a mark and hope they remember all the things we did together and all the things we dreamed of doing. And then I just have to wait and see what happens.

…and thanks to my incredible students who put together this video for me. I love you all and good luck with everything you do!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VrNkEIpk4hM&feature=youtu.be

“It’s not better. It’s not worse. It’s just different.” 

The hidden side of Albania

Part of my job as a PCV is to integrate into the Albanian community. But no matter how hard I try, there will always be a hidden side of this culture and every culture I inhabit as a foreigner. Even though I speak Albanian relatively well and have lived and worked side-by-side with these people for 2 years, I am still American. I’m still an outsider and I always will be.

9 times out of 10 this works to my advantage. I’m just now coming to realize that part of the reason I love this country so much is because I’m not actually Albanian. Strange, right? Because I’m a foreigner, I get to do things that native girls would never be able to get away with. I can walk the streets at night with my friends after everyone has gone to bed without fearing for my safety. I can order 3 beers at a bar without judgement. I don’t have to worry when a car full of men drives by. I can wear what I want to school and not get in trouble for dressing inappropriately. I can demand respect from men who are older than me. I could hold hands with a boyfriend and even announce I had a boyfriend in public without retribution. The list goes on.

You see, Albanian women do not have these small luxuries. The Albania I experience every day is very different from the Albania that have lived in their whole lives. They are much more limited by social expectations and gender roles than I ever will be, because I have the eternal excuse of “yea but she’s American.” I was always aware that I was treated differently for being a foreigner, but I never understood to what extent this impacted by impression of Albania until last week when I was with a group of teachers having lunch after school.

We were all gathered around a table eating, drinking, and talking when all of the sudden things got a little tense. I couldn’t hear what was going on at first because the DJ was blasting folk music at a decibel that should be illegal, but I quickly got the gist of it. The woman sitting next to me, who I respect more than anyone else in this country, was being ridiculed by the elderly men across the table. I could feel the air instantly shift as her back straightened and she leaned forward across the table to defend herself. I sat there helplessly, not knowing what to say, as this incredible female role model of mine was being verbal attacked. Afterward when she told me what they were discussing I became so ashamed. Ashamed that my Albanian wasn’t good enough to defend her and ashamed that I wasn’t brave enough to stand up to these men like she was. I just sat there and watched.

These older male teachers were telling her that she was a bad woman and a bad wife for not having a son. They went on and on about her role in her family and the shame she brought them by not having a son. They told her it was her obligation to have another child and give her husband a son. They were so adamant that it was responsibility and her fault and her greatest failure in life that I was struck speechless.

Never in my life have I witnessed a conversation like this in Albania. People always told me it’s an undercurrent of society and happens all the time, and I always nodded along like “yea, sure, I know, but not the new generation, that’s something the older people had to deal with.” But here was a young teacher I respect and love like a sister facing it herself. Right in front of me. I couldn’t believe the audacity they had to ridicule her like this in the middle of a celebratory lunch in front of all her peers, coworkers, bosses, friends, and everyone else. Moreover I couldn’t believe they thought it was their business what happens between her and her husband. But somehow it was.

My friend handled the entire situation with grace and dignity (yet another reason why I idolize her). She thanked them for treating her like a sister and taking an interest in her life. That’s right, she thanked them. Talk about diplomatic. But at the same time she remained firm that she was proud to have two daughters and loved her husband and they were both content with the family they had. For 20 minutes they harangued her and she sat there and took it. She never backed down and refused to admit it was her mistake.

This is the hidden side of Albania that I will never have to face. And I’m so happy that I won’t have to, but at the same time I feel guilty that I’m able to walk through my city with freedom and liberty that these women never will (at least until the next generation takes power). It was then that I realized that I love this country so much because I get to live like and American, not an Albanian. Albanian women still suffer social stigmas and repressive gender roles that my grandparents and great grandparents faced in the USA. It’s like living in the history books and reliving the stories I heard about my ancestors growing up. That day was such an eye-opening moment for me that I will look at every Albanian woman with a new level of respect and sympathy for the rest of my time here. They are so strong to face such opposition. They are so brave to face such a mentality. They are my inspiration for working even harder to give new opportunities to the youth of this country. My only hope is they also learn from these experiences too and make a promise to change things when they are parents some day.

 

“It’s not better. It’s not worse. It’s just different.”

Things I learned in Albania

I’m attempting to “reintegrate” into the American lifestyle, so in order to do that I will now proceed to post only in list form. Thanks to Buzzfeed for starting this trend of condensing our lives into lists and quizzes. God bless America.

 

Lessons I’ve learned from being a Peace Corps Volunteer in Albania:

1. I can do anything for 2 years.

The last 24 months have seriously flown by. And it wasn’t that bad either. As a matter of fact it was quite amazing. So yes, that’s some motivation for the rest of my life. 2 years just doesn’t feel that long anymore.

2. If you need more cups, buy more Nutella

Yes, all the glasses in my kitchen were formally Nutella jars that I ate, cleaned, and proceeded to drink out of. It’s a thing here, I promise.

3. All you need is the internet.

For the last 2 years I’ve used this little laptop as a cellphone, television, movie theater, sound system, radio, library, and all-around connector to the world outside Albania. Thank you inventor of the internet.

4. Carbs won’t kill me.

In the USA I was one of those people who only ate organic, fat-free, dairy-free, paleo-friendly food. I must have been so annoying. And I’ve done nothing but eat potatoes, bread, fat and oil for the last 2 years. Haven’t died yet so I might just continue when I get home.

5. Showering is overrated.

In the USA I showered every single morning before work and sometimes twice if I went to the gym that day. But here laziness and poverty and cold temperatures impaired that habit just a bit. That’s what ponytails were made for. So take from a John Steinbeck book I just read, “When I bathed one a week I didn’t seem that dirty, but now that I shower every day I can’t stand the smell of myself.”

6. iPhones are overrated.

Peace Corps provided me with one of the original Nokia brick-like cell phones. Worked just fine for 2 years, come rain or hellfire this thing will never break. And I honestly enjoyed the hiatus from constant contact and ringing. Plus having to re-learn T9 was kind of fun.

7. Anything is single-serving if you try hard enough.

My sister taught me this one and I’ve test it time and time again here. Ordering a pizza and eating the whole thing is quite normal in Albania. And I can now add to my list of accomplishments, eating an entire batch of cookie dough, brownie dough, frosting can, jar of peanut butter, loaf of bread, boxes of cereal, the list goes one. You don’t want to know.

8. Slower is better sometimes.

I was one of those overachieving go-getters who wanted to do everything and be in five places at once in the USA. Life in American moves so quickly that sometimes you forget to breathe. Life in Albania is about 600 times slower than that. And I love it.

9. Chickens make great alarm clocks.

I used to hate waking up to the blaring alarm clock in the USA. But in Albania I wake up when the sun comes through my window, the chickens start cock-a-doodle-doing and the church bells start chiming. It’s awesome. Also gives me enough time to read my book and drink coffee before going to work, which makes me oh so happy.

10. I don’t need all that stuff.

American is a consumerist culture. Albania wishes it could be. But I really like that it’s not. In the US I was definitely a victim of “keeping up with the Jones” and was peer pressured into buying things I didn’t need just to have them. But here I’ve lived on relatively nothing and haven’t gone shopping in about a year and a half (back home I was quite a shopaholic). At first I went through withdrawal but now I have to admit I’m quite happy with what little I have.

11. You don’t need to wash you clothes so much.

In the US I used to wear something once then wash it. But in Albania I’ve learned the art of minimizing laundry loads by wearing the same outfit several days (sometimes weeks) in a raw. Community integration! And unless I fell in mud or spilled my lunch, no one can tell the difference between my freshly washed jeans and those I’ve worn all week. At least I think so.

12. The power of saying hello.

Albanians don’t walk around with headphones in or cell phones glued to their ears. They say hello to each other as they walk down the street and it’s awesome. Both a great way to practice the language and amazing way to make new friends. Plus it’s incredible how your entire day can change just by having someone smile at you and say hello. That is something I’m definitely bringing back home with me.

 

“It’s not better. It’s not worse. It’s just different.”

Let the countdown begin

This week we had our Close of Service conference so now I can officially say I’ve reached the beginning of the end of my time in Albania. What a whirlwind.

Group 15 at our COS conference in Korca

Group 15 at our COS conference in Korca

When I first arrived in Albania and was suffering through training (affectionally known as PST), I thought this day would never come. I was living with a host family in a village outside of Elbasan, and the weeks dragged on as I went from session to session and listened to speakers explain with monotonous detail what the next months of my life would look like. I was so anxious to get my assignment and get to work that I let those precious moments of awkward cultural integration slip right by me. For better or for worse.

But now that the time is nearing for me to go back home to to Washington, DC I can’t help but reflect on what has been an incredible journey in Albania. Without a doubt the next few months will be bittersweet. I know for some volunteers it may be more sweet than bitter to be going home to the amenities and luxuries of life in the USA, but for me I think it’s quite the opposite.

Serving as a TEFL volunteer in Shkoder has been one of the biggest blessings of my life. And coming from a very non-religious person, I chose the word blessing for a reason. When my group of 40something volunteers first got our assignments, I remember physically jumping up and down out of pure joy at being place in Shkoder. I also remember the looks of resentment mixed with jealousy and confusion on the faces of my fellow PCVs. Life in Peace Corps isn’t always fair. For one reason or another some of us get placed in big cities while others are placed in small remote villages. Some of us spend our days with the support o NGOs and big foreign donors while others go it alone in the face of adversity and resistance.  Some of us live with host families, some in run-down apartments with turkish toilets and 1 hr of water a day, and others in private homes with internet and electricity 24/7.

They emphasize over and over again how everyone’s service will be different, but I don’t think we really understand the extent of that difference until we arrive at our sites and see what we’ll be doing for the next 24 months of our lives. So yes, I was blessed to be placed in Shkoder. I haven’t had nearly as many difficulties and I didn’t suffer nearly as much as many other PCVs in Albania (not to mention PCVs around the world). But if there’s one thing I hate most, it’s trying to compare the service of PCVs to one another. You simply can’t do it, so please don’t try.  

At COS conference this week, we focused a lot on how to sell our PC service to future employers and how to describe it to friends and family back home. But honestly I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to do that. The last 2 years of my life here have been full of personal and professional transformations that are impossible to describe. I’ve made some of the best friends of my entire life in this country. I’ve had both the hardest day imaginable and the best day ever, and probably back to back. My service in Shkoder was a mixture of every single paradox you can think of. It was difficult yet simple; rewarding yet frustrating; uplighting yet depressing; challenging yet mind numbing. Which I think is a commonality amongst PCVs world wide. It’s “the toughest job you’ll ever love.”

But if you really want to understand what it’s like to be a PCV in Albania, come and try it yourself.

It’s a strange feeling having an official day that marks the end of my time here. But when I got off that furgon and arrived in Shkoder after the conference ended, I took a deep breath and tried to let it all sink in. For the next four months I want to savor every moment. Remember every detail. Etch it all into my brain so that I never forget the way this country looks and feels, the way it’s changed me as a person, and the mark I’ve left on this place. There will always be a place for Albania in my heart, that I know for sure.

“It’s not better. It’s not worse. It’s just different.”

In the eye of the beholder

Lately it seems like the classrooms of Shkoder have become my own person soapboxes. I’ve been using daily English lessons to try and right the wrongs in society, open minds, and change the world. All in the short 45 minutes before the bell rings. Anyone shocked that results are typically a little underwhelming? Me neither.

But this week the topic of my lesson wasn’t something particularly unique to Albania (although I’d argue that it’s severely heightened here). It’s something that plagues people the world over. And that’s the concept of beauty.

Albania is full of some of the skinniest men and women I’ve ever seen in my entire life. Genetics? Mediterranean diet? Whatever reason you’d like to give, I know for a fact that societal pressures also play a very big role in the reason why so many people are ungodly skinny here.

In the USA we think we have a big problem with the media portraying women in an unrealistic light. Which is true. And many Americans suffer from disordered eating and unhealthy body images as a result. But now imagine being surrounded by that exact same image from tv/magazine/movie but in real life. Every day. Living in Albania has shown me that the fake images photoshopped into magazines in the US are in fact a reality for some people. We might have some serious teenage body issues in the USA but we also have high rates of obesity and positive public health campaigns working against both those things. Needless to say, the variety in appearances in the US make it easier for you to relax and accept who you are.

But I struggle so much in Albania because I don’t have the Albanian body-type. It’s hard to stand out that much every single day. Especially because people here are not shy about expressing their opinions.

Almost every single day someone says to me your face is too round, or stomach is too big, or your legs are too fat, or your arms are too this and your hands are too that. Nothing is off limits. I try to let it roll off without taking offense, but it’s hard. In the USA people would never dream of saying something like that to you. Never in a million years. If someone says “does this dress make me look fat?” the answer is always “no”. But in Albania if someone asks you that, the answer always seems to be “yes, and you should lose 2 kilos”. (Not sure which culture is in the right here, probably neither, but it’s an interesting juxtaposition.)

Sometimes it’s hard for me to hide my shock or offense when these comments are directed at me, but I watch Albanian women absorb these hurtful words and let them roll off gracefully. How do they do it?! How are they not offended by that?! Probably because they are used to it. And that’s not necessarily a good thing. I can’t tell you how many times someone has said to me they are on a diet, meaning they are not eating at all, period, end of sentence. No matter how many times I try to tell them that’s not how you lose weight, they don’t want to hear it. All that matters is at the end of the day, standing on the scale and being down 1 kilo. Because then you’ll get a husband. Then you’ll get married. Then you’ll finally be happy. Right?

Albania places an inordinate amount of pressure on women to look good, probably because at the end of the day the thing they value most is the family. And if you aren’t married it’s probably your fault and you should probably lose some weight so you can get a guy. Oh and dye your hair, wear more make up, and put on higher heels with a shorter dress. That will do it.

So all week in class I’ve been showing this amazing TED talk and hoping that some day people look in the mirror and like what they see.

Check it out: Looks Aren’t Everything, Believe Me I’m a Model

It’s hard to live in a society for 2 years that I would argue has more pressure to be skinny and beautiful than any in the US. Don’t get me wrong, I love the honesty. But sometimes too much is too much. Don’t you think I know my legs are thicker than yours? No need for you to remind me and bring me down, thanks.

But instead of giving in to the pressure and starving myself, I’ve decided to spread the word and convince others to join me in loving who they are and stop apologizing for how they look. We as a society, Albanian or American or anything else, need to stop being so hard on each other. If people would stop harping on everything that’s wrong with how we look, we’d all be a little happier. And isn’t happiness more important than being skinny anyway? So watch out English classes of Shkoder, you’re next.

“It’s not better. It’s not worse. It’s just different.” 

We’re our own worst enemy

I’ve never learned so much about myself or my country than the day I left it.

Distance really does give you perspective. And the lesson I’ve taken away from it is this: we are our own worst enemy. It’s only normal that Americans like to think America is a great place. And it can be, don’t get me wrong. But what has become even more apparent to me is that Americans are their own worst enemy when it comes to spreading our culture and our ideas. And why is that? No matter how much embassy workers and politicians do to improve relations with foreign nationals and heads of state, at the end of the day that’s not the message that’s heard. The real image of America comes from movies, songs, tv shows, and the like. And is that reeaallly the image we want people to have of the good old U S of A?

Let me give you an example, living in Albania the things my students “know” about America is that high schoolers ride in limos to prom, people drink from these strange red cups at parties, everyone is always getting drunk, school is easy (we just party, never study, never ever get homework, and spend the whole day eating in the cafeteria), people are always getting murdered, everyone is rich, and my least favorite- that using the n-word is totally okay.

Think about it. When you watch your favorite shows or listen to your favorite music, is that the general theme?

Just last week some of my best and brightest kids in Shkoder thought it would be funny to start referring to each other by the n-word. No matter how much I asked them to stop they just kept doing it, laughing, and telling me it’s okay. “All the rapers call each other that! It’s in all the songs!” I dare you to try and explain to a foreign kid why it’s okay for African Americans to call each other that yet it’s not okay for them to use it. Good luck. It just doesn’t make sense to them why a word used in every one of their favorite songs could be so terrible. (And if we’re being quite honest I don’t like it when anyone uses it, regardless of their skin color or chosen profession.)

It’s taken me 2 years, but I can honestly say I’ve tried my best to dispel the strange stereotypes of Americans that I hear from Albanians and I try to correct their political incorrectness. But at the end of the day, it’s like banging my head against a wall because I’m fighting against an advertising machine. And it’s hard to fight against an entire industry and try to convince these stubborn kid that they are wrong and shouldn’t just go around repeating everything they hear on tv or the radio. But 9 times out of 10 they just don’t get it and 1 week later they are throwing the word around again on facebook like’s it’s nothing.

Unfortunately, American (big and small, famous and not) probably don’t even realize just how big their influence is on the rest of the world. Everything is printed and released in English nowadays, so like it or not if you want to participate in world affairs of any genre you need to learn English. And beyond that Americans somehow have taken over way too many other stages (whether it’s Olympic sports or Nobel Prizes). So people in different countries all over the world often look to the US for direction (among many other countries, I know, don’t send me hate mail).

But my point is this. People of all ages rely celebrities for a glimpse into their definition of a glamourous lifestyle, an American lifestyle. US Foreign Service Officers are trained for this daunting responsibility of representing and entire culture and population. What to say,what to do, how to walk, how to talk, how to represent your country with pride and dignity. But these loose cannons in Hollywood and across the US releasing videos and songs to the susceptible public abroad? They have no clue.

Instead the world is filled with youth who think it’s cool to throw around racial slurs and stereotype Americans from what they see on Pretty Little Liars. So for what it’s worth, you’ve been warned. You are your own worst enemy. The next time you get upset about someone misrepresenting you, your country, your ethnicity, or your culture just remember- you were the one who showed them in the first place.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve walked down the streets and had 5 years say “Fuck you!” and “Kiss my dick!” (Yes, kiss, not suck. And yes I correct them everytime.) and “What’s up my nigga!”. It’s horrific. These kids don’t speak a word of English otherwise. These are the only phrases they know. And they unknowingly walk through the streets portraying this side of America to anyone and everyone who will listen.

So please, think before you talk. Think before you sing. Think before you act and press submit on that youtube video. Someone out there is watching and looking to you for direction.

As Americans we are lucky, on one hand, to be born in a country that seems perpetually 1 step ahead of the rest of the world whether we like it or not. But as the age old expression says, with that comes great responsibility. You are representing all America. So work with me here and try to help the youth of the world become better people, not worse. More open-minded and not closed off. More accepting, and not prejudiced. It’s the least we can do.

“It’s not better. It’s not worse. It’s just different.”

Baby fever

It’s a running joke in PCV land (at least in Albania) that baby fever is contagious amongst some female volunteers. Living abroad by yourself makes your really lonely sometimes,  you know. So when you see adorable little babies you get this “baby fever”, like ahh I wish I had a baby, and omg how cute is that little kid! And then this desire quickly spreads to your other females friends and before you know it everyone’s planning their dream wedding.

Okay I said this is common amongst some female volunteers. Key word being “some” because those of you who know me, know that I am not one of those “some”. Chalk it up to my stubborn career-driven self or whatever you like, but that feeling of oh I wish I had a baby, never really overwhelms me. 

But I can’t say the same for Albanian men.

Sometimes it seems like this whole country has baby fever. It’s kind of precious and kind of annoying all at the same time. As a woman, I get ridiculed constantly when I’m honest and say I’m 24 and not looking for a husband and a family right now. Older women stare at my aghast and horrified that it’s not my deepest desire to be pregnant and married. It’s like I’ve rocked them to their core and insulted their reason for living (probably because I have). They take pity on me and say the greatest thing a woman can do is have a baby. And that’s where I let the conversation die because I just can’t argue anymore, so I smile and say some day, maybe some day.

The great thing about Albania is that this nurturing instinct isn’t really a division between the sexes. When I ask my students what they want in their future, equal numbers of men and women say they want the perfect marriage and children as say they want to be rich and famous. And I can honestly say it’s pretty refreshing to see so many men in touch with what we’d call “their feminine side”.

Point in case, the other day I was at the gym running on the treadmill surrounded by the macho-men of Shkoder lifting weights. Just a little backstory here, it’s the same guys there every Saturday morning so we’ve become “gym buddies” if you know what I mean. We smile, wave, say hello, and then put our headphones back in and continue our workouts. One of these guys is the owner and he’s about 6 ft. tall and solid as a bodybuilder (probably because he is one). He affectionately refers to me as Hussein Bolt and “the American”. So you could say we’re pretty close.

Yesterday was just like every other Saturday morning at the gym. But in the middle of my run, this little 2 year girl with pink bows in her hair and a matching pink frilly dress waddled through the door. Immediately all the big macho-weight lifters put down their weights, bent down, and said hello to this tiny little child. Each and every one of them grinning ear to hear. The owner (aforementioned bodybuilder) then proceeded to pick her up, twirl her around, get down on all fours and chase her around the gym as she squealed with pleasure for the next 10 minutes. It may have been the cutest thing I’ve ever seen in my entire life.

Who would’ve thought that these big manly-men grunting and sweating in the weight room would totally lose it over a little baby?! But that’s Albania for you. A country so focused on families that even the macho-est man in the room can’t contain himself in the face of an adorable child. And that’s what makes Albanian men such great dads (for the most part, because like every country and advertisement on tv “certain exceptions my able”). I can’t tell you how many men I’ve seen carrying their kids through grocery stores or walking hand-in-hand down the street. It melts my heart every time.

Probably because when I first came here I was warned about the treatment of women and how I’d feel frustrated by the traditional family roles in Albania. And it was true, for the most part. But the longer I’ve lived here the more I’ve gotten to see Albania for what it really is. And despite the gender roles and stereotypes so entrenched in this society, there seems to be one thing that brings the sexes together. And that’s baby fever. The family unit in Albania is that strong; which is just one more thing I love about this place.

 

“It’s not better. It’s not worse. It’s just different.”