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.”