Many of you have contacted me with questions about my move to another town. I’m sorry that I wasn’t able to describe the circumstances in a pithy Facebook status, but I want to thank everyone for their support and concern. Therefore, I will try to explain things here in a way that genuinely reflects both the struggle I worked through and the positivity I am trying to adopt now. Here’s the scoop:
First, let me say that I am safe and sound now.
I shared in my last post about my community in the north of Albania. I felt at home there, and the people were so incredibly kind and caring that sometimes the love was overwhelming. But there was another side of the story. Beginning very soon after I arrived at site, a young man began stalking me. As a result, I was essentially bound to my apartment for my safety and only left home for work and food, always escorted by a male friend. Several times I had to leave my site by any means I could for days at a time to diffuse the escalating situation. I had no freedom, and even though my stubborn pride wouldn’t allow me to admit it then, I was scared, constantly. When it became clear that this man would not respond to personal, family, or law enforcement mandates to stay away from me, we decided that I would leave my community and be relocated. Trust me, that was a very difficult decision to come to and it probably took longer than it should have. I’d like to thank my friends, family, and the Peace Corps staff who supported me through the decision and allowed me come to the conclusion on my own. I know I was frustratingly stubborn, and probably worried the hell out of all of you, but I am extremely appreciative that I was given control over the situation, because control over my daily life had been taken from me.
This is where the real struggle began. I felt more emotions in the month that followed my removal from site than ever in my life. Most of them were not pretty, but I want to share them in the hopes that maybe my feelings can help to validate and normalize the feeling anyone else may have in a similar situation.
First, because of the stalker’s affinity for finding me when I attempted to hide in other cities, I was unable to tell anyone that I was leaving town, let alone where I was going. On my last day in site, I smiled through coffee with my dear friends, the friends who had become my protection and confidants through the whole ordeal, all without letting on that I wouldn’t be seeing them again, perhaps for a very long time. These women shielded me from this man when he tried to approach me on the streets or in stores, drove me to Kosovo when I needed to get out of town immediately and there were no furgons, and called me every night before bed to make sure that I was safe, that I had eaten well, and to wish me “sweet sleep”. I felt as if I was betraying their loyalty and kindness by leaving without saying goodbye. Nevertheless, I threw my bag in the Peace Corps vehicle, had one last round of 1000 questions with my Lost Boys, and waved goodbye to my blood home.
When I left site, there wasn’t exactly a plan as to what would happen next, so I spent the next 6 days holed up in a hostel in Tirana until I could meet with staff. I had trouble wrapping my mind around the fact that I would not be returning home, and that in fact, I had no home. I think because all I wanted was to feel stable and free, I longed for the comforts of home, any home, where I could cry a bit and put myself back together. Unfortunately (or fortunately), the days I spent in Tirana provided constant distraction. Fellow volunteers funneled through the hostel constantly and I was never alone for very long. I simultaneously felt that I needed a moment to myself to breakdown in a wine-and-chocolate-and-Carry Grant fueled pity party, and that I should be around people so I could laugh and keep my mind off it all. Well, ladies and gentlemen, I grossly underestimated how much the whole ordeal was affecting me. At one point, I left in the middle of a presentation to make frantic phone calls to every Peace Corps staff member whose phone number I had to ask for answers, for direction; really, I just needed assurance that things were moving, that I would have a home soon. Sadly, I didn’t get the answer I wanted, and I placated myself with an outrageous bar tab and a few whiny phone calls to friends. Peace Corps was not optimistic about finding me a new site assignment very soon and the options they were looking into came with their own list of difficulties. As such, I was instructed to go stay with friends for a while. And so my wandering adventures began. Because my troubles began almost immediately after arriving at my site, Peace Corps chose not to deliver my luggage to me, and so I had been living out of a backpack for over a month, and would continue to do so for another month. I definitely learned that I could live with much less than I previously thought.
My backpack and I caught a furgon to the deep south of Albania and stayed with a friend for couple days. Lucky for me, a group of my favorite volunteers (who were already well aware of my problems) were also in town, so I felt comfortable allowing a bit of my vulnerability show. They knew what I was going through, and they let me be sad. It was probably very annoying, so I’m sorry for that, but it was so helpful to me. That weekend we all gathered together on the beach for one huge 4th of July bash. I had so much fun playing in the water, lounging in the sun, and drinking with friends. I only had two mildly embarrassing moments: one involving drunkenly crying to friends about everything, and one involving drunkenly falling on the ground in front of everyone wrapped in an American flag. Whoops. But other than that, it was all good. We spent 3 days sleeping on the beach under the stars. Let me tell you, I could get used to waking up to incredible sunrises and the sounds of waves hitting the rocky shores. It was perfect. But as the weekend wound to a close everyone was expressing their happiness to have spent a week in the sun, but they were looking forward to going home (to beds and showers). I had a strong pang of jealousy and a long bout of melancholy when confronted with the reality that I had no place to go home to. I spent the next couple days slowly working my way back up the country, imposing on more volunteers’ insurmountable hospitality. Thank you to everyone who lent me a bed, a shower, a meal, and company. You are all truly saints.
I met with staff once again with hope that they might give me a new site assignment, but sadly I was mistaken. They needed more time, and I was sent to a remote site to wait. I waited for a week (surrounded by wonderful friends and some really great food) to hear the news. I was told I would get a phone call on Friday with the name of my new community, where I would start fresh and finish my two years of service. On Friday morning I woke up early and stared at my phone, waiting anxiously. Luckily, I didn’t have to wait too long (I think staff knew that I would blow up their phones if I didn’t hear immediately) and I was told I was moving to the complete opposite end of the country. From extreme north to deep south. But I had a name, a place, a plan. Immediately, I sent a text message to my future sitemate and…well, what a relief! She was excited and positive about the town. During my wait I had speculated that I would be placed here, but was constantly (and I feel, unfairly) discouraged from being too excited about living here. I’m making up my own mind about it now. It would be another 5 days before I would actually make the trip down to the deep south, but first I had to go back to my original site to say goodbye.
This is really hard for me to describe.
When I pulled into town (in a taxi, because there were no furgons that day…or the next day…), it felt strange, like when you run into an old friend with whom you’ve had a falling out. Things were once so wonderful, and you have great memories, but there is still a riff that can’t be completely mended. I went straight to the hospital to find my counterparts, and I was showered with hugs and kisses and scoldings for not telling them where I went. I told them stories of where I had been and what I had done, and what would be happening next. I heard their stories of weddings, and mothers-in-law, and work gossip. We drank salep and boiling coffee and ate grapes fresh from the garden. And when it was time to say goodbye, I made promises that I would come back, and I will stick to that promise. In the weeks before my removal, my counterparts were warned that I may not be staying. My counterpart told Peace Corps that she thought that she would never be able to like an American, but now she felt like I was a daughter to her. They told me they only want another volunteer if it is me again. Oh, I wish. I met with my male counterpart/escort as well. He was so incredibly helpful to me. On the day we met, he corrected my shqip pronunciation and we shot-gunned a beer together; the next day he promised to act as my brother and protect me, and he did everything in his power to do so. Including this:
I was shuffled into a meeting with the mayor of the town and the chief of police. Apparently, my leaving was not an acceptable option. I knew fully well that I could not stay there, that it was not safe for me, and that the decision had been made. But I wanted to stay so badly! The mayor assured me, “I can guarantee your safety every day.” They had invited the chief of police to this little powwow because their plan was to assign a police officer to be my bodyguard for the next two years. He would be posted outside my apartment and would escort me anywhere I needed to go. My heart was overwhelmed by their graciousness. I wanted to scream, “you’ve got a deal!” Anything to stay. But my head knew it would never work. Not only could my safety not be guaranteed, but also I couldn’t live like that. I should be free to buy vegetables and chocolate bars when I want, without police escort. But I wanted desperately to accept their legendary hospitality and caring gift. I couldn’t find the words (in shqip or English) to express how humbled I was by their determination. So I cried. For the first time since I had left almost a month before. I told them that I wanted to stay there and I would if they could guarantee my safety, but they couldn’t. So they called Peace Corps. Over and over again. To beg them to let me stay, to share their plan for my safety. I sat on and watched this all unfold, as they came to realize that the decision wouldn’t be reversed. I left the mayor’s office a complete wreck.
Yet again, I unceremoniously threw my bag into the back of a Peace Corps vehicle and drove away. Before I left the mayor asked me to keep a positive view of the town, to think back on it with fondness, and to know that I will always be welcome there. He apologized for not being able to keep me safe, as if it was his own fault. I want him to know, and everyone else, that I do look back on it with fondness. To any future volunteers who may be placed there: know that you will be cared for well. I miss it. But I’ll be back soon enough.
I have been in my new site now for about 3 weeks and things are moving along. I finally have all of my bags unpacked for the first time since I left the States in March and I have a home. I can leave my house whenever I want and I don’t have to look over my shoulder. The people here are nice and I am gaining acquaintances, avash avash. My sitemate, and extended deep south family, are all phenomenal and I am so grateful to have the opportunity to spend time with them. I’m slowly learning the new personalities in my office and hopefully we can have a productive and fun two years together. I am optimistic and content. I learned so much about myself through this experience, and I am thankful for my safety and wellbeing. I am thankful for my friends and family who have offered their unbridled support. I am thankful to Krumë for rallying around me, a stranger in a strange land, when I needed help, and I am thankful to Delvinë for welcoming me with open arms.
I learned that people are apt to be kind. And I learned that its ok to ask for help.
So I want to thank you all, to whom I came for help, and from whom flowed perfect kindness. You are the goodness in the world.