National Peace Corps Week - #PCWeek2014

As a part of National Peace Corps week, the Peace Corps is holding a video competition, "What do you want Americans to know about your country of service?" I made this video on what I thought was important while I was in Albania, featuring Americans and Albanians living and working together. Please share this and 'like' in on Youtube because that's how you win!


Everything feels the same, it just looks different..

The end of September marks my fifth month back on American soil and I honestly can't believe it. When I look back at where my life was a mirë 4 and 1/2 months ago it's insane where I am currently. Reflecting on my first two months in America I just flopped around like a fish out of water. I moved back in with my family, didn't have a vehicle to call my own, didn't have a job, opted out of getting a cell phone for a while, lived in other peoples clothes since I had left all my clothes in trashcans of hostels or at my apartment in Bajram Curri (trust me, there was no reason to carry these hole-ridden, stained clothes back), ate out everywhere I had been craving for years and basically became a recluse in my aunt's house for a month.

The thought of seeing my friends was overwhelming at first, some friends who I was extremely close with when I left I hadn't talked to since I left. My family was supportive but there was a lot I needed to get through myself.. like the pace of life speeding up about 100 mph and not being able to walk to the store when I forgot something or when I got to that store no one even looked up from their iPhone to acknowledge I existed.

Those things slowly changed, I financed a car (like a true American), got my hair cut off (I hadn't had a true hair style for almost three years), moved into my apartment, started grad school, met knew people, adjusted to not living under a microscope every time I leave my apartment. Unlike the lifestyle I had been living for 28 months meetings actually started when they were scheduled to start, I drank coffee alone in my car and not socially, also the coffees were 10 times bigger and I didn't nurse a 4 oz. Turkish coffee for an hour anymore, I didn't have to worry about unplugging my computer when it was supposed to storm in fear of a power outage, I got to sit on a seat to use the bathroom instead of squat over a whole in the floor.. I've gotten to go to weddings, celebrate my birthday at home and spend time with my family, a few things I missed a lot of while I was gone. I've gotten used to people having pets again and not treating dogs like garbage disposals or doing unmentionable things to liters of kittens. I got a Twitter. I now shamelessly use hashtags. I'm not kidding I did go through a technology learning curve when I got back. I was introduced to a mobile dating app but then rapidly deleted it, not there yet.

I remember having times in Albania where I felt like the day would never end because of lack of things to do but now I go to school from 8:00am to sometimes 10-11pm and never have a break. When something relevant comes up in conversation and I want to reference Albania I literally see peoples eyes glazing over which defers me from talking about my experiences at all. The friends that I survived Albania with have all moved back to their respective parts of America and have either started school, found a job or popped out babies (you know who you are). Although geographically none of us were that close to each other while in Albania, somehow everyone seems more spread out in the States than we ever did there. I feel like I'm walking around with loads of secrets and no one even knows to ask.. which is pretty cool. I also downloaded Snapchat.

I'm not sure I'll ever be fully readjusted though and I do see things differently now.. way differently. Places seem the same but look different, guess it's that whole lens thing. America is such an individualistic society and Albania is the perfect example of a collectivist society. I've lived in my apartment building now and met one of my neighbors and it was a "Hey, how are ya?" passing conversation. I knew every single person in my 4 story building in Bajram Curri within weeks and had been invited into every families home, and this wasn't just because I was a foreigner but because people actually took time to sit down and visit, drink coffees together, watching those dreaded wedding tapes together. I miss that aspect of Albania the most and hope I can somehow keep it as a part of my way of living for the rest of my life. 

I miss my older friends I made because they don't have any interest in the Internet. I also found out my Peace Corps counterpart and dear friend will be moving to America and I can't wait to visit him here. I miss eating every other dinner with Garrett and Eric and having to get super creative about menus and the nights we pulled out stuff we got from care packages. I still can't bring myself to changing my Facebook location from Bajram Curri, Albania. Maybe I never will. I'm also permanently representing Tropoja on my newly financed vehicle. I miss furgon drivers taking me places. Driving places is annoying because you can't sleep the entire way there.

I am continuing my ties with the Peace Corps though. We have a major Capstone project due right before graduation and I'm teaming up with the North Carolina Peace Corps Association to do a website revamping and branding redesign which I'm pretty excited about. Hopefully I can find a community by working with them of RPCVs. Here's some of the work I've done so far in my program: HTML website, Photo/Audio Story. I find out next week what country I'll be going to for a week in January to shoot a project then come back and edit it. 

Eric is currently doing an amazing project with his final Live Theater Blog and has already raised almost $5000 for the Mobile Library in Bajram Curri. If you get a chance to check it out, here's the link, 7:00pm EST this Sunday. If you're feeling really generous, here's the link to donate to the Mobile Library! It's been a great thing for me to see him still doing it because it feels like we're helping a place we called home for over two years from America.

“Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colors. And the people there see you differently, too. Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.” - Terry Prachett

If you're feeling really generous, here's the link to donate to the Mobile Library! 


2 weeks in America, 27 month wrap up..

Before taking the plunge into the good ol' U S of A, I took one last journey. Since I've been in the Peace Corps I've had the privilege of traveling all across the world.. around 20 different countries, 3 continents (4 including America). Living in a foreign country for two years gave me the opportunity to learn not only about that country but also the surrounding countries. I have a weird obsession now for the history of the Balkans or the fall of Yugoslavia just because I lived in that part of the world and feel so close to it because I've had first hand conversations with people who lived through it.

While I have had the opportunity to travel, it has come with great sacrifice. My dad always reminds me that if people just look at my online posts that they probably would think all I did was travel and eat delicious foods. While this was true for about 1/10 of my time as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I did live in an under developed country for two years where I donated my time, modern luxuries such as hot water, a western toilet, power.. I lived somewhere where I had to recreate myself in a foreign language, develop work relationships and friends from complete scratch, give up my day to day freedoms by not having a private vehicle, adapt to the social norms as a woman in my small community, prepare every meal that I ate, celebrate my birthday with family via Skype for two years, adjust to the 'avash avash' lifestyle and by living at a pace of life about 70% slower than I was used to in America, juggle friendships with professional relationships (also in a foreign language), live under a microscope and try and try to maintain a good reputation for the majority of the community members...

While all of these seem like hardships or inconveniences, they all shaped my experience, changed my life forever, taught me to be more accepting and learn that everyone's truth is different. Countless Albanian families accepted me as the strange foreigner, adopted me as their own and shared true hospitality, kindness and generosity. I saw people who by all standards have very little, be truly happy, content and full of love. I also saw those same people show me the upmost respect just because of the country that I represented by offering me the biggest portions of meat at dinner and introduce me as their friend and see the pride dripping off of their smile. I listened to stories from 70 year old men and women about life during communism and how if they even said the word "America" that they would be locked up and reputation of their family would be ruined. I was told over and over again that for me to even be in their country was remarkable. If I learned anything during the past two years it's that people are, in general, good. Of course there's a lot of bad out there but I'm a believer now that there is more good.

When I think about what expectations I had for my time in the Peace Corps I remember not really having that many. I had no idea what type of community that I would be placed into, I didn't even know what part of the world I was going to go to. Straight out of college I sometimes questioned if I was even qualified to represent America as an ambassador in a foreign country. I was told towards the end of my service by Peace Corps staff that one of the reasons I got placed where I did was because of my positive attitude. Where I lived was one of the most isolated places in the country, the only way to travel there was through another country, by ferry through the mountains or hiking 5 hours through the Albanian Alps. I think one of things that got me through the past two years living in a community like this was my attitude (as well as my two sitemates). My passion of basketball followed me and I was able to fund the reconstruction of the outdoor basketball courts in town as well as start a youth basketball league. As the first three Volunteers in Bajram Curri we spent a lot of our time and energy into forming relationships with people around town and explaining why we were there, sometimes over and over. I actually used my previous jobs and education as a Volunteer by creating an only presence for various NGOs and my Peace Corps assignment at the town hall in Bajram Curri. So, I guess if I was asked if I met my expectations I would say that I exceeded them.

I've been back in America now for almost 2 weeks and I've gotten mixed reactions when I say I just got back from the Peace Corps. "Oh cool, Albania? What part of Africa is that?" "Thank you for your service." "Peace Corps huh?, I thought about that.. then I grew up." "How poor are the people there?" "Did it change your life?" As drastic and different as these reactions are I think any conversation that I do have about the time I spent in Albania is necessary. Necessary for me to make the transition back to America and realize that the last two years of my life wasn't some crazy detailed dream and also necessary to at least give people some idea about how people live outside of America because even after being here a mire two weeks I realize how easy it is to get wrapped up in day to day frustrations and routines here.. "Though we travel the world to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us or we find it not" - Ralph Waldo Emerson. Now that I have had the opportunity to live among a culture that is not my own and since it has shaped the rest of my life I hope I will continuously have the opportunity to share it with people. I know this blog was the first step to that and I really like that I kept it up for the entirety of my service because I will forever have this online journal of my experience.

I want to thank everyone that took the time out of their day to read this blog for the last two years.. I'm going to leave up and add a bar to the side so it's easier to review my two years in Albania. To my PCVs that I had the pleasure to meet in Albania, I know we were all very different but we had to have some commonality to want to join the Peace Corps. I know a lof of current PCVs actually knew me way before they even came to Albania because they read this blog. To my friends and family that sent a letter, a care package, a Facebook wallpost, a funny email, Skyped me, Facetimed me, called my Nokia phone to talk, came and visited me.. Thank you. Communication with Peace Corps Volunteers has sure come a long way over the years and I'm glad that it was utilized in my service.

First day in Albania & two years later..

28 months later and a lot less luggage.. I can't believe it's over.
Stay tuned for a 2 year wrap up..

COS trip up and around..

Starting in Albania, Montenegro, Croatia, Bosnia, back to Croatia,
Hungary, Greece, Turkey, England.. USA!

7 countries in 3 weeks..

Istanbul, Turkey
Dubrovnik, Croatia
Istanbul, Turkey
Budva, Montenegro
Dubrovnik, Croatia 
Sarajevo, Bosnia
Zagreb, Croatia
Budapest, Hungary
Meteora, Greece
Theessaloniki, Greece


Last night in Albania..

I closed my service as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Albania on Tuesday, May 14th. I never would have thought that two years in a foreign country would go by so quickly. When I think about what I've accomplished during my Peace Corps service I think the biggest success is finishing. I have lived and worked in a foreign country for two years, adapted to a different culture and sometimes even successfully communicated in the local language. Today I officially completed my service as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Albania. I'll forever have the memories of the places I've been able to visit, the people I've met along the way and know how much this experience has shaped the rest of my life.

One of those people I met along the way had to close her Peace Corps service abruptly and early, making her leave country and not get to say goodbye to her coworkers or friends she had made in Kukes. She decided that she wanted to come back then travel with me when I closed my service. The last night that I spent in Albania was idealic. We traveled to Kukes to spend the night with another PCV and reconnect with Emily's (and my) favorite family in Kukes. We started the day off by going by the family's crepe shop and having lunch and everyone kept telling Emily how much better she looked now that she lived in America. Then we went to her old Health Center and met the new Volunteer working there and had coffee with her old coworkers. 

We went over to the family's house and at Emily's request that had prepared us a traditional meal, sarma, made only in Northern Albania which consists of meat and rice wrapped and soaked in cabbage. The family consists of 5 girls, ranging from ages of 9 to around 26. One lives in Sweden, one is studying in Tirana, one just got engaged, one is in the high school and one is in the 9-year school! While we waited for the meal to be finished I learned yet one more Albanian tradition, it's amazing that after two years thing still surprise me.

So once a daughter is presented to her future husbands family and the engagement is accepted there is a process called "paje" which essentially consists of the future bride-to-be getting rid of all her old clothes, buying new ones, and preparing for her new home and life as a homemaker. The recently engaged daughter showed us all the clothes, utensils, bags, shoes, cups, hairdryers and hand knitted items she had bought herself and received as gifts from her family and family friends. The goal is to start completely over one you get married and not have anything that you had before. It's a very traditional custom and she said the only reason they were doing is was because her fiance's family was very traditional.

After the presentation of household items and clothing we sat down for a beautiful, I mean beautiful meal. Homemade sarma, grilled peppers, greek salad and homemade bread. Obviously saying goodbye was hard but when the time came we had a fun little photoshoot.

We went back to the PCVs house who we were staying with to sit on the porch and drink homemade Albanian village wine. The power went off, which he said had been happening more frequently because of the road construction. It was just a perfect mixture of everything. A great night with an Albanian family, Emily got to reconnect with people and then the power went off and we sat in the dark and drank wine. This morning we woke up at 4:45am to catch the first ride out of town and headed to Shkoder and then crossed the border to Montenegro to begin our trip. Tomorrow we're off to Dubrovnik! Mirupafshim Nena Shqiperia!