Monday, March 27, 2017

Week Two

Spring is Blossoming in Albania

While I am slowly reconnecting nerve synapses where my basic understanding of grammar is ingrained, I am also waking up to the realities of being in Albania as a Peace Corps Volunteer. The level and sophistication of training is quite immense to say the least. But then, they have had 56 years to fine tune this process. I keep going back to the fact that I was born in the same year this initiative came to be and where the world was then and where it is now.

In my many conversations with my mother about world events, we both reflected on how I was born in extremely interesting times. 1961 was barely a generation after the end of World War II. Stories of the Holocaust and the war were still quite fresh in the global consciousness. America was seen as the great vanquisher of evil by defeating the Nazi’s, and for reasons I will never understand, our dropping of the atomic bomb and unleashing the “destroyer of worlds” really never overshadowed how we ended the war that was to end all wars. is the link to watch this historic original PSA announcement.

It was out of this war that John F Kennedy emerged to be a Senator and then President. “Ich bin ein Berliner” and “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country” became motto's for a generation in many respects. One can watch the public service announcement given by Kennedy on the Peace Corps You Tube channel. While only about a minute and a half long, he talks about the aspects of America that are often hidden, that we desire to be of assistance to others and to live in peace. The horrors of that war, and especially the aftermath caused much reflection on a level not reached in generations past. While humans have been quite busy slaughtering each other for all sorts of reasons for the last 10,000 years and calling it war, something quite different did emerge in the aftermath of WWII in that there were quite thoughtful and massive attempts to recover and prevent future catastrophes. The United Nations, the Declaration of Human Rights, the Youth Hostel Movement, Eurail and Peace Corps all came out of the notion that if we as a human community recognize the dignity of all peoples and the necessity of getting to know one another in the spirit of cooperation, maybe, just maybe we would not slaughter each other in mechanized zeal in the future. Another truly revolutionary outcome to war after WWII was the Marshall Plan. This massive assistance program was commenced to rebuild war devastated Western Europe and Japan in terms of infrastructure. The prosperity of these areas and basically friendly terms we have been on since WW II is a testament to the success of this program.

The Grade School where I am learning Albanian and where my practicum will occur, outside of Elbasan in a village called Bisquem

In one of our many training sessions in Pre Service Training, we were given a talk about development. The Peace Corps aims to assist host countries who ask for volunteers in community development, English language training and health education sectors. The aim is to help the people of the host nation through education so that they can have sustainable projects in many different areas. In some nations, engineers are asked for to assist in water infrastructure projects, other nations request agricultural experts and such. The Marshall Plan is seen as the first attempt at modern development assistance. It struck me in terms of my age and awareness, that most of the delightful twentysomethings are not that familiar with either World War II or the Marshall Plan. But then, why would they be in many respects? My uncles fought in that war and were part of the reconstruction efforts after the war. My lovely twentysomething cohorts  were born long afterward.

In more progressive and environmental circles, the subject of “development” is quite controversial. What is development exactly, and whom does it benefit? From what I am seeing in the Peace Corps, the projects would certainly pass muster in terms of the sustainability and culturally sensitive arenas, no problems at all.

What continually amazes me as well as causes me great pride is the almost hyper attention our Peace Corps training is to being culturally sensitive to the host nation. The care to be as inclusive and caring for the diversity of the volunteers is also something of almost a shock when compared with the disdain and rudeness upon which the current president’s administration seems to be based. What I am also struck by in terms of listening to current volunteers talk about in the context of their own experience is the tension between individual identity and the collective culture where we Americans are volunteering. It seems to be more of an issue with younger volunteers, but this may be an issue of their evolving biography. As an older volunteer, and an extremely independent person who has simply gotten used to being isolated due to lack of real peers, I have learned that my own identity is not dependent on how I am seen by others. This may not be as easy of a context for those who are emerging from the group consciousness of youth. But I think it is a great cultural challenge for Americans who are more independent in general to be in a culture that is more communal.

I am intrigued by the evolving process of the training; First Aid, Safety, Process, Policy, Language and now “shadowing.” As Albanian TV seems to be this odd mixture of reality based game shows and Indian Soap Operas. I feel like each step of  our training is a new reveal on one of the game shows I watch nightly with my host family. We met our host families in such a manner, where we were announced and met our respective hosts in what felt like an awards show. For the current reveal, we received an email stating where we would be sent for a few days to observe an existing volunteer in one of the regions being served. People all tuned into their IPhones for the reveal, where we were given the name and location of our site assignment and volunteer, and waited for the phone numbers so we could text and connect. I keep wondering how all of this was done before social media and the internet. 

On the more human side, I have been exploring more of the local institutions, such as markets. Near our hub, I went to a market that was recommended by a local. Many of my fellow volunteers are lamenting the lack of basic condiments available with Albanian cuisine. I was able to secure some Heinz Ketchup and Tabasco Sauce for desperate volunteers, and I have been able to drop by some interesting spice stores and organic options. I am also quite enjoying watching my valley erupt into spring, with baby chicks, blossoms, emerging leaves and lambs. 

I hope my language skills improve. It is nice to have a day off just to study, as we are given about four major topics every day in terms of verbs, sentence structure and vocabulary. I have decided that Albanian sounds like Valeryian from Game of Thrones, so I will be able to sound like Queen Danerys even though I will never EVER look like her. We celebrated Norwiz, which in the US is Persian New Year. My family sacrificed a Turkey for the occasion, and also made a Buryek with a coin in it, the daughter discovered it. I am seeing strawberries in the markets, and there is a waffle house next to our hub.

The most interesting thing I learned in terms of culture is how religiously tolerant the Albanians are, which is interesting because religious tolerance and Balkans are rarely mentioned in the same sentence. Somehow the obliteration of religion under the communist regime, while destroying priceless churches and mosques, seemed to actually do what the practice intended, stop religious divisions. With all the horrors associated with the Crusades and Eastern Europe, the fighting between different Christian Sects as well as between Christians and Muslims, it seems to be absent now and here in Albania. I think this is another aspect of the culture that should be spread beyond its borders. I am curious to explore this further, mainly because however they got to this place, it is REALLY important that this sort of toleration be emulated, particularly in America at this juncture in our own history.

So, I have completed two weeks of training. In many ways, my life in the states, my history seems so faint and distant, and I am curious what it will be like to spend two years here. As I was able to get to the internet today and read up on the current insanity of the administration and the GOP legislators, the one thing that the Peace Corps staff and volunteers seem to agree on is it is nice to not be in the US right now during this unsettled time, to not be immersed. But it does hurt every time our president is featured on Albanian news. He is reported as to his latest antics, the failure of the health care bill made it to the evening news, along side the latest Albanian Soccer team performance and the upcoming Albanian elections. I actually cried when I was watching Kennedy’s Peace Corps PSA during our Hub Day training, when I thought of the selfish man who now occupies the oval office. When you compare the Peace Corps with the supposed initiatives of President number 45, the difference could not be starker. I am glad the Peace Corps exists, in Kennedy’s words, to show an aspect of America that is especially hidden. With the boorish crass current president representing America to the rest of the world at present, it is more important than ever that the world knows America actually does want to be of assistance, to share our blessings, our heart with others, and that we do indeed wish to live in peace with other nations, as well as learn about their cultures and their people.

Children circle dancing at the grade school in Bisquem, Albania

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