The end of the journey (for some)…

I know it’s been almost an entire year since I have written. And for that I apologize.

In that time I’ve been to Budapest, Hawaii, I’ve traveled throughout more of Albania, I’ve had another model United Nations conference, I’ve gotten to experience the woes and joys of all my group mates leaving, I’ve gotten to meet the new volunteers and even have been lucky enough to have two new awesome sitemates. It’s been a whirlwind, to say the least.

Where does one start when it’s been so long since I’ve written? The trip back home last year was, as many probably know, a much needed break, and since one year has passed since that time, I’m most certainly ready to do it again. However, last year’s was an enjoyable time spent with family, as well as an awesome surprise visit from my sister (and it was well executed – I had no idea that they’d planned it, and virtually everyone had been in on it).

Budapest was, in a word, wonderful. I did sort of go with the intent of finding out whether or not I ever would have any kind of “party animal” buried deep within me (…I don’t), and it did feel a bit strange to stay at a party hostel. But now that I have, I can safely say it isn’t for me. Budapest was a very wonderful city, deceptively expensive. Their currency is worth less than Albanian leke, but the prices were comparable to the average American city (which, on my budget, is a bit prohibitive).

Aside from those two things though, I would much rather talk about where I am now instead of things that have happened. I’ve finished two years of service in the Peace Corps. I will be the lone extending volunteer in my group, though several will be staying in country with work and friends. A lot of people ask me why I stayed, and I suppose the simple answer is that I am happy. I didn’t want it to end yet. Two years felt too soon to me. A lot of the reason for this feeling is that I love my town. A lot of people here don’t like it, but it’s just right in a lot of ways for me. Its size reminds me of my home town, Hale`iwa, where it is small enough that you will get to know a lot of people in a short amount of time, but large enough you won’t get to know everyone. It’s also very quiet.

I am not so fond of the winter climate when it comes around, as it gets cold enough that my dishwashing detergent freezes and my toothpaste struggles to squeeze out of the tube. Insulation is not a thing, really, and so I end up spending much of winter trying to keep my wood burning stove alive, so that it may return the favor.

But aside from winter, I really do enjoy it here. Could I stay here longer? Some people have asked and the answer is probably no, I don’t know if I would stay here too much longer, if only because I don’t like the public education system. I’ve certainly learned a lot about things I expect for myself out of work since signing onto this. I’d love my own classroom, for instance. The ability to have books and charts and explanations, to decorate it my way, to make it MY castle, it’s invaluable. I also don’t agree with how easy it is for students to pass without being failed a grade, but that’s another story for another time. There are a lot of issues I have with the system, but for now I’ll just leave it at that.

What do I hope to gain out of a third year? A difficult conversation with my father recently told me that there isn’t much for me to gain from staying here another year; my Albanian is excellent, I’ve learned virtually all I will learn skill-wise from staying here in the classroom (though I might beg to differ on that). I wasn’t ready to leave, though. The journey wasn’t finished yet. Part of me felt that I hadn’t finished this invisible mission I had started (and no, I don’t mean a mission of service; it’s a kind of mission I can’t really put into words, a mission of self worth). And my dad did accurately identify the fact I wasn’t ready to change yet, to go through the transition of volunteer to citizen again, wherever that may be.

But something I did realize was that, for the time being, simply BEING here made me happy, and so he was right – I didn’t want that to change. And while pursuing further education or a well-paying job or a better life somewhere else, while these are all good things, I think the simplest answer to why I am staying another year is because I feel happy. Enough that I chose to try to fight for them to let me stay. I was fortunate enough to be granted that opportunity.

So maybe the answer is I do not look to gain anything. I look to continue being happy and continue doing what I’ve been doing, because it makes me happy and because I see the impact of my presence here. I feel that I am doing something worthwhile, even if it’s something small, it makes a difference to someone, sometimes in the most minute ways. But it matters to someone, and that makes me feel good, too.

This last month of school has been a rather lazy one, in a certain light – not that I haven’t gone to classes, I have, but more in the sense that even time itself seems to just laze on by. But today the students at the high school had their last bell, and one class of them lifted me up, threw me into the air, and caught me, only to do it once more. And in that moment, I realized why I am here. To interact with them as people. To treat them not as students, but like people, to show them that their opinions, their thoughts, their hopes and dreams, all those things matter and I want to hear about them. And they showed me today that they appreciated that.

That’s all for now, but I will try to keep these coming in more frequently.

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The end of the school year and the start of summer

As the school year drew to a close, life became increasingly busy, and then it wasn’t busy at all. Nevertheless, it’s been a bit too long since my last update, so now it is time to bring people up to speed with things that have taken place.

I suppose it would be prudent to begin with what was a very special moment for me, the visit of my mother and sister. Much like my father’s visit here, it was something I had very much looked forward to, and after all the ordeals they endured just getting here, it was amazing to finally see them there, in the airport. Unlike their rough journey on the way to Albania (involving confusing Italian trains and a host of other traveling issues), the trip back to Librazhd from the airport went surprisingly smoothly. We got a taxi for about half what I was expecting to pay, we managed to get back in time for one of the buses going to Elbasan and even managed to sit together, and we managed to get a furgon home.

Once we arrived safely in Librazhd (Friday evening), we had dinner with my landlords, and prepared for a day at the market the following day (as well as dinner with my host family). The market was very interesting, and provided a lot of intriguing insight to daily life here (for example, mom and Lani both got to watch a young goat being carried upside down by its feet through the streets, something we wouldn’t see back home in America – particularly since we all knew where that goat was very likely heading that evening). Both my mother and sister were able to pick up some nice little pieces of jewelry (which I have and will be bringing with me), and it was an all around good day. Top that off with a nice dinner at the host family’s house, and it was wonderful.

Sunday was my sister’s birthday, and for her birthday we went up to the good ol’ tree hike in Librazhd, a hike that is very well-known throughout the PC volunteers here in Albania. Up near the top there is a village (Librazhd Katund) where we met two old grandmothers, one of whom was picking flowers to sell as medicine at the market, and one of whom was watching over a flock of sheep. The one watching over the sheep shouted at my mother, who was taking a picture of said sheep, whilst waving a small hatchet around (not threateningly, but more a sort of “You there! I say, what is it you are doing, there!”). My mother pointed to the camera and explained (in English, of course) she just wanted a picture of the sheep. The woman nodded in understanding, planted her hatchet in the ground next to her, and patted the space beside her, gesturing for mom to come have a seat. Mom sat, looked at the little scrawling of notes I had given her (survival Albanian words – yes, no, thank you, hello, goodbye), before saying “Uh, uh…Mirupafshim!” (goodbye), to which the old lady threw her head back and laughed. They sat there and talked, both in their native tongues (and probably not understanding each other verbally), but had a wonderful time, it seemed.

Later Sunday evening, we got back from the tree hike and got nice and dressed up for the party I arranged with some of my students, for my sister’s birthday. I think (though perhaps you may want to ask her yourself) she enjoyed it and was pleasantly surprised with the music they had there, as it was music she was quite accustomed to. Nevertheless, fun was had by all and it was a good night.

The next few days were mixed with Lani coming down with a sore throat and missing two days of meeting my students in classes, and actually meeting the students in classes. We did what we could with the time (and health permitting) we had, and by Thursday, it was time to pack our things and get ready for the next leg of their trip – Amsterdam.

Amsterdam itself was incredible. Getting there…was not. The worst part of the journey was arriving in Venice for our transfer, which was made extremely complex by the lack of signs in English, by people who spoke English and were somewhat helpful, but would help us halfway to our destination (before forgetting we existed and abandoning us where we weren’t supposed to be), and by the major problem of the fact we had purchased two sets of tickets, one set from Tirana to Venice, and a separate set from Venice to Amsterdam (meaning we physically had to leave the airport and check in again, before going through all the screenings and whatnot; without having known that, we tried to go through normal connecting flights, but we didn’t have tickets, and were confused about how we were supposed to get them).

But once we arrived in Amsterdam, it was an unforgettable experience. We were picked up by some of my sister’s friends from university (exchange students), and we went to stay with them for the two-three days we were there. We had dinner there that evening, and it was fantastic (this was Friday evening). Saturday morning, we all headed out and rented bicycles, which was an interesting experience in itself because I’ve never seen so many bicycles in my life. Thousands of them. Parked, riding, everywhere. Amsterdam is so wonderfully flat and level, that aside from the fact there are even special lanes for bikes, riding them is a pleasant experience because you can coast to get everywhere. And beyond that, the city is so incredibly clean and pretty, that riding through it is mentally relaxing. Of course, while we were there, we did some of the touristy things like stopping through the red light district, as well as browsing along some of the places where numerous dispensaries are located (not only for marijuana, but also for mushrooms as well). Whilst not purchasing or partaking in any of those things, it was really interesting to see how it’s done in a place where it’s legal to sell it; because it’s legal, the vendors are able to list every strain they have, and also give specific information about the effects of each strain. I thought this was a rather safe way of selling it, much safer than trying to buy it illegally off the street (particularly for people who are curious about trying it – they might be a little more prepared for what they’re getting into if they have some information about what they’re taking). Nevertheless, going through Amsterdam was an experience in and of itself.

The previous evening, though, I had asked my sister about what she’d think about me getting a tattoo to…”commemorate” the trip together. I viewed the trip as a pretty major point for me, because not only did we get everything together to make it happen, but we were there, together. Furthermore, being halfway through my PC service at this point, I wanted to mark that by getting something to display that. Lani said “Well, yeah, that sounds like a good idea, but have you given any thought to what you’d get? Y’know, how big you’d want it, where…They won’t just take it if you just decided it now…”

Fortunately, I had been thinking for the past 4-5 months about what I’d get if I ever got a tattoo. I knew I would want a phrase that we use here, something cultural. Most of the small phrases they have here tend to be Turkish (the Ottoman Turks were here for 500 years, so phrases like “Avash avash” and “Kismet” and “Taksirat” – slowly slowly, maybe, and fate respectively – are fairly common here). Personally, I only ever used avash avash and taksirat, so I figured it would probably be one of those. A previous volunteer had already done something with avash avash, though, and wanting to do something unique, I felt taksirat was also a better fit for my personality. Avash avash is an excellent phrase, as life here does happen slowly slowly. But you can’t use it everywhere – you can’t go to Germany or Japan and try to be “Avash avash” there because life is rather quick. Taksirat, on the other hand, has a meaning of “shit happens” without being vulgar. Basically, it means “Things happen, that’s part of life – good things, bad things, they always are going to happen”. And I liked that because it was true no matter where you were – it was something that was inherently always true (though generally people use “taksirat” in reference to misfortune). And so I had made my decision.

Saturday evening came and as luck would have it, we managed to get an appointment at a place that had been recommended to us (surprising considering usually you have to book these places days in advance). At 4:00 I showed up and talked with the tattoo artist, and he was quite funny, had a sense of humor. He gave a few design ideas and I settled on the second revision, and off we went. After an hour of what could only be described as feeling like I was being cut with a knife, the tattoo was done, and I had my first tattoo.

We had dinner at a restaurant and Sunday morning came, and before I knew it, it was time for me to leave. Getting to the airport was a nightmare, as there is no direct metro route to the airport from Amsterdam itself. And while everyone in Amsterdam speaks spectacular English, they all also have their own separate version of how to best get to the airport. So, after asking six different people, we got six different opinions on which way was fastest. The end result is we ended up needing a taxi. But, after begrudgingly hiring our taxi and arriving at the airport and checking in, it was time to say our goodbyes.

Despite some of the stresses incurred from traveling, the goodbye here with mom was as hard as the first goodbye we had when I left for Albania. It was hard, and we both knew it was coming, but that didn’t make it any easier when the moment finally came. Fortunately, checking in went smoothly (I actually had the required documentation, I think to everyone’s surprise including my own). And just like that, I was off.

The flights back home, first to Belgrade in Serbia (on Air Serbia) and then to Tirana, went surprisingly pleasantly. On a 1 hour and fifty minute flight, Air Serbia gave me some of the best beef goulash I’ve ever had (and it was included in my ticket price, it wasn’t an extra fee like some of the American flights I’ve been on). And my connection went very smoothly. Needless to say, I was stunned by the professionalism and courtesy with which I was treated, and would happily fly Air Serbia again.

After I arrived back home, very little happened until what we know as Kampi pa Emer (literally translated as “Camp without a name”). Kampi pa Emer is a camp run for some of the Roma community here in Librazhd (as I understand it, they do not have the opportunity to go to the beaches during summer like many other families, and a previous volunteer and his wife, who is from Librazhd, have been running the camp for the past 7 years). Alba and Joey returned from America again this year and camp was off. Each day, close to 50 children from all around Librazhd (though generally from the train-station area, near the Roma community) came to play games, do arts and crafts, and learn about treating one another with respect, even if they were different. And because Alba works in the dental field, they also got checkups; these checkups were something sorely needed, as it turned out many of the children were afflicted by severe gingivitis. Tooth decay was somewhat rampant, and due to lack of education about brushing teeth, it was too late to stop some of the early damage for some of them (some of the children lived with a lot of pain, daily). As such, oral hygiene was also part of the camp, as was free healthy meals to help give them energy for the daily activities.

By the week’s end, I (and I’d wager the other volunteers who took part) was completely exhausted. It was tiring, but the smiles and laughter from the kids made it all worth it. I hope to take part again next year, as this was my second time doing it and it was even better than last year (and also better because I can now talk to many of these children in Albanian, which I couldn’t do last year because I was limited in my abilities, still).

After Kampi pa Emer came to a close, it was time for my town’s high school to have their “Matura”, which can be loosely translated as their prom (they use the same word for the end-of-year exams for seniors, as well…it’s a bit confusing). But, because I had been a “teacher” there at the school, both the staff and all the graduating seniors kept asking if I was going to come…so I did! After dressing up and cleaning myself up a bit, I went to the town’s center and promenaded up and down the central street with the other Matura students, bringing with me one of my fellow volunteers and my host sister (who is just now going into 10th grade); my host sister was too young to be actually taking part, but it seemed to go fine because she and Jessica, the other volunteer, were walking with me (it was a sort of “Ehh…Why not?” moment). It felt awesome, and later, the after-party was also quite lively. I sat with the teachers and we circle-danced the night away (leaving around 2:30 AM, though I believe the students stayed until 4:00 AM).

That leaves me with the last thing to happen until now, the 11th of July 4th-of-July celebration in Ksamil. This year, approximately 20 something volunteers gathered to celebrate together down on the sunny beaches of Ksamil. I saw old friends, met new ones, and had a fantastic time. I even got a little bit of sun, something I need to work on more now that I have been going to the gym for almost 5 months now. What a trip, though! Well worth the long time spent on a bus.

Until next time, everyone. Likely, next update will have details about Budapest and my trip back home (Yep! Going back home, thanks Dad!)IMG_20150529_104745_321 IMG_20150530_110659_478 IMG_20150530_110712_012 IMG_20150530_110717_678 IMG_20150530_112105_855 IMG_20150530_112113_386 IMG_20150530_112211_347 IMG_20150530_112244_799 IMG_20150530_112636_674 IMG_20150530_112743_779 IMG_20150530_120333_599 IMG_20150530_120856_054 IMG_20150530_122510_453 IMG_20150530_125334_071 IMG_20150530_130207_542 IMG_20150530_131749_767 IMG_20150530_131753_734 IMG_20150530_131811_185 IMG_20150530_132525_482 IMG_20150530_132922_801 IMG_20150530_132941_369 IMG_20150530_132943_418 IMG_20150530_133009_635 IMG_20150530_133015_891 IMG_20150530_133021_802 IMG_20150530_133217_846 IMG_20150530_133419_558 IMG_20150530_133735_636 IMG_20150530_134041_036 IMG_20150530_135834_177 IMG_20150530_144007_689 IMG_20150530_144012_314 IMG_20150530_144431_490 IMG_20150530_144617_277 IMG_20150530_150616_964 IMG_20150530_150836_136 IMG_20150530_151258_108 IMG_20150530_151722_424 IMG_20150530_152606_928 IMG_20150530_152641_362 IMG_20150530_152657_856 IMG_20150530_193007_208 IMG_20150530_193011_332 IMG_20150531_110423_408 89h1AJi2TiF6AbsjEzgweCPnQgBpYvSP1hIBMSBcnMfjI1uCX4v79k3CwRzSXhvq1eD8IQ=w1315-h551 10400009_10152977148717066_8389546641902390400_n 11011907_1605825043039172_2823713321526021474_n 11059851_1605824686372541_42962865810285787_n edit 11059851_1605824686372541_42962865810285787_n 11224811_1605825159705827_2991494055068839131_n 11227784_868527456530301_5779855184380698222_n 11232905_868530693196644_6576780408439835045_n 11351174_868943389822041_6409097160852876019_n 11403396_1605825073039169_3436402266377232746_n 11538002_717413606849_8647337432389186952_o 11659250_1605825156372494_6495437100693938306_n 11659302_868942729822107_3730469638910579736_n 11719858_10153078336467499_1114561564_n 11737852_1651933048376021_6484114864905862771_n 11749377_10153078338012499_1228776292_n BbxHupo8zIKNmHwhj94QVytNQYrL0DlUUBNYpdtKPnCPxTgK_p6wb4_Dys2qaOR6TJjqtQ=w1315-h551 HfHvpnohUwneF4_J-CZhHnGVQ8W8dpta2SHp41SG0TkbQRmPLD0PG-4p3Q59kWODlNxKUQ=w1315-h551 IMG_0151 kwABsVT48Tt4TBKDBqWgk_mYaCSIVgFRXVZHetIhAbZ2Av2nL4O4oFxb-7k--IjiH7LbaQ=w1315-h551 U0QD6oVDUHlNe0duNg39HuwQxdKilFJRji2_MuPdVuclRTHr8OtTC6QOXb4viAKmb17m5g=w1315-h551 IMG_20150708_024037_135 edited IMG_20150710_184149_269 IMG_20150711_151815_790 IMG_20150711_151828_507 IMG_20150711_170523_309 IMG_20150711_170713_669 IMG_20150711_170755_585

Model United Nations

It is strange to think that something I did ten years ago would eventually find me again, but in a much different position. I remember doing Model UN when I was a student at Kahuku High and Intermediate School, but I don’t remember a whole lot about it, other than it was fun, I believe I represented Egypt with a 4-man team, and we voted on many things. We’d all dressed up very nicely, debated about things, and drafted/debated resolutions.

Never did I think I would see it again, let alone in Albania. What was probably one of my more fun high school experiences probably ended up being one of the main reasons I got Librazhd as my site. And now that it’s done here, I can very safely say it has been one of the highlights of my service thus far, and quite possibly one of the best things I’ve done with my life as of yet.

Six months ago I joined onto the team, and my counterpart and I went to Tirana for the training of trainers. Shortly afterward, we had students submit written applications to be placed on a team of 9, who would eventually represent my school at the final conference. In the end, 15 schools with 9 students each, two counterparts each, and a host of people working quietly like clockwork in the background, would all come together to produce one of the most well-run productions I’ve ever had the privilege of being a part of.

The 9 students I selected were and still are among the best in the school; not only in English, but all 9 displayed exemplary academic skills across the board. We (my counterpart and I) received over 30 applications and narrowed it down to 12 finalists. Making that final decision of who would stay and who would be placed in the “runner up” category was very difficult, but it had to be done. Our 9 students were selected and we had the first of what would be many meetings. The rules were pretty clear; show up to our meetings (barring emergencies), research thoroughly, and work together twice a week (roughly, anyway) for an hour each time.

We had the honor of representing Turkey, a country that finds itself in the middle of, well, everything, both geographically and politically. A country that is undergoing massive changes but also has many problems of its own (and problems in the region), Turkey was a country we were happy to represent because we felt that, while we may not have been a veto-power country like Russia or China, Turkey had a large amount of issues and positions in the real world, and because of its central location and size, it was a force to be reckoned with politically and economically.

As the months passed, we became acutely aware of Turkey’s positions (or seemingly lack thereof, in some cases) on a number of issues, ranging from ISIS to Ebola to Ukraine to human trafficking to refugees from Syria to the war in Syria and even to censorship. And while we had to learn about Turkey’s positions, I told my students we not only had to research, we had to embody.

We had to become Turkish delegates. We had to represent those views.

This was where it became difficult, in some cases. Sure, it was easy for our students, all 9 of them, to form an opinion on censorship; most of them were in favor of allowing free speech. But defending a position that they may not agree with was at the heart of why we did this conference. We were exposing them to these different viewpoints, and then making them defend these perspectives that were completely foreign, and indeed maybe even uncomfortable.

6 months is a very long time to train together. The last month and a half was particularly difficult, because my students felt “ready” to start that final four day conference. We felt “topped off” on our knowledge of Turkey, its various neighbors, and issues pertaining to all of them. Enthusiasm slumped, participation was difficult, and even getting together once a week for a meeting became a challenge. But they made it happen.

And then the final conference came. This was not like the mini-conference, held in January; the mini-conference was more of a practice session, to prepare all the delegates for real debate flow, to introduce them to unmoderated caucus for draft resolution, to give them a taste of what the real thing would be like. The mini-conference was light-hearted and friendly, with lots of people running around to answer each and every question about procedures, about talking points, about decorum.

The final conference was the real deal. Four days of opening and closing ceremonies, sets of breakfasts, lunches, and dinners, and two days of conferences in the middle.

It’s hard to describe the feeling of watching your 9 students grow up and become the delegates you told them they’d become; is this what it’s like to be a parent? A shorter version of dealing with apathy and tiredness and cold weather and arguing with one another, only to watch it all come together in a beautiful culmination of talent and finesse?

I cannot describe how proud I was as I watched my students, who had been ordinary students up until that point, become the delegates that represented Turkey so well. They argued and debated with zeal, with skill, with determination, and with force. Defending their viewpoints as delegates, with poise, proper etiquette, and patience. Watching my kids stand up and debate a viewpoint that wasn’t theirs, but one they had to learn and represent, was an incredible experience in and of itself; I can only imagine how proud the other volunteers and counterparts must have felt.

As such, when the conference was finally over, as much as it was a relief for it all to be done with (no more meetings, no more emails, no more dealing with “senioritis”), it was sad. This group I had grown so close with over the last few months was now but a memory. Because we had no more meetings, I would see some of them only in the halls of school. And when summer came, most of them would graduate and prepare to go to university. Birds leaving the nest for the first time. But I can safely say that I feel they are more ready to do that now, and I feel so proud of what they managed. The mere fact we took home two awards speaks to their skill and determination during the conference, but the real “reward” was watching them become delegates, real representatives of a country that they had previously only known a few things about. They had done what they had come to do, and they pulled it off with flying colors (enough that, even one of my sub-committee groups managed to pass a resolution that actually increased censorship, instead of reducing it; the art of diplomacy and wordplay is an amazing thing, so much that it’s incredible how much of a difference it makes when one says “Increase monitoring monitoring in the interest of public security” instead of “Increase government control over media”).IMG_20150413_102027_573 IMG_20150413_121356_619 IMG_20150413_153430_153 IMG_20150413_161925_954

I couldn’t have been more proud.

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Full Circle

And so my first year in Albania comes to a close, and the next full year begins. With it comes new life in the form of trainees, which I find to be a particularly interesting spectacle for me because it’s a bit like looking into a mirror that shows the past. All the same questions I had, all the things I was not ready for, they are all coming once more, except this time I get to sit in the passenger seat and watch the scenery go by, watch the scene unfold.

My first year has been, if anything, fulfilling. Challenging at times, but I can safely say I have had a good experience thus far. I’ve somehow managed to, by and large, avoid the “typical Peace Corps highs and lows” chart that was thrown around during PST (the chart that depicts, on average, how PCVs feel about their experience during certain points of their service – from a high point at arrival to a low point a few days later due to culture shock, to another high point as we adjust to our culture, to another low point as we struggle to adjust to the new language and culture, etc). My chart would, from my point of view, read above the mid-point line for most of my service, with the occasional blip that might cause a small drop. On the whole, however, I have not really had any disastrous days and my toughest week is now behind me (a week fraught with flaky attendance and lack of commitment on behalf of the students, mostly).

And, as we move toward the end of the first school year, I find that (in theory), my school will soon be getting a new gym. This is pretty spectacular, as I had always wondered if it would forever remain in a state of disrepair. The windows near the ceiling are practically all broken or missing, the ceiling itself has mold and no doubt has leaks, half of the floor has been damaged beyond repair or is missing, and what floorboards remain are usually pried up and used for firewood. Throughout half of the gym’s deteriorating floor, old and broken chairs and desks lay scattered about, and it just seems as if it’s stuck in a situation that won’t improve in the near future. And yet, I’ve come to learn that by some miracle, change is on the way. We shall see.

The fun of having new trainees in town has been interesting, even though it’s been only two days. As I said, all the questions I had are appearing once again, except this time I can give some of the answers. Some questions I leave unanswered, as they really can only be experienced by people in their own ways, but I’ve heard a lot of frustration with how many times they’ve been told “Every volunteer’s experience is different”, because for them, they have heard that already, and being told that again doesn’t solve their burning questions. My answers won’t be their future; that will be dictated by their decisions and their site placement. However, my answers will hopefully grant them some form of perspective, some form of mental comfort, if at least in knowing that someone just like them is going through these things, and is surviving. Someone is “living the life” of a volunteer and making it work, challenges and all. If anything, I hope it gives them hope that everything will be OK.

The fun of having new volunteers in town, though, has been pierced by one of the most touching and heartbreaking events I’ve had to endure yet. I feel blessed to have been included in part of it, at least up to this point, as it gave me perspective on a part of culture I’d not yet seen. My landlord’s mother passed today. She had been sick for quite some time, and my landlord (bless her heart) had gone to visit her ailing mother many times over the past few months. While I feel blessed to have been asked to come to console the rest of the family that gathered together tonight, I also feel ashamed. My first visit to this house was because someone died. It’s incredible how carried away we get with our work here, because I feel that was likely one of the primary reasons I hadn’t been to their home before. I am certain I had the opportunity, but because I was (and still am) generally very busy, and because I still felt shy about going to their house, it never happened. And now, as of today, I went there under the specter of death. They were grateful that I came, and it was evident. I sat alone in a room with all of the family’s older males, and eventually we got to talking about anything. But I’ve never seen such closeness in a community. I did not know if everyone gathered was family or close friends. But I saw now what we do not have in America, at least not as they have it here. We have community in America, but it is nothing compared to the community they have here. Community here essentially equates to family, and I was able to fully realize that tonight. I went because I wanted to support Lutfija, my landlord and (adopted) host mother. She has been and continues to be like my mom away from home, and I knew tonight was very difficult to her. I asked her over the phone if she wanted me to come, and she asked that I did, so I came with the family when they left. The experience was as humbling as experiences get, and it showed how deeply the community cares for its own.

I’ve seen a lot of things in my first year, and there have been a lot of interesting ups and downs with it. And while my “family” here lost one of its family members, and in a certain way it is a “down”…In some ways I feel so blessed to have been allowed to be part of it. To feel as if I, too, was part of the family. I did not know how to help in any way than offering what support I could. And if that meant Lutfija wanted me to be there, I would be there. She’s done so much for me, and as I said, has really become my family away from home. As such, I feel for her loss, and hope that in time, she remembers the good times she had with her mother.

So much has taken place, and it really has been a phenomenal experience. Now begins phase two.

Spring Vitality

Today represents the culmination of a lot of patience, stress, pride, frustration, and relief all in one.

My Outdoor Ambassadors group has done all of nothing for the past two or three months. Barring one meeting, if that, we haven’t met, discussed, or done anything since at least December. The last plan was, at some point, to use the money we collected from the Halloween party to pay for new blackboards, as some of the classes severely needed replacements (check the photos, you’ll see what I mean).

While that may have originally been the plan, in reality it was much more difficult than simply buying new blackboards. The main obstacle was getting my OA president to get to speaking with the right people to make this happen. After getting the director behind the project, I had to gently push the OA president to speak with the right people and to follow up on his promises that he was “working on it” (getting the director on board was easy, and was probably the main source of authority behind making the project happen at all – without her backing, I doubt my influence would have been enough to make it happen. Once she was behind the project, I feel there was likely some invisible “expectation” that the project had better happen, or else there would be hell to pay).

Back in January, however, our OA president had in fact spoken with one of the woodworking shops in the area; I had gone with him, after much poking and prodding, and we had decided to go together and get the order placed. We went into the classrooms, took measurements, and discussed what we would need. When we arrived at the shop, we spoke with one of the younger men there, the only person present at the time. He took a note down for us and said he’d call us when it was finished.

All of February passed without a word. The OA president assured me things were fine, but I remained unconvinced. As luck would have it, a walk home with a friend one day led me down a different path, near the woodworking shop. While my friend was a student who spoke basic English, I understood almost none of what the actual woodworking shop owner said, so it was really a conversation between my Albanian, my student explaining everything he said, and the two of them. Fortunately, I was able to gather that the order hadn’t been placed. The OA president was surprised to hear this, but said we’d meet on Monday (yesterday) together and talk with the actual shop owner himself.

We did speak with him, and the order was placed, and while it was exceptionally difficult to understand most of what he said, I thought I had heard him say they’d be ready by noon, today. I was surprised by how fast that was, but said nothing. All that remained now was to wait and see.

Sure enough, at 2:00 today, we met him in his car outside our school. He called the OA president and we waited together with some other students. The blackboards were beautiful. They were professionally done. It really happened. After 3 months of beating around the bush, delays, procrastinating, frustration, and people forgetting to place orders, the project had finally come to completion. Happy? Absolutely. Proud? While it did take some time to get my OA president off his feet, he put the effort in eventually and yes, I am very proud of the work and coordination he showed. After three long, grueling months, we had turned our funds from a fundraising party into something tangible, into four brand-new blackboards for the high school. Stoked is the only word that describes how I feel.

The arrival of the blackboards.
The arrival of the blackboards.
Waiting to determine where they would be sent, which classrooms.
Waiting to determine where they would be sent, which classrooms.
The director orchestrating events.
The director orchestrating events.
More orchestrating by the director.
More orchestrating by the director.
OA president in the back, the director, and two OA members.
OA president in the back, the director, and two OA members.
Threw myself in a picture, too.
Threw myself in a picture, too.
The first blackboard to be replaced, and also the blackboard that needed to be replaced the most.
The first blackboard to be replaced, and also the blackboard that needed to be replaced the most.
Another image of the first blackboard being replaced.
Another image of the first blackboard being replaced.
Final image of the first blackboard and its replacement.
Final image of the first blackboard and its replacement.
The second blackboard to be replaced.
The second blackboard to be replaced.
Another shot of the second blackboard.
Another shot of the second blackboard.
The third blackboard to be replaced.
The third blackboard to be replaced.
Another shot of the third blackboard.
Another shot of the third blackboard.
The final blackboard to be replaced.
The final blackboard to be replaced.
Another picture of the final board to be replaced.
Another picture of the final board to be replaced.

Good triumphs over bad. (January 28th)

I had something happen today that made me feel very happy with the way it turned out, and I felt the need to share as it turned one of my worst teaching experiences thus far into one of my best ones (at least for now).



Almost two weeks ago, on Friday, January 16th, I was teaching as usual, and eventually came to my last class of the day. This class is my last class on both Wednesdays and Fridays, and generally speaking is one of my favorite classes. The students are smart, willing to try, and generally well behaved. They are also 14 years old, for most of the class (9th graders).



However, on that Friday, something required me to be teaching alone for that class, even though I had someone else there for the first 5 minutes or so. And here, if you normally teach with someone else but are suddenly left alone, what normally happens is control over the class gradually flies out the window. Over the course of 10 minutes, that was exactly what happened, and the noise was bad enough that my counterpart had to return and take over the lesson. As the class became silent when that happened, I took the opportunity to ask why they respected her, but did not respect me. I asked why they thought I should even bother coming to their classes at all if they were going to act like that. They gave no answer, and seemed pretty ashamed, but it was too late – the damage had been done.


I really wanted to just leave class that day. I did not, as my counterpart said it would not be good to leave, but I did nothing but sit at the front desk for the rest of class, idly flipping through our textbook while I waited for the class to end. The students could tell I was upset, even if I said nothing.


Several of the girls approached after class and apologized, but I told them to tell me again in two weeks, as I just didn’t want to think about it at that moment. When asked why two weeks, as they were immediately concerned that I was not returning the following week, I explained I had a training in Tirana the following week and would not return until the week after (this week, now, the week of Monday, January 26th). If they really felt sorry, I explained, they could wait and tell me after two weeks.



I was rather upset, and had been thinking over the past two weeks about how to approach the topic when I did return, as I wanted them to know that I was upset and disappointed by their behavior, but with limited ways to assert authority as a volunteer, I was not sure how to do that in a way that would get the message across, while also leaving the otherwise good relationship I had with them intact.


My solution was to take 5 minutes at the beginning of class on the first day back with them to explain exactly that – their behavior was not okay and I felt disrespected. But I had to go further than that; I felt I also needed to follow up with something with some weight to it, otherwise it wouldn’t make them think much about their actions. And so I decided I would also tell them that I have 25 classes a week, but only “need” to teach somewhere in the range of 18-20; in reality, I don’t know how many classes I needed to be teaching, but I was sure I was doing more than was needed.


I did explain these things in class today, and followed up with saying that I didn’t have to be in their class – I was there because I wanted to be. But if they continued to act like they had that Friday, that would change things, and maybe I wouldn’t want to come anymore. And because I was doing more than I needed to be doing, it would have been easy to simply stop coming. They listened quietly to me, and I tried to speak slowly and clearly. If they did not understand, I had one of them translate for me (not because I couldn’t do it, but because it’s more difficult to translate when under some stress, and I also thought it better to have one of them “spell out the terms” for the rest of them, so they understood very clearly what the possible consequences might be).


After several minutes, I finished my speech and asked if they would be able to handle themselves in the future. I even managed to throw in a smile of my own, saying “You really are my favorite class, but I’d like it to stay that way,” which got a few smiles out of them as well. I looked to them and asked “Në rregul?” (which means, roughly, “Are we clear/are we good) in loose terms), to which they said yes (mostly with smiles, albeit sheepish smiles). And as I finished my spiel, I walked toward the door to bring my counterpart back into the room, and I was taken by surprise when the entire class stood up, in unison, and said to me, “Më falni, Jeffersoni” (The formal way of saying “excuse me”). After two weeks of waiting, they still wanted to apologize for the whole incident. It really felt as if they ~were~ sorry for it (it felt sincere – if it was not, then they all deserve awards for acting). I don’t think I showed it, but I was moved beyond words when it happened, at least for a minute or two.


My counterpart came back in, and we picked up our lesson and continued on. Things almost felt back to normal. In fact, it felt as if I had said what I wanted to say, and so had they, and we had all just silently put it behind us. 14-year-old students seldom think outside their immediate lives, at least from what I remember from being 14. I always was trying to get out of doing homework and my sister was always trying to go out with friends. But that final act of apology demonstrated to me that (at least by appearance) they really did feel sorry for it, at least enough to wait out two weeks for me to return, and to coordinate it enough that everyone stood up at the same time, at the right moment, to give the apology.



Words could not describe the emotion I felt in that class at that moment.

The new year arrives! (January 8th)

It’s that time again. Yes, I’m feeling that urge to crank out some updates.

As such, in 3, 2, 1…

Hello everyone, we’re finally here with another long-overdue update. Gezuar për Vitin e Ri! (Cheers for the new year!)
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The two-week vacation from school (and thus, work) was very enjoyable, but became increasingly cold. And, lo and behold, as many of you have probably seen from the pictures, we’ve had snow here in Librazhd.
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Now, when the snow came, I was saying to myself, “Winter has come, winter has finally come.” I was still wrong, it hadn’t come yet.
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Yesterday morning was, I believe, when it was starting to knock at the door, and I say that because the water in the pipes in my neighborhood had frozen. To be honest, it’s a bit of a scary feeling when you make that realization, because it’s unlike having water turned off for repairs back home; at least with repairs back home, there’s some schedule and you know soon things will be back on. Here, if the pipes freeze, you’re at the mercy of the weather. Fortunately, things warmed up just enough for the water to thaw, so I made the most of it and filled various containers and showered while the water was still fluid.
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It’s cold. It’s very cold. And because there is no insulation, the only escape is using the wood-burning stoves. I have since purchased an electric heater to help out with the mornings, and I plan to have Peace Corps “buy” it off me (since they say they will reimburse you but then retain ownership rights when you ship out) later. It helps out a lot, but it really takes a lot of getting used to.
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Work has become increasingly busy, as I’ve suddenly found all sorts of projects popping up left and right, and it seems that time is becoming a rare commodity (while at the same time I am consistently forgetting that I don’t have to take on every project I’m presented with – it’s difficult to train yourself to say “no”).
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One of the projects I’ve taken on and have been enjoying thoroughly is Model United Nations. Yes, that fun event I did back at Kahuku (Shoutout to Lisa Lessing) has made it full-circle and now I’m helping my team of brilliant students represent the nation of Turkey. They really are a special group, and I’d even go so far as to say I am proud of them, for they organized and hosted a “Movie Night” during the winter break to raise funds to pay for books as a community project. While the community project was mandatory in some form or another, the fact they’re taking it seriously makes me smile and makes me very proud of them.
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I am pretty happy that my conversations in Albanian are now casual and even infused with humor here and there, and people seem to want to listen to what I have to say when I do speak up. I can follow the topics and even contribute to them, and occasionally I’ll understand everything in an exchange. I’m pretty happy with this pace of learning, because I still have more than a year left, which gives me plenty of time to continue learning.
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I miss home a lot. I think about my sister the most, followed by both of my parents. I also miss my dogs. That’s probably the most difficult part, because at least I can speak with my mom and my dad and my sister, be it over the phone or on Skype, but my dogs can’t see me on Skype. We’ve tried countless times, but they can’t seem to recognize me on the screen. They hear my voice and get really excited, and they run to the gate to wait for me. It’s almost heartbreaking to watch.
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I’ve introduced a number of members of my community to incense, and it seems to be a pretty big hit. I’ve enjoyed it because it’s a neat form of exposing a different culture to them without making it be all about “America this, America that” and all about America (for the record, the incense I’ve used has been Indian and Japanese). My landlord even wants a box of the Indian incense for her own use, as she has grown quite fond of the smell (so too have a number of teachers with whom I work).
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At the same time, while I am teaching others about cultures beyond their borders, I’m learning a lot not only about Albania and Albanians, but also about myself. I’ve since learned that I really just don’t enjoy going to large parties (their versions, anyway, which generally involve going to clubs and lots of dancing, neither of which I’ve really ever enjoyed). I’ve come to learn it’s just not part of who I am, and it never really has been. Granted, I’ve given it a lot of chances, maybe hoping something would stick, but I think I’m coming to terms with the fact it’s just not me (and…I’m okay with that). Explaining this, however, might be a different story.
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I miss everyone back home, a lot, but things are going well here and I can honestly say I am pretty happy here, on the whole. Aloha to everyone back home, and hopefully I’ll work something out to come back for a month or so sometime soon, for a nice little trip.
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-Jefferson