Saturday, June 29, 2013

Counting the Small Successes

Counting the Small Successes 

For a TEFL (English teacher) volunteer, the 1st couple months at site are not necessarily about the successes you have in the work place. Because it is Summer, and we are out of school, the 1st months are really dedicated to settling into your community. Today's blog is a reflection on how I've been doing settling in, and it really focuses on what I've done well..because this is my blog and that is what I want to talk about :) You may find some of the things I consider "a success" to be funny, but I guess it's all a matter of perspective. When you are far away from home in a developing country, surrounded by people who don't speak your native language, you really have to find different ways to look at yourself and what you are doing. Let go of a grading scale or resume, or even what tangible things you accomplish day by day and step into my little PC Albania world.

Keeping in contact with friends and family - definitely a success. It keeps me sane, and helps me establish a routine

Working out every day - Maintaining my health, keeping me sane, and also part of my routine (routine, routine, routine--can you tell I was a gymnast?)

Pushing myself to start speaking and listening to shqip when more than 1 Albanian person is present -- SO difficult, but I am hanging in there. Go me!

Forming better and more personal relationships with my family -- Flavio finally speaks to me and respects me more, my host mom really adores me, my dad respects me, and my sisters and I have finally found some common ground.

I have curtains for my bedroom! No more school students watching me do Yoga in my underwear! :)

I go hiking almost daily to get fresh water from the mountains.

Started showing people gymnastics videos so they could learn more about the life I came from

My host fam described me to Peace Corps as being extremely low maintenance, polite, and kind..their biggest worry for me moving out was my safety and if I would still come to my sister's wedding in September

Working with Peace Corps, my host fam, and the community to get another apartment! -- I believe I am almost there. I am going to look at one today, and my fingers are crossed.

Walking around my community, and having a lot of people say "hi"to me and call me by my name! -- So exciting. The community knows and likes me.

Yesterday my 19 year old sister was crying because some wedding plans went wrong. I was able to say to her in shqip "Wedding planning is crazy in every country. I understand" and she and the rest of the family all started smiling and laughing 

Now that I've patted myself on the back for minor things that make me feel awesome, I think I should share with you loyal readers, that I have been somewhat of a complaining bitch throughout this month. While I like to sit behind this blog, presenting myself as optimistic and stoic, I really have been just a stressed out, whiny girl, constantly searching for ways to get out of this situation. You should've seen me the day my host fam used up all my conditioner and hid my razor <-- PISSED. Or the time they tried to set me up on a date<--Ultra mega pissed. I complained to just about everyone I knew..other volunteers, PC Staff, friends and family back home, my counterpart etc. Everyone was really supportive, so thanks for that (Another success! hah). It helped me. It helped me to see that people care about me, and that things get better.  There were days where I stayed in my room for the entire day and pouted, and there were days when I went to neighbors houses and got coffee with new friends. I have formed relationships with various shop owners and cousins (everyone in Milot is a cousin of a cousin--I am not quite sure how they find people to marry here). I guess what I am saying is that I have had ups and downs, as everyone does in life. My time here just feels magnified. 

The cool thing is that I am doing it. I am here. I am present in Albania as a Peace Corps volunteer. I am surrounded by a culture that is not of my own, and I am slowly but surely sharing my life with a new community. 

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Comfort VS Integration

American Girl Problems

Integration. Integration is a funny thing. When representing yourself as an American PCV, how strongly do you hold onto your American ways of living VS adapting to a new way of life? How much of your personal comfort should be sacrificed to make host country nationals like you more?

Living with a host family forces me to face these problems every day.

American Girl Problems: 
1) The curtains in my room are see through and my window faces the school yard.
2) I have thought I was going to coffee with my sister only to find out I've been tricked into having a date with a potential husband-to-be. The family had already set me up for a 2nd date at the beach the next day.. I obviously didn't go.
3) When nobody is home, they send one of my student's to come babysit me because they feel I would be too scared to stay home alone
4) I am expected to do their laundry and clean their dishes
5) They serve me goat head on the reg, but also call me a vegetarian
6) My host brother is allowed to drink straight from the bottles in the fridge. He is also allowed to treat me terribly, and my family just laughs when he gives me the finger
7) People touch me all the time, and people constantly come into my room. No privacy here
8) I am not allowed to have any male guests over

So some of these things are easier to fix than others, but the point of my blog today is to discuss the issue that keeps reoccurring in my Peace Corps life which is: When it comes to integrating, when do I put my foot down?

Peace Corps constantly reminds us that we agreed to be flexible and adaptable. We need to hold true to these commitments unless they affect our safety. Does doing other people's laundry affect my safety? No. It just pisses me off. Does eating brain compromise my health? I suppose it could, but probably not. My issues are not exactly things that are dangerous, they are more things that affect my level of comfort and sanity.

Also, I did not come here to be Albanian. I am an American. I don't marry someone after just meeting them. I am not scared of being alone in the house for a couple of hours. I like personal space. I like having the company of plutonic male friends. And I definitely do not like doing other people's laundry. 

It would be easy to say "Eff this S" and give them a piece of my mind, but then I would not be doing a good job of integrating. There are always 2 sides to a story. They probably think they're being sweet by treating me like a family member. I guess they think I'm good enough to marry one of their men..which is flattering in a weird way. They are trying to make me feel more comfortable by constantly sending people to check out me. What they don't realize is that I don't work like them.

If only I could smooth talk my way into explaining all this to them, but oh yeah.. we don't speak the same language! And trust me, Google Translate does not make that smooth of a translation. I can see it now, I type in: "Please knock before you come into my room because I am American, and I am used to this act of privacy." would translate to "Knock when in my room, before I am American and I use privately" ...confusing and useless.

I am currently searching for my own apartment, but I don't know that one will be available. Milot is a very small city, and everyone thinks it is very strange that an unmarried girl like me would want to live alone.

Summer in Milot is weird because everyone leaves to the nearest beach towns. It kind of turns into a ghost town. There is no school, so I do not have regular work. It is really hot, and I spend most of my time indoors in my room. The good news is, Milot has mountains in the back of the city, and I often hike there to find hidden little treasures. I also have formed relationships with various families and shop owners, and am starting to feel a part of the community. The boys in the city all know me as "The running girl from America" because I was running every night in the school yard (often with my host dad and my students). I currently am not running or hiking because I tripped over a giant rock while running. I didn't see it because it was pretty late and dark out. I think it's just a sprain so hopefully some RICE will get me back out there in 2 weeks. 

Some things I am looking forward to:
-Launching my Youth Center project --I've started the ground work for the grant
-My ankle getting better so I can keep running with my students and make Miranda's Milot Running club a big thing--It's good for the community to get out of their houses, spend time together, and exercise! 
-4th of July! --so I can see my awesome volunteer friends
-Next week--the results of the election in Albania
-Camp in Shkoder!

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Wrapping up PST and my first days as a volunteer!

Hey guys, I'm sorry I haven't written for a while. I've been crazy busy, but I have a lot of good stuff to fill you in on! Today's categories are: 1) Counterpart (CP) Conference 2) My life in Milot 3) Escape to Tirana 4) Birthday! 5) End of PST and Swearing in Ceremony 6) Where I am now and RPB

1) CP conference
We went to Durres and stayed at this amazing hotel resort called the Tropikal. It was an interesting moment because we all met our co-worker for the next 2 years. It was a gamble with some CP's being old, some young, some with a lot of experience, some with none, some who spoke english, and some who didn't. My CP is a lovely girl named Elsona. She is 21 years old (by far the youngest Cap), and a student at the Tirana University. she stays in Tirana, but works in Milot, and she is very welcoming and kind! We get along great, and we are already friends. During the conference we had a session on how to work with our CP's, which I found to be useful, and a good way to better bond with our new CPs.

2) My life in Milot
I live with a host family right next to the school. When I say right next to the school I mean...I open the gate from my house, step forward, and I'm at the high school (gjimnazi). The location is great, and the family is really nice. However, I definitely feel a lack of privacy, and I took over my new host brother's room so he hates me. When I say he hates me, I mean he locked me out of my room, threw my bags out the door, and gave me the finger! He also licked the top of the bottle we were drinking from when only I was looking just to spite me (charming little guy). However, I understand that he is only 10, and I stole his room so I understand the animosity. My new sister's are 19 and 21. They are both getting married very soon. The 19 year old will marry a 28 year old, and the 21 year old will marry a 33 year old whom she decided to marry after only 2 hours--after being introduced by an uncle. He lives in New Jersey so she will be moving soon :(. She is the only one in the house who speak a little English. 
     Milot is very small; it's pretty much one street. Everyone there acts like they've never seen an American before, so they all like to come up and touch me. I get a lot of coffee invites which is nice, and it's a good way to get to know the community. Everyone is pretty much Catholic, and a lot of the residents go to the city over, LaƧ (pronounced "lotch"), for church.  I went with my family to check it out. English is the 2nd foreign language in Milot, so it is extremely difficult to find an english speaker... My shqip will be VERY good in 2 years! I have a lot of work to do there, but luckily my school director is very progressive and willing to work with me. One more thing about Milot: Women don't go out by themselves EVER. They don't xhiro (Albanian tradition to walk back and forth in the city center in the evenings) or go out in the open for coffees without the presence of a man.

3) Escape to Tirana
During my visit I got pretty sad. I was missing the other volunteers, and I was tired of not understand what anyone was saying. I felt like I didn't have any privacy, and I have to admit I was jealous of everyone else who got their own apartments, and who had their CPs there with them at their site. Luckily, my CP called me, and asked me to come stay with her for a night in Tirana. The next day I was there, and I got to see what Albanian University was like.  I went out for ice cream and milkshakes with her and her awesome roommates, and then got to stay in the dorms. It was a cool experience, and Tirana is an awesome city. It made me really happy to know I have a CP who cares about me, and a place to escape to when Milot gets to be too taxing.

4) Birthday! 
My birthday started the day before my actual birthday. I hitch-hiked to Pajove with Tyler, and we met some really awesome people on the way! When we got to Pajove, there was a cake waiting for me along with most of my favorite volunteers. We were also celebrating Josh's birthday and Paul and Susan's 10th anniversary. We went to the field and played games, but then I got stung by a bee. It occurred because  I was skipping through a grassy field with Kat to country music. Anyway, it was a great time. the next day I woke up to a table full of presents from my host family! They gave me a cake, a card, a perfume set, and a saucy shirt that was spandex, red, rhinestoned, and it had a cleavage slit. I of course sported the shirt for my party which was at one of the lokals. A bunch of volunteers, some Albanians, and one of my shqip teachers, came to my party and we danced for about 3 hours straight. At the end everyone sang this really funny birthday song to me, and zi took a shot of raki --disgusting. It was suchhh a fun birthday, and I am so grateful to everyone who was a part of it. I'm now 23!

5) End of PST and Swearing in Ceremony
Well it had to come eventually.. Our days as trainees came to an end. Most volunteers were really pumped to get to site, but I was a little bummed to be leaving everyone. A lot of people were psyched to start cooking for themselves and to have some privacy, but I couldn't help but feel like I was moving into the exact same circumstances as PST...minus having the company of other volunteers. Anyway, on a brighter note, I was ecstatic to finally have the honor of becoming an official PCV. I also was really excited because the teachers and Volunteers voted for me and another male volunteer, Mito, to do a speech in shqip at the swearing in ceremony. I was very excited, and it went really well :) The US ambassador was there as well as the mayor of Elbasan, all the Trainees, PC staff, and our host families. It was a great moment for me, and all of the volunteers! After the ceremony, we all began to say our goodbyes. It was a strange feeling.

6) Where I am now and RPB
Well, one would think I would be in Milot at my host family's house right now, but the thing is I am actually in Has with Kat. I went to Tirana with other volunteers going up North, and the night before I was supposed to leave for my site, I got a text from my host sister telling me not to come until wednesday the family wouldn't be in the house. Since I was with the group of Northies, they suggested I with them to their sites until Wednesday so I called PC staff and they said OK! I got the chance to see Bajram Curri and Has (A great opportunity)! I am waiting to hear from PC to see what will happen next, but I believe I will go to Tirana today, and then I will head to Burrel for a TEFL conference. After that PC will drive me to Milot so that they can help me with communication with my family and/or help me find some new housing. I have really enjoyed the chance to travel around Albania, but I would like to settle in to my new home and site. 
     I don't want to banter on too much today because this post was long and played a lo of catch up. I scored and Intermediate-High level in shqip on my language placement exam, and I was very happy about that, seeing as PC only required an Intermediate-Low. I realize now how important all the volunteers are to me. They are my friends, resources, and support system. I also have realized how important people back home are to me. It's easy to forget what home is when you're so far away, but being able to talk to friends and family keeps me connected with a very big piece of my life-- a piece that gives me a lot of peace of mind and makes me very happy :))