Every Peace Corps Volunteer signs a dotted line on their application acknowledging the fact that service is challenging both physically and mentally. I was well aware that Peace Corps service would be difficult before I arrived in Elbasan for orientation. But one thing that is impossible to know is exactly how service will be difficult. There are challenges specific to every country, every site, and every person.
One of the challenges I was not expecting was the drastic difference in the workplace here vs. in the United States. Americans are known worldwide for having a strong work ethic. I did not realize how true this was before leaving the US! While I have certainly met many Albanians who work hard, the expectations surrounding work here are different. In America, everyone always brags about how busy they are. The busier you are, the more people admire you, and the more conversations with other Americans become one-ups about how much busier the other person is. We Americans identify ourselves so closely with our work ethic, and the American work ethic is how long did you work today, how hard did you work today, and the longer and harder you work, the “better” person you are.
In Albania, everything is slower. People don’t speed walk on the sidewalks, barking at others to get out of the way. They take 2-hour coffee breaks to talk with their friends, neighbors, and relatives, or sometimes to just sit alone and watch others pass by. When you have a conversation, people actually take the time to ask you questions about your life instead of brief, irrelevant snippets of conversation. I love this aspect of Albanian life. But it transfers to the workplace as well, which can be very frustrating for someone like me, who is used to fast-paced work environments. Everything at the office is slower. We’ve taught one class? Well, we’re kinda tired, let’s go get a coffee. We’ve been at school for two hours? Okay, it’s hot outside now, let’s go home. You didn’t finish your homework? It’s okay, you will pass the class and move on to the next grade anyway.
And especially during the summer, everyone is at the beach either physically or mentally. I’ve shown up at school two weeks in a row to meet students for summer courses, but nobody comes. I’ve made countless phone calls trying to schedule tutoring sessions with prospective students. I’ve looked desperately for anyone interested in working with me, but it’s summer and everyone wants to go tanning, drink coffees on the boardwalk, and sleep the sizzling afternoons away.
I have been busy All. My. Life. My days have always been packed with things to do since I was a kid! I’ve held at least one job at a time ever since I was 16, not to mention class and church and swim team and yoga and tutoring and a social life. I loved the feeling of coming home every day completely exhausted because I knew I had spent my time well. So, adjusting to this slow-paced work schedule has been difficult not just for me, but for all the Volunteers. What are we supposed to do without the structure we had in the US?!
1. I’ve had to accept that I’m not the only one feeling this way, and it will pass. The first year of Peace Corps is almost always the hardest. I’m having to adjust to so many different things along with not having a set schedule. Luckily, everyone else in my group is in the same boat.
2. I’ve had to re-define my definition of “work.” Peace Corps tells us once we enter our sites to begin “integrating.” It has been fun–although challenging because of language barriers–to get to know some of the people who live in Kavajë. I have small successes whenever my neighbors tell me I am “vajza jonë” (“their girl”), or when I can pass as a local because my accent has gotten better, or when I’m able to have a discussion about racism, communism, women’s rights, other cultural topics with Albanian friends.
3. I am–slowly–becoming Albanian! As I mentioned before, getting a taste of a slower pace of life has been refreshing. While I’m learning a lot about Albania, I am also learning a lot about America in comparison and I feel silly for participating in the “look-how-busy-I-am” competition back home. When I come back, I can see myself sitting at a cafe for hours, wondering why people don’t have time to talk to me!
I’m riding along the little curve of vulnerability on my personal adjustment graph, waiting for August to be over and the school year to start in September. Although I didn’t have a productive summer in the American sense, I think I did in the Peace Corps sense. But I’m definitely ready for school to begin!