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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Close of Service Conference

Our last Peace Corps Conference was held in a snowy city of southeastern Albania. Traveling five hours through some of the windiest roads in the country, I silently thanked the inventor of motion sickness medicine. But truth be told, there isn’t a road in the world that could hinder my excitement at finishing up two years of service.

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The next few days were filled with Power points (of course!), small group sessions, painting, talking about our feelings and our final language exam. Surviving my last twenty minute interview in Albanian (Okay, survive is perhaps a bit melodramatic) I felt blissfully relieved. When I learned I had reached advanced low on the official language scale, I was even happier. However, that only intensified my desire to speak English again!

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My original training group, we have come a long way!

My original training group, we have come a long way!

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The health sector

The health sector

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There are events in life that are significant enough to warrant a new way of thinking. From then on, it marks a before and an after. This may be a fleeting moment, a drawn out event, happy, sad or in between. It doesn’t matter. It impacts you enough to inflict everlasting change. Peace Corps has done that for me. There is a “before I left for Albania” and now there will be an “after my Peace Corps service.” I have subtly grown over the past few years. I am more cultured. More independent. More adventurous. More determined. I have grown into a better version of myself. I am young enough to know, this is only the beginning of one of my “afters.” And I couldn’t be more ready. Ready to keep learning, changing and growing. What could be more exciting than that?

The Little Things

Many days pass by without anything significant occurring. After almost two years in my site, I can honestly say I have acquired a normal routine. Even the strange “Only in Albania” moments no longer phase me. Now I know when the town crazy starts to yell AMERICA at me, I should just ignore him and he will eventually walk away. Or when my favorite veggie man hounds me as to why I haven’t been around in three days. It’s not creepy, he is genuinely interested in why he hasn’t seen me. Or when there is a knock at my door and a shy boy sweetly asks for help with his English homework. Or when six neighborhood girls show up, grins spilled across their faces and “AMBER” spewing from their lips. Followed by me taking pictures with each individual and promising to post them on Facebook. Obviously. Because it’s just another day in the life of an American living in Albania.

Such a cutie

Such a cutie

Permet is burrowed between two mountain ranges. The mountain tops are covered with snow from November to April. Beautiful to look at, but rarely does it get cold enough to actually blanket the city. The other week we had an exciting turn of events. There was SNOW in my city! As I walked outside, residents of my neighborhood seemed a bit confused about how to handle the strange weather. Umbrellas were brought out for those brave enough to walk around. Others just stood under awnings and gossiped. I strode through the city center, grinning and feeling right at home. Later on, I bundled up and set out for my daily run. Not five minutes out the door, I was ambushed by a group of little boys, their arms loaded with snowballs. Now that is one way to add excitement and speed to my workout!

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Chickens for sale

Chickens for sale

When I was younger, I used to spend hours at the library. I would scour through the stacks and stacks of books, continually finding new favorites. Eventually walking home with my arms loaded with that weeks chosen items. I had never thought about that as luxury, not available to everyone. Until I came to Albania. There is a library in my city but it is hardly ever open. On top of that, the books are so old and lackluster that it would take an avid reader next to no time to get through them. When a young girl in my Youth Council mentioned how much she loves to read, it struck a chord with me. I quickly arranged with a neighboring volunteer to borrow books from their library each month. When I told the girl at our next meeting, she was visibly touched. As she thanked me I could see tears in her eyes. All because of a few books. Something I completely took for granted growing up.

The past few weeks have been filled with seemingly insignificant events. However, those little moments hold more importance than I originally thought. I am realizing, those little things are actually the big things. And they form the memories I will look back on and remember with the most fondness.

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Valentines Day Traditions

Last year, I distinctly remember I spent Valentine’s day cleaning the mold from my apt and watching a gory war movie. Thankfully, I spent this year celebrating a bit differently. I started off the weekend with an impromptu trip to Tirana with my sitemates. I soon realized the capital city isn’t so bad when you go with friends. We spent the day eating bagels, consuming fancy coffee drinks and relishing in the luxuries of movie theaters. A welcome change from sitting in my icebox of an apartment and studying for the GRE.

Being photobombed by some Albanians

Being photobombed by some Albanians

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Fresh squeezed fruits and vegetables for $1!!

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Upon returning to Permet, the youth council and I dove head first into finishing up the details of their fundraiser. They had decided to plan another movie day, inviting kids from the high school to watch a Nicholas Sparks movie. In the spirit of Valentines day, even the boys were on board to watch this “chick flick”. Throughout the week, we periodically stopped at the cultural center to make sure everything was working with the TV and speakers. Everything seemed to be in order and ready to go. Some of the girls even baked heart shaped cookies and bought other snack options.

The day of the event, the kids and I arrived an hour before the movie time to set up. We plugged the USB into the TV and nothing happened. We then tried the dvd player. Again nothing. One of the boys ran home to retrieve a cord to allow us to plus his phone into the tv and watch the movie that way. It still didn’t work. As the movie start time approached, it quickly passed by. For the next half hour, we had way too many cooks in the kitchen, as we tried to get the movie on screen. I stood in the corner, kept my fingers crossed and tried to keep the boys from getting out of control. Thankfully, a half an hour later, we finally got the movie working. Better late than never!

The Youth Council was able to raise a good chunk of money for their club. With each fundraiser we do, they are becoming more responsible and proactive. It has been fun to sit back and watch each of them slowly grow into their own kind of leader. Each member contributes their own unique qualities to the group. I am very proud of them and can’t wait to see what they come up with next!

Happy Valentine’s Day!