There is a little man who stands outside our school. Okay, I probably shouldn’t start a story that way because it seems creepy, but it’s true! If only you knew him, you’d understand how un-creepy he is. As a matter of fact, he may just be one of my favorite people in Shkoder. Every time I come to school he smiles and waves and says “Do you have my passport?! When are you taking me to America?!” I just smile and laugh and say “later, later!” After almost 2 years, it’s become a thing. And I love it.
It seems that all of my stories have to do with my bicycle these days, and I apologize in advance if you’re sick of hearing about it, but Shkoder is in fact the Amsterdam of Albania (aka the city of bicycles). So please indulge me with one more story about how my bicycle shapes my life here in Albania. Can’t promise it will be my last though!
So I stay after school almost every day to work with different student groups at my high school. Unfortunately extracurriculars aren’t very popular in my community (or most others in Albania for that matter). Actually when I arrived here and started working there wasn’t a single one. It was so interesting to my students when I explained to them that at my high school in the U.S. there are at least 30 different after school clubs. In the end, they pretty much begged me to start a club here with them. “Well don’t threaten me with a good time!” as one of my good friends back home would say. And we were off.
It is so thrilling to work with talented and motivated youth in Albania. They are literally bursting at the seams with the chance to express their opinion, organize activities with their peers, do volunteer work, and make their city better. It’s stunning. When I first came to Albania I have to admit that I was a little overwhelmed by the initial sense of hopelessness and apathy that I found. It seemed that Albanians didn’t care about their future, their livelihood, their wellbeing, or anything. Complacency was everywhere. And that was my mistake. I didn’t dig deep enough.
But now I’ve arrived. I have a group of more than 30 students who meet every week to plan incredible activities in our community. Our group is called “Change the World” and every week we try to do just that. Honestly, these kids inspire me more than I do them I think!
At this point I’m sure you’re probably wondering where my bicycle comes in. Well the moment has arrived.
One day, I was meeting with my students after school, like usual, but this time we finished early. When I went downstairs to get my bicycle and head home, it was nowhere to be found. I immediately started panicking. My first thought was that one of my students thought it would be funny to take it. Not funny. But I ran back upstairs and into the director’s office, “I can’t find my bicycle! Where is the man who stands at the door! Did he see someone take it?” I ask her desperately. She immediately picks up the phone and calls the little man who stands at the door. My heart is racing and I’m hoping that he knows where my bicycle is.
Loe and behold, he does know where it is! And why is that you might ask? That’s right, because he was currently riding it. You’d think I would be upset, but in fact I just started laughing. As it turned out, he needed to go make some photocopies for a teacher and knew I always stay late at school, so he hoped on my bike and off he went. I couldn’t contain the smile that spread across my face. It may seem strange to some of you that I would enjoy the fact that he borrowed my bicycle. But actually it’s not. To me, it was a sign that this is my home and these are people. It gave me a sense of belonging. What’s mine is yours, and all of that.
Even though the longest conversation I’ve ever had with this man was about 2 sentences, he still treats me like family. 5 minutes later I saw him riding around the corner, waving at me furiously. No apologies and not a care in the world. He wasn’t embarrassed to have been caught taking my bike (since I’m sure this was not the first time, just the first time I’d noticed). At first this seemed strange to me, but then I was flattered. “I’ve made it,” I told myself. This place is my home and this is where I belong.
That’s Albania for you. If you stick around long enough, people start taking your things. But in a good way.
“It’s not better. It’s not worse. It’s just different.”