Time, in spite of all our attempts to alter it, marches on. I now have been in Albania nearly two months, and am beginning to gear up to move to my permanent site. The expertly designed pre-service training is entering a new phase of final preparations for trainees to transition to permanent assignment and the status of Peace Corps Volunteer. In previous health sector trainings, volunteers felt they were ill prepared to teach, not the subject matter, but in terms of the mechanisms and format of teaching classes to children and youth. In response to this, our trainings are focusing heavily on remedying the situation. In addition to presenting practicums, we are having numerous sessions and assignments on how to design presentations as well as how to implement behavior changes required of the curriculum on health. We are also being encouraged to expand our service to include projects out of our sector responsibilities in terms of extra curricular activities like clubs and camps.
This week my intestines abandoned their rebellion and were quietly retreating to their normal activities. In the process of trying to implement the BRAT diet (bananas, rice, apples and toast) in my routine, I introduced my family to the glories of steamed apples with fig jam and cinnamon. I also was making my own variant of pilaf. After I felt better, I was able to whip up some crepes and filled them with steamed apples, much to the enjoyment of my host family. My version of crepes are more “eggy” than my host sister was used to, but after she tasted the result, I think this rendition will be offered more frequently in the household.
The older daughter is staying at the house while her husband in abroad working, and has brought her four year old son along. He is an intelligent, sweet and spoiled child in that he is an only son and the only grandchild of the family. The love aimed at this boy is a site to behold, where he has three adult women doting on his every need and hanging on his every word and whim. I am Stefania to him, and we enjoy watching cartoons together, which are actually helping my language recognition. It is a bit of a time warp cultural experience to watch Tom and Gerry cartoons where each speaks Albanian. The other day we played a variant of tag, where one of us would stand on the side of the porch, the other would go away and return to find the the porch occupant. We would trade places after each revelation. He never tired of this, showing glee and giggling each time regardless if he was hiding or being found for the 20th time.
My host sister was helping me with my pronunciation to prepare for my final practicums earlier in the week. With my volunteer partner, we lead a dental hygiene and an HIV/AIDS class to fourth graders and 7th graders respectively. The teachers prepared their students with the material so when we would ask questions, the children would stand to attention and recited the entire text of the lesson ver batum. To mitigate this, my partner had the brilliant idea to have a couple of different questions to get the children to think, inspire discussion outside their prepared remarks as well as fill up class time . The dental hygiene class was a bit rough in that we ran out of material quite quickly since the children had all the answers beforehand. The HIV/AIDS class went much better, especially since the teacher was well versed in the subject, and had much to offer in terms of materials. My partner and I also had rehearsed quite a bit with our local dialect coach, my host sister. Because of this practice, I had level of comfort and the children were not staring at me blankly when I asked them if they understood. What I took away from these experiences, as well as observing other classes, was the Albanian emphasis on recitation in terms of displaying knowledge. I also learned hat asking questions outside of the pre-determined list was not a typical experience.
Throughout my education, which is considerable, wrote memorization drove me to despair. As you can imagine, I was in despair for a large portion of my life. It was my particular beef with multiple choice question tests, and after taking numerous board and entrance exam test prep classes, one can mainly figure out strategies for answers that actually do not have anything to do with knowledge. As a young child, I felt that if I was going to understand something, I basically had to do explore it for myself, and took to the library, wandering the aisles in search of books that would help me out. I guess I was a born researcher.
My first reading of Steiners Course for Young Doctors shook me to the foundation of my soul. “Everything you are learning about in your course work is dead, “ he began his lecture cycle to young medical students back in the early 1900’s. I put the book down, started to weep and could not read anything more for days. No wonder I could not understand what was being presented to me, I was supposed to be dealing with life and I was being taught about dead things, I don’t understand dead things, I am not interested in dead things, I want to understand living things. I wasn’t stupid, it was because what I was being taught was actually relevant, and as the quote in the movie goes, I am into that meaning thing. Why wasn’t I being taught about life in a living way? What is living thinking and how does one inspire living thinking particularly in an age of television and an education system that relies on regurgitating information? Can I do this with my limited language skills, and should I, especially since I am simply a volunteer with a temporary assignment?
During the 1700’s scientific discovery was entertainment. Scientists would perform experiments in lecture halls full of people who waited days to see such spectacles. As electricity was being slowly contained and studied, these experiments were especially the rage in centers such as Paris, London and Prague. When one studies the biographies of the great contributors to our body of knowledge, what has always struck me was how the major contributing factor to their curiosity and experimentation was to figure out how God worked or what God thought. In antiquity and up through the Renaissance, the study of nature as science was considered, was to at it’s heart, to reveal Divinity to Humanity.
For me, this has always been the case. The design, the evolution and revelation of the natural world from the tiniest microbe to the cosmos has been my confirmation of Divinity. Random is not a word I would apply to nature, creation or the universal laws of physics. The fact that the Universe is ordered by relationship, gravity as the materialistic word for this, for me is profound. It is not entertainment for me, the experience of comprehension of the mechanisms of nature goes beyond entertainment. But how, with limited language skills and competition with instagram can one convey the “unbearable beauty” as Merton would call it, of the revelation of the natural world in a 45 minute health lesson?
As I look out on these darling children and youths who all have the spark of the cosmos within, their emerging reproductive systems that carry the potential for life, can I convey the amazing privilege and mystery they carry inside each one of their elegantly designed bodies? How that apple you pass over for a bag of chips is a work of engineering and nutritional art, tended to by loving hands for years in order to be produced as a synthesis of soil, sun, water and the stars, that has specific structures and chemicals which interact with your physiology as a human, and really only for human health, not its own life cycle?
In our reporting and practicum debriefs, there does not seem to be a segment on the form for “wonderment.” This is not a fault of our training or over site of our amazing staff. Wonderment is absent from modern culture, there is no check off or pay grade for wonderment. I think it is the main reason there is hunger for computer games and movies where lots of things blow up. Celebrity culture, not accidentally called for what it is (of the stars) fills the void for not watching the actual stars above. In many cases, we simply can not see them because of light pollution in large city centers, but every time I live in the country so to speak, I am the only one looking at the stars and planets, everyone else is inside watching television “stars.” Even here, I am the only one who regularly sees Venus in the predawn sky, and it is magical. Now with warmer weather, the lightning bugs are out in force, and I find them much more entertaining than television.
Can a chubby menopausal woman with rudimentary language skills inspire wonderment in children? We shall see. The main issue is how to frame the questions. As the Albanian question words are starting to penetrate my brain, the deepest question I hope to convey when approaching science is “who is before me?” What as a word conveys an object, who on the other hand conveys a being. As we study, if we observe in relationship to a being, there is a different sense, a different consideration than if we comprehend an object. It is also useful, and we are being reminded of this in our training sessions, to be a model. So while I will never be a muscular triathlete, I do have a sense of wonder and amazement for the natural world, which I hope to be able to convey in a way that does not completely confound or amuse the children with which I am to work.
We spent our last two days of the week at hub, learning about youth employability in Albania, and how to run a successful workshop. We were placed in our regional sector groups with our co-site volunteers for our assignments. I will be serving with a TEFL (language instruction) volunteer from my class, and two other volunteers who are already at the site working on Community Development. It was fun to meet my classmate who will be my site mate, we are both west coasters, both foodies and I feel if nothing else, we will be eating quite well during our tenure. As the Peace Corps is an American governmental institution, data and outcomes are part of the job. We had a session on how to use the latest tools to report on our activities in terms of statistics, how many children served and so on. We also had a panel present to us on different extra curricular activities we could participate in as volunteers. In the midst of all the information being thrown at us, the staff has started to brief us on how exactly we will be dispersing to our sites after swearing in to be full fledged volunteers in a couple of weeks. So instead of being a PCT (Peace Corps Trainee) I will be a PCV (Peace Corps Volunteer) OMG! (I am not a fan of these letter abbreviations at all, and everything I keep going to the medical terminology, which confuses me more, and we just got a list of Albanian abbreviations for our texting, will it ever end?)
The opportunities to coordinate and implement different volunteer projects already in existence was impressive. We had a presentation from an organization called AIESEC, which was founded by seven people from seven nations after World War II for cultural exchanges and volunteerism as a way to promote world peace. From what I could understand, it seemed like the organization is a bit like a mini Peace Corps in terms of length of commitment, say for a few weeks for each project. The Gender and Diversity project encourages education on toleration and understanding of different genders and orientations. Girl Scouts has been in Albania for a couple of years, thanks to a Peace Corps volunteer getting the organization off the ground. There are currently 15 troupes in Albania, serving girls aged 6 - 12. This group tends to not get targeted attention by Peace Corps specifically, and Girl Scouts fills the gap nicely. I met the Albanian girl scout leader from my permanent site, and am looking forward to collaborating with her and the local troupe. Outdoor Ambassadors is an environmentally oriented club that helps children appreciate and be stewards of the natural world in their communities with projects like picking up trash and recycling. The Anti Trafficking in Persons committee works to educate Albanians to the warning signs of human trafficking risks. This is especially a problem for the Roma population because of their status. Some boys and mostly girls are lured into sex and labor slavery by promises of jobs with no need for visas and work permits. As a health volunteer, I feel the need to network with this organization to educate youth on how to protect themselves from this vicious, soul destroying multi billion dollar global industry. The Model UN is also an amazing organization in Albania, helping youth understand international issues and how to use diplomacy to solve problems. There are regional and national gatherings where students come together, representing different countries and debate issues through consensus.
The final presentation is a group I already have signed up to participate with, the World Wise School program. The third goal of Peace Corps is to help spread cultural understanding to Americans of the host nations of the volunteer. By signing up, I am paired up with an American classroom and will coordinate with the American teacher on presenting Albanian culture, customs and create exchanges between students. I will be working with the Waldorf School of Orange County, a charter middle school in Los Angeles and a home school group in Modjeska Canyon. I will wait till I meet with my counterpart to see what classes are available to pair up with these groups. One of the ideas that was presented was to deliver pen pal letters between the classes, which I find particularly attractive. While social media is all the rage these days, there is something about receiving a letter or a picture in the mail that is extra special.
One of the more interesting presentations at hub was from the Public Affairs Officer for the United States Embassy in Albania. I know I keep saying this, but I am finding the best cure for the post 2016 election horror is to listen to how our government works and meet the people behind the scenes who make it all come together. The US Ambassador to Albania is a career diplomat, and an elegant human being. The Public Affairs Officer is basically the press and publicity coordinator for the embassy. This position is responsible for messaging US Policy to the host nation and representing the United States to the people where the embassy is located. He coordinates all the social media, press releases and cultural events at the embassy. Art and musical programs, “meet an American” events, press conferences and even movie screenings are arranged by this office. Recently, the movie shown at the embassy (which I saw twice in the theaters in the US I liked it so much) was Hidden Figures. A free showing of the film for 200 invited Albanian guests was organized by the Officer and his staff.
For various reasons, Albania and the Albanians simply adore America. In today's global political climate, this is actually a bit of a rarity. Of all the American Embassies in the world, the social media following of the US Embassy in Albania is the most popular. The Facebook page for the Embassy has now 200,000 followers, where in other countries, the “likes” rarely go above 20,000. There are other social media options, Twitter and Instagram, but the hands down favorite for Albania is Facebook. An ad was made to thank the people of Albania for having 200K followers.
One of the more interesting stories was how the Embassy now has a You Tube Channel. It was thought that instead of the normal Christmas/New Years message by the Ambassador, the staff and some Albanians could sing a holiday song. The Public Affairs Officer contacted a local band he had heard and liked, and asked them if they would like to be part of such a performance. They agreed and it was then found that there are no such things as holiday songs in Albania, so a new year good wish song was sung with local instruments, the band, Embassy staff and US Ambassador Lu in Albanian. The video has had over a million views and counting, and is really quite sweet. This entire diplomacy experience is causing me to really be proud of my country, to see the dedicated, creative and kind staff try to reach out, interact and present the best that the United States has to offer. Many people in the diplomatic core have their start in Peace Corps. If I was younger, I would certainly go that route after this stint. It is fun to watch the younger volunteers go and talk to the Embassy staff when they visit our trainings. The future is bright indeed with these young people wanting to serve our nation, be the face of America to the world.
After this full session, we went to a local hotel for an NGO fair. I was moved to tears as to the amount of local organizations dedicated to helping the Albanian people. From Roma organizations, to homes for mentally challenged children, many faith organizations, World Vision, and even a food bank, it seems Albanians are learning the joy and benefit of service organizations in terms of making investments in their communities. It seems there are many Christian organizations working in the NGO world here, particularly with special needs children. One organization has a bakery that makes money for the programs to help these children. I was so moved by the experience. It is good to see basic kindness, when there is so much turmoil about. I have always believed that people are basically good, and I am seeing this on a daily basis here in Albania.
As we wind up projects, submit reports and are drilled on prepositions and verb declensions, I keep reminding myself that the best is yet to come. I long to know my counterpart, to meet the children, to be of service to those who would have me. I hope to inspire wonderment beyond wrote memorization for the natural world and all her gifts. It is a privilege to be alive, and I hope to be a model for the gratitude that living inspires because of true, lasting and natural beauty. I hope to be a model of appreciation of all that surrounds us from the soil beneath our feet to the heavens above, for finding out through exploration exactly who is before us. Who I see here in Albania through the land and the people is, in a word; wonderful.