Monday, July 2, 2012

I've Come Full Circle!

It is quite common to see older men sitting around tables or makeshift cardboard tables as you walk down the streets in Albania. The retired men spend much of their day drinking coffee and raki and playing dominoes and sometimes card games. It was definitely part of the Albanian culture that I found endearing and made the local community seem more like a family than just strangers passing each other on the street.

One could always hear lively conversations and laughter when passing by one of these games. Some of the men would play, while others would sit around watching and participating in whatever they were talking about.

Upon arriving in my community, Himare, I was first welcomed and 'befriended' by the old men. They all wanted to take me out to coffee, learn about what I was doing in Albania, why I was living in Himare, and correct me whenever I would make a mistake when speaking Albanian. After a few weeks of coffees, I was finally invited to play cards with them one day. That was the moment that I knew I had 'passed their inspection'. One never sees women, much less a young woman, playing dominoes or cards within these groups of older men. By the end of my service many of these men felt like my surrogate grandfathers, they told me what to do, told me jokes, and always corrected my Albanian. 

A few weeks ago I traveled from Dallas, Texas down to Austin, Texas to meet my new roommate and find housing for this coming Fall semester. I happened to be sitting outside at a coffee shop waiting for my friend, when a group of American men sat down at a table and whipped out a set of dominoes. I absolutely can not express the excitement I felt when I noticed this!

The similarities were absolutely uncanny! Albanian men would play at coffee shops, the Austin men played at a coffee shop; Albanian men would play with only men, the Austin men played with only men; Albanian men would play with a coffee and raki on hand, Austin men played with a coffee and beer on hand. The only difference between the two groups of men were that the Albanian men always wore tweed suits frequently with a hat, while the Austin men were wearing blue jeans with cowboys boots and they all had handlebar mustaches.

I can't believe I found Albanian culture with a Texas twist in Austin, Texas!

Men in Austin Playing Dominoes
Men in Albania Playing Dominoes

Tuesday, June 26, 2012


When one starts out on their Peace Corps journey, it seems like the the time you have just committed yourself to serving in a foreign country, where you don't know or understand the language and culture, will be a long and challenging two years.There is definitely truth in that logic, however what I expected of my Peace Corps service and what I actually experienced were not exactly the same.

What I imagined prior to my arrival in Albania was a volunteer position in which I would constantly be busy working to develop and improve various aspects of Albania and Albanian worth ethics, while having to endure underdeveloped living conditions. I did not expect to integrate as much as I did into the Albanian lifestyle and I also didn't imagine that the living condition hardships would ever become a 'normal' way of life.   

After living in Albania for two years, one no longer acknowledges the extra time it takes to do pretty much anything and everything. Going to meetings and having the other party show up 15-30 min late or even not at all is not unusual. Having to start dinner an hour before you plan to actually cook it is something you just do and don't even think about. Taking a cold shower because there is no isn't as much of a downer as it used to be. Weird and frustrating became no big deal. Albanian way of life became my way of life.

To be honest I didn't realize how much I had integrated into Albanian culture until I arrived back in the States after being gone for over two years. This experience has definitely erased all doubts I have ever had about species adaptation. Of course my 'change' is much more slight, but it has made me think about what I would be like if I had stayed away from the States for even longer.

Upon my return to the US many of my friends and family asked me what I missed the most. It really is exactly the same of what I missed most about the US, my friends and family (PC family). Because I was the only American in my site, I had to really reach out and become part of my Albanian community so I could have a support network where I lived and worked. Because I was placed in that situation, I made wonderful friends and was able and had to fully embrace Albanian culture.

To all those who wonder what it is like to return to the US after living abroad for over two years, yes, it is difficult reintegrating into the American lifestyle. Living as part of a different community really opens one's eyes to what is important and where one should focus one's energy.

I came back to the US having a different outlook on life, which is good and bad. I still need to work through how I can combine my world views and morals that I have gained with my life in America.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

A Story of Affirmation

About 2 weeks ago I had a group of friends down to Himare for a last little hurrah before we all would start dispersing around the globe. One of my friends stopped on his way back from the beach at a small hotel to check out the summer rates. I pass by this hotel everyday. The woman who owns it is super nice, I teach her children in school and in my after school English courses, and it is where I always recommend PCVs or their parents stay. It is clean and the rates are pretty good for a tourist town like Himare.

Anyway, one of my friends went to discuss the prices for the month of August, the busiest and most expensive month of the year. While conversing with this woman, her young, 3rd grade daughter came up to investigate what was going on. Once they realized that the man that they were talking to was one of my friends, the little girl proceeded to perform the Hokey Pokey for my fellow PCV.

Shortly after this performance he arrived back at my apartment and relayed this story to me. He continued to tell me how the girl knew all her body parts, recited the song perfectly, and was proud to be able to show-off for him.

I cannot tell you the joy that the feeling of this small success brought to me. It was one of the best things that has happened to me during my Peace Corps service and, to be honest, it happened at just the right time, right before I had completed my service.

This is exactly what I will miss about my Peace Corps service.

Monday, May 7, 2012

A Balkans Tradition?!

A joke that many Peace Corps Volunteers here in Albania throw back and forth at each other is 'Did you know that coffee is a Balkans Tradition?!' It is pretty obvious that coffee in small cups at least 3 times a day is the way of life here.

Prior to my arrival in Albania, one aspect of the culture that had not fully grasped the importance of was creating personal relationships over coffee and drinking coffee in general. Drinking coffee is a huge part of the Albanian culture, whether you are meeting someone socially or in regards to work there is usually coffee present.

I began drinking/forcing myself to enjoy coffee as a college student working on my senior thesis. At this point in my life drinking coffee was much more out of necessity than desire. Now, in Albania, I have welcomed coffee breaks to become part of my daily routine. It has also been a wonderful way for me to meet people in my community, create meaningful relationships with Albanians, and accomplish work and projects throughout my Peace Corps service.

When meeting to talk about business over coffee the structure of the meeting is always the same. The coffee, in it's tiny cup, lasts for a whopping 50 min, the conversation starts with the usual pleasantries, then moves on to family and what you have been up to since the last time the two of you had coffee. Finally, after 40 min of random talk the conversation turns to what you  needed to discuss and the reason the two of you met up in the first place, work, for the last 10 min. Before I had integrated and become used to this part of the culture I did not have the patience nor the interest in work 'meetings'

Something that no one tells you and you just have to figure out for yourself is that when you go to 'coffee' you don't actually have to drink coffee. Unfortunately, I found this out too late. Upon arriving to site many people asked me to have coffee with them as a way to welcome me to their community. I ended up going to 5 or 6 coffees a day in the beginning and having a small express at each of these meetings. Let me tell you, I have never shook as much as I did those first couple of days in Himare. With all the caffeine in my system my body could just not sit still.

Now that I have lived in Albania for two years, I have learned how to 'milk' a little cup of coffee for an entire 50 min long meeting, I no longer shake from 2 express coffees, sitting down for a leisurely morning coffee is something I really enjoy, and going to coffee has become one of my favorite parts of the day. How am I going to be able to adjust to the large, fast paced, to-go coffee culture in America?

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

One Month Left

One month from today, I am scheduled to leave Albania and return to the United States. Although I have been here for over two years, there are still so many places and things that I want to see and experience before I leave. These next four weeks will be jam packed with last minute day-long adventures, getting my fill of Turkish coffees, and saying all of those important and difficult good-byes. I will also have to try to remember just to enjoy the quiet ebb of the ocean as I walk to work in the mornings and as I lay in bed at night, as well as, the constant quizzing and interruptions by my landlords. These small things are what I am going to miss the most.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Hapja Bibliotek√ę

My main assignment with Peace Corps is to teach English as a foreign language. Although I spend almost every day at school, I still have ample time to work on secondary projects. The project in which I have spent the most time on and that is probably the largest of my service is the creation of a library/community center for the town of Himare. It has taken over a year to begin and complete, but it is one of my favorite and fulfilling things I have done throughout my Peace Corps experience.

The first summer I spent as a Peace Corps volunteer in Himare was an exciting, new, and a bit uncomfortable, at times, experience. Two of the goals that I had set for myself was to get to know community members and students, as well as start 2-3 summer English courses. Getting courses started was difficult primarily because I didn't know many people in town. I first needed to find a space where I could hold courses and then I would begin to advertise for the English courses. The elementary school director was kind enough to allow me the use of a classroom in the elementary school for my first summer. Unfortunately, not long after the start of the 2010-2011 school year the school director changed and I was no longer given the privilege to use the elementary school for a meeting place. This created quite a dilemma.

There were absolutely no public meeting spaces in Himare. The school was off limits and there was no 'culture palace' (rec. center) or library where I could meet with students to work on English or various other projects. That was when I decided that Himare could really use a library/community center. It was pretty tough to get people excited and interested in the idea and actually making it come to life. However, once I got the ball rolling on my own, more and more community members jumped on board and were more than happy to support this addition to their community. In order for the library to become a reality we needed funding and community support/participation.

The need for a library and a free space for kids to productively spend their time was great. Not only was there a need, but there was a desire by the students to make this project happen. High-school boys did the painting, high-school girls helped out with the cleaning, and all the younger, excited children were great at advertising and talking up the library project. All the kids did their part. 

In order to fund and make this project possible, my counterpart and I applied for a Small Projects Assistance grant from USAID, from which we were awarded 3,000 USD. In addition to the grant money, Banka Populore in Himare gave our project another 1,500 USD, the middle school girls from The Hockaday School in Dallas, TX organized a book drive in order to contribute English books to the library, and Mr. and Mrs. Tom Hammett donated a sum to help out with the purchasing of Albanian books. Without the help of all these people, the Himare library would not have come into existence. Thank you again for your support and contributions!

For more photos of the library click here


Wednesday, March 28, 2012

From Shivering to Sunscreen


Whether it's freezing cold or sweltering hot, the fun is always around the corner.