Post PC Trip; Part II; aka Marathon Chaos

At the end of last year, I made the decision to run a marathon in the spring of 2015. I knew I would be traveling somewhere in the Balkans area, so with that vague idea in mind, I set out to find a race that fit my timeline. I stumbled upon the international marathon in Radenci, Slovenia. Radenci is a small town of 2,000 people, located 3 miles from the Austrian border. Which I now know, looks about as similar to my small hometown of Lisbon, North Dakota as one could get.

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Once I had my race picked out, I made a four month training schedule, hung it on my fridge and hoped for the best. The farthest I had run thus far in my life was a half marathon. I had no idea how my body would hold up once I crossed into the 14…15…and 20ish (gulp) mile range. For a majority of my training, I was also studying to take the GRE test in order to return to Graduate School. I like to think this worked out in my favor. In order to maintain my sanity after studying math, I NEEDED a three hour run.

Four months later, I had taken the GRE, finished up my Peace Corps service, completed 62 training runs and was finally on my way to Slovenia! When I signed up for a marathon off the beaten track, I failed to think about how I would get myself to the starting line. Eventually, I made it, but the few days leading up to the marathon were filled with frustration, confusion and a few small anxiety attacks. The lack of English being spoken and written was nothing new, but this time I did not know a word of the local language. So, when I say I was wandering around with a confused look on my face until I strode up to the starting line, that is not an exaggeration.

Found my bib number and running chip!

Found my bib number and running chip!

Here we go!

Here we go!

My goal for the race was to run it in under 4 1/2 hours…oh, and not keel over at the finish line. As the minutes ticked down until the official start, announcements were being made in Slovenian. I tried asking a few people around me what was being said but they didnt speak English. What on earth had I gotten myself into?!

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The full marathon consisted of two half marathon loops. The course was laid out through very small towns and mainly countryside. Throughout the first loop, there were people cheering and holding signs, However, after that, the crowd dwindled and it felt like I was back in Albania, running by myself. Minus the homeless dogs.

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I am happy to announce that I felt pretty good throughout the race. All of the early morning workouts for the past four months had been well worth it. At a few points, I did have to utter my race mantra under my breath. 26.2 miles is just a really long way. Plus, who doesnt want Ellens voice popping in their head every now and then.

My race mantra.

My race mantra.

Four hours, twenty eight minutes and fifty six seconds later I crossed the finish line!! Not by much, but I made it under my goal time and broke a few other of my personal records as well!

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My medal!

My medal!

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With the marathon behind me, I can now fully appreciate being on vacation and enjoy my time in Europe. And of course, I didnt wait long to start celebrating!

Best way to celebrate!

Best way to celebrate!

Post PC Trip; Part I 

My post Peace Corps trip had finally arrived. It all became a reality when I crossed the border into Montenegro. The taxi driver shot me a sideways look and immediately told me to put my seat belt on. They actually hand out tickets here, he remarked, followed by a hearty chuckle. I had to shake my head a bit as I stared at the lack of garbage on the ground and the perfectly paved roadway that stretched before me. Good riddance Albania!
My first stop was Kotor, Montenegro. It is a beautiful little city, located on a bay directly off the Adriatic. In the midst of my tapering weeks of marathon training, I arrived at the hostel and set out for one of my last longer runs. Having a set running schedule for traveling can get a little annoying. However, I quickly realized it is the best way to see a new city and get my bearings. Plus, I can think of a lot worse views to run to than this…
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The most scenic thing to do in Kotor, is climb to the top of the nearby hill and stand at the fortress overlooking the whole city. It felt like a thousand steps were involved and unbeknownst to me, it was setting the tone for the rest of my trip. Everywhere I would be visiting, contained “Old Towns” which I now translate to cobblestoned streets with a copious amount of steps. Don’t get me wrong, all of these places are beautiful, but I became quite happy I had spent the last four months marathon training. It came in handy for times other than just race day.
Overlooking the bay of Kotor.

Overlooking the bay of Kotor.

Steps everywhere!!

Steps everywhere!!

Moving on to Croatia the next day, made vacation seem much more realistic. Before leaving America, I had been told the coast of Croatia is one of the most beautiful areas of the world. I am happy to say that it did not disappoint. I spent a total of ten days traveling around to four different cities and four islands.

Dubrovnik, Croatia

Dubrovnik, Croatia

The old town of Dubrovnik was quite magical. The cobblestone streets intersected with picturesque alleyways. Most of which were lined with flowerpots, clotheslines and cats sleeping in the sun. It was the perfect city to just walk around and explore.

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The island of Hvar was even more beautiful than I had imagined. It was my first time experiencing the island life and it was a nice break from reality and big city life. Plus, I was there at the ideal time. In July and August, the city is flooded with tourists, putting a crazy vibe on an otherwise relaxing place.

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Kayaking to the Pakleni islands may have been my favorite part of the trip thus far!

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Island hopping tour

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In the midst of my time in Croata, I planned a day trip to the neighboring country of Bosnia & Herzegovina. A bus brought my tour group to Mostar, the capital of Bosnia. A local guide walked us around to see the highlights of the city. In May, it had already reached 90 degrees. Again, I was thankful to not be there in July or August, when temperatures climb to 110 degrees and higher. No thank you!

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The last coastal city I visited was Zadar. They have a beautiful old town, along with numerous parks dotting the town. It is also home to the worlds first pipe organ thats played by the sea.  Thirty five stone steps end in whistles. When the sea pushes air through- depending on the size of the wave- different chords are played. It was beautiful to listen to and also was the perfect place to watch the world renowned sunsets.

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Before leaving Croatia, I made a quick stop at Plitvice Lakes National Park.It is one of the oldest national parks in Southeast Europe and the largest park in Croatia and quite famous for its sixteen lakes arranged in cascades.

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I met some really great fellow Americans on the trip. It made wandering through the park a lot more fun!

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Of course, more steps…

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Waiting at a bus stop in the woods. On to the  capital!

Waiting at a bus stop in the woods. On to the capital!

My last stop in Croatia was the capital city of Zagreb. I have always been partial to the smaller towns and national parks. Which usually means capital cities are not my favorite. However, it was a good resting point before moving on to Slovenia.

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Two and a half weeks into my trip and the biggest thing I noticed was my lousy sense of direction. The amount of time I spend walking around lost in new cities borders on the side of ridiculous. But, I always find my way to where I am going. Plus, some might say that wandering aimlessly is part of the fun!

 

Goodbye Peace Corps

The last month of service turned out to be some of the busiest weeks of the last two years. No stranger to moving, I tried to allow myself plenty of time to pack up all of my belongings. As always, there is more to do than first thought and I found myself scrambling the last couple of days to finish up. All of that chaos instantly vanished from my mind as I handed over the key to my landlord for the final time. I literally wanted to hop and skip down the street as I walked away. Free at last!

Just me and my backpack

Just me and my backpack

First and last week of my Peace Corps Service

First and last week of my Peace Corps Service.

My post PC trip turned into a six week long trip through the Balkans and Italy. During that time I will travel to four new countries and run my first marathon. After which, I will meet my mom and stepdad in Venice. After stuffing ourselves with homemade pasta and pizza, we will return to Albania so they can see where I lived for two years. This made some goodbyes with Albanians better and just provided confusion during others. My favorite person in town, Gergi, held me hostage at his cafe for a few hours the night before I left. He cried twice. Held my hand most of the time and told me exactly what he thought of me over the last few years. Luckily these were all good things. He is someone I will actually miss and I am happy I will be able to see him again before returning home.

Writing down my mailing address.

Writing down my mailing address.

My group held one last going away party in the capital. A large majority of the volunteers living in Albania came out and it was the perfect way to say goodbye to everyone. I found parts of it sad, but mostly just exciting. The people that I became close with and want to see again, I will. In America. And if we enjoyed hanging out in the world that is Albania, I cant help but think of how amazing it will be in the land of the free!

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My initial training group.

My initial training group.

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As with all government organizations, there is a lot of paperwork to close peace corps service. That is mainly what my last few days in country consisted of. Signatures, interviews and wrapping up two years of my life. Crossing that final t, felt a bit like the ending of an era. Dotting that last i, officially moved me into the full time tourist category. I am now 26, jobless, homeless and happier than I have ever been.

Goodbye Peace Corps

Goodbye Peace Corps

Packing Up the Old

Less than ten days until I am no longer a Peace Corps Volunteer. These past few weeks have been filled with a daily dose of shock and slight bewilderment. As my last week creeps closer, the fact that I am at this stage in my service still hasn’t quite set in. After all, the new group is only getting their site announcements this week. Was it really two years ago that I was sitting in their exact spot?! Even when I pinch myself, it doesn’t quite set in. Aside from the lapses of reality, I have spent a lot of time packing. Saying goodbyes. Packing. Planning my post PC trip. Packing. Procrastinating. Packing.

I came with two suitcases. I am going home with three. And I am still struggling. Where on earth did all of the stuff scattered around my apartment come from? Well, here is a little secret; Peace Corps does weird things to a person. Physically and mentally. I have picked up odd behaviors and tendencies I never came close to in the states. Which is why I could now star on Hoarders: Peace Corps Edition. All of those great thrift store finds, random Albanian gifts and care package goodies have remained virtually untouched and unmoved over the last few years. Before any judgement begins, let me explain the PCV mentality. I will blame most of this on the care packages that the awesome few of you have sent. These items are cherished. I repeat, they are CHERISHED. Reserved for only the most special occasions because we have absolutely no idea when we will get more. We will make Sriracha last for a year. Or store peanut butter in the top cupboard to avoid daily spoonfuls. Or hide Franks hot sauce from other volunteers. And Oreos, okay…those never last longer than a few days. I have felt a tad ridiculous as I stared at all of the unopened and unused items I requested from America. Let’s hope I can pack up the rest of my apartment and leave any hoarding dispositions behind.

Some of the young neighborhood kids benefited from my apartment clean up. I packaged up old notebooks, markers and decks of cards for them. The excitement that lit up their faces as I handed over these small items was adorable.

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We have to wait HOW LONG for cookies?!

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I recently stumbled across an article about the philosopher, Erich Fromm. He believed that human beings had two basic orientations; having and being. A person with the having orientation seeks to acquire and posses things. Which he forecast would only lead to dissatisfaction and emptiness. A person with the being orientation focuses on the experience. They derive meaning from engaging and sharing with people. Which he thought would lead to a life of fulfillment and happiness.

Over the last two years, I have collected post cards from each city I have visited. My travels have taken me all over Europe and as I scanned through the pile, memories surfaced. Inside jokes, transportation disasters, lessons learned and favorite moments came tumbling forward. All of which, produced a heartfelt smile and an occasional chuckle. Not once did this happen as I was shoving my clothes and trinkets into my suitcases. I quickly realized my most prized possessions from the last 27 months have nothing to do with material items. Maybe Fromm was on to something after all.

 

Easter Celebration

Easter celebrations vary throughout Albania. In my region, people dye eggs red, gather with their families and of course, feast on different types of meat. Lamb, goat, chicken and beef make appearances at most celebrations. Whether it is one or all of the above, you know its a special occasion when you start to get the “meat sweats.” Pair that with a few shots of raki and you have yourself a regular ole’ party.

My sitemates and I were invited to a picnic celebration in the mountains of Kelcyre. One of the families they know really well, have land about thirty minutes from the city. They raise goats and have several other animals that live on their property.

Hike up to the celebration!

Hike up to the celebration!

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View of their land and the spot for our picnic.

View of their land and the spot for our picnic.

We spent the next three hours sipping wine, eating and chatting with this wonderful family. It felt great to have been invited to their celebration. Albanian hospitality has never ceased to amaze me over these last two years.

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Don't give the sixteen year old boy the cookies. He literally ate 10 cookies in what seemed like 5 minutes. Boys and their metabolism.

Don’t give the sixteen year old boy the cookies. He literally ate 10 cookies in what seemed like 5 minutes. Boys and their metabolism.

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Holiday celebrations here seem to leave me with a bittersweet feeling. Regardless of how close I have grown with the people of my town or how integrated I feel, I will forever be an outsider looking in. There is always going to be the cultural and language barrier which prevents a true sense of belonging. Which tends to only make me miss my family and home a little more that day. But that is okay. I feel fortunate to have crept this close to that dividing line, standing in the middle of our two very different worlds.

 

Trainees Visit

One of the highlights during a PCV’s ten weeks of preservice training is the volunteer visit. This usually falls during the second or third week of the trainees being in country and provides them some freedom. Each trainee travels to visit a current volunteer to gain insight on what life is like after swearing in as a volunteer. It’s also a great reminder that there is more to service than host families, language classes and constant confusion. (The confusion tends to linger but I like to think it becomes less and less.)

We were lucky enough to have five new volunteers visiting my area,combined with five current volunteers. One of my favorite things about Peace Corps is that it provides you with an opportunity to meet Americans from all over the country with extremely different backgrounds. After only living in Albania for three weeks, the trainees had plenty of questions.

“Do you think you’ve changed?”

“What is the hardest part about Albania?”

“Have you dated here?”

“What is winter REALLY like?”

Only in Albania can you bring your own coffee to a cafe.

Only in Albania can you bring your own coffee to a cafe.

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One of the trainees buying cheese at the market! The lady just looked at her and told him to learn shqip haha.

One of the trainees buying cheese at the market! The lady just looked at her and told him to learn shqip haha.

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Fresh pasta!

Fresh pasta!

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No electricity. No problem!

No electricity. No problem!

 

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Circle dancing with one of the youth clubs.

Circle dancing with one of the youth clubs.

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As I sat on the leaving side of the equation, it was strange to be looking back at where I had started from. And a great reminder at how far I had come. With only three weeks left in country, I have found myself mulling over the failures and successes of the last two years. Whether one outweighs the other is besides the point. I gave it my best shot and that’s all that really matters.

Birthday Fun

Two of my favorite volunteers celebrated their birthdays over the last few weeks. We celebrated with homemade food, little presents and of course, chocolate cake!

First up was Monika, my almost site mate and a truly amazing person.

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Birthday presents!

Birthday presents!

Pre dinner hike

Pre dinner hike

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Followed by Emilie, my travel buddy over the last few years. Oh, and I like to tell everyone, she got into Yale. Yeah, she’s smart. And pretty awesome as well.

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She also likes to hide in corners haha.

She also likes to hide in corners haha.

Birthday celebrations have helped add some excitement to the rainy days of spring. But with the last party over and cleaned up, I guess I will have to stop procrastinating. Ready or not, it is officially time to start packing, preparing for my post PC Balkan trip and thinking about life as someone other than a volunteer.

 

 

Amsterdam Sights and GRE Math

The time had finally come for me to take the GRE. After three months of studying, two notebooks filled with math problems and my head spinning with new vocabulary, I was more than ready. As much as I complain about all of that, I was fortunate enough to travel to Amsterdam in order to take this test. It was my first trip completely solo and my last vacation as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Where had the last two years gone?!

Train travel and Starbucks are two of my favorite things!

Train travel and Starbucks are two of my favorite things!

Best way to start a trip!

Best way to start a trip!

With only four days to work with, I wanted to see and do as much as possible. Which meant that my 4 am flight out of Albania was actually a good thing. I arrived in Amsterdam by 9am, fueled by a caffeine stupor, I took on the city.

When someone mentions Amsterdam, they will undoubtedly talk about the fact that marijuana, other recreational drugs and prostitution are legal there. This makes for an extremely forward thinking and interesting city. I felt a long way from North Dakota as I walked around with a constant aroma of weed in the air and women in lingerie standing in doorways waiting for their next customer. However, that is precisely one of the things I love about traveling. It opens your eyes to other cultures and often times, forces you to open your mind.

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I had just started my ninth week of marathon training (only seven more to go!!), which meant I needed to get some miles in while I stayed in Amsterdam. With over 600.00 bicycles, it is easily the main form of transportation there. I was reminded constantly on my runs as I tried to remember to always look behind, in front of and to the side of me to ensure I wouldn’t get run over. Luckily that never happened but I almost collided with someone on more than one occasion.

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Not too shabby of views on a morning run!

Not too shabby of views on a morning run!

The day of the test, I kept myself busy by getting lost as I tried to find the testing center. It didn’t help matters that I do not speak Dutch. Some days, English is what I miss most. I found the venue, took the test and felt like crying when I left. Math is not my strong suit and the three sections on the GRE did not seem to go very well. I ran out of time on the first section and ended up guessing on 8 of the 20 questions. I also memorized over 860 vocabulary words in preparation for the other sections. I saw ONE of the words I knew. ONE out of eight hundred and sixty. Like I said, I left and felt like crying. Returning to school is going to be quite the adjustment.

Good thing chocolate helps heal all wounds.

Good thing chocolate helps heal all wounds.

Fresh mint tea.

Fresh mint tea.

Lunch with beautiful views

Lunch with beautiful views

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Flower market

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Of course, in order to get the most bang for my buck, I squeezed in a day trip to Gent Belgium. I couldn’t be that close to world renowned chocolate, waffles and cafes without checking it out. In spite of terrible weather and constant rain, I spent the day walking around and taking pictures. Periodically warmed by another glass of delicious hot chocolate.

Belgium train station

Belgium train station

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On this last trip of my volunteer service, I discovered I love traveling alone. Your schedule is completely dependent on your mood each day. That kind of flexibility can make for some chaotic days, chock-full of frenzied activity. Or some wonderfully relaxed afternoons at a coffee shop. Or a little bit of both. And it is solely up to you. Traveling opens your eyes to new people, places and things. As well as, uncovering bits and pieces of yourself that may have otherwise stayed hidden. Helping you get to know yourself along with the world. Both equally important and both equally rewarding.

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Puppy Love

My last few months in Albania are turning into the busiest weeks of my PC service. From wrapping up projects, collaborating with other volunteers, continuing to build relationships in my community, training for my first marathon and studying to take the GRE next week, my free time has all but disappeared.

I couldn't be happier to finally take the GRE. Prepping for three months and filling up two notebooks with math problems has put my brain into full algebra mode. Gross.

I couldn’t be happier to finally take the GRE. Prepping for three months and filling up two notebooks with math problems has put my brain into full algebra mode. Gross.

Market Day

Market Day

14 miler in the wee hours of the morning.

14 miler in the wee hours of the morning.

Some Albanian wisdom haha.

Some Albanian wisdom haha.

After a week full of meetings and studying, I went on a hike with my sitemates. They know a family that owns land on the outskirts of Keclyre. One of their dogs had puppies a few months ago and we planned an afternoon to hang out with them. And if we’re being honest, we really just wanted to play with their dogs!

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Surprisingly playing with puppies wasn’t my favorite moment of the past few weeks. That came after helping Monika with a training in the hospital. We popped over to the middle school to say hello to the kids. A group of girls let out shrieks of excitement, followed by the most sincere hugs I have ever received. Some of these Albanian moments filled with genuine love and admiration are going to be tough ones to beat.

International Women’s Day

March 8th was International women’s day. The youth council came up with the idea to do an activity, to celebrate the women of the community who may be forgotten otherwise. We are slowly trying to teach the council how to plan an activity ahead of time and why being prepared is important. Key word being slowly! Nonetheless, a large majority of the kids showed up on Sunday morning, with homemade posters and cookies in hand.

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They handed out a handwritten card, cookie and bouquet of flowers to all the women passing through the center of town. It was great to see put a smile on these women’s faces and make a small difference in Permet.

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