Make Empty Meaningful

Now that my life here in Albania has settled down a bit, I feel like I can start to fully appreciate the reality of the Peace Corps experience. This weekend I was reminded of all the advice and warnings that a Google or Youtube search of “Peace Corps” could produce.  As a bright eyed nominee, I was sure that my service would be different.  They say that every PCV’s experience is different.  But if I learned anything from this weekend, spent with a group of fellow PCVs, sprawled on couches and the floor in our underwear because the mere idea of clothes indoors in the summer was offensive, it was that we shared a unique bond, not only with each other, but also with the thousands of PCVs around the world who were experiencing the same challenges and triumphs, frustrations and joys, and most importantly embarrassing moments (most commonly involving toilets). Together, we are a fraternity of crazy kids who gave up everything for 27 months in attempt to make empty meaningful.

*Disclaimer* I am not denying the fact that I will – several times a week – spend THE ENTIRE day on my couch watching Grey’s Anatomy and eating popcorn and convincing myself that I was productive because at some point in the day I may have washed a dish. Human interaction is not high on my list of priorities.  But to my credit, I am reading a lot. That has to count for something.

Albanian volunteers arrive at site right about the time that Albania shuts down for summer.  Between the months of June and September not a whole lot happens…and by “not a whole lot”, I mean not a damn thing. In my site, not only does everything come to a halt during the summer months as far as work, but also between the hours of 12PM and 7PM, all business shuts down so that proprietors can escape the heat and hit the beach. I totally understand the concept, but, let’s be honest, sometimes I need to buy things during the day.  Go figure. Anyway, because it’s too hot to think about work currently, and PC encourages us to go to work every day and make headway on projects, one can imagine there might be a bit of frustration going on.  Productivity is frankly at a standstill. So here are some of the strategies that I have used to make this time meaningful, if not productive.

I have been at my new site now for about a month and a half.  For the last month of that time, my counterpart has been on vacation.  So I have been left largely to my own devices when it comes to work.  I’ll be honest, folks, integrating myself into my office has been a struggle.  My coworkers seemed uninterested in me, probably because I was not “their American” and the person meant to vouch for me was nowhere to be seen.  But I went to work every day and sat awkwardly in the room, tried to interject myself into the conversation, would say something incorrectly, get frustrated and embarrassed, then clam up until I could make a smooth exit. For a few weeks, no one in my office would speak to me except for the janitor. I was so grateful to her!  Finding common ground was more difficult than I imagined, but one thing I recognized about my coworkers was that the radio was always bumping away behind the conversation and they would absentmindedly sing to themselves.  I downloaded a playlist of Albanian music from my sitemate and brought it to work the next day.  When there was a lull in the conversation I asked my prepared question: “What is your favorite song?”.  What followed was a day of power-ballad-singing to me…and obviously, circle dancing. The ladies shared their favorite part of their culture with me.  One woman said, “You know who I love?  Celine Dion! Do you have her music?”.  Do I have Celine Dion? Ha.  Buckle up.  She and I belted out those 90’s chart-toppers like there was no tomorrow!  Good thing I practice them into my hairbrush every morning. We laughed and sang and danced.  Will it be a project I can report to Peace Corps to show my productivity as a volunteer?  Nope.  But the next day my fellow Celine Dion fan shyly looked up at me over her crocheting and said, “Ive been meaning to tell you that I have ideas for a prenatal care program and I would really love your help in getting it running.” Ice. Broken. We spent the rest of the day talking about the challenges she faces now in getting health services to pregnant women and her ideas for improving birth outcomes through education and intervention.  She is passionate about mothers and babies, and I love passion. I can work with passion. Some may say that I don’t do anything because I have nothing concrete to show at the end of the day.  But singing My Heart Will Go On off key and full of love and pain helped this woman to feel comfortable sharing her ideas and it helped me become part of the group, to feel comfortable sharing my ideas, and was just the push I needed to convince myself to get out of bed and give the day a shot. 

My counterpart will be back next week and hopefully that means that I can start working a bit more.  My sitemate and I had an intense planning session last week and we are ready to take on the next school year together.  I’m excited about the months to come as we test the waters on a project I’ve been dreaming up, and I cant wait to get the ball rolling on this prenatal care program with my coworker.  As far as summers go, I have had a hell of a rollercoaster (with a month of mandatory vacation thrown in the middle).  I may not have world-changing projects chugging away, but I do have trust and friendship. It may not be a lot, but its meaningful to me.  

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Roll with the Punches or Get Knocked Out

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.

      

Truth Be Told

While I am incredibly fortunate to have been placed in a beautiful, mountainous nation on the coast of the Adriatic and Ionian Seas, and while my fellow PC Albania volunteers and I are scornfully referred to as part of “the Posh Corps”, things are not as they appear on Lonely Planet (for the most part).  I can boast that I have had a whole lot of fun so far.  Because the country is so small and simultaneously beautiful from end to end, all of my travels have offered some breathtaking view or another.  I am a lucky girl. 

For those of you who don’t know much about Albania and its history (which is probably most of you, since I couldn’t even find it on a map before I came here), this country was ruled by a communist dictatorship for nearly 50 years.  The country and its people were isolated from the outside world because of the dictator’s extreme paranoia.  I have read that Albania’s isolation is second only to North Korea. As such, even though Albania is nestled on the outskirts of Eastern Europe, only a 70km ferry ride from Italy and the developed West, the country is more than a century behind.  Unemployment is outrageous, with unofficial estimates hovering around 35% of the population being papune– without work. In this traditional patriarchal society, unemployment is placing a huge amount of stress on men.  At the same time, women are expected to carry out traditional gender roles and there is very little wiggle room.  Several times I have heard women here speak of the state of women’s issues and each time their comments are accompanied by a hand gesture that suggests one’s neck being constricted.  Women are without liberty, they say.  Things are slowly changing in the cities, and women are getting education, marrying men they chose, and in extreme cases are divorcing abusive, dangerously jealous husbands. However, the bleak employment climate is further restricting women from financial and overall independence.  In my city it is very rare to see a woman in a café or restaurant. The streets are overrun with hoards of men at any hour of the day (because of unemployment), and sometimes I feel like I have entered the Twilight Zone when I walk to the dyqan to buy my produce. Luckily, my city is very progressively minded for women’s issues and has asked my help in promoting gender equality (“without spreading any radical ideas”).  I’m very excited that they are excited about the future of this city.  I am here to serve.

I live in a communist-era block apartment building.  I have running water 4 hours a day, 6-8am and 7-9pm. Surprisingly, it has been easy to adjust to a water schedule, but I did have to learn a few lessons along the way.  My electricity is spotty, but not terrible. I don’t have a functioning stove or oven; I cook my meals on a propane gas burner (which, as luck would have it, ran out of gas as I wrote this…halfway through cooking my dinner. Now I have a pot full of half cooked beans and not a clue how to get more gas).  I don’t have a refrigerator, so I buy only what I can eat the same day. I have a wood burning stove that once it is connected will provide my only source of heat for the winters here…we are expecting several feet of snow.  Currently, its over 90 degrees and I have no air-conditioning.  I just wear less clothing and sleep on my kitchen floor.  I have scorpions, wood worms, spiders, and giant mosquito-type things that live here with me. There are about 100 children who play outside my pallat.  I call them The Lost Boys because they sound like they are always ready to wage war on pirates.  Yesterday, my neighbor stopped by my window to check on me and we had a nice chat.  People are friendly, but I think they are still a little wary of the strange American girl living alone (shocking!).

Contrary to popular belief, I do work here.  That is, I go to work.  Since I officially speak Shqip at an intermediate-mid level (which translates to something like a babbing toddler), I spend a good amount of time listening and doing my best to learn new words every day.  I think I’m doing OK.  When we arrived in Albania, we were told over and over that work would be slow and that we would need to have a lot of coffee with our coworkers before anything would happen.  So that’s the approach I have taken.  I go to work every day with no expectation of getting any “work” done.  I spend an hour chatting with the ladies about what I cooked for dinner, what I ate for breakfast, and why I’m still not married.  Then we drink coffee.  My counterpart shoots her boiling coffee down in one.  She is the toughest woman I have ever met. I will tell you guys all about her another time.  Then we do crafts: traditional beading for wedding clothes, crochet table runners, and knitting. At first I was a bit put off by them using work time to do personal crafts, but after learning about their daily routines, I realized that work hours are their only moments of freedom and relaxation.  So now I bring my knitting along too.  I am so glad I do, and here’s why. Because now we are friends.  And when ladies are at coffee with their girlfriends, they talk about things.  Real things.  Things that affect their lives.  I have stacks of statistics on the health situation in Albania, but they cant tell me in a woman’s voice how she is feeling.  How her life is being affected by the current state of things.  How if we could just do something about this or that, things would be better.  So I ask the probing questions: “What would be most helpful for this?”, “What would you like to see happen?”, “Do you have ideas?”.  They always do.  And just like that we have a little idea that we discuss over our needlepoint, and it turns into a plan.  Then the next day, the girls tell their friends about the idea.  Then a couple days later, I run into a woman on the street who says that she heard about the work that we are thinking about doing and she wants to help in anyway she can. 

So here we go!  Boiling hot coffee, down in one.  Time to get to work. Because my community has a plan. I’m just along for the ride. 

Blood Home

ImageLet me start by offering my humblest apologies to my hoards of adoring fans.  I know I promised to keep up this blog, but alas I have failed you.  Please love me anyway. I am here to make amends.  Also, its my first weekend at my permanent site and I have no one to talk to. Oh yeah.  That’s right.  This is going to be the crazy cat lady talking to herself on the internet.  So here goes…

I made it safely to Albania about 3 months ago.  Pre-Service Training (PST) was an intensive 10 weeks of language, cultural, and technical training.  It was overwhelming at times, and at times I couldn’t help but think how incredibly lucky I was to be having that experience.  I have never laughed so much, swore so much, or felt that I was in the presence of greatness more than I did during those 10 weeks. My colleagues and friends are among the brightest and kindest individuals I have had the pleasure of meeting and I am eternally grateful to have been afforded the opportunity to forge life-long friendships with them.  We had our share of shenanigans, got into a good deal of mischief, broke some rules, and hung our heads in shame for a bit…but we found our ride or die crew.  This is only the beginning.  For you future PCVs who may have stumbled upon this blog, you probably have a million questions about PST, but as I’m sure you have heard a hundred times already (and you’re gonna keep hearing it), every PCV’s experience is different.  But the one piece of advice I received that I would pass on is this:  just let it happen.  PST can be hard, it can be scary, it can be unbelievably fun, or miserable.  But it ends.  So just let it happen.  Also, don’t compare yourself to any of the other volunteers.  It will drive you crazy. Mark my words, kids.   

About a month ago, I learned that I would be spending my Peace Corps service in a small rural city in the northern mountains of Albania. Site announcement day was a blur. Actually, the whole week leading up to site announcement was a blur.  Tensions were high, to say the very least.  To put it into perspective, it was like waiting for your college acceptance letter.  But 10 fold. There we were having given up jobs, our families, friends, country and everything we knew with little more than a piece of paper with a country name and a promise that it would be the toughest job we’d ever love…and that they’d tell us more once we arrived.  Sometimes I still wonder how they got us on to that plane 3 months ago!  Anyway, site announcement would determine a lot.  It went unspoken, but we were all thinking it.  Who would be our sitemates?  Would we be near our friends? Would that PST romance be worth pursuing? Would we be roughing it or living on a beach resort?   There was some really cheesy hugging and singing, but then that map went up on the wall and they called out our names, in no particular order, and our faces popped up over our new home for two years.  I was called near the end and all I could see was that I was in the infamous north.  Cool?  I hadn’t heard of the site, so I had no information base.  They handed me an envelope with a Wikipedia printout about the region and some general information about my job placement.  I skimmed through until I saw, “You are the first health volunteer we have placed in this city.” Wait.  “Im opening the site? Alone?”, I said to my program director.  She assured me that she truly believed I could do it.  Just as I started to digest that information (North. First volunteer. Alone.), a swarm of staff members descended upon me to console (?) me.  In turn they made strong proclamations about my counterparts, the organization, the city, the safety situation, the housing, and the scenery.  They all had this look of fear in their eyes; that look when you give someone bad news and you are afraid of their reaction.  What was my reaction, you ask? I told them I was grateful for their confidence in me, that I was flattered that they chose me for this assignment, that I would do my absolute best with the responsibility that had been placed on me, and that I needed a drink.  The latter point was vehemently approved by all, and I spend a carefree night with my friends in a pleasant raki haze.

As I told Albanians where I would be living, the general response was a grimace and some fact or another about how northern people were “different”. Now that I am here, I feel like I can add my two cents based solely on my first impression. This area has a history that puzzles me.  To people who have never been here (which is just about everyone, including most Albanians), this area is known for its oppression, violence, and centuries of bloody history.  But to people who have experienced the North and everything it has to offer, this area has no equal for its kindness and hospitality.  This district played a key role in sheltering refugees of the Kosovo conflict, and that mentality is palpable.  I don’t mean to say that things are perfect; we’ve got a long road ahead of us.  But I hope that I can paint a realistic picture of my community that will portray their incredible warmth and hospitality. From a kind couple who sheltered and fed me, a stranger, when I had no place to live, to women physically blocking me from street harassment, to a café owner proclaiming to everyone that I was a welcomed guest and not to be bothered, I have seen the goodness of this community. Things are different, I won’t deny that.  But their willingness to embrace me as part of their family and inviting me to make the city my “blood home” makes me very optimistic about my future here.  

 

When I Grow Up

Over the past 15 months, I have been asked this questions repeatedly: Why PC?  Oh, girlfriend.  The answer to that questions has so many facets that I fear this blog will begin to resemble the rambling manifesto of a psycho if I attempt to answer it here and now.  So, simply, it just fit.  Or at least what I imagine it to be seems to fit.  Talk to me in 27 months for an update.

Remember that time during childhood, around 8 or 9 years old, when the world was your oyster?  You knew you could be anything or anyone, and no one was going to stop you.  Have you ever asked a child what they want to be when they grow up?  Their answers are so pure and untainted by failure and bolstered by an unbreakable self-esteem.  Kids shoot for the stars!  So did I at that age.  Literally.  I dreamed of being an astronaut.

Sadly, that dream was short-lived.  I might revisit it one day, but for now its on the back burner.  After that my dreams ran the gamut: scientist, homicide detective (I was a morbid kid), musician, stay-at-home mom, and probably 10 other fleeting fantasies over the years.  I shared my dreams with my parents, seeking their approval and affirmation that I would indeed make a great (fill in the blank).  I don’t remember their response to all of my life goals, but I do clearly remember one.  I went through a phase at around 9 years old where I was sure I would grow up to be a vegetarian (as if that was huge life accomplishment) and join the Peace Corps.  My mom told me that I would not grow up to be a hippy. Ha!  Joke’s on you, Mom.

So many experiences and choices have made me into who I am today: a 23 year old vegetarian, 30 days away from the beginning of PC service in Albania.  So, I guess you could say I’m living my dream.

Peace Corps Invites You to Serve…

In Albania.  Excuse me? I’m not exactly a geography wiz, but I was pretty sure that Albania was not in Africa.  A quick Google search confirmed my suspicion.

I’m gonna be honest here, kids.  I’m not exactly proud of the way I responded to this news…But here’s the story.

After nearly a year of anxiously waiting and wondering and doing my very best to avoid have any expectations (ha, yeah right.), I got an email unexpectedly:  “Your Peace Corps Invitation…”. Oh boy.  Here it was, where I would be volunteering for 27 months.  Up until this moment I had two very general pieces of information about my potential future 1.) I would be in Africa and 2.) this could change at any time.  Well, 1 out of 2 aint bad.  I had imagined that I would be be able to read my invitation surrounded by my family and we would celebrate this new adventure together.  I had even planned a trip home around the time I expected to receive the news so that my little fantasy could come true.  Turns out that my invitation came two weeks earlier than I was told it would, and not only was my family not around, they were on another continent.  I had taken a spontaneous trip to Paris, France and in the process of trying to check-in to my flight back to the States I saw the email.  I was alone in a hotel lobby in another country.  Not exactly how had imagined it, but here’s to “flexibility”.  My eyes went straight to the bolded letters: Albania. Albania. Albania. Albania. I read it over and over to make sure I had it right. I checked the name on the letter. Yup, it was addressed to me.  Ok, Albania. No. No. No. I won’t go.

The next few hours were a blur of tears, fear, excitement, anger, and probably a few other emotions that I can’t even articulate (or I’m ashamed to).  I had no way of contacting anyone I knew to bring me back to reality, so my mind raced. I pictured myself stranded and alone in an endless frozen tundra: cold, gray, sad and surrounded by communist-era cold, gray, sad looking buildings.  My lack of global understanding is glaringly obvious to me now, but, trust me, at the time it was all I had to go on.  I took a walk along the Seine to clear my head, but I was still alone with the realization that all the metal preparation I had done for this life-decision had not been enough.  Maybe I wasn’t cut out for this.  I pride myself on thriving on the adventure of the unknown…but the known in this unknown was too much. Why?  It took me a sleepless night and a 15 hour flight to figure that out.

It was purely selfish.  Being invited to serve in Eastern Europe rocked all of my best laid day dreams.  Albanians asked for the help, and that’s what I signed up to do.

As soon as I landed in the States, I scoured every corner of the internet to fill in the gaps in my mind.  The pictures were beautiful…and the history was appalling. My family and friends shared their mixed feelings and concerns:

“Do what makes you happy.”

“Hahaha, you’re gonna hate it.”

“Do they have vampires there!?”

I admit, the vampire problem hadn’t crossed my mind.  But, regardless, I accepted the invitation a day or two later.  Since then I have been absorbing everything I can about the little nation that I will call home for two years.   I am very happy to have been allowed this opportunity.  I leave the US in just over a month and I can’t wait.  Seriously, my mind is 6200 miles away.

My goal is to keep you all updated on what I see, do, and learn over the next couple years.  I am going to do my very best to be honest and create a real representation of my experiences.  Let’g go!  The world is calling…