In the middle of June, Peace Corps Albania hosted the All Volunteer Conference in Tirana. Before this event, which included three classes of Peace Corps Volunteers and the staff of Peace Corps Albania, there was a special two day workshop for my class of volunteers, (AKA: A 20) for our mid service. It is truly hard to believe I am at the point of being “mid service.” My class of volunteers are now the “old hats” of Peace Corps Albania. We have been round many a block, mountain top and deep valley in the past year. It is our turn to lead and help the newer class of volunteers (A 21’s) as they begin the arduous task of figuring out how to integrate into a new culture with a very foreign language and customs.
Mid service workshops for my class included strategy sessions on how to deal with stress, maintain health and also planning out our last year in Albania. We were given the nuts and bolts of: these are your optional departure dates, this is what is expected of you in terms of finishing out grants, these sorts of reports are due at what times. We also received our mid service physical exams and dental check ups. The Albanian winter along with her excellent cheese and bread has enlarged my girth so to speak, so one of the things the Peace Corps physician pointed out to me, was my need to lessen my mass in the coming year. Being a dentist’s daughter who was raised on floss and fluoride, meant I had quite stellar teeth for a woman of my ripe old age. The dentist told me as she probed away, “what ever you are doing, keep doing it.”
The current United States Ambassador to Albania, California native Donald Lu, is retiring his post here in Albania. He is going off to one of the “stans” so was unable to host his annual post 4th of July cook out for Peace Corps. Instead, we had the pleasure of having a burger BBQ at the newly renovated Peace Corps headquarters in Tirana, with CIA (Culinary Institute of America, that is,) trained chef and volunteer from Vlore, Christine. Chef Christine pretty much single handedly made an amazing array of salads, burgers, hot dogs and brownies for the festivities. It was fun to relax with the new volunteers and catch up with members of my own class that I had not seen for quite a while. We ended the conference with a service project where Peace Corps and other local Albanian volunteer groups helped to paint a mural on a wall at the central park of Tirana.
We had numerous speakers during the all volunteer portion of our conference, highlighting the impact Peace Corps has had on Albanians. In addition, there were several speakers on how the history of the communist regime affected every day Albanians. In many respects, Albania experienced a much harsher and more isolating communism than the other Warsaw Pact nations. They liken it to what is currently going on in North Korea. The Dictator Hoxha found both the USSR and China to be too liberal, and completely isolated his nation in an island of terror.
Not being enthusiastic enough during a political speech, a sarcastic remark about the leader or protesting some arbitrary rule set in place by a local party boss could land a person in a forced labor camp for life. Agricultural work was the punishment of choice for most people, and several generations of family members of the offending “traitor to the regeim” could be forcibly moved to one of these villages where collective farms existed. This labor camp approach to centralized agriculture policy has deeply harmed the agriculture sector, but the Albanians and their western counterparts are making headway nearly a generation after the end of communism. Albanians were routinely rounded up, tortured and murdered with random abandon. Friends and family of the disappeared were shunned by their communities, the children of these families could not attend school. Spouses of the offender were mandated to divorce their partners on grounds that they could not be married to enemies of the state.
An Albanian author told us these stories during her session of the All Volunteer Conference. She has published numerous books on her experience. She told of us how she and her family were punished for her being an inquisitive articulate Physics PHD candidate, and how her husband embraced his forced divorce from her and their young son. Only at the last part of her speech, did she begin to cry, and at this time, I noticed some of the older Peace Corps Albanian staff were also crying. When the Americans reached out to comfort these normally cheerful and positive Albanian staff members, we were told, “you can not imagine what it was like to go through this…”
Something stuck with me, after the session, that the author relayed during her talk. She said her experience with modern Albanians is they simply do not want to talk about the collective trauma. People reflect that the past is past, their is nothing that can be done to change it, and that the nation needs to simply live in the present and future. My experience as a health care provider, student of brain and neurophysiology and my own trauma, bristles at this notion. Trauma simply repeats itself until the wound is dealt with, brain research shows that trauma to the parents directly affects the brain and neurophysiology of their offspring, even if the trauma occurs before the child is conceived. If the mother experiences trauma, even emotional trauma during her pregnancy, then the effects are pronounced both physically and emotionally in the baby. My Peace Corps focus group after the presentation talked about this phenomena, and we reflected that we could see the effects of the communist nightmare at our respective sites in numerous ways.
After the fall of the communist regime, Albania experienced another trauma of an economic collapse. An elaborate ponzi scheme took over the banks. The population, who was unfamiliar with basic capitalistic practises as well as self governance, sunk into a civil war. Tribal warlords and familial loyalty became the law of the land, pitting communities and neighbors against one another. Peace Corps closed down their initiative in Albania during this time, and waited for several years before the government was able to stabilize enough to invite them back.
As we volunteers talk amongst each other about our experiences in our respective communities, it is clear that this trauma of nearly 50 years of a repressive authoritarian regime coupled with the chaos afterwords has left its scars on the people of Albania. Corruption is the number one issue facing Albania today. It is the main reason that Albania has not entered the European Union. The United States and the EU and member states of Germany, Denmark, and Italy, along with Switzerland have invested billions in direct aid as well as expertise to help modernize the Albanian economy and infrastructure.
The United States felt that the only way to create lasting stability was to help organize the military and purge the police and judiciary of corrupt members. As you can imagine, those who are getting purged are not very happy about their loss of income and influence, but advances are being made, slowly but happening in spite of great opposition from organized crime and corrupt officials. Honest people were flown to the United States for military training, US judges and US Embassy officials helped instruct Albanians on how a judiciary based on the rule of law behaves. The OSCE has conducted years of trainings on how to hold free and fair elections, and also monitors each cycle so as to report irregularities to the newly formed court system.
But old habits die hard, scars that have never been tended to, surface at the slightest trigger. Some Peace Corps volunteers are accused of being CIA, others have their projects yanked by local officials because they can not fathom that anyone would actually use money given to them for the betterment of a community.
I had my own brush with the old wounds of communism in my living situation. After a year of what I thought was a harmonious and friendly relationship with my landlords, things blew up in ways I could not imagine. My land lady is what one would call a bit on the neurotic side when it comes to cleaning. I tried my best to keep up with the program, mainly because I was reminded on a regular basis that the apartment where I was staying cost them a lot of money, and that they were not getting what they wanted in terms of rent. (I was actually paying about 50% over market value for one room, not the entire flat which I was forbidden to occupy) In my haste to go to the All Volunteer Conference, I broke a glass shelf while cleaning it, and left a note with an apology along with an offer to pay for the damages. When I returned, all my kitchen cabinets were covered in plastic, because apparently I had been destroying those as well, by using toilet cleaner on the surface. I assured her I had only used water and a cloth, but she would not believe me, again because the apartment had cost so much money and I was ruining it. I felt that my stay had suddenly become unwelcome, and alerted Peace Corps that I needed to move quickly. Through my network of teachers and city hall, several options presented themselves. Things seemed to quiet down with the landlady, and I thought I could ride it out till the end of Summer and then think about moving.
After a quiet weekend of hiking and baking for the upcoming Summer camp, my landlady left me a six page hand written note. I tried translating it, and the most I could decipher was that she was unhappy, I was costing her a lot of money and that I was ruining her investment, as she was a pensioner. I asked an English teacher to translate the note for me, and after reading one paragraph, he told me he did not want to read me the rest, that I did not want to know what she had written. I pushed him on, and lets say, he was actually right. Those words will never leave me, and were on the surface some of the most hurtful things that have ever been said to me by anyone. I joked with some of my younger volunteers that I had more civil break ups with boyfriends than what was said to me in writing as well as outright yelling for hours by this woman.
Basically, I will spare my readers the cruel lies she made up about me. The note was accusing me of stealing from her and causing her economic hardship. I alerted Peace Corps and the “trigger” was pulled that enabled me to be out of the apartment by the next few days. My site mates as well as Peace Corps staff were amazing in their spontaneous assistance in the matter. A two hour screaming match ensued when Peace Corps came to help finalize the move, along with settling my payment for the real damage I had caused (breaking the glass shelf.) I will never forget the Peace Corps rep putting her glasses on while my land lady ripped away the plastic to expose my so called damage to the cabinets. Since there was none done, she of course could not see it. My other great sins were putting spices in the freezer and a bottle of olive oil in the fridge, in addition to placing my suitcases on the bed while I packed them. Apparently all of these blunders made me completely unsuitable not only to rent from her, but apparently it was a wonder I had been accepted in the human race as well. Unfortunately for them, I am their main source of income, which came to an abrupt and un planned end. But really, it was not my choosing.
When I pulled away from the situation, I tried to comprehend how such a harmonious and mutually beneficial living situation deteriorated so quickly into complete hostility over non existent issues. Then I remembered that talk given by the author, and it started to make sense. While I do think my land lady is sinking into dementia, when you realize she had all of her adult life under Hoxha, one can only imagine what she witnessed, endured and possibly contributed towards during that nearly 50 year long nightmare. Was she a person who turned in neighbors and friends for political favor or retribution for imagined slights? Was this just the way things are done? Instead of simply telling me they needed to rent out the complete flat for more money and giving me a months notice, was all the histrionics and cruelty just how things are done in a terrorist oppressive community?
Two times I brought a different Albanian with me to help settle up afterwords. Each Albanian was equally brutalized and accused of horrible things, collaborating to steal from them, and skimming money that should have gone to the landlords. What was so striking to me during this emotionally charged period was the juxtaposition of experiences with my summer camps and projects. The children were so delightful and enthusiastic, grateful for all I do for them. Apparently they did not get the memo that I was a CIA spy actively trying to financially ruin the elderly in Albania. While destroying a refrigerator freezer with spices, I was arranging numerous connections to benefit the High School students as we strive to create Albanian Language Wikipedia conferences and camps for our herb garden project. I helped to secure a counterparts participation in an Agricultural conference in America, where the attendees will for the first time hear about the amazing advancements being made in Albania. While dismantling kitchen cabinets with toilet cleaner, me, other volunteers and the students had an absolute BLAST celebrating America at our America camp, creating flags, Antonio, Nick and I showing slides of our respective states, and of course the Fourth of July picnic and stick ball game, where my Country Director joined us for the celebrations. I even picked up some American college students visiting Albania who joined us in the festivities. Obviously I am being very sarcastic, but it was quite the spectrum of experiences in terms of how I am operating as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Berat.
It was such a complex and informative week, the conference, the “break up” of my home, the camps and initiatives. In a way, it showed the great challenges of Albania as she strives to heal from her trauma and go forward. My landlords showed the old way, full of hurt, suspicion and jealousy that could be triggered by the most mundane of situations. The students are the future, not as burdened by trauma, eager to embrace the new and full of life and expectation.
How is it that we volunteers can fit into this layered culture with so much collective pain and collective potential? Peace Corps has chosen to focus it’s efforts on the youth. I think this is wise, and certainly where I am having most of my success.
In the Gospel readings for today, the story of the lame man at Bethesda was retold. Jesus commanded that he pick up his pallet and walk, and he did, much to the surprise of him and those around him. People frozen in their hatred and hurt could not celebrate the lame man’s healing. Apparently Jesus did not have the proper paper work to perform miracles, and also, he violated the no work on the Sabbath rule. But the man was healed. This story resonated with me after this truly roller coaster week. Not that I claim to be a Messiah, but that sometimes those who are ill simply do not want to “pick up their pallets and walk.” They would rather mire themselves in anger, and remain frozen, while others who want to heal, eagerly pick up and start moving forward.
As I nurse my broken heart over the cruelty I received from my landlords, the way I move forward is to immerse myself in the beauty and enthusiasm of the children and youth with whom I work. As innovative projects ensue, I watch the high school students develop their knowledge base in Wikipedia and how to do credible research on line, I listen to their intelligent and creative questions, and know their experiences will lead to gainful employment and also the broadening of knowledge base for Albanians. I watch my primary school children embrace the rules of base ball and create beautiful artwork celebrating the natural beauty of Berat. I watch them soaking up new ideas about science and collaboration, I witness them learning to think creatively. I know these children and youth are picking up the pallets of their ancestors and walking forward. I hope they feel my love for them, and in some small way, this love can help heal the ancestral trauma, so we can all collectively move forward on this amazing planet at this pivotal time in history.