The final leg of my six week Eurotrip took me all the way back to Albania. Accompanied by my excited and perfectly willing mom and step-dad. With only four days to show them the country I lived in for two years, I had a bit of trouble deciding which cities to visit. We eventually settled on a visit to my host family, followed by three days around my site of Permet.
After a month and a half of not speaking Albanian, I was nervous to arrive at my host family. I knew a full afternoon of translating would be in store and was not sure I remembered much, if any, Albanian. As we drove along, it was interesting to see what my parents remarked upon about the countryside. They immediately noticed the garbage scattered everywhere and that continued to be a topic of discussion throughout our trip. Both were surprised at the beauty of Albania. Much of it is untouched, eliciting a natural beauty you cannot see in many other parts of the world. As we pulled up to my host families door, my stomach was full of butterflies. It felt strangely familiar to my first day of being dumped on their doorstep, with three bags in tow and literally five Albanian words in my vocabulary. (Which I tended to mix up and said goodbye instead of thank you more than once.) My language skills had immensely improved since then but the thought of translating for both of my parents still made me nervous.
Over the next four hours, I lost count of the hugs and kisses I received from my grandpa, grandma and host sisters. They were so incredibly happy that I silently scolded myself for even questioning whether we had time to see them. They walked us around their property beforehand and proudly showed off their crops, gardens and chickens.
They didn’t disappoint with a true Albanian feast for lunch. We ate and ate and ate, finally walking away from the table with true food babies bulging in our stomachs.
My grandparents both teared up throughout our visit. They are such wonderful people and I feel so incredibly lucky to have been able to forge such a strong bond with them. Regardless of the immense language barrier.
In order to see more of Albania, we decided to rent a car. The public transportation system is more than lacking and my mom would have had a heart attack experiencing how I got around the last two years. I am not sure who was more nervous between my step dad and I. He was the one that had to drive but I was in charge of navigating and we all know how good my sense of direction is…
True to style, we got extremely lost when I tried to take a shortcut. What started as a nice paved road ended up being a washed out gravel path that winded up, down and around the mountain. Once the sheep herd traffic jams were added to the equation, my short cut easily added on a few extra hours.
We were more than happy to return to the highway when it finally came into view. However, we soon realized it may not have been any better. The road conditions in Albania are more than lacking in some areas, but that isn’t the scariest part. A lot of the drivers are lunatics with death wishes. This wasn’t a revelation to me. I knew the driving was bad but I usually hopped into a furgon, sat in the back and stared at my ipod. It was best to just put my life in the hands of the driver and hope, pray and cross my fingers that I would arrive at my destination safely. This trip was different. I was sitting in the front seat, helping Rodger navigate and staring straight into the cars who wanted to play chicken on the side of a mountain road. I quickly began the countdown to when we would return the rental car in three days.
Our time in Permet, the city I had begun to call home, flew by. We spent two days walking around and saying goodbye to my favorite people. Most of which were the neighborhood kids I had played with the last few years. The language barrier was always present during my time in Albania, but with kids it was different. They don’t care if you make mistakes or explain yourself with Charades. They only wanted to play games and ask questions about life in America. All while trying to sneak more chocolate out of my purse. A handful of them always greeted me with the cutest and most genuine smile and hug. I never tired of walking down the street and seeing them run towards me enthusiastically screaming “Amber, Amber, Amber!!”
The other side of my family in Permet consisted of my coworker and her husband. Gjergji was a blessing in so many ways during my time as a PCV. He helped me fix things in my apartment, jump through hurdles at work, and was excellent practice for improving my Shqip. He was the Albanian whom I spent the most time with and therefor our communication was actually decent. He also happened to be an excellent cook and served the best food in Permet. I took my parents to his cafe for lunch both days and they were in heaven.
The final round of goodbyes took place in Kelcyre, my second home this last year. Will and Monika made such a difference during the last half of my service and it was wonderful to see them again. The thought of saying farewell to them was definitely the hardest part about leaving Albania. But with friends like that it is never goodbye; only see you later.
Twenty seven months of PC service and more than six weeks of backpacking had brought me full circle. Ending my trip where it had all started was the perfect way to say goodbye to my friends, Albanian family and the country I had grown to love. It gave me the unique opportunity to see how I had changed and matured. But more importantly, I was able to see the positive impact I had on this small community halfway across the world. And that my friends, is a beautiful thing.