A Day in the Life of A Peace Corps Volunteer

The #1 question I get from my family and friends back in America is: “So, like, what do you do all day in Peace Corps?” And it’s a totally valid question.

Beautiful Kavajë...my city for 2 years

Beautiful Kavajë…my town for 2 years

One of the reasons I started a blog is to try to answer it. But it’s difficult to describe my day-to-day experiences simply because it would require so much background information, detail, and explanation of cultural differences. I realize that I have neglected posting about my work, which is one-third of the reason why I’m here. So instead of trying to explain anything and everything about living in Albania, I’m just going to jump right in and go through what a day in the life of “Zyshë Kejti” (Miss Kate) entails, just as I did when I was a Trainee:

3:00am: “COCK-A-DOODLE-DOOOOO!” Someone’s vile pet/dinner is crowing at an obscenely early hour. Again. I didn’t grown up on or anywhere near a farm, so the only previous information I had about roosters was from cartoons. I just assumed they crowed exactly once as the sun was rising and then shut up the rest of the day. Not. True. Before dawn, at dawn, after dawn, lunchtime, dinnertime, bedtime. All. Day. Long.

4:30am: “COCK-A-DOODLE-DOOOOO!” I lapse into violent revenge dreams involving myself perched on my balcony with a sniper rifle.

6:15am: First (non-farm animal-related) alarm goes off. I can see my breath, as it’s the coldest time of the day. Maybe if I put these blankets over my head, time will freeze too and I won’t have to get up.

7:00am: No such luck. Final alarm rings, and I know I’ve avoided showering for far too long to skip it again. I’ve been wearing the same socks-leggings-tank top combination underneath various fleece layers for the past three days, because it’s too cold in my classrooms to wear anything less. I grudgingly pull off my clothes, and as I am taking off my left sock, out falls: half of a gum wrapper, a tiny shard of glass, and a staple.* It’s definitely winter.

*True story.

7:05am: Sprint to the bathroom and turn on the shower. The bathroom pipes groan feebly, and a sad drip emerges from the spout. No water.

7:06am: I re-dress in all my layers, run outside and down the stairs, and plug in the makeshift water pump on the first floor. Our building has a reservoir–a luxury not every Albanian Volunteer has–but it’s broken, so the water company installed this temporary pump until it is fixed (assuming it ever will be). The pump squeals to life as the plug connects with a bright spark, and I turn to go upstairs.

7:07am: I run into my neighbor Neje, who kisses me and asks me: “How are you? How’s it going? Are you tired? Are you bored?” After I assure her I am well, she asks, “How is your family? Mom, Dad, have you talked to them?” Yes, I have, and they are fine. “How is your fiancé?”* …It’s too early to deal with everything that is wrong with that question.

*Also a true story. P.S. I do not have a fiancé.

7:10am: I try the shower again, and it works! I stare uneasily at the falling water, knowing I will be freezing for the first few minutes no matter how scalding the water is. (My shower has precisely two temperature settings: Antarctica and Mordor.)

7:11am-7:25am: Shivering under the shower head, wishing Peace Corps had sent me to some tropical destination instead. Then I remember that Albania has much less giant spiders, many more flush toilets, and an affinity for internet connection. (Lucky me!)

7:30am-8:30am: Running around like a chicken with its head cut off, boiling water and scraping breakfast together and picking out clothes and gathering all the stuff I need for the day into my canvas Peace Corps tote that has a growing hole at the bottom due to the mass of books.

8:35am: Apply lipstick. This is an essential step that must take place before I leave the house, lest I be ridiculed by the community.

8:35am-8:45am: My daily commute to school includes any or all of the following: waving hello to people I know, getting stared at, almost being run over, walking past freshly slaughtered and skinned goats with the eyeballs still in their sockets, ignoring the dudes at cafés who say weird stuff to me, running into a friend’s mother-in-law who kisses me four times and demands to know why it’s been so long since I’ve been to her house, avoiding the stray dogs, and dodging old men in sportcoats and fedoras who like to take up the entire sidewalk as they amble slowly down the street.

My school, Aleksandër Moisiu High.

My school, Aleksandër Moisiu High.

8:46am: Arrive at school in time for my first class. The boys in the schoolyard all holler excitedly at me as I walk in. “MIREMENGJES, ZYSHE!” they shout. (Good morning, Teacher!) I have a brief, friendly conversation with the doorman–during which he informs me that I look fatter today–say hello to the other teachers and students I know as I climb the stairs, and settle into the teachers’ lounge.

8:47am: Meanie-Pants Vice Director asks why I am late, again. I still don’t know if he is messing with me or if he hates me. I smile and wish him a good day just to be safe.

8:49am: My director–who, as usual, is dressed as if she belongs in Willy Wonka’s factory–comes in and yells at all the teachers, slamming her hands on the desk with gumption. (I really like the word “gumption.” Did I use it correctly?) Something about some girl who has too many absences.

8:50am: My counterpart and I go to our first class. I say hello to the students, wait for them to settle down, and begin my lesson. I’m really excited to teach today; our unit in the book (which we must teach out of by order of the Ministry of Education) is about “fighting crime.” Garbage. Last night I made my own lesson: solving the fake murder of Justin Bieber. I wrote some speaking parts for the students–one investigator and five suspects, and planned for the class to try and solve the mystery together (in English, of course). Here goes nothing…

9:02am: We just finished a grammar exercise from their homework when my counterpart’s cell phone starts ringing. She leaves the classroom to take the call. My stomach sinks. As soon as she closes the door behind her, all hell breaks loose. My students like me as a person, but they have no respect for me in class because they know I won’t hit them and I can’t get them in trouble because I don’t know all their parents. They are afraid of my counterpart, which is one of the many reasons I love her, but I need her there while I’m teaching in order to stay sane.

9:03am: Two kids in the back start fighting. One guy takes another girl’s notebook and throws it out the window. Another kid whips out his lighter and starts lighting what I hope is just a plain cigarette. Two girls are taking a selfie together which I will probably see later on my Facebook timeline, and a boy swipes the phone out of her hand and won’t give it back. The sound of breaking wood creaks as I witness another two guys obliterate an already half-broken chair.*

*I should stop saying “true story,” because these are all true stories, but this kind of stuff really does happen sometimes.

9:04am-9:35am: Trying desperately to get control of the class. My counterpart does not return. I confiscate lighters and phones, pull brawling students apart, and try to shout over the deafening noise. Finally, the bell rings and I scurry back to the teachers’ lounge. I was too busy trying to get the class’s attention to get through any of the lesson.

My largest 10th grade class. There are 52 students normally, but only about 40 pictured here.

My largest 10th grade class. There are 52 students normally, but only about 40 pictured here.

9:36am-11:30am: My counterpart sees how upset I am and apologizes. She stays with me the next two classes, which go smoothly. We are able to do the murder mystery activity I planned. The kids love when I do stuff like this with them because it’s not something an Albanian teacher would do. As expected, only several girls in the class appear upset over the news that Justin Bieber has died of baklava poisoning.

11:30am-12:20pm: I have the next two hours free, so I go to the 9-year (combined elementary & middle) school to drop something off for my friend Orkida. We sit and chat in “Shqiplish”–part Albanian, part English–and she mentions that her mother-in-law saw me earlier today. It’s Kavajë, so everyone knows someone who knows me who saw me somewhere doing something with somebody else.

12:25pm: I go back to the high school and chill in the teachers’ lounge, waiting for school to get out so my Model U.N. group can meet, scarfing down some delicious cheese & spinach Bake Rolls. Meanie-Pants Vice Director asks me why I’m not in class. I don’t have the energy to explain–again–that I’m a Peace Corps Volunteer, not an Albanian teacher. My friend Liliana rolls her eyes at him, offers me a piece of gum, and we proceed to discuss nail polish colors.

1:10pm: School is out, and I wait outside the lounge to collect my Model U.N. students, wishing “dreken e mire” (have a good lunch) to the teachers as they file out. Only five out of the nine members of my club show up. I pull my phone out and call the remaining four. Two don’t answer. The two that do give me poorly though-out excuses.

Me with my Model U.N. students. We had a party before our first competition and they came over to decorate my Christmas tree!

Me with my Model U.N. students. We had a party before our first competition and they came over to decorate my Christmas tree!

1:20pm-2:15pm: We decide to have the meeting anyway, after arguing with the cleaning ladies about which classroom we can use. Once we are settled, the time goes by quickly. Model U.N. is my favorite thing about Peace Corps right now. As difficult as my kids can be, I love them.

2:16pm-2:35pm: We discover that we are locked in the school because the doorman didn’t know we’d be staying late. Oops. I call my counterpart, the screams of despair from my students drowning out my voice in the background. Was I this dramatic in high school? (Actually, don’t answer that.)

2:40pm: We’re free! I head to my usual lokal to meet my sitemate, Jill. She pulls up on her cruiser bike with a beautiful scarf wrapped around her head. We eat salad, pilaf, and tasqebap as we debrief our days at work, gossip, and laugh. I love Albanians–I do!–but it’s nice to have another American in Kavajë with me. I’m lucky to have a sitemate.

3:30pm: I swing by my “fruit people”–the sweet family that sells me my produce–on the way home. “I SAW YOU RUNNING YESTERDAY,” says the father, his eyes concerned and curious. “WHY WERE YOU RUNNING?” I get this question all the time in my community, even from people I barely know. You don’t see a lot of Albanians jogging outdoors unless they’re males wearing soccer uniforms. “For exercise!” I reply, pounding on my heart. Dad just furrows his eyebrows in confusion.

3:40pm: Get home as the sun is dipping behind the hills and take off my shoes right as I enter, like a good Albanian girl. I lay on my sofa/bed, put on an episode of Scandal, and pass out involuntarily.

5:55pm: Wake up from my teenager-induced coma. It’s completely dark out by now. I turn on the lights and start doing housework.

6:00pm-9:00pm: I don’t go outside after dark very often. It’s really cold, there isn’t much to do, and there are never any other people out and about at this time of year unless they are young men up to no good. If I’m feeling cooped up, however, I sometimes go down the street to Goni’s pizzeria and have a drink while I read or do work. The boys who work there are always nice to Jill and I, and the owner (Goni) gives us our drinks on the house occasionally. This is a great excuse for me to order a pizza as well “so I don’t feel guilty.”

9:00pm-10:00pm: I’ve adapted to the Albanian/European meal schedule and now I eat dinner at an hour most Americans would consider super late. A typical dinner for me consists of anything from fasule (an Albanian bean dish that I’ve tried to mimic fairly successfully), chicken with rice, pasta, lentils, roasted vegetables, or maybe just a sandwich with some care package peanut butter. If I don’t have any food in the house and it’s too late to go shopping, handfuls of chocolate from my Christmas boxes will suffice.

10:30pm-11:30pm: At this point I’m either completely exhausted or completely wired because I napped for so long. Eventually, I will drift to sleep on my couch–because the living room is the only place in my flat with heat–to an episode of Scandal, dreaming about all the many ways I could kill a rooster.


True story.

9 responses to “A Day in the Life of A Peace Corps Volunteer

  1. Pingback: A Day in the Life of A Peace Corps Volunteer | Ride the Wave·

  2. I love your writing, especially the arctic/mordor shower temperatures. I also hate bathing because I hate being cold, though I enjoy far better amenities than you. In my book a good outfit is one you can sleep in and wear the next day as passably professional. (This is Emily Gilkey-Palmer btw, I don’t know if you remember me well from the ward but I have e-stalked you for a long time)

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