Saturday, May 13, 2017

Swearing In

In certain ways, I feel like I have lived several weeks in these last few days. The logistics of moving stuff without the aid of a car is but one of the challenges, along with finishing up language exams, culture assignments, preparing for new housing arrangements and getting to know the new counterparts. Mix all this in with saying goodbye to people I have shared a very intense and intimate experience with for over two months and you get the hint in terms of the level of exhaustion that has set in. I was joking with one of my fellow trainees that I felt like the mouse everyone learns about in Psychology 101 that is in the maze that gets shocked no matter what they do, so the mouse simply crawls into a corner and shakes. It seems like each phase of this journey is one leaping into the great unknown after the next. While I am leaping yet again, it will be really wonderful to just stay put for a long while. From what I hear, my site assignment sounds wonderful. I hope it works out, wonderful in the past has sometimes turned into not so wonderful in the end.

Our last day in Elbasan was a blur of saying goodbye to host families, lugging the remaining luggage we had not brought to hub and learning about our permanent housing. I had been hoping for what is called a hybrid situation where the volunteer has a somewhat independent housing arrangement, say a small guest house in the back or a floor in a house or flat. To my delight, this is what I was assigned. Some people were really jazzed about their assignments, while others were visibly disappointed. We saw a Peace Corps film on Nepal, and that housing was rather spartan compared to anything any of us here in Albania are receiving.

The miracle of Peace Corps Albania logistics went to work again in terms of getting 41 volunteers and all their luggage to our hotel in Tirana for the swearing in on Friday. I was envying kangaroos as I loaded all my things onto the luggage truck, how convenient to have a pouch built into your body to store things. It was so glorious to take a shower with water pressure. After I washed my hair, I went out in search of food and water. I found this small place called “bio fast food” a sort of healthy Albanian take out. I ordered a vegetarian pita and the young man behind the counter told me to speak English. It was so fun to watch him make the Pita with all the care of a Swiss watch maker.  After walking back to the hotel and eating the pita while watching Indian soap operas with Albanian subtitles,  I fell fast asleep and woke early the next day.

Being completely decadent, I took another shower and dressed for the swearing in. Since this was the 20th class of volunteers to complete training, our swearing in ceremony was at the United States Ambassador’s Residence in Tirana. Everyone came down to the hotel lobby dressed quite nicely to the point that I did not recognize them, we had always been in sweats and stuff during the entire training. We donned our Peace Corps Albania pins, an Albanian and American Flag over the Peace Corps Logo, got into the bus and watched in wonder how our driver went from one near death experience to the next in terms of driving us through Tirana traffic. We were dropped off a ways away from the residence and walked for quite a while to get to the compound, which looks like a planned community. The compound houses staff in small homes and condos surrounded by neatly manicured lawns, rose bushes and high walls with barbed wire patrolled by guards with automatic rifles. At the pinnacle of the property is the Ambassadors Residence which looked like a mid century large home. Inside there was an art show featuring folk art from around the United States. Several large tents were set up for us where we would sit for the ceremony. 

After we posed for pictures and were seated in our section, the guests started to arrive. Teachers from all of the schools where we had our practicums, along with our language instructors and sectors arrived. Our host families had ridden on a chartered bus to attend the ceremony. It was truly a sweet sight to observe when host moms and dads, sisters and brothers embraced their American volunteer. In one instance a four year old child called out the the American and ran to her, leaping into her arms for a long embrace. The heads of the main religious institutions in Elbasan were also present. The priest at the Orthodox church and the Imam from the Kings Mosque sat next to one another with their calendars on their laps obviously trying to find time to do something together. I did not know it, but one of our classmates mother is the American Ambassador to Montenegro. She and her husband drove in, quite a distance I might add, to watch their daughter take the oath of service. But the true guest of honor was Ambassador Lu, the American Ambassador in Albania.

Ambassador Lu I learned is from Orange County, California, Huntington Beach to be exact. He served in the Peace Corps in West Africa and has been a career diplomat in Pakistan and many other locations. He has been the Ambassador for three years in Albania, and is well respected by the Albanian people. Both my counterparts and my host family wanted pictures of me, the Ambassador and themselves. After the swearing in, Lu simply stood at the reception in one place so people could pose with him.

The service was quite moving. We had remarks from our country director who bravely addressed us in Albanian, two of my classmates who presented in flawless Albanian as well. A young Albanian man who has experienced American Peace Corps volunteers for nine years spoke on his experience growing up with Americans, and another class mate presented two poems in Albanian as well. Ambassador Lu’s remarks were partly in Albanian and partly in English. He spoke of his experience as a Peace Corps volunteer, and then gave us three insights to carry us through our service.

Since he served in Africa as well as being a diplomat in many different countries, he has had to learn quite a few languages. He told us that in all his career, he has never encountered such a difficult language as Albanian, with its “clitics” (which drove me and my site mates to despair in week eight) 300 different cases for plurals and so on, so we should not be upset with ourselves that we might be struggling. He also told us to not watch television news because Albanian politics is, as he put it, rough and tumble and winner take all, which is not indicative of the true nature of Albanians. He then spoke about the deep hospitality of the Albanian people that had been present before any sort of organized nation state, before and during communism and afterwords, and that we should honor this with our service and warmth in return.

The event culminated in our taking the Oath of Service for the Peace Corps and saying the Pledge of Service with our country director prompting us. Afterwords, the Paove site mates danced an Albanian circle dance. Guests were invited for “refreshments” while we new volunteers posed for class pictures with the Ambassador. I put quotations on the word refreshments because much to my horror, soda, bagged cookies and potato chips were offered to everyone, the staff must have spent untold minutes cutting open packages and dumping them into bowels. Oh well, the snacks were very American when you think of it, but geeze, it is cherry season, and that is kind of Americana with George Washington and the cherry tree story, but then I am an unabashed Slow Foodie so what can I say? 

We were driven back to the hotel to eat lunch on our own, and then meet our counterparts for a few hours of work shops, meet and greet and a shared supper. I met mine, two women from the Nine Year School in Berat. One is my counterpart, a biology teacher and the school director. I feel a genuine warmth from both of them, as well as a good sense of humor. When I told them I was not married, they both congratulated me as if I had accomplished something of value. I was able to say in Albanian that I have three schools with classes who are wanting to share in a culture exchange through World Wise Schools. I hope to introduce Slow Food to them, and also assist in terms of health lessons. We finished the evening watching a video of pictures from our training, that was sweet in terms of reminding us all from where we started this entire experience. 

Our training sessions have been cut short to help us all clear out of Tirana before the Gay Pride Parade and national protest of the government, they are unrelated events but for some unknown reason were scheduled on the same day to begin at noon. Our security experts felt it in our best interests to get out of Tirana before the “festivities” On my Albanian twitter feed, I follow the EU in Albania where I saw a tweet inviting people to come and march in the Parade, so it is anyones guess what all the homosexuals on bikes will do if they class with the Democrats who are calling for a boycott of the up coming election. I am sort of sorry we will not be present to witness this truly unique occasions, but it will also be nice to just get to our sites and settle in. I long to sleep uninterrupted for a few days, we shall see what is feasible. We are supposed to go to our schools right away and start to network in the community.

As we were driving to the swearing in, I asked people what they were thinking, and the answers were quite interesting. One man said he was thinking how tight his necktie was, a girl was thinking about how she hoped we would not have an accident on the way, another said she just wanted to get on with things. I was thinking of the contrast of our ceremony, of the adulation the Albanians had for the American Ambassador, how proud the Albanians were to have hosted the Americans, and what we were swearing an oath to do as Americans in Albania with what is going on in America right now. How Ambassador Lu worked in West Africa helping the locals build in infrastructure and his dedication to diplomacy, his fidelity to American values of diversity and inclusion and how the leader of the nation the Albanians so admire has done nothing even remotely similar to what our Ambassador and we volunteers have done to prepare to serve our nation and the people of Albania. I was one of two people who actually sang the national anthem, and I was told that I garnered filming focus because of it. 

What is the America I just swore to serve, took an oath to protect my nation and the constitution for all enemies domestic and foreign? I feel that nationalism is a form of idolatry, one of the big 10 in terms of no no according to the commandments. What does it mean to protect my nation and the constitution? Do I work towards the essence of America which in it’s own way is Universalism?

America is a deep experiment in the evolution of humanity towards the highest form of civility, the equality of every human being because they are a human being and not because of their status, physical appearance or anything else. America is a grand experiment on the state recognition of the dignity of every human being. America is the impulse that founded the basis of the United Nations, where the welfare of every human on the planet has a right to safety, security, dignity and wellbeing. It is this America that I recognize and will work towards upholding and sharing with my Albanian counterparts. I look forward to not only the next two years but hopefully being part of a force for this impulse in my own nation, where the dignity of every person is cherished and supported. Laws exist because we have not reached the state in human evolution where we can count on our fellow human being to be moral towards others in all situations. I know that in time, we will come to recognize that our wellbeing, safety and security is dependent on the wellbeing, safety and security of our fellow human being. It may be a long time in coming, but we can established the framework for a just and equitable culture now. It may be the dream of this that inspires the admiration we are receiving in Albania, the near celebrity status of our US Ambassador, a Former Peace Corps Activist, that the Albanians can see. I hope I have the ability to live up to these ideals. The swearing in ceremony was a reaffirmation of my commitment I feel towards deep citizenship as an American.

1 comment:

  1. I loved that mouse conversation, then and now! I am so glad you're part of my PC family. peace and love to you~