Last Thursday was the first 4th of July I’ve ever spent outside of the USA. A large (VERY large) group of Volunteers met up in Ksamil, a beach town just north of the Greek border, for a massive celebration. It was nice to see friends I’d made during PST who now live far away, meet other Volunteers I hadn’t met before, eat some of the most delicious lemony chicken in the world, and lounge on the clean beaches and swim in the cool, pristine water of the Ionian Sea. I had a blast, but being in the sun for 8 hours + partying + swimming for miles in open water to reach a secluded island wore me out pretty quickly.
That night we all returned to the mainland for a party hosted by a local hostel. The owner had procured a few musical instruments, so everyone gathered in a circle to sing together. It was a very cliche “Kumbaya”-type Peace Corps moment. One of the Volunteers had learned Kid Cudi’s “Pursuit of Happiness” on her ukulele, so we all sang along. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it was a very appropriate song for the occasion: here we were, a group of people who had chosen to serve our country, celebrating the creation of a document that declared our homeland to be a place where “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” were so valuable that were willing to fight for those rights.
It reminded me of one day, about a month ago after I first got to site in Kavajë, when I taught a 10th-grade class at my school. We had some extra time at the end of the lesson, so I asked the students if they had any questions for me. One young man stood up and asked, “What are you doing in this God-forsaken place?” (That’s literally what he said. In perfect English.) I get this type of reaction from lots of Albanians: Why are you here? America is so much better than Albania. People have money and everything is easier there. Why would you leave and choose to work here instead? I explained the mission of Peace Corps and the way the assignment process works as best I could to my class. A girl raised her hand and asked, “How much do you get paid?” I told them that, other than a small wage to supplement room, board, and travel, I am here as a volunteer. “I’m in Albania because I want to be here,” I explained. The room fell silent. I can’t say for sure what was happening in their heads at that moment. But I did realize that they had probably never met someone like me. Everyone they know is working so hard just to get by, and they had been raised to find a way to make more money, to escape their situation. Some of them–in reality, probably many of them–will eventually leave their families to find work in Greece or Italy because there’s not much work to be found here. But because I was born in the Land of Opportunity, I had many remarkable choices about what I wanted to do with my life, and yet I chose to leave.
In a way, I’ve come to Albania as part of my own pursuit of happiness. I’m doing my best, so I can only just live out the next 23 months to see how close it gets me to being “happy.” Sometimes, when the power goes out for half the day or I step in cow poop on the street or I show up for a meeting and there’s nobody there, I need a reminder as to why I’m in this “God-forsaken place.” Peace Corps Volunteers are here to pursue our own bizarre, slightly insane personal brand of happiness, one that isn’t satisfied by comfort or ease or wealth. And I’m from a country that is frequently seen as that of comfort, ease, and wealth–at least by Albanians. What is “happiness,” then? To me, it’s these little moments: the island swims and the Kumbayas and the days where I feel I’ve really connected with my students.
I’mma do just what I want, looking ahead no turning back
If I fall, if I die, know I lived it to the fullest
If I fall, if I die, know I lived and missed some bullets
I’m on the pursuit of happiness and I know
Everything that shines ain’t always gonna be gold
I’ll be fine once I get it, I’ll be good…