It has finally arrived. This experience which could be considered the diplomatic version of boot camp is nearly at an end. As I have said before, while I answer questions in language class about my life in the US, in many ways it seems like that was years ago and I have always been here in Albania. My esoteric nature wants to get philosophical, who are we really, is there anything but the present, but my vocabulary can not express such deep insights, so I stick to answers such as my dad is 85 and a dentist, and the finer aspects of what Orange , California has to offer. Because we have been given our volunteer handbook in hard copy and are required to actually read it and become familiar with the various policies and procedures of Peace Corps, I need to once again make sure my readers are clear that this blog is comprised of my insights and opinions and in no way does it represent the Peace Corps or it’s mission. In other words, Stephanie në Shqiperi is not an official publication of the Peace Corps.
Other than missing Tabasco sauce and mustard, I have not really had many difficulties adjusting. Obviously the language is an issue, but I feel it will come with time and practice, in addition to not really feeling understood in my native tongue by my fellow citizens in my home country anyways. As we enter the final aspects of training, we are being given massive amounts of last minute information that is designed to help us navigate our new lives. These well formulated trainings and manuals are really not sinking to my brain in the least due to overload and fatigue.
For me the tipping point was clitics and being led around Tirana at break neck speed to show us where our buses would leave for our site assignments in the south. Our poor staff members were not informed that due to construction projects in Tirana, the transportation sites had been moved. My take home from the experience is that I have decided I will take a taxi to the bus station because I have absolutely no idea where we are supposed to go after being led in many different directions looking for the bus stops. The intent and effort of this exercises should have been useful, but the outcome was a two hour sprint through Tirana traffic and public transportation, which was basically a waste of time for me and frustrating since we kept whizzing by these really beautiful buildings, shops and restaurants and never actually found most of what we were supposed to locate without back tracking and changing directions several times.
I am simply going along with the flow, trusting things will work out and trying to remember simple past and present perfect verb conjugations so I can appear somewhat coherent and understandable during my language proficiency exam. If we do not pass, we then are required to work with a tutor for a minimum of three hours per week, which for me is not exactly a punishment. In fact, I am tempted to purposefully flub my interview just to get the service. I was planning to actually focus on language all summer so I could integrate more productively in the Fall. My site mate and I did a bit of planning on one of the lengthy bus rides through Tirana in search of the stations that had been moved. He is a foodie as am I and we talked about how we could coordinate our efforts for language, science and food education. I genuinely look forward to working with him. Whenever I mention the name of my site mate to other volunteers, the immediate response is always, “he is the best person,” which for me says something.
We toured the Peace Corps Office in Tirana, which unless you know what you are looking for, you would never know what is behind the walls of the compound. For security reasons, there are no identifying markers on the building. You know those terrorists, always trying to make their point by murdering aid workers and those actually helping the local population. I saw the supply of anti serin antidote in a glass covered wall unit that is part of the standard security measures all foreign US offices must have on hand. Good to know actually that our service personnel can mitigate such attacks.
The Peace Corps Albania headquarters is a beautiful three story house that has been transformed into an office building. There is a wing dedicated to the medical officers, and if we need it, where our care will be offered. The rest of the building is for staff. We will have mail boxes there, and are told eventually we will have meetings in the class room at several points in our service. To my surprise there was a power strip waiting for me in the mail room with my name on it.
Our last language class was a mixed bag. We are all tired and distracted with the impending language exam and thoughts of moving. It is hard to believe we have been experiencing these classes for the last two months. I will miss the regular contact with the teachers. I do not think I am alone in the feeling that my site mates and I are basically at a saturation point for anything that resembles learning. Our language teacher today indulged two of my site mates desire to listen to Credence Clearwater Revival, which this generation calls CCR, (for me CCR reminds me of the Chemistry book we referred to during my labs in undergraduate classes but the twitter generation doesn’t indulge in long words apparently) during our drills on past tense sentence construction. It is amusing to me that all the music I grew up with is now quite popular with the 20 somethings. We have a couple of more presentations on culture and our practicums to go, and then we come to the big event: the swearing in ceremony. After the swearing in, we will have a meet and greet for the counterpart conference where we are introduced to the members of our new community who will be working with us on various projects. We have been given several more manuals to read about various policies and will be quizzed on this to see if we have read the material.
Tonight one of the other health sector volunteers invited several of us to celebrate her birthday with her host family. I walked to the house which is in the next village over from my host village. There was a drenching rain this morning, which meant by the afternoon the valley was a lush vivid moist green. I took some pictures of my host mom gathering her chickens and the grandson, along with some pictures of the vineyards, flowers and animals of the valley. It was fun to sit with my fellow health sector volunteers and hear more about their lives. What was particularly interesting is that all of these volunteers are from the south, Georgia, West Virginia and Tennessee. One was a Vermont transplant who had lived most recently in Oklahoma and Texas. I found it interesting listening to them basically trash their states citizens for their zealous right wing hyper religious politics. It is easy to dismiss people from certain areas, but there are always exceptions to the rule, and these peoples stories need to be told as well.
It is a bit of a shame that we are being exposed to so much information in these last days, mainly because we are all saturated and much of what we are learning is so darned interesting. We had a session on a project that encourages youth from around the world to compete in writing contests. The Write On! Project was started by a Peace Corps volunteer in the country of Georgia and it spread, so that youth from all the Peace Corps service nations compete in regional, national and international competitions for creative writing. We were treated to a self defense training session, and for those moving to northern territories, a dialect class was offered. While I was looking forward to being in a mountain territory in the North, I was relieved that I was to be placed in the South where I would not have to learn new approaches to Albanian language. I am having a hard enough time with what I have been taught, to now throw yet another wrinkle into the mix might truly cause me to crack.
After the language exams, we go en mass to Tirana to stay in a hotel for our swearing in and the counter part conference. In the prep sessions for the logistical feat to happen for that, I was reminded of the true miracle of organization the Peace Corps staff arranges for us volunteers. In addition to letting us know all these logistics, we were given the details of our swearing in ceremony. Since Peace Corps has been in Albania for 20 years, my class Albania 20 swearing in is a special event. Usually it takes place in Elbasan at the Hub site. This year, we will be visited by the US Ambassador and nearly 300 guests will be present. One of our speakers will be a person who was a young child when his family hosted some of the first volunteers. Ambassador Lu will address our class. I am so looking forward to meeting, from what I have observed and how he is viewed by the Albanians, he seems to be quite extraordinary. I will write a separate post on the ceremony as it I am sure will be quite eventful.
For now, I am trying to spend as much time as possible with my host family. I will miss them, and feel so grateful to have met them and enjoyed their kindness and hospitality. It is hard to imagine in so many ways going to a different site and getting to know a whole new set of people. Two years in many ways is a long time. We are told that the first year is the hardest, while the second year is the most fun. I personally want to get to the fun part earlier than that. So far, I really have been having quite a blast, so the fun part may come quicker to me. In any case, it is a rich experience I highly recommend.