Pope Francis in Albania

During the communist dictatorship of Enver Hoxha, religion of all types were banned throughout Albania. Forced to adhere to a doctrine of state atheism, the freedom to worship was no longer a choice. For almost fifty years, many simple decisions were taken away. Communism fell in the nineties, and Albania has been struggling to recover ever since. Religion is just one of the small changes that has occurred since then. What used to be a forced 100% atheist population, has now fallen to just 2.5%.  Communist rule has had a profound effect on Albania and growth of the people here. Understanding more about their history, provides many answers to how and why things happen the way they. Which is why, I understood the undeniable air of excitement and pride among the Albanian people, as Pope Francis announced his visit to the capital of Tirana.

Every single billboard and sign had been changed to advertise the Pope's visit.

Every single billboard and sign had been changed to advertise the Pope’s visit.

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Green is Muslim majority Yellow is Muslim plurality Red is Catholic majority Pink is Catholic plurality

Under the communist rule, all churches and mosques were taken over by the state and by 1990, around 95% of religious buildings had been destroyed or converted into other uses, such as cinemas and warehouses. Nearly 2,000 Catholic and Orthodox churches were destroyed. More than 100 Catholic priests and bishops were executed or died under torture or in labor camps. The main streets of Tirana, were decorated with these individuals portraits for the Pope’s visit. It was an appropriate tribute to these fallen religious leaders who were wrongly executed many years ago.

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According to a census three years ago, muslims make up about 59 percent of Albania’s population, with Catholics amounting to 10 percent and Orthodox Christians just under that. Regardless of their practicing religion, the turnout for the pope was impressive. With over 300,000 people making the trip to Tirana, the streets were more than crowded. Excited to have this opportunity, I met up with other volunteers to experience the chaos.

But first, breakfast.

But first, breakfast.

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Security was tight, with over 2,500 policeman scattered throughout the square.

Security was tight, with over 2,500 policeman scattered throughout the square.

As we stood in the crowd, everyone was watching big screens set up throughout the area. As the Pope’s plane arrived in Tirana and touched ground, thunderous applause and cheers erupted. People stood and literally watched every single step Pope Francis made on his 11 hour trip.

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The high point of the Pope’s visit was the celebration of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass in Mother Teresa Square, followed by the recitation of the Angelus. Countless people tried to squeeze into the square for Mass. Many reluctantly retreated to watch the screens instead. As I stood among some older Albanian women, they told me that one of them was sick. They had come because they were hoping the Pope would cure whatever illness she was suffering from.

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During his visit, Pope Francis denounced that extremists around the world are “perverting” religion to justify violence. He praised Albania, where Christians and Muslims endured brutal oppression under communism but now live and work peacefully together. To say Albania has come a long way would be an understatement. Not only is religious freedom encouraged, but there is a harmony among the people. This was showcased when Mass was attended by senior representatives of Albania’s Muslim, Orthodox and Bektashi groups. All of whom, were seated in places of honor in Mother Teresa square. Pope Francis reminded us that Albania should be praised, not only for it’s unquestionable improvement, but also for the grace that they have and continue to accompany these changes with.

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Fall Festival

The municipality of Permet, partnered with two other organizations, to hold a fall festival this year. There have been classes the past few months to provide vocational training to 100 women and unemployed youth. They focused on tourism services, honing in on the beautiful scenery this city offers. As well as, crafts that will potentiality provide a source of income. They learned how to support their new business and the hope is to revitalize some of the local traditions. The final goal of the project was to contribute to the economic growth and well being of the city.

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Our mayor, looking thoughtful.

Our mayor, looking thoughtful.

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The first day had a busy agenda, with a few different performances. A traditional singer, and various musical entertainers were on stage. There was also a focus on highlighting the individuals who took the tourism classes. Of course, the beer, wine and raki were flowing freely (technically for $.50) at the numerous stands.

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The kids were not forgotten at this event, and there was a few different activities to keep them busy. As I was sitting on the steps of the Municipality, a seven year old girl ran up to me and gave me numerous kisses on the cheek. Caught a little off guard, I didn’t recognize her. In between her shouts of “AMBER, AMBER, AMBER!!” I became fully aware that she knew who I was. I have learned that when you meet one kid here, you soon know all of them, whether you realize it or not. Every time one of them runs up to me, yelling my name with a huge smile on their face, it makes being away from my nieces and nephews a little easier.

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The festival also celebrated the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Permet. To celebrate this occasion, my sitemate and I decided to hike up to a village in the hills. We passed through the old part of Permet on our way up the mountain.

The orthodox church on the edge of town.

The orthodox church on the edge of town.

That would be a tough way to get home every day.

That would be a tough way to get home every day.

Permet!

Permet!

Rock to be used for houses and walls

Rock to be used for houses and walls

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Fresh berries

Fresh berries

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A small church in the village.

A small church in the village.

Fresh almonds!

Fresh almonds!

We slowly made our way up to the old town of Lipa. An hour and a half later, we were on the outskirts of the small village. It was hard to believe that 7 families still lived up there. With paths that could hardly be called roads, a 4 wheel drive vehicle would struggle to make the climb. Leaving it’s inhabitants to depend on riding donkeys into the city, or make the three hour round trip by foot.

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However, any “city luxuries” they may go without, is more than made up with, by clean mountain air, beautiful views,  and the serene quietness.

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You run. I see you. We’re Friends.

Days of shopping at legit American supermarkets are all but forgotten in my mind. Some days, I really miss the orderly rows, lined with numerous brands and products. And I do reminisce about everything being in English, taking away all guessing games. However, there is no such thing as a boring trip to the market here. Someone or something will undoubtedly cross your path, leaving you to walk home, shaking your head. Either due to the disbelief that things like that happen, or at the utter ridiculousness of it all. These past few weeks, I have had more than my fair share of these moments.

My walk to work.

My walk to work.

The firetruck in Permet. No joke.

The firetruck in Permet. No joke.

My sitemate making fig newtons.

My sitemate making fig newtons.

My other sitemate.

My other sitemate.

An Albanian style lunch.

An Albanian style lunch.

It is fig season right now, which is AWESOME!! I hadn’t eaten fresh figs before Albania. Now, after discovering how delicious they are, I can’t get enough! Which is why I was innocently digging through a pile of fresh figs the other morning. When all of a sudden I felt someone grabbing my side. And stomach. And butt. As I turned around, expecting to see someone I knew, I was surprised to be staring into the face of an old lady. I had no idea who she was and she continued to grope me and speak in Albanian. She had no teeth and was extremely hard to understand, especially since she seemed to accompany everything with, what I can only describe as, a crazy person’s laugh. I have learned to just smile and nod along when I am lost in translation, so that is exactly what I did. Because I had absolutely no idea what or why she was talking to me. After a few minutes of this awkward, extremely touchy, conversation, she slapped my butt and walked away. Laughing the whole way. I just stared after her, unsure if that had actually happened and turned back to the fig man. He wasn’t phased, so I followed suit and quickly returned to digging through the figs before all the good ones were taken.

After my figs were purchased, I headed towards the bigger farmers market. This takes place every morning in my city, and it’s the best place to find the freshest produce. I walked up to a man selling grapes and began looking through them. He looked at me and said, “I saw you this morning. You were running. It was early and I was on my way to pick these grapes.” Can’t get much fresher than that I suppose. I laughed and we started talking about where I am from and what I am doing here. Which attracted the attention of a nearby farmer and he wandered over. I soon found myself standing in a small crowd of 6-7 farmers, explaining to them what I do in Albania. After that day, whenever I am walking through their stands, one of them always shouts, “she knows Albanian! She can speak Albanian! She is American! She can talk to you!”

On the way to Kelcyre, a neighboring town.

On the way to Kelcyre, a neighboring town.

At the market.

At the market.

Fresh chickens anyone?

Fresh chickens anyone?

Tupperware!

Tupperware!

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The neighboring town, Kelcyre, is home for two PCV’s. On Sundays, there is a large market that attracts people from surrounding villages and other cities. You can buy everything from old rugs and tupperware to animals and used clothing. As we walked through the numerous venders, there were three different men that looked at me and said “I saw you running this morning.” Which was followed by a stare, as they waited for me to explain what I was doing out on the roads before 6 am. Cue smiling and laughter in between any uncomfortable silences.

I should explain. For the past three months, I have been training for a Tough Mudder competition in Ireland. It is a 10-12 mile obstacle course that has you climbing walls, crawling through mud and just about anything else you can think of. I haven’t been scaling walls or anything of the sort in Permet, but I figured it couldn’t hurt to be ready for the running part. So I have been running four days a week all summer. Now, in the end phase of my training program, I have been logging more and more miles. As I run farther and farther out of town, I usually end up picking up one or two stray dogs along the way. They are the happiest running companions I could ask for here. It also gives me something to look forward to on my long runs. However, as I run back into town, I can’t help but wonder if I am being labeled as the crazy dog lady. Every time the locals see me running across the bridge, I am dragging another stray dog home with me.

Tough Mudder Time!

Tough Mudder Time!

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My running companions! Six dogs in all. Quite the morning run.

My running companions! Six dogs in all. Quite the morning run.

Then again, maybe that is a fitting description. I have been told, only someone with a little crazy in their bones, would willingly sign up for this… and think it looks fun!

Cigarettes Outside!

Recently, a law was passed in Albania. It will ban smoking in all indoor establishments, starting September 15. It has been tried before, and was wildly unsuccessful. This time however, there are some hefty fines involved. The cafe where the person is found smoking can also be written a $300 citation. As well as, cost the individual and waiter $50 each.

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These past few weeks, my coworkers, the health inspector and I walked around the city to promote this new law. Most of these stops were accompanied by some yelling, arguments and disapproving glances. One owner saw us coming and quickly tried to hide all of the ashtrays that were on the tables inside. Another man got into a screaming match with my coworker. Sometimes, it feels as though she puts on an act for me, and she was not backing down. Overall, throughout the city, most business owners didn’t have a problem with the new law. Then again, everyone is already smoking outside because it is still summer. But as a young cafe owner told us, that will all change in the winter, when everyone is huddled inside. As I sat and talked to my coworker that afternoon, I couldn’t hide my cynical view point. I kept asking her if she really thought things will change. Or will this be just another opportunity for bribes that will slide under the table?

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The first day of the month, brings that painful day known as rent day. My landlord owns a cafe at the top of the hill and as usual, paying rent was accompanied by a coffee.

Rent

Rent

Later on, a younger man and his friend came inside to have a coffee. As he was waiting for her to make his macchiato, he lit up his cigarette. Without thinking twice, my landlord yelled across the room that if he wants to smoke, he has to do it outside. My head snapped towards her and I swear to you, my mouth almost dropped open in amazement. Sometimes it’s hard to not let the skepticism get to you. It can be hard to see improvement and very easy to see the corruption. But my landlord quickly reminded me today, they deserve more credit than I was handing out. Slowly, but surely, progress is being made and that’s all we can really ask for.

 

Travel Hell

Traveling will teach you many things. It shows you new places and foods. Immerses you into a culture other than your own. Introduces you to new friends. All while inevitably placing you in countless airport chairs. Waiting for boarding call. Waiting for your flight to take off. Waiting for the drink cart to finally make it to your seat. Waiting for it to pass so you can make a mad dash for the bathroom. Waiting for your connecting flight. Lots and lots of… patience building.

I have been quite lucky with my traveling luck so far. Especially when you consider that I am flying out of Albania and I am not the world’s most experienced backpacker. But it’s only a matter of time until everyone experiences one of those days that one can only refer to as “Travel Hell.” When I said I have been lucky so far, I meant I had been. My luck ran out on my journey back from America. Is this a claim to fame in the traveling world? Have I been moved up a few pegs now that I have experienced one of these never-ending days? I am going to answer that as YES! It will make me feel better the next time I hoist my bag onto my shoulders and head though the airport doors. But don’t worry, every time I get a little too cocky, Albania tends to knock me back into my place. (For the record, me being cocky? That would NEVER happen.)

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With a slightly depressed air, I said my goodbyes at the airport. My trip had officially ended and I was headed back to Albania. I bought some snacks and snuck in one last hot chocolate from Caribou. After which, I settled into gate E6 and got ready for my plane to board. As I sat there, storms were rolling through Chicago, which happened to be my next destination. This forced my plane to be delayed for an extra hour. Which soon turned into two hours. Then three. Then four. As I sat there in Minneapolis, my plane for Vienna was boarding in my connecting city. Without me.

My favorite

My favorite. Chocolate helps every situation.

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We finally boarded, almost five hours later, and made it to Chicago. To say I wasn’t the only one that missed their flight was a massive understatement. As I stood in line at the customer service counter in Chicago, I had déjà vu. My 1 hour wait soon turned into two. One thing I learned quickly about traveling alone, ALWAYS go to the bathroom before joining a long line. My flight was rerouted through Washington the following day and I was sent on to baggage claim. Normally you aren’t allowed to retrieve your bag in the midst of missing your flight. However, I had a blood clot a few years ago, which now requires me to take a shot of blood thinner when I fly. Of course, my extra shots were in my checked luggage. As I stood in line at the baggage claim office, I started to reach my breaking point. Half an hour later, the airport employee told me I could wait 3-4 hours and POSSIBLY attain my bag. Umm, no thanks. Who doesn’t love an impromptu trip to the pharmacy. They have an entire row of candy there.

Thanks CVS

Thanks CVS

Just call me gadget girl

Just call me gadget girl

Are we there yet?!

Are we there yet?!

After wasting over four hours in Washington, making it through an overnight flight to Vienna, I monkeyed around for another four hours in Austria. Not one of my planes actually left on time. Thankfully, we’re only talking 10-30 minute delays. Nevertheless, I was very happy to finally see Tirana.

True to style, things slowed down once I made it past the Passport control. The luggage carousel needed a little TLC to get up and running. As we sat and waited for our bags, I couldn’t wait to get out of there. Somehow, I found myself still standing there an hour later, watching the same three bags rotating around. None of which were mine.

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Two hours after touching down in Tirana, I was able to speak to the lost and found office. Apparently my bag hadn’t been scanned into Austria. Which meant it was probably sitting in Chicago. Or Washington. Nowhere near Albania. He recommended that I go back to Permet, and my bag would eventually be sent to me. I feel a little guilty to admit that I did not trust Albanians enough to get my bag to me. I think it would have made it, but that could have taken a month. I wasn’t quite ready to give up, so I informed him that I would be back tomorrow to ask again. Still no word or sign of my bag the following afternoon did a great job of squashing those last few threads of hope. My bag was officially lost.

That evening I received a call from an unknown number. Which turned into a two minute “conversation” of an Albanian man talking extremely fast and loudly on the other line and me understanding none of it. When I finally asked if he could please speak in English he hung up on me. Thinking it was nothing more than a prank call, I didn’t acknowledge it. Until I got another call an hour later, from an airport employee who did speak English. They had found my bag!! (Pause for a happy dance!!)

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Albania has taught me to celebrate any and all successes, no matter the size. In this case, finally making it back to Permet made me feel like I was king of the mountain.

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Finally standing in front of my humble abode.

As I sat waiting for hours on end in the airport, it gave me a lot of time to think. Now, I would like to tell you that all I thought about is how much I am going to miss my family. But another topic kept resurfacing in my mind. And I am not going to pretend I am ashamed of it, or this slideshow. Anyone who knows me, could tell you it is one of my favorite topics. And lets be honest, who doesn’t love to eat?!

Surprise America!

A few months ago, I booked my plane ticket to America. When my computer window transformed to read, “Pack your bags, you’re headed to Minneapolis, MN.” I shot up and did a little happy dance around my apt, along with shrieks of delight. As if that wasn’t exciting enough, my step dad and I decided to keep my mom in the dark about my journey back home. This is challenging enough with your run of the mill, normal parent. However, my mother does not fall into that category. She is quite…nosy, (sorry Mom), and we are very close. Which made this secret all the harder to keep. But, let me tell you, it was one of the coolest things I have ever pulled off.

So unassuming she was.

So unassuming she was.

When I arrived in Minneapolis, my friend picked me up from the airport. We checked into the hotel that my mom and Rodger were staying at and snuck up to the hotel bar. As I peered around the corner, I could see them having wine. I texted my mom and asked her to guess what I did today. Which was followed by this picture.

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As you may have guessed, there are no Starbucks in Albania. So she knew something was up. Just nothing to do with me crossing the Atlantic Ocean without her knowledge. I followed that up with this picture, which is of my friend Sam and I.  Sam knows my mom and Rodger quite well and she currently lives in Minneapolis. Clue #2.

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She sat there, stumped, wondering why Sam would have flown to Europe. With that, my patience had run out. We turned the corner, walked up and yelled surprise. Her expression was literally priceless. Tears of joy rolled down both our cheeks as she questioned whether it was actually me.

Success!

Success!

Out for supper to celebrate my American vacay!

Out for supper to celebrate my American vacay!

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The next morning, we headed to Starbucks for a dose of caffeine. My mom handed me her phone, which has a Starbucks app. Apparently this has a bar code that can be scanned and that is how you pay for your drinks. I ordered my latte and headed on down the line. As the cashier read my total, I awkwardly handed him the phone. He laughed at me and scanned the device conveniently located 2 inches from my fingertips. So fancy. What will you think of next America?!

So happy!

So happy!

It’s no surprise, that within a day of reaching America, I headed to a grocery store. A real grocery store. With long aisles. And signs. And shelves stocked with goodies. As soon as I booked my ticket home, I started making a list of foods I wanted to make. What can I say, I miss baking and I LOVE food!

Caribou

Caribou

Didn't take long.

Didn’t take long.

Another thing I miss the most, is lake time. And water sports. And the pure calm and relaxation that you can feel as you sit by a glassy lake. Which is why, our next stop was the Lake cabin.

Morning run. You know you're in MN when you scare white tail deer off the path!

Morning run. You know you’re in MN when you scare white tail deer off the path!

Millie was a little mad that I had left her for a year and a half.

Millie was a little mad that I had left her for a year and a half.

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My step dad was one of the only people who knew I was coming home. Which allowed me to plan almost an entire week full of surprising various loved ones.

My aunt!

My aunt!

For the most part, after two years, not a lot changes with people. That is a different story with kids. Which is why, I was beside myself with excitment to surprise my 8 year old niece, Kennedi.

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For the next two days, she became my shadow. If she wasn’t running beside me, then she was propped up on my back. Her laugh is infectious and I found myself bent over, clutching my stomach, laughing hysterically, more often that not. Between my mom, Kennedi and nephew, I cannot remember when I laughed that much within one week. We did all the things that an aunt and amazing niece should do. As we sat and cuddled on the couch, I tried to soak up every possible particle of love.

My referee

My referee

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Up next, was my nephew Aiden. He is 6 years old and has been a tough person to get on Skype for more than 30 seconds. With only one foot out the door of kindergarten, that kind of attention span is expected. Just in case he wasn’t too impressed I was home, I bought some legos for insurance. Turns out I didn’t have anything to worry about. Soon, my one minion became two minions.

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The luxuries of America were amazing. Air conditioning. Constant water. Warm showers. Grocery stores. Personal cars. Oreos. Marshmallows. If there was one thing I noticed first and the most throughout my trip, it’s that things flow much smoother.  There is organization. And rules. Sanitation laws. Safety signs. And people follow these. Accomplishing tasks and day to day life are just easier. It was a nice change.

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As vacations always do, my trip seemed to be over before I could take a full breath. As my mom and I sat and packed my suitcase, we had a flashback to a year and a half earlier. My guess at how much my suitcase weighed, turned out to be off by almost 20 pounds. Which led us to the same process as we had perfected when I first left for Albania. Unpacking, getting rid of some stuff and repacking. All the while, secretly trying to shove shirts, toiletries and goodies in every nook and crannie.

I hate packing.

I hate packing.

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The night before I left, we went out to celebrate. Getting dressed up and having a relaxing meal with some of my favorite people was a perfect way to end my trip.

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I probably could have told you this before, but my time back reinforced this fact. What I miss the most about America isn’t the grandeur. It’s not the order. Or English. Or ease of life. It’s my family. My friends. The people I love the most. They’re the ones that put tears in my eyes when I thought about leaving again. They’re the ones that make it hard to be away. Home IS where your family is. It doesn’t matter whether it’s the one you are born into or the one you make for yourself. Surrounding yourself with those people can be one of the best feelings in the world.

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Comparathon

I have learned a lot since moving to Albania. With no stone unturned, I have discovered things, not only about myself, but about this culture halfway across the world. Some of these lessons came as no surprise, while others caught me completely off guard. Which seems to come with living in a foreign world.

– I have discovered I do not like to eat brain, whether it is cow, sheep or goat. I gave them all a fair try. And while we are on the subject, I don’t care for eyeball, tongue, cheek, or intestines either.

– I have officially become addicted to the STRONG espresso that is served everywhere in this coffee culture.

–I still like living alone. However, serving in a Peace Corps city with very few Americans near, takes the alone factor to a whole new level.

–There is no harm in throwing yourself a pity party. Just don’t stay there too long.

–Loneliness won’t kill you. And lucky for me, my loved ones are just a skype call away.

– Catcalls and obnoxious boys can be ignored. But will get to you some days. Sometimes walking around with headphones will save the day.

–Running is still my sanctuary. Even though I have to deal with stares and questions, it can still be my saving grace. For that I am more thankful than you can imagine.

–Patience truly is a virtue. And if you want to get through life smiling, it’s something you can’t live without.

–When it rains, it pours. Bad stuff tends to happen in threes. Or fours. The only thing you can control in those situations is your attitude. For me, that is harder than it sounds, but it is a work in progress.

–Cooking and Baking for others is a universal sign of love. Even if you can’t speak a word of the same language, a homemade cookie will put a smile on even the crabbiest of faces.

–The quote “Travel is the only thing you buy, that makes you richer.” is 110% true.

–True friends will make an effort to keep in contact, even when you’re halfway around the world.

–Don’t be afraid of change.

–Trying to fix things can work out great. But if you have no idea what you’re doing, maybe it’s best to ask for help. Or you might get electrocuted. (Whoops)

–Snail mail will brighten someone’s day a lot more than an email.

–When shopping for products that are written in a language you don’t understand, look at the pictures. But when in doubt, always take the time to translate the word. Don’t just assume it’s salt because it looks like salt. (Personal experience here.)

–In order to keep your sanity, set boundaries for yourself and others. But at the same time, try to embrace the awkwardness that comes with sitting outside your comfort zone.

–Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Learning a new language has cured me of worrying if I look like an idiot. Most days, it’s inevitable as I stutter through sentences like a third grader!

–When traveling, sit in the middle back. It’s the safest spot. Unless its a 95 degree day, then sit by an open window.

–ALWAYS use your water filter!

–Slowing down from the American pace of life isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Welcome those afternoon siestas with open arms.

–Ants can literally crawl out of your outlets. And kitchen sink drain. And holes in the walls. I swear, they are invincible.

–Empathy is a powerful thing. Lean on those who understand what you’re going through.

–Nothing is 100% reliable. If your electricity doesn’t come back on for eight hours it isn’t going to kill you. But maybe throw out the raw chicken in your fridge.

–Bartering in another language is an important milestone. Celebrate those small successes.

–Don’t judge.

–You can’t save every stray dog you see, no matter how badly you want to.

–Just because it’s different than what you are used to, or how you might do it, doesn’t mean it’s wrong.

– Kids in underdeveloped countries LOVE getting their pictures taken. When you take the time to print them off and hand out, you can become the neighborhood celebrity.

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Above all, the biggest lesson I have learned is to stop comparing myself to others. This is no “the light-bulb burst on with a bright flash” epiphany type of moment. But it has literally made or broke the small achievements I have reached here. There will always be someone who speaks Albanian better. Who blends in easier. Who learns faster. Someone who is bigger. Stronger. Faster. In the Peace Corps and after. In Albania and America. Comparing yourself to them only takes away from you. It’s okay to redefine what success means to you if it helps keep your head above water. Keep redefining and improving, each and every day if that’s what it takes.

So, I guess, that’s it. My one piece of advice to future PCV’s on how to have a successful service. Stop the comparathon. The only thing that matters is that YOU make an improvement from yesterday.

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Heat, Heat Go Away!

I have told myself, multiple times, that I have adapted to the Mediterranean heat. Which has turned into a mantra I utter throughout the afternoon. I made it through last summer. I can do it. Even if I have to stay camped out one foot away from my fan, I will be somewhat productive!

I am not exaggerating at all!!

I am not exaggerating at all…

I can’t lie, the heat does get to me. Let’s just say, I am a bit more, uh irritable. Much like if I am hungry for prolonged periods of time. So, when I plugged my beloved fan in one evening, I about jumped out of my skin when there was a tiny explosion.

The electricity, well, it's not the greatest. I have no figured out the maximum amount of electronics I can have plugged in at once in order to not trip the breaker. Or blow something up.

The electricity, well, it’s not the greatest. I have no figured out the maximum amount of electronics I can have plugged in at once in order to not trip the breaker. Or blow something up.

All I could do was stare. And want to cry. (The heat may give me a bit of a dramatic flair as well.)

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I try not to dip into my American money unless it is absolutely necessary. I once survived on $5 for almost two weeks because I was too stubborn to withdraw from my personal account. Five dollars goes a lot farther here than it would in other countries, but I was definitely scraping the bottom of the barrel to get through. After my fan fiasco, it wasn’t fifteen minutes later, that I was marching my sweaty body straight to the bank. Desperate times call for desperate measures. Quite frankly, during an Albanian summer, a fan is worth far more than the $20 I spent.

There has been a sharp increase in the number of catcalls and obnoxious phrases yelled at me the last few months. If summer is to blame, then I have decided these boys should just stay in school. As I carried my new fan home, it helped me let their comments flow in one ear and out the other. Lucky for them, I only gave them half of a death stare. But, inside my head, and almost every other day, I just want to yell…

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Sadly, it is a losing battle.

Another plus of summer, is the influx of bugs (the heat has provided me with an extra dose of sarcasm). Creatures I have never seen before have been invading my apartment on a regular basis. The fact that I live on the ground floor doesn’t help matters. One morning, I was talking to my counterpart, about how I spent the evening catching all the spiders in my living room. I described, how I grab my designated bug jar (YES, I have a bug jar, and it’s cool), sweep all the creepy crawlies into it and then flush them. Well, apparently Albanians do not go about killing spiders like this because she starting laughing hysterically at me. She then proceeded to tell me what I should be doing differently. All I kept thinking was, is there really a wrong way to go about this, as long as they ultimately end up dead?!

After our spider conversation, I lent her my notebook. As she was handing it back to me, some sheets of paper fell out. When she bent down to hand them back to me, my face turned three shades darker.

Yep, this is what fell out.

Yep, this is what fell out.

I had completely forgotten about the photos I had stuck in there at some point. Which, for the record, my old coworker mailed to me as a joke ( I SWEAR!!) As I stuttered and stammered through an explanation as to why I would have these with me, every single day, she just laughed at me. It was quite obvious she didn’t believe a word I was saying. So I just shut up and sat there embarrassed. However, after sneaking a peak of the beautiful men in those photos, I did feel a tiny bit better! ;)

Due to political changes, the Director of the hospital changed this last week. My program manager, counterpart and I had a meeting with her. I am excited to say that it went really well and she would like to collaborate with my office. She is a doctor who has worked in the surrounding area for the past 28 years. One of our main hopes, is  to organize trainings on a variety of health topics. We will be targeting the nurses from villages on the outskirts of Permet. Her experience is going to be an invaluable resource as we tackle projects together this fall.

Work can be slow here and a lot of times, it is hard to see any progress. I have learned, in this environment, you have to pick something you are passionate about. The hoops to jump through and the overall resistance to change, will weed anything else out. Which is why, it’s no secret to the residents of Permet that I exercise a lot. They now call me “Sportiva” and everyone from my veggie guy, to the post office women, to the store owners have mentioned they see me running. I preach to anyone who will listen, about the healthy benefits of physical activity, never quite knowing if I got through to them. However, a few days ago, on my morning run, I spotted two other girls jogging towards me. This is extremely rare and for a second I thought they might be tourists. As we crossed paths, I couldn’t suppress my grin, as I recognized them from my GLOW camp. They puffed out their chests and proudly kept jogging passed me. They had listened!

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Seeing change here is rare, and sometimes, it may not be exactly what you had envisioned. To me, being a healthy role model to these girls, even if it is just to show that running outside is okay, that is success. That is the kind of influence I want to have. That is a small step in the right direction. And when you can actually see it with your own eyes, it’s enough to make all of your sacrifices flow right out the window.

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Hotels and Watermelons

Peace Corps has a lot of conferences. Some are voluntary, most are required, but all take place in a hotel with air conditioning!! This may be the single most exciting sentence you could tell a PCV in the summer months. That, and the fact that most of the meals are provided. It’s a surefire way to get us excited about sitting in front of powerpoints for three days straight.

The latest conference was Mid-service, which was meant to help prepare us for our remaining year of service. The fact that we are more than halfway through our 27 months was not lost on the group as we gathered in Tirana. It would be the last time we would all be together, before our Closing of Service Conference in February. Even as I write that, I have a hard time believing it. The past year and a half have went unbelievably fast and throughout those few days in Tirana, I had to sweep that to the back of my mind. Otherwise, there would be some minor panic attacks setting in as I try and figure out what I want to be when I grow up.

On my morning run in Tirana. It smelled a little too much like garbage.

On my morning run in Tirana. It smelled a little too much like garbage.

When my group arrived in Albania, we were told that the Health Sector might be closing. At the conference we were told by staff that Peace Corps Washington had sent word that it would indeed be closed in two years. The health volunteers gathered to discuss what impact this would not only have on our sites, but also on Albania. The need for changes in the hospitals and health education here, are HUGE. It also brings into question, whether the projects we are doing will be sustainable or not. This is always a priority with the Peace Corps, however the dynamics change when there is a guarantee that another volunteer will not be replacing you.

Health volunteers, were a smart bunch!

Health volunteers, we’re a smart bunch!

Safety first!

Safety first!

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The rest of the conference was spent going over our successes, resume building and job opportunities after the Peace Corps. My roommate, Emilie and I, quietly retreated back to our room at the end of each day. We recuperated by doing the only plausible thing someone should do in our situation. We trudged through pouring rain, bought a watermelon & snacks, cranked our air conditioner to high and watched Disney movies on an actual TV.

Sometimes it’s the small things that make a big difference. Case in point, I present to you my very HAPPY face!

So worth it!

Why can’t it always be watermelon season?!

Grant a what?

The health center in Permet has the bare bones of a normal Albanian office. There are a few desks, plenty of health education pamphlets, posters and a few broken chairs. Which they keep anyway, and resulted in me almost falling on my butt, more than a few times in the beginning. Now I know which chairs are the good ones and make a beeline for them in the morning. I like to think of this as progress.

At the beginning of July, with my office in mind, I hunkered down in front of my fan and wrote a grant. I decided to apply for a SPA grant, which is one of the two types of grants that Peace Corps offers to it’s volunteers. I was hoping to obtain a few more supplies for my coworkers, that would enable them to join the technology world. I did some research and decided upon a laptop, projector and printer that is available in Tirana. This would open many doors for my coworkers to deliver health lessons to the people of Permet. But importantly, to branch out and give lessons to the surrounding villagers. My excitement seemed to fade as I turned through page after page of this grant. For a good chunk of the first hour, I ended up just staring at my computer screen.

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This was my first ever grant writing experience. I am not going to lie, I had no idea what I was doing. We had a conference at the end of last year that helped lay out the process of grant writing. I was still confused. After a few phone calls to a fellow volunteer, I had finished about half of my grant. Which was followed by more confusion and computer glitches. Did I mention that I had no idea what I was doing?

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Working in a third world country, grant writing is unavoidable and should definitely be taken advantage of by volunteers. Even as I struggled through section after section, I felt great about making progress towards getting my office a computer. After finishing the price sections (the worst part), I ended my week long process of writing my first grant.  After hitting submit, I felt my hopes surge and couldn’t wait to tell my coworkers about it.excited-gif22

Just as I was getting situated upon my high horse, I heard back from the grant committee and was told that my grant wouldn’t be funded.

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The committee made a few great points about flaws in my project proposal and ideas on how to improve it. They also made suggestions on follow up projects that I could do instead of focusing on supplies for my office. The next round of grants happens in October and I will be brainstorming a few different ideas until then. After all, this wouldn’t be the Peace Corps, or life for that matter, if everything worked out on the first try.