I know you dig that alliteration…
From the Peace Corps Press Office. Recognize the yoga teacher in the third picture down with the bulging quadricep muscles?
I loved this youth camp organized by my Volunteer friend Danielle and her counterpart. It was such a pleasure to be a part of. And it makes me happy that Washington is recognizing the good work that my peers are doing here.
Can we all agree that the month of August is worthless? The initial excitement of summer has run out, there aren’t any cool holidays, and it’s HOT. SOOOOO HOT. For having such a cool name, August is the worst month.
Besides marrying each other, Albanians don’t do much of anything in August either. Whereas in June and July I worked at camps and tutored Seniors preparing for their graduation exams, the last one-third of summer was depressingly uneventful. But just as I started to think, “You know, this whole ‘doing nothing’ thing isn’t so bad,” September 9th arrived and it was time to start preparing for school. I slipped into a dress, put my hair in a bun, and dabbed on some lipstick (essential if you’re a woman in the Albanian workplace) in preparation. I kissed the teachers I had missed over the summer, took another stab at learning their names, and shared some baked goods. (I don’t know if anyone in Kavajë would actually like me if I couldn’t cook.) I took the promises of “lesson planning” and “scheduling” and “staff meetings” with a giant Shqiptar grain of salt, and I was right to do so, because that first week back at work was all coffees and cookies and chatting as usual. But this time, I was prepared. The sun and surf and “slowly, slowly” attitude of the Albanian summer had grown on me and chipped away at my hard, work-oriented American exterior just enough to keep me from becoming mërzitur.
So that’s why I’ve been reeling from the sudden onset of work that’s materialized over the past two weeks. On top of teaching a full schedule of classes at my high school, I’m in the midst of creating and evaluating applications for the national Model United Nations program, writing a grant proposal with the teachers and director of a local primary school, giving presentations at youth conferences, and teaching extra English classes at the Kavajë Cultural Center with my sitemate. All of this on top of trying to maintain a social life in my community–which means going on splendidly awkward coffee dates and listening to neighborhood women make fun of me in Albanian because I can’t roll out the dough to make byrek properly.
The “progress” in my service I’d been waiting for all summer has now arrived full-force. And I don’t hate it.
World Vision, a humanitarian non-profit agency that is very active in Albania, started a partnership with my Volunteer friend Miranda and invited us to speak at a conference for some high school students who won a prize for a community development project. I got pretty stoked because that’s totally the type of stuff I did when I was in high school (well, not as much as I used the word “hella,” dyed my hair until it resembled straw, and refused to wear sunscreen).
I asked a few people back home for some advice on public speaking (which was the topic of our workshop), and they all politely asked questions like: “When is the conference?” “How many kids will be there?” “What ages are they?” “How much time do you have?” “What kinds of resources can you use?”
LOL. What non-Peace Corps people don’t understand (and I myself sometimes forget) is that, well, This Is Albania. There is never a plan for anything, and if there is, it almost always gets thrown out as soon as it begins. Work here often resembles constant chaos. Nobody had given us any information about the conference. Literally all we knew is that it would be happening sometime in the near future. Finally, Miranda got a call just three days before the day they wanted us at the World Vision office in Laç, a town in the Kurbin district. “Let’s do it,” I said.
We showed up on Saturday morning and boarded a bus with some World Vision staff and a small group of Laç students. We took an unfamiliar back road far from the Autostrad, Albania’s main highway, winding through villages and fields, picking up random students on the way. The slow bus meandered along the road, inched through the capital of Tirana, and climbed steadily up the mountain passes to Elbasan. About six hours had passed when we curved around the sprawling, stunning Lake Ohrid to the city of Pogradec on the Macedonian border, our destination. Miranda and I had had nothing to eat, had only gotten about four hours of sleep the night before, and were exhausted from a hectic first week at school.
After a big lunch, my body decided that I needed to go to sleep NOW, despite my brain’s protests. Miranda gave me the key to our hotel room and I passed out, fully clothed except for my boots, on the bedspread. I awoke in a haze to find Miranda frantically poking me in an attempt to wake me. “Sorry, but they want us in the conference room for a session on their summer camps,” she said. “I don’t know why we have to go. They didn’t tell me anything else.”
As soon as I sat up I was reminded that I am a mere mortal, susceptible even to microscopic foes, in this case influenza. I knew it right away because my counterpart at the high school had been sick for days and I had followed her to each and every class. Everything hurt. My brain felt puffy. And my epidermis was on fire. The last thing I wanted to do was to try to follow an hour-and-a-half long discussion of summer youth camps in Shqip, but somehow I got through it. (Minus the “trying to follow Shqip” part. I gave up on that pretty quickly.)
I passed on dinner, holed up in my room with a liter of water and some simple carbohydrates, and came up with a game plan. The staff, after leading us to believe that we would be presenting on Saturday when we arrived in Pogradec, had upended the agenda and asked us to present on Sunday instead. I took a deep breath and reminded myself of what my Peace Corps recruiters, coordinators, teachers, and managers always say: “Flexibility. Patience.” I attempted to channel my thoughts in that direction, as opposed to my current thoughts, which went something like “F@#$%&*!!!”
We finished breakfast the next day at around 9:00 as I told my tired brain and my aching muscles: “Two hours. You can do this.” Before our session, we took a brisk walk to a nearby village called Tushemisht. It was a clean, picaresque smattering of cobblestoned streets and quaint buildings topped by a stunning Orthodox church. There was a statue of a famous Albanian actress–and Tushemisht native–there, star of the film Zonja nga Qyteti (“Lady from the City”). Her full figure stood proudly in front of a reflecting pond filled with the water from the clearest lake I’ve ever seen, which trickled through the village via an artificial river.
Maybe I’m just a weirdo…but every once in a while, I have these moments where I’m transported by the beauty of Albania, utter awe and disbelief over where I am and what I’m doing, and I have what feels like an out-of-body experience. Tushemisht was one of them.
The kids loved Miranda’s and my session. I think we did really well, and the staff was extremely grateful and happy with our work. I had this warm feeling during the entire bus ride back west, and I’m pretty sure it wasn’t just the fever. That weekend was the perfect metaphor for Peace Corps–and, really, life in general: If you insist on having expectations, expect things to fall apart and then suddenly come together over and over again. When they fall apart, it can be frustrating and humiliating. But when they come together, nothing else can compare.