|2018 Close of Service Ceremony at Peace Corps Albania Headquarters, Country Director Kate Becker officiating.|
Last Summer at the Albania All Peace Corps Volunteer Conference in Tirana, the then co-country director (who has since gone on to other career path’s) put up a number on the white board. It was the number 87. We were asked what the number stood for, and after many guesses, we were told it was the number of weeks we had left in our service. As a health care provider who worked with pregnant women, I thought to my self, wow, that is almost two gestational periods. It was interesting to hear the number however, mainly because it seemed so long, and yet I knew it would fly bye.
When I arrived at my site assignment in May of 2017, one of the first orders of business was to meet with the existing Peace Corps volunteers in town. My class site mate, Antonio, and I had just met in the days leading up to our new community. We were warmly greeted by both Miguel and Erik, and were given the low down and need to knows for Peace Corps Volunteer survival in Berat. At the end of the Summer, we started a weekly pot luck, where we would share our respective stories, challenges and see how we could help one another in our varied projects. What was particularly interesting for me, was listening to Miguel and Erik talk about their experiences prior to our arrival. For this year since I have been on site, I have also found it useful to witness them in their final year of service. In a way, it was like private tutoring sessions on what to expect as we spent out our days in the 87 weeks to come.
It is a unique experience being an older volunteer. Most volunteers are in their 20’s, fresh out of either college or grad school. Life questions are looming large, and mixed in with the ever pervading challenges of finding meaningful impact in a foreign country with only 24 months to accomplish something of value. Watching Erik and Miguel was in actuality, viewing our future, and seemed to drive home that 87 week reveal in a very profound way. Volunteers come to service knowing it is temporary, and one needs to prepare accordingly when you are watching those who have been at this task before.
In many ways, it is beyond my comprehension that I have been in Albania for a year now. As I have figured out the bus schedules, where to get certain condiments and the best places for vegetables, it seems a bit odd to know in a year this will all be a very sweet memory.
|G19 Class of Albanian Peace Corps Volunteers being addressed by US Ambassador Donald Lu|
I was chosen to help out with the Close of Service Ceremony at the newly remodeled Peace Corps Headquarters in Tirana. For the past two classes, it has been a milestone for Peace Corps in Albania. I was in the 20th class of sworn in volunteers, and the group ahead of us marked the 20th year to complete service and become what is called a “Returned Peace Corps Volunteer.” (RPCV) Both my swearing in, and this years Close of Service was attended by the current US Ambassador Donald Lu, who himself is a RPCV. (Personally, I feel an affinity with him as a fellow Orange County Californian as well, he coming from Huntington Beach.) His words at my swearing in, as well as the Close of Service were very personal and insightful mainly because he has served in Peace Corps as a college student. His service later inspired him to start a career track with the State Department.
|PC Albania Country Director Kate Becker and US Ambassador Donald Lu at 2018 Close of Service Ceremony|
Ambassador Lu speaks from experience when he told the recently graduated RPCV’s that they need to prepare for re-entering life after service. He told about his European tour after service, of returning to a changed America, and also how the RPCV's need to prepare themselves for how after the first few service stories, friends, coworkers and loved ones do not find Peace Corps adventure tales all that interesting. He also informed the RPCV’s that they will always carry their host nation in their hearts.
|Nick, Pricilla, ME, Antonio, Erik and Miguel at our Burrito Send Off Celebration|
I was reflecting on this as I returned to Berat after the service. The week before, when all the good bye rituals were being honored with Erik, Miguel and others, it was very bittersweet. Cook outs, excursions, special dinners and celebrations were being had all over Albania as the G19ers as we call them, were slowly disengaging from their communities. The A20 and A21 volunteers were scoring all sorts of possessions and food items as the G19’s shed their accumulated stuff from their service. I got several shirts, a travel pillow, electric blanket, a broken but working electric floor fan and rain poncho, in addition to some absolutely amazing spices and food items given to Miguel in care packages from his mom and girlfriend. Here in Berat, we had a large gathering of volunteers from all three classes gather at Erik’s house for a cook out and a water pong marathon. On the G19 last night at site, I hosted with Antonio a burrito supper in honor of Erik and Miguel. Our new site mate Nick joined us, and luckily our French volunteer Pricilla had come back early from her trip so she could join in the fun. We have all come to truly cherish these weekly potlucks as a way to eat Albanian/American fusion cuisine and giggle about our cultural misunderstandings. I will miss the Berat G19ers very much.
Earlier that day I received a phone call from a A 20 volunteer who had just said goodbye to her G19 site mate. She was very upset and needed to talk to someone about her grief. We reflected on the fact that it is a very intense experience to navigate a different culture in service, and how difficult it is to convey our experience to friends and family back home. I hearken it to a military experience, how soldiers have such a bond that we civilians simply can not understand. But Peace Corps service is the opposite of the military in intent, in striving to convey the ideals of America to our host communities.
The day after I returned, I delivered some condiments and spices to Antonio which were left for him in his mailbox at Peace Corps headquarters. He was hosting a Cinco de Mayo taco fest at his place, and a volunteer from a neighboring site was visiting along with our new volunteer Nick. We got right into our discussions about observations of our experience, what the Close of Service ceremony was about, and started planning new activities. So while we missed Erik and Miguel deeply, in essence, life was going on and we were creating new memories.
|Walkway to the St Michael chapel on the Castle Mountain|
Reflecting on my past year, there are a few things I have come to absolutely love about Berat:
The loud thunder and lightning that accompanies every rain storm.
How the dogs sing along with the Call to Prayer from the local mosque, but only when the calls are in the dark.
How there is a ticket taker that walks up and down the bus, taking coins and bills from people and giving them a ticket. I love that they give change, and no mater how crowded the bus is, they push their way through to make sure to get every passenger.
That “farm to table” is just how these people eat for the most part.
That there are grapes on every roof top and a citrus tree in every yard.
That every bit of these grapes and trees are used in making things from Raki to stuffed grape leaves, jam and juice.
How the elderly are always pulling what the rest of us would call weeds from walls, the roads and fences and using them as food and medicine.
Watching teens walk their grandparents on the bus, deliver them to their homes and return alone to their own homes.
The endless display of American tee shirts from everywhere, I saw one from Huntington Beach, CA the other day.
The diversity and complexity of the insects here, there is one type of moth that looks just like a humming bird, I truly have never seen such amazing bugs in my life! From grasshoppers to butterflies, this is really an entomologists dream. I wish I could find a good guide book on the subject.
How the Albanians simply cherish their children.
Watching this cherishing of children in the public parks in the afternoon and evenings.
The clouds, big puffy white clouds that make the dawns and sunsets so spectacular.
The poppies, violets, marigolds, daisy's, and dandelions that dot every square inch of dirt no matter where it is.
The absolutely stunning mountains that seem to strut out from nowhere to ragged peaks.
How when you pick out your produce and hand it to the cashier for payment, the seller gets something different because you would like it better apparently.
How if the seller does not want to make change, they simply put more produce in your bag and smile.
Tzatziki potato chips
Oregano potato chips
That you can get filo dough in a box for about a dollar
While I am tired often and actually homesick on many days, I strive to soak in what surrounds me. As that 87 weeks have quickly reduced to 52, I know there will be many challenges ahead, but also much laughter and pure joy in watching the children grow and friendships deepen. It will pass quickly, quicker that I would like, so now I try to enjoy the sound of the rain and the shapes of the clouds, the aroma of orange blossoms, honeysuckle and jasmine while trying to figure out the best way to create Mexican food with Albanian ingredients.
|Sunset after a Spring rainstorm|