When I applied to the Peace Corps I envisioned living in a straw hut or yurt, and having to walk to a well to collect water. After arriving in Albania I began expecting to live in a large concrete apartment bloc surrounded by trash. Now, however, I am almost slightly embarrassed to report that for our next two years of Peace Corps service we are renting a considerably posh house situated here in the Old Quarter of Gjirokaster. I write that because I feel like PCVs should be regarded with some level of pity and respect, this is the hard life after all, right? We’re supposed to live without the developed world’s modern luxuries and, well, suffer. And it takes a lot of sacrifice to leave family and friends for so long, work in unfamiliar and sometimes frustrating environments, and not even be financially compensated like every single other work-abroad occupation. I personally have seen and discussed with fellow volunteers that we (grown adults mind you) sometimes cry ourselves to sleep at night-- an unfriendly little side effect of loneliness, discomfort, perhaps regret, and a hundred other unsuspecting yet compoundable reasons. To deal with this stress, a lot of volunteers use alcohol for consolation and to shut off their minds. Others focus all their energy on comfort foods—god forbid someone mentions a restaurant from back home, causing our mouths to water as we excitedly reminisce the multitude of flavors and textures and endless imported goods we are so used to. During my travels I love experiencing local culinary traditions, but I’m always selfishly smug inside because I know that back home I can sample different flavors from around the world at each meal. On the other hand, I often hear volunteers craving “authentically American” foods like boxed macaroni and cheese, or Taco Bell sauce, or even Hamburger Helper! Some people say they would give in to a McDonald’s burger or Starbucks latte, even though back home they would never have stepped foot inside. Anyway, this entry isn’t about volunteers! It’s about our new home!
We’re renting from an Albanian family whose children live in the US. The house is split in two; their half contains a rentable guestroom that is decorated with traditional Albanian woodwork, furniture, and handicrafts, and in between our areas sits a large American-style living room, with imported furniture and a giant TV. Upon entering our half of the house, there is a small sitting room that we will convert to an office (our landlady offered us a desk), with our bedroom just beyond a set of double doors. To the left is the washing machine (OMG what? Is this Peace Corps?) and a remodeled bathroom (with a bidet!), then further down the hall is the TV/ dining room and kitchen. We’ve got a balcony to hang our drying laundry, which overlooks the front courtyard, full of pretty flowers and plants, and also covered in grape vines that currently dangle hundreds of clusters of green marbles. [I am über-excited for the harvest in August!] Our place isn’t as big as the house on top of the hill (where our sitemate Greg is living), but it’s cute and I think will be easier to heat in the winter. Plus it’s super clean and has a washer! I am stoked—washing clothes by hand is not my forte (Chris can attest that no matter how much I scrubbed my clothes they remained perpetually stinky in Asia). So beyond power- and water -shortages, and the inability to escape harsh weather, we really can’t complain, though I do get homesick and culturally stressed occasionally. ;)
We arrived at the house late Sunday night, after a 4 hour ride in Sedi’s car (Tara’s counterpart). He was returning from Tiranё and offered to let us pile in, though we didn’t foresee the imbalance between trunk space and our luggage… However, due to some miracle we were able to squish in and cram bags under and over ourselves (and tied to the roof), and thanks to his driving we made it in record time.
As for work, this week we began service at our offices—on Monday morning I walked down the hill to the Directory of Public Health and spent the day meeting new colleagues and touring different office buildings. I think I will be split up between projects with my counterpart in the Directory and with a young woman who works in the Health Promotion and Education sector. Her job, from what I have been told, is to go into various schools and centers and deliver health education lessons. I am very happy to hear this because really the only thing we trained for in our previous villages was to implement more creative lessons for children with nurses… So I feel at least a little prepared to offer some assistance, and she’s about my age so once we get through the language barrier I hope we can be friends. There are a lot of women who work in the directory, all very excited to hear me speak and to teach them English soon. My counterpart wants me to deliver English language lessons of medical terms to the nurses in the hospitals starting in August, I presume so that if they want to attend trainings internationally (if that’s even possible, Albanians are super restricted on their movement) or read medical journals they might be able to comprehend more. We’ll see.
Oh and I forgot to mention that we had a going-away party with our host-family, the Çepa’s, on Saturday night. Our cousins and aunt and uncle came over for a feast and then we went upstairs to circle dance. After they left Chris and I gave them some gifts we had brought from America while we planned some visits we will make soon and promised to text each other. We really bonded as a family, and they have been extremely generous—some volunteers’ families won’t feed them and sometimes steal from their luggage—so we are super lucky. I will miss them. But I am definitely happy to be here in Gjirokaster now.
Today I woke up feeling sick, so I am going to force myself to go rest in bed. I hate feeling unproductive in the daylight, but I better get used to the slooooow life.
Oh yes, and PS—I am going to take my host-family’s advice and use the bidet as a foot washer!