I’m only a week away from my three-month mark, and I can’t believe how much has happened in just twelve weeks! On May 30th I graduated from Pre-Service Training and moved from my host family in Librazhd (east-central Albania) to Kavajë (west-coastal Albania), where I will live permanently for two years. Training was, as promised, challenging because of the schedule and the pace. But I made it out alive with an Intermediate High grade in Albanian, much more confidence in my teaching skills, a seat on the Volunteer Action Committee, and many great Albanian and American friends!
Now that I’m “at site” things are much different. Nobody is telling me what to do and when to do it. The freedom and independence is GREAT but at the same time, I’m totally overwhelmed! I’m in a new city with new people and I have all these skills I want to put to use but I just don’t know how yet. This is a tough transition for every Volunteer but, as we say in Albania, “Avash, avash!” (Slowly, slowly!) I’ve been trying to take everyone’s advice and chill out for a little bit and take things one day at a time. I say hi to people on the street (and most of them say hi back!), try to strike up short conversations in Albanian with people that I meet at the market, and have introduced myself to my neighbors in order to make my presence known. Not like it isn’t already–every time I meet someone, they say, “Oh, you’re the new American!”
Last week I started work at the high school, where I’m assigned to be an English teacher. I wasn’t required to but I figured that I might as well hit the ground running! We’re approaching the end of the school year so 1) things were winding down so it was a fairly pressure-free environment and 2) a lot of the kids didn’t even show up anyway. I observed a few classes the first day as the students stared and whispered about me. The second day, my counterpart (the Albanian teacher I’m working with) had me do some activities with the students, and surprisingly they all participated and even seemed to have fun! At the end of class I introduced myself and asked if there were any questions. A million hands immediately shot up, and I expected this; people are always very curious to find out why I am in Albania. I explained Peace Corps to them, and one of the students asked, “How much money do you get paid?” When I replied that I’m only given a room & board allowance and not much else, they were incredulous. Once I had their attention again, I explained, “I am not here because of money. I am here because I want to be here.” The room fell silent as they processed this. I can’t possibly tell what they were thinking, but I figure they either a) can’t understand why I would do something like this without getting paid or b) they’d never had a teacher that had this type of attitude before.
The next day when I came into the same classes, the students’ faces lit up when they saw I was in the room. When I teach they are (for the most part) very attentive and enthusiastic, which in turn makes me very excited! My school–Gjimnazi i Aleksandër Moisiu–is wonderful. I have become friends with the headmistress and my counterpart and I get along great. The other teachers, even the ones who can’t speak English, are very sweet to me. On Friday I was invited to an end-of-the-year excursion that all the teachers & staff take annually to a village in northern Albania. Originally they described it to me as a “picnic” so I brought chocolate chip cookies to share. (Yes, I made chocolate chip cookies without brown sugar or vanilla in an oven that was way too hot but they turned out okay!) The teachers LOVED them and ate them all on the bus the village. Everyone asked me, “You MADE these?! By yourself?!” I assured them that I did and described it as “a traditional American cookie,” which is the truth.
Anyway, our “picnic” turned out to be lunch at a restaurant called Mrizi i Zanave. (Fine with me!) But this wasn’t just any restaurant–it is legendary in Albania. I’d heard other Volunteers talk about it before. These three brothers from Fishte (the village) lived in Italy for 10 years and learned everything there is to know about fine cooking. Then they brought their knowledge back to their hometown and opened up a restaurant to make their village known for something good. Everything they cook with is grown on their own organic farm or imported from elsewhere in Albania so it is all completely local. And you can absolutely taste the quality in the food! Traditional cheeses, breads, byrek (pastries filled with meats, cheeses, and veggies), candied figs, broiled & seasoned potatoes, stuffed peppers, fruit salad in rose water…and those were just the appetizers. For our main courses we as a group ate several goats, and they were delicious also. NOM.
Since I was already in the north, I decided to take a quick furgon to go up and visit friends for the weekend. I spent Friday night in the tiny village of Vau i Dejes with my friend Erin, and then we came back to stunning city of Shkodër (“the Seattle of Albania”) to stay with Danielle, another TEFL Volunteer. Seeing my American friends who can relate to me and support me is always a huge treat.
This morning I came to school at the time my counterpart told me and found absolutely no students. Apparently nobody comes to school on the last week of the year! So I sat in the teacher’s lounge and chatted, then went to the market to get groceries. This type of unpredictability is something you must get used to here. I’m trying to ignore all the pressure we Volunteers put on ourselves to “change the world,” because I know that change comes slowly and that once I’ve spent more time at site I will have the resources and connections to get things done. I just need to be patient. Avash, avash!
The Peace Corps life is a strange one, but a good one. I feel like I’m doing well and overall I am very happy. I recently got internet access so I will be able to post updates like this more often. And if you want to read more about the specifics of my service, check out my personal blog!