A weekend away

I spent this weekend in the city of Vlore visiting a current Peace Corps volunteer who is working at the regional Ministry of Education and doing teacher trainings all over the place. The volunteer I stayed with speaks Albanian beautifully and gives me hope that someday (probably right before I’m ready to leave of course) I will be speaking just as well. In a city of more than 200,000 people she stopped and had a conversation with someone she knew everywhere we went. I could go on, but let’s just say her experience in Vlore is so so so inspirational and leave it at that.

Each of the 44 volunteers in our group went to a different city this weekend to see what life is reeeaaally like as a volunteer and to get out of our little training bubble. For me, the weekend was more like the greatest vacation I could have asked for. Vlore is the second largest beach town in Albania, so it’s huge and beautiful and right on the Mediterranean. The buildings literally go out onto the ocean and butt up to the sand. After feeling sequestered and cooped up in the tiny town of Bishqem, it was so refreshing to be in a big city surrounded by mountains on one side and the ocean and palm trees on the other.

I basically spent three days working out at her gym (with actual exercise equipment!), taking 30 minutes hot showers with serious water pressure, sitting at cafes on the waterfront, going to English bookstores, stuffing my face with seafood and vegetables, surfing the internet, and shopping…with tears of joy in my eyes. Don’t laugh, I think it actually made my month to have a few days of American-style living, honestly. For the first time in 3 weeks I felt like a real person again; it was beautiful. We even stayed out passed midnight (my first time being out past 6pm in Albania) bar hoping from karaoke bars to cocktail lounges. I probably looked like an idiot because I couldn’t wipe the huge smile off my face. It was like living a dream.

The funny thing is, that by the end of the third day, I was actually missing Bishqem. Never thought I’d say that! I was picturing myself living here for the next two years, trying to make an impact while teaching at a local high school and realized just how hard it would be to put my American self away and try to integrate into the community. Vlore is a stunningly beautiful city with all the amenities of everyday life in America and I will definitely definitely definitely be coming back for vacation asap, but there’s something to be said for the serene simplicity of village life in Bishqem. It makes it easier to accept that you’re far from home and part of a different culture. I actually found myself thinking how nice it is to remove yourself from the crowds, the dusty streets, and the high prices of city living for a little. I always thought I was a city girl at heart, and I think I still am somewhere deep down; but now I know that I want to spend my two years of service away from all the lights and chaos. Who would’ve thought. 

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My typical day in Bishqem

Bishqem is a small farm town (the bus driver told us its just a “spot on the highway”), so I wake up when the rooster crows, literally. As soon as the sunrises and light beams into my bedroom at 6:00am, I’m up and ready to go. It’s amazing how peaceful and easy it is to wake up in the morning without blaring an alarm clock and blinding your eyes by switching on the light. Then again, maybe it’s so easy to wake up at the crack of dawn because I go to bed shortly after the sun sets…but what else is there to do after dark on a farm besides go to bed? Hang out with the cows? There are no streetlights in Bishqem and there is no night life here. And I don’t just mean there are no clubs or bars, I mean there is actually nothing moving outside at night. When the sun starts setting everyone heads home, eats dinner, watches the news, and goes to bed. It’s a simple life, but a good one.

After breakfast I walk about half a mile to school where I have Albanian language classes for the next five hours. Don’t worry, we break for coffee and snacks about a million times so it flies by. We eat lunch at a place that supposedly sells “fast food” if you believe the sign, but by Albanian standards that means fresh-cut salads, yogurt, bread, souvlaki, rice with meatballs, and fruit. Huge upgrade from what I thought I would be getting at a fast food place, that’s for sure. When they described it at first, I was more than hesitant because this “fast food” place (and the hub of the social scene) in Bishqem is at the gas station. Imagine telling an American that they will be eating lunch at a fast food gas station restaurant every day- every one of our faces was marred with sheer panic until we got to town and saw it for ourselves. It’s actually pretty nice…and the cappuccinos are to die for.

Once class and lunch are over I usually just hang out at the café to study. Now, by 5:00pm I absolutely have to be home, or I will miss the highlight of my host sister’s day (and therefore mine by assimilation)- Menekshe ile Halil. It’s this intense Turkish soap opera that comes on every day at the same time. So you can imagine just how slow moving the plot is. It’s like daytime soaps in the U.S., just at night…that is if you factor in the language barrier and the culturally approved topics. Now in typical female fashion, I’ve gotten quite hooked (even only after a few day) and am genuinely excited for tomorrow so that I can see if Menekshe’s finance, Halil, will find her kidnapper and rescue her before the wedding is supposed to take place. What can I say, some things transcend all languages.

When dinner is over and my brain hurts from translating the captioning on the television, I go up to my room and pass out almost instantly. The day may feel like it takes forever at first, but I think I really could get used to this.