Wednesday, March 8, 2017


Peace Corps Albania 20 Class 2017

I got on a plane from LAX to Miami on Friday to join the Albania20 team for what is called in the Peace Corps experience as:"Staging." It was a strange experience these last few days before leaving, trying to figure out what to take, who to speak to, taking care of mundane tasks like alerting my credit card company of my overseas trip and getting my taxes done. With so much upheaval personally and nationally, it was quite a novel experience to know in one way what would be happening to me. I wish I was in better physical shape, meaning exercising more and had more knowledge of the language. I have learned through experience and age, one can actually never really prepare enough for what lies ahead, an open mind an heart seem to actually be more practical in many respects.

As I have been saying for a while, the Peace Corps began in 1961. This year it turned 56, my age almost exactly. It is the third cycle of the moon node in both of our earthly existence, meaning the position of he moon is in the same configuration as it was when we were born and cycles back approximately every 18 - 19 years. The first moon node incorporates a reflection of how one faces the world, does one have the fortitude to embark on adulthood and how to create that scenario. The second moon node one reflects on whether or not one has the community one needs. The third moon node one comes to how one interacts with the Spiritual World. When I reflect on my own life, I can certainly see how these cycles are evident in my own biography, especially now. When I look at the Peace Corps as an entity, it is also an interesting consideration.

The two things I have experienced in terms of the US Federal Government that have been extremely efficient  have been obtaining my passport from the Passport Agency at the Federal Building in Los Angeles, and so far the staging and training of the Peace Corps. It is interesting that in both instances, these agencies are equipping Americans to interact with the world. My only expectation about the Peace Corps was to be open to experiences and to not have any expectations. What I have experienced so far has been massive appreciation and generally overly impressed with the organization and humanity of the agency. Obviously I am in the beginning stages, but to say they have left no stone unturned is an understatement. My only frustrations have been with the airlines, airports and "security" staff that make me feel great empathy for people traveling to concentration camps during WW2.

All of the classes and experiences designed to orient Albania 20 class members have been well executed, useful and actually fun. Just the right combination of touchy feely and this is what you need to know to survive, were all presented by extremely cheerful Peace Corps staff on a hourly basis. Even our disembarkation experience, which is no small feat transporting a 43 extremely independent and experienced adults to the airport with enough luggage to open our own department store was effortless and efficient. Whenever there was some sort of gap, we all helped one another to fill it. Our arrival in Tirana was also one of the easiest I have ever experienced, and that is saying something.

An interesting current weaving itself throughout our coming together as a Peace Corps class is the general unease and frustration with the current US president and administration. Questions were bounced in our Facebook Chat group, we received gentle emails and calls from recruiters regarding our anxieties over the threatened budget buzz saw of those wanting to militarize every aspect of our nation. There were very lively discussions, mainly echo chambers in my estimation, of how upset people are in terms of what is going on in our nation, and a basic unease over if this was a good time to leave the country.

The first time I ever traveled to the Balkans was in the early 80's with my family. My parents purchased an Audi in Frankfurt Germany to drive us about on the way to my father's lecture tour in the then Yugoslavia and Bulgaria. My parents and my two big teenage brothers jammed ourselves in an Audi 2000 sedan car with all of our luggage and my dads slide projector and carousels. I joke that I saw the Balkans in the fetal position on top of suitcases in an Audi. What was of particular interest the whole time we were in the Balkans was the deferential treatment we received. American tourists were extremely rare at that time since it was during the latter days of the cold war. Our family throughout  Bulgaria and the then Yugoslavia, fought over hosting and entertaining us. On many occasions were were seated in a dining room, fed more food than any one human could possibly consume and the village neighbors would be filed in to look at us like we were some sort of new appliance or pet. It was often quite primitive in terms of infrastructure and communications. I remember on one trip in a train, the local dogs were outrunning the locomotive. Since my travels started up in 2011, the differences in the Balkans have been massive. Efficiency (often outpacing the US in terms of Internet access and such), trains, and tourism services are almost unrecognizable compared to the late years of communist governments. But what has also changed in many ways is the orientation the Balkan nations have towards the US and her people.

The Internet and cable television have changed how Americans are perceived. What has also changed is the occurrence of the wars of the 1990's. The biggest change I am curious about is how the current occupant of the White House will affect how Americans are received. The boisterous conversations at staging indicate that our class members are also worried. For me, the deeper question still remains: what does it mean to be an American?

When one is jet lagged and completely changing one's life, weepiness is often a result. When I was standing in one of the many circles we formed during our staging, I would become quite weepy. I would look across the room and see so many different faces. All ages, ethnicities, regions and professional backgrounds were represented. Our class also included several immigrants from different nations who had become US citizens. While obviously we all joining the Peace Corps and are citizens, I would venture to say that we are also a deeply altruistic group. People do not upend their lives, leaving families and careers to live in third world countries for basically no pay if they are selfish. My weepiness came from the realization that these faces I encountered in staging are what it means to be an American.

We come from everywhere, we have basically fine tuned diversity, and in our diversity lies our strength. In the months leading up to my departure, there has been an underlying ambiance of anger in the United States. I think this was what I was encountering in the US airports. The feeling of frustration, of a climate that is trying to pit one against each other is quite novel for most Americans. I also think our nation is struggling to define who we are, what we do and how we present ourselves to one another and the world. With the flush of post WW2, Americans became the model for democracy, freedom and innovation. We have been faltering ever since those heady days, and the current crash of our election is leaving us reeling as to who we are exactly.

I became weepy during staging because the answer to this question came to me as I saw all those faces, those beautiful faces in our circles. I became weepy when I experienced the intense organization around the focus to go and serve in the name of the US for the people of the world. America is an ideal, the highest form and experiment in civil society. The essence of who we are is not in our documents, our systems or anything else, it is in our people who come from all over the world, from every different sort of background and orientation to be one people. We help one another, our ideals are our touchstone, and our differences can be used to fill in the gaps so to speak.

We Peace Corps trainees and volunteers are being trained to be missionaries of the American spirit. In this third moon node of not only the Peace Corps but also my own biography, it is so fitting that during this very challenging time when our presidential leadership is violating every aspect of that spirit that the Peace Corps continues to exist. We have a great task, we volunteers and this government agency started in 1961, we are to convey the spirit of the highest aspects of human civilization to ourselves and also to the world from which we all come in one form or another. I have found out what it means to be an American, and my only hope is that I can live up to this challenge in the days to come.

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