When I applied for the Peace Corps, I had many thoughts, hopes and fears about what the experience would be like. Throughout the emotional rollercoaster ride of the decision and interview process I came to expect the unexpected, but could not help thinking I knew what I was getting myself into. Then, during training, I found out a bit more about Albania and everything I thought got thrown out the window. In addition, the Peace Corps staff does a very good job of breaking down any expectations you might have happened to form before coming here. “Everybody’s experience is different” is their favorite phrase.
Despite these efforts, there is no way any of us new PCVs was a blank slate of emotion coming into our sites last week. But, for me, there are some things that are now part of my daily life that I never ever thought would be the case when I clicked “send” on peacecorps.gov two years ago.
For example, I now live in a house up above Lezhe that overlooks the city and the ocean. An abandoned Illyrian castle looms on the hill above in plain sight. We (I say we because I have a PCV roommate, Jenn) have a patio and garden that is great for eating outside and watching the sunset over the Adriatic. We have had many friends come visit as they pass through town and have rarely had an empty couch so far. I live 10 minutes from the beach and can go there after work for a few hours every day for a swim, a nap or some Frisbee. The weather is amazing and vegetables of all kinds are fresh and locally grown and available in ample and inexpensive quantities. My counterpart at the Bashkia communicates well with me and I am meeting lots of community members and feel legitimately “busy” with projects already. You readers are all now no doubt questioning the fact that I am actually in the Peace Corps…and, on the PCV spectrum (well, actually on the spectrum of my life in general), I would say that life is good.
In short, the first few days here in Lezhe have been wonderful, but are a terrible indicator to what my life might be like for the rest of my service. I feel like I have started out at the top and things cannot get much better. I also want to clarify the fact that Jenn and I live together now, but this is just for the summer. Leslie and Bethany, two Group 11 volunteers, are not leaving until August and, as housing is difficult to find in this town, we are going to take over their apartments when they leave. Right now it is great to have them around to introduce us to Albanian community members and friends, but I feel like my Shqip has suffered a bit with all the English I am speaking.
Come September Jenn and I will have a shock to the system as Leslie and Bethany leave and life quiets down and we move into more “real” PCV housing. Also, around that time work will pick up a lot (summers are very very slow in Albania), which will be a good thing but an added stress for sure.
It’s easy to feel guilty now for living where I do when I don’t feel super productive yet. I have to keep reminding myself of all we were told in training – the start of work will be very very slow. While I am meeting people and feeling out the community, my counterpart Yllka is also distracted by preparing for her wedding (in 3 weeks!) and many of the people in the Bashkia are on vacation or unavailable. For now, I need to focus on meeting people, developing relationships, and working on my language skills – they speak a different dialect in Lezhe and I know none of the words associated with working in a local government office.
Most of the “work” I have been doing in the office this past week has been showing up. Breaking into a new organization as an outsider will be difficult and frustratingly slow for sure. It’s hard because no one knows who I am or why I am here. In addition to planning her wedding, Yllka is also stressed because she is responsible for an upcoming summer camp for disadvantaged children as well as for all the distribution of food stamps to the Roma community here. Since I started work on the first of the month, I came into an office full of people lined up to collect their food stamps. As I sat at Yllka’s (my counterpart) side in awkward silence, I was impressed by the fact that she knows almost everyone who came in to collect by name. Instead of just checking a name off a list and moving on, she had a conversation with each person. This is indicative of the value of relationships here….very different from the anonymity of the US. Also, I feel like in the US there would be more shame associated with collecting food stamps, while here people showed up in person to their local government office to collect.
In addition to meeting a lot of the Roma community and helping finalize the kids camp I will help with in July, I have met a lot of people outside of the office. Peter, another G11 volunteer who is about to leave in a few days, was placed with the department of agriculture here but did more work in youth development and environmental education with a PC Albania program called Outdoor Ambassadors. I have been helping him meet with a few 8th grade classes to talk about starting a new OA group here (the old one kind of fizzled out as the kids lost interest), which is definitely something I want to get involved with. I have also started to meet people who work with tourism, castle preservation, and the recycling program – all projects I could see myself devoting ample time to. Peter is moving back to Marin Co, CA on Friday, and I will miss him being around. He is a great beach Frisbee partner as well as a fellow cross country cyclist (only he did his ride solo…ridiculous!).
So – that’s a whole lot about my current situation here in Lezhe….more to come soon. I know I am very lucky to be where I am and I feel very at peace with my life here, even though each day I never know what will happen. When I think back to how almost frantic and indecisive I felt last fall, this peace of mind I feel now is the most unexpected and welcome thing I’ve found in Albania so far.
**there are a few new photos up on the photos page….