“Every volunteer’s experience is different”
Herein lies the most commonly spoken phrase of the Peace Corps. Not only is it uttered by the staff countless times but I have heard those words spoken by many fellow volunteers. It may sound cliche, and at times like a cop out, but it could not be more true.
It was first apparent while we were in PST for those ten weeks of training. Some were placed in a smaller city with 16 other volunteers. The rest of us were split into groups of 5 or 6 volunteers and moved to small villages scattered around the city of Elbasan. The families we lived with ranged from retired grandparents to families with three generations under one roof. I got to experience what it was like to live with grandparents, parents and three siblings. After growing up with two brothers in America, I loved having sisters here. Some of our host families were farmers, some were store owners, some were working in Italy in Greece. If we were lucky we had host siblings that spoke some English. If not, many of us become All-Stars at Charades.
A few members of group 16 already had a few languages under their belt upon arriving in Shqiperia. This seemed to help when we dove into the rigorous language lessons that comprise 80% of PST. In spite of our backgrounds it became clear from the beginning that we were all going to learn this new language at different paces. An important lesson I learned from those ten weeks is that you can not compare yourself to other volunteers. It will drive you crazy and in the end you will learn exactly what you need to communicate here. Most of the time anyway, the confusion is inevitable! 😉
Moving to sites provided each of us with our first taste of freedom and a chance to be independent again. The 34 people in our group were scattered all over the countryside. An Arizona native was placed in a village in the north that will accumulate feet of snow in the wintertime. My North Dakota bones moved to the deep south where I am surrounded by mountains and will probably not see a white ground this winter. On the flip side, we have learned that it is HOT everywhere. Thank god for the beaches and rivers that Albania offers.
There are people placed in smaller villages that don’t have a grocery store or restaurant. On the opposite end of the spectrum we have volunteers living in the biggest cities in Albania. Many of us are living in one bedroom apartments, some have more space than they need, and a few are living with host families in their site. Some of us have site mates, some are within ten minutes from another volunteers and some are a few hour furgon ride away from another American.
There are three sectors here in Peace Corps Albania; TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language), COD (Community Development), and Health. The Peace Corps places us with a counterpart at an organization in our new community. There are volunteers that do not have a physical office space and have found themselves roaming the community to find work. The high schools will be home for the teachers and others who start secondary projects there. Some are taking over previous projects that were already started before they arrived. Many are starting from scratch and trying to define what exactly they would like to work on in their time here. Quite a few volunteers are working with Albanians that speak English. Several are working with people that speak only Shqip.
The language barrier puts a hold on any projects that could be started. The pace of Albanian life is so astronomically different from the United States. Avash Avash is a Turkish phrase that means slowly, slowly. It is repeated many times here and sums up life in an Albanian culture. My patience is going to be one of my best assets by the time I return from my two years of service! In the end, we focus on building relationships first and hopefully forming a foundation to complete projects later on.
One thing we all have in common is that we will make friends here over the next two years. The Peace Corps attracts all different personalities from all over America. Halfway across the world we are getting to know people we probably never would have met otherwise. Escaping work, the challenge of speaking shqip, and dealing with homesickness are made easier with the help of new found friends.
Every volunteers experience is indeed different. Worldwide, country to country and even dependent on site. I feel so lucky to have been placed in Albania. Americans are truly loved here and I continue to be amazed by the generosity of Albanians. I am learning more each and every day about the things this country has to offer. I will find my niche at work and in my community, and in the end, hopefully leave Permet a better place than when I came.