I knew going in that pre service training would fly bye, and I was right. It is truly hard to believe we are only two weeks away from our permanent assignment. As I have said before, in some ways my life back in the states seems like a distant memory, even our language drills that have us recite who are families are, what we have done, seem for me at least, in some ways to be describing another person. In the midst of the constant lessons, exercises, trying to navigate the Albanian culture, I have felt a calm I have not experienced in years.
Before I left, my blood pressure was quite high, especially if my father was accompanying me on my doctors appointments. It was high when I arrived in Albania to the point where the physicians in Peace Corps were telling me if I did not get it down, “we would have to make a plan.” Well, I had my blood pressure taken yesterday and it is back to where it has been for years, out of the red zone, and this is with all the stress of training and the amazingly delicious high salt food I have been eating with wild abandon. I am not sure what is going on, but for now I will simply take it all in, and relish in the 125/70 readings.
This week was mainly presenting what are called “practicums.” We are given assignments in our various sectors and are to basically teach a class on an assigned topic as preparation for what we will be doing in the field. My practicums will be presented next week, so I was mainly an observer of my health sector site mates presenting various topics to school aged children.
In the health sector, we are required to present a PE class, and a class to a lower grade, and an upper grade. About five years ago the Albanian Education Ministry collaborated with the Health Ministry to create curriculum to be implemented into the school year science classes on health and life skills. Peace Corps has collaborated with the Health Ministry to send volunteers to interested schools to help co teach and introduce the health curriculum with science teachers. Like teachers the world over, Albanian school teachers have too much work, too little time and anything new is hard to introduce. Our practicums are basically practice for our real world experience in carrying out the mission of the Albanian Health Ministry.
The classes vary in topics, from hand washing to basic hygiene. The more sophisticated subjects are HIV/AIDS prevention and reproductive health. We have been told that in some areas, the teachers are very relieved to have volunteers go over the more graphic lessons on birth control and sex, since in some small towns, the teachers and students are very close in contact, related to one another or neighbors. Imagine giving your 12 year old nephew graphic instructions on how to properly apply a condom, and then you can get the idea why such lessons may be difficult to convey in smaller communities. The experiences vary, but in most cases, the teachers are glad to have the help, and the volunteers can see that they will be able to carry on the lessons after the volunteers leave.
Climate change has certainly come to Albania. After a few weeks of splendidly warm spring weather, it is back to being really cold and rainy again. The news and locals alike are remarking on how winter has come again. I joked with one of my language instructors, I chose Albania because I did not want to be hot (like I would be, say, in the jungles of Asia) and I have not once been disappointed since my arrival in March. My language skills are increasing so I can understand the weather reports on the news, and snow has come back to the mountain regions. In Kosovo, we are seeing minus temperatures. The onslaught of rain and cold forced our PE classes to be moved inside for our “plan B.” In my PE practicum, we did musical chairs, which was basically a blast. In the other presentation, my site mate taught the children the cupid shuffle and the wobble. Listening to the children say in unison “Wobble” in these magnificent Albanian accents, (the Albanian alphabet has no “w”) was a hoot. Some of the children were quite good, and I could see future dancers in them. The other classes I observed were on anti smoking, hygiene and peer pressure. My site mates command of the language, mind you most of these lessons were presented in Shqip, was impressive to say the least. It was also embarrassing for me in some ways, because I feel like I sound like a drunk person with a muscular tongue disorder when I attempt to speak long sentences in Albanian. I was also struck by the essential beauty I find in all children, regardless from where they come. It is what Thomas Merton would call “devastatingly beautiful.” The beauty actually causes me to tear up, so innocent, new, full of spirit and facing such difficulties in the years to come as all children in our current era must face on a scale not seen in about 700 years. These children were as darling as are all children, some more mischievous than others, but still all quite sweet.
As I have said before, my exhaustion level is quite high. To put the proverbial cherry on the cake so to speak for my general fatigue, I succumbed to what I am going to call “Scanderbegs revenge.” I think I caught it at the local restaurant, because my host family food is impeccable, and usually over cooked. In any case, lets say I became familiar with the intricacies of Turkish toilets while enduring stomach flu, an experience I would certainly wish on people I highly dislike. I was able to stop the flow so to speak by doing acupuncture on myself, but my attempts to re-hydrate myself, while valiant, were not adequate.
During one of our sessions at Hub, I became extremely dizzy, and knew either fainting, vomiting or worse was imminent. I quietly excused myself and tried to gain my composure on the steps outside of the class. Being the gracious and over concerned people they are, one of the Albanian assistants came out to see if I was OK. I knew if I could just lay down I would be fine, but that was basically impossible unless I wanted to be on the freezing tile floors that are ubiquitous in Albania. He helped me up to the Peace Corps offices where I was allowed to sit on one of the office chairs, while other staff members came in to see what was going on. It was decided that I needed to call the medical officer, who is a really sweet woman, and was scheduled to come to hub that day anyways. She was on her way from Tirana with various medications for other volunteers, and would happily see me as soon as she arrived, armed with more medicament's for my particular challenge.
I gave in to the vertigo and laid down on the cold tile floors, eventually putting my feet on a chair so as to elevate them and hopefully raise my blood pressure that I felt had dipped tremendously through the two days of constant trips to the banya. I did acupressure on myself and my Albanian PC staff was sent to get me a large bottle of water and bananas as per the doctors orders. By the time the doctor arrived, I felt better, and after a thorough check up, given various medications and oral rehydration salts. It was then I was told my blood pressure was just fine, as was my pulse, though weak.
What was particularly annoying about my digestive system rebellion as they say in Chinese Medicine, was that I missed giving a first aid practicum, as well as the site reveal. The site reveal is where trainees are told where they have been placed for their two year term of service. It would have been fun and meaningful to be with my fellow trainees during this ceremony. I am actually quite a shy person who prefers solitude, having people fuss over me or being the center of attention I find grating under normal circumstances, but this time I feared I might baptize people with my stomach contents if you catch my drift. To have to go back into the class and explain I have explosive diarrhea and am dehydrated was not how I wanted to be seen by others. I was also still quite dizzy and a lot of attention might have actually made me faint, again a visual I would like to spare my fellow volunteers as well as contradicting what is left of my pride. The Peace Corps van was secured to take me back to my host family site, and the doctor got my permanent site announcement envelope.
It is almost like being at the Academy Awards in certain respects. The envelope please, nervously opening it up, pulling out the paper and there it was: the name of my site where I will be spending the remaining time of my service. I almost started to cry. I was so touched, some place actually wanted me. It is hard to explain how being an exceptionally educated person with years of experience, many talents and basically a very kind heart, to be constantly rejected by potential employers mainly because you are old. I feel like I am a character in the 1960’s Christmas Classic Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer, on the island of misfit toys to be exact. To know you would be an asset, that what you have to give would be so beneficial, that you want so much to give only to be told endlessly that you are “not a fit,” and to watch other more younger, less educated and experienced people take on the job only to be fired shortly afterward because they could not do the tasks, just does something to the soul. To be a healer with no one to heal is in a certain respect a true hell, it is as if you are running about wanting to give and all you meet are walls, you see the suffering about you, but you can not in any way try to alleviate it, is like an endless nightmare from which you can not wake. And you are regulated to this state of paralysis not because you have done anything wrong other than get older, which personally other than constantly being rejected by my culture, I actually have enjoyed as I obtain the wisdom that accompanies the years. It is also very hard on ones sense of self, if you identify as a healer and you can not heal, then what/who are you? If you have spent your whole life training, educating yourself to simply have interesting stories to tell, what kind of life is that?
What was particularly profound about the site assignment was that two days before, I had a dream that I was assigned to the place where I will serve. I had actually consciously wanted Kelsor, mainly because it was next to Permet and in the midst of some pretty amazing mountains and rivers. I also thought I would be assigned to a site where there had been no health volunteer before, and Kelsor was one of those sites. When I told my site mates about my dream, I was told that it would never happen, because usually Asian or African Americans were assigned there due to it’s progressive nature. Sometimes Asian and African Americans deal with extra cultural pressures by constant questioning of their American “ness.” Albanians consider Caucasians as Americans, and specifically Asians are all seen as Chinese, which obviously grates on the Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese Americans who serve to be constantly be giving civics lessons on American multiculturalism and the fact that one can be of an American family that has lived there for generations and be not of Caucasian descent. Not a problem for me at all, it was only a dream anyways, but it haunted me because my permanent site was really not on my radar, it was simply a place I wanted to visit for the antiquities. I honestly thought I was to be placed in some remote mountain village, which if truth be told, had quite an appeal for me who is seriously considering becoming a Carmelite Nun after Peace Corps. I had felt a strange calm about the entire process of permanent assignment (which I attribute to consistent Novena prayers of release and surrender to divine will,) while my site mates and other trainee’s seemed quite anxious concerning the possibilities. When you have lived through what I have lived through for the past five years, getting a site assignment in Albania is simply routine actually.
So there I was, in the Peace Corps assistant office bundled up in a blanket someone brought me, drinking rehydration salts and eating a banana, when the Health Sector Director and Medical Officer brought me my envelope. I opened it, and basically could hardly contain my excitement and complete blissful surprise over the assignment. I told them of my dream, and the Director said, “then it is meant to be.” I was then whisked away by the Peace Corps driver, a delightful man about my age with relatives in Boston I learned on the drive to Bisqem. He was familiar with my host family and such. He had worked for the UN in the recovery from the Balkan wars, and had been with Peace Corps for five years.
I truly felt and still feel like I won the lottery, and not just the $3 ticket I usually win during multi million dollar jackpots. It is like being sent to heaven really. My site assignment is a UN World Heritage Site, with castles, ancient churches and more, all nestled in mountains. The school where I have been assigned is quite large, and has received awards for outstanding achievements. In addition to the nine year school (grades one through nine) there is a high school, in which I am particularly interested. There is also a Roma community and health center, and I think this is why I was placed there, since I have experience with street kids. Roma are what we would call Gypsies and are the lowest caste of society here in Albania and Europe to be precise. They are the permanent refugees, often homeless and have no real status. So there are many avenues I can integrate myself into, and I am really looking forward to doing so, as soon as I can stand up for more than a few minutes without stumbling or retching. The spirit is willing they say, but my flesh is simply not cooperating at present.
I finished the week lying on my host families couch in the kitchen, watching Turkish soap operas. None of us in the house hold felt particularly chipper that day. My host mother managed to get a hay splinter under her nail, which required some minor surgery to remove. Luckily I have antibiotic cream and band aids in my trusty Peace Corps first aid kit we are all issued when we arrive, that she was able to use. My host sister seems to be coming down with some sort of cold. So we just huddled around the wood stove drinking tea and watching various Albanian game shows that are variants on US programs like the Voice and so on.
Today, the warmth is returning, the sun and colors of the valley are particularly vivid since we have had so many days of relentless cold rain. I am staying close to home and resting. I need to perfect my pronunciations of Albanian terms for teeth brushing and such, and also try to let some of the language instruction sink in. I was telling the Medical Officer I was looking forward to the Summer when I could actually integrate all I have learned. The brain as it ages, is simply full of more things, and it takes a bit of time for the new stuff to penetrate the sulci. For now, I am relishing in the greening of the valley, and feeling so blessed to be welcomed by this nation. I hope to give the children my gifts in the way they want and can receive them, and I can start by speaking in a way they can comprehend.