I admit I never wanted to come to eastern Europe.
After turning down a position in (subsuharan) Africa our recruiter said she could nominate us for an Eastern European country, but if we said no we shouldn't expect another offer. My heart sank. Europe? That's the last thing I wanted for my peace corps experience. I signed up to go live somewhere totally new and interesting, out in a lush tropical jungle or in the barren desert steps.
The peace corps website groups Eastern Europe and the Caucus region together; is she hinting that we would be in the Balkans, or would the Stans be included?
Chris and I went to the Phoenix public library and pulled out all of the country books they might send us to: Moldova,Macedonia, Georgia, Bulgaria, Romania, Albania, Kazakhstan, Kyrgistan, Ukraine, and Tajikistan. Kyrigistan boasts incredible beauty and isolated villages up in the mountains where the snow hovers 365 days per year (eek! send me to the jungle!). Georgia sounds quite interesting, though apparently a vigorous drinking culture which might be a little offputting. Ukraine was considerethe breadbasket of the communist block, that could be nice. However the one country that stood out as the most untouched and perhaps unpolluted by foreigners was Albania, the tiny once-communist outpost lodged between Italy and Greece. If we have to go anywhere in the region we hoped it would be there.
I remember landing at Tirane's tiny airport, approaching its green valley on a cold March day. The entire group of volunteers, 37 strangers I didn't know I would grow love, was bused to Elbasan and quickly herded into a large hotel at the city's edge (ahh Universe. You will forever hold a place in my heart.) I will never forget (and in case I do thank goodness I have this blog) taking a walk around town on that freezing, rainy day, hopelessly disappointed in my new foreign home. I could have been any run down American suburban neighborhood, perhaps in New Jersey- the buildings looked like normal concrete blocks, the fast food shops advertised pizza, there were portly white people wrapped in jeans and long winter coats bustling through the streets.
So much for indigenous shamans and birthing rituals.
Albania is very much a Balkan state, full of hot headed little Napoleans and women whose fashion sense is that of a prostitute. During the communist regime religious ideology was banned (unless your were worshipping the cult hero Enver Hoxha) and many of the ancient Byzantine churches and ottoman mosques were destroyed. While some buildings survived and a few have been restored, the real heart of people's faith has been thoroughly erradicated.
For a Muslim country it's a little odd that pork is practically the national dish. My host family was baffled when I asked them if they follow the five pillars of Islam, they had never heard of it. Being Muslim inside Albania means little more than perhaps what region you are from, or explains one's family name, which was surely changed during the Ottoman occupation. Albanians outside Albania (namely Kosovars and Macedonians) are far more devout Muslims; the women are more often covered and their mosques provide these Albanians a sense of community.
So two and a half years have passed since Chris and I moved to Albania. I've gained an incredible wealth of knowledge about this region's history, politics, culture, and modern life. I picked up the language (sounds very nonshalant but it was a lot of work!). I saw corruption. I still see corruption, and it's easier to pick it out everywhere, which makes me feel kind of jaded. I learned to eat and cook (and enjoy) new and previously off-limits foods (like plain yogurt and oily pastries). I even began to enjoy monotanous circle dancing!!
Ok so it's not what I expected, but I had an incredible experience in Shqiperia, and changed my opinion of Eastern Europe and the Balkans entirely. Along the way I found dozens of lifelong friends; leaving them is probably the most depressing part of finishing service.
And the people? I'm a believer that there are good and bad people everywhere. From a hitch hiker's viewpoint Albanians are the kindest and most generous people- eager to pick up a foreigner and even likely to take them for a coffee! Like many Peace Corps volunteers I too found a circle of amazing friends and neighbors, I think that's just how life works out. It's pretty hard to stay long in a small, close community without eventually finding people to love and care about. I was just lucky enough to find them in the Land of the Eagle.