We are already preparing for the arrival of Group 14 in March…it’s odd to think that I won’t be the new kid on the block anymore after a few months! What follows is a letter I wrote to be included in the invitation packet the new volunteers will receive.
When I accepted my invitation to come to Albania, I never expected to have the ability to explore the country and its mountains and beaches so freely in my time off, I never expected to live in such a beautiful place full of history, and I never expected to be as social or as busy as I am. It is so hard to describe all the things that have made my experience thus far wonderful and trying at the same time, but I can try and shed a little light on what I wish I knew before coming to Albania. Hopefully you’ll find it helpful!
Albania is a place caught in the midst of great changes. Because of this, you as a PCV have potential to make a great impact in your community, but it also means that Albania is an extremely ironic place. For example, people drive fancy cars, yet don’t have jobs. Also, I live in a beautiful spot with a view of a castle, the ocean and the mountains, yet my site is a poor city that struggles to represent its potential to any foreign tourists. One of the things I found is that it can be difficult to acclimate to these polarities when you get to Albania. At first it may seem like things are really different from the US…or not different at all. For many, this isn’t the “peace corps experience” that they expected because we are in Europe. I have a washing machine and electricity most of the time. But though the problems and frustrations you will face here may be more systemic and less infrastructure based than elsewhere (corruption, gender roles, lack of work ethic and resources), it is definitely hard. Every day. You will have to be your own cheerleader!
As for what to bring with you, I would say to definitely not forget a large external hard drive, a sleeping bag, a backpack for trips around the country, a flashlight/headlamp, and a gift for your host family that shows where you are from. Other than that, bring spices if you like to cook and the little things that make you happy – like a frisbee – that are not available in Albania. In general, don’t stress about packing, there’s a lot available here. Bring the clothes you are most comfortable in – what you would wear in the US – and quality shoes that are good for walking. Albanians do tend to dress up, but they are going to stare at you and comment on your clothes no matter what you wear, so it might as well be what makes you feel comfortable. Also – I thought I might not be able to exercise that much while I was here, but I have been glad to have my running shoes. Regardless of what the Peace Corps might tell you, don’t assume that you will have to drastically change your daily habits just because you live in Albania!
During training, take it one day at a time. Don’t let the little stuff get to you – you’ll be moving soon enough. It will be hard in the beginning, but remember that everyone is just as freaked as you are (including your host family), and everyone deals with stress differently. Make sure to spend quality time with your host family, it’s going to be harder to visit them later on. Also, spend time with your fellow volunteers and the Peace Corps staff and get to know them. You’ll all be spread out around the country and will need each other’s strengths and skills and laughs. Also – don’t be intimidated by the language. It will come if you need it to once you get to site.
In general Albanians are happy and generous people. I feel fortunate to live here and would not trade this experience for anything. I have had countless good times and really believe that in no other job would I have the flexibility to choose to pursue what I am interested in with such support as I can here. I’m excited to meet the new group coming in March, and hope that you will enjoy your experience as much as I have so far!
Mirë ardhshi edhe paçi fat!
Laura M. Hammett