Saturday, December 31, 2011

ETing One Year Later

It has been over a year since I left Albania. I now feel like I can write on my experience and decision to ET (Early Termination) from the Peace Corps. It was not an easy decision and there are some things I would do differently if I would do it again. It was the hardest thing I have ever done, but something that I needed to do.

My time in Albania was filled with some of the happiest moments of my life and some of the lowest moments. Sometimes I felt like I was bi-polar because my feelings could change so suddenly. I knew going into it it was going to be a hard job and I would feel down and their would be times when I felt useless, but I just didn’t expect how often I would feel that way. Feeling useless is not an easy thing when you go to a different country with the hopes of making a difference in a community. I went with these expectations, which I admit were high, but are also hard not to form. Eastern Europe is a hard assignment. You aren’t digging wells and tangibly changing and improving the life of a community. Your accomplishments are small and are on an individual level, which is hard to see while you are there. I see now that I did make an impact.

I would go to work each day and, occasionally, I would get to teach, but most days I would just sit and observe due to the fact that my counterpart didn’t want to let go of her classes. She was an excellent teacher, but I wanted to try and help contribute to the lessons and appeal to different learning styles. I wanted to help her learn how to lesson plan, but we could never find time because she was so busy. I do not blame her for how I felt, though. I now see that there were things that I should have tried harder to do, such as appealing more to her schedule, like going to her apartment and working with her while she cleaned or even going and trying to work more with the 9-vjecare (elementary school). I tried to come up with projects, but couldn’t get them off the ground. My director (principal) at the school changed a couple times, which made it difficult to get a good footing. Most days, I sat for six hours in class and then went home and sat some more. I was bored and felt really guilty about it.

Not feeling like you are doing much in your job is one thing, but when it starts to mix with the difficulty of cultural differences it begins to be hard. Every time I would exit my apartment I would hear lewd comments geared toward me because of my sex. I would go into cafes and everyone would stare at me, because it usually was only men. I could ignore these things if I felt like I was accomplishing something, but once again I felt useless.

It began to get to the point that I was happier when I left my site than when I was in it. I tried to leave more often, but then it just made going back even harder. I started crying all the time. I started wishing that if I just stepped of the curb wrong I would hurt my ankle and the Peace Corps would have to send me home. Then I wouldn’t have to make the hard decision to leave. It was right around then, when I began dreaming of hurting myself, that I knew I was not healthy and I needed to change something.

I began to consider ETing. I talked with the medical officer, who was very helpful and listened. I discussed it with my family and other PCVs. Once I made the decision, I waited a month to make sure that it was the right one. I felt like I was doing everything, but if I was honest with myself there were several things I could have done to try to improve life. I wish I had discussed my feelings more with the PC staff. I wish I had asked if I could get a site relocation. I wish I had even reached out more to the families in the community I was close to. It was for these reasons that I felt like a failure and guilty for ETing and not (completely) the fact that I left early. If I would have tried all of those things and still felt the same way I would have come to the same decision and maybe without the guilt and feeling of failure.

I realize now that I was not a failure and do not have a reason to feel guilty. It was a learning experience. I learned to look at all possible solutions before taking drastic action. I learned that sometimes the hardest decision is the right one and to not be afraid to make it. I learned that I am a lot stronger than I ever thought I was and that sometimes just by smiling at someone you are making a difference and helping someone else have a better day.

Even though I left the Peace Corps, I still consider it the best experience of my life and would recommend it to anyone. I learned more about myself and other people than I would have learned in ten years doing something else. It may not have been easy and had many low points, but I will always look back on my experience with fondness and will never forget the amazing people I met and the lessons I learned.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

My Wood for the Winter

This past week I also received my wood for the winter. I will be heating my house with a wood stove. It will replace my regular stove for the winter and I will have to learn to cook with a wood stove. I imagine that there will be several burnt meals, before I figure out the proper way of using it. I had help from several of the kids in town to move my wood from outside next to my apartment building to my balcony in my apartment. They were hard workers and I really appreciated their help. We were able to get all of my wood up over the course of the week. We would work for about two hours a day. It is now all in apartment waiting to be used this winter.

School in Fushe-Arrez

On September 6th, I had my first day of teaching. Since then I have actually only taught 5 days, due to illness and having to go down to Tirana for a day. I will try and give you the idea of what a typical day is like so far.

I get to school a bit before 8am. I enter the school and talk with the teachers while we wait for the 8am bell to ring allowing the students, who are waiting outside in the courtyard in front of the school, to come in and go to their classroom. Here in Albania the students stay in the same classroom all day and the teachers move from room to room each period. After the students get to their classroom, Valbona, my Albanian counterpart, and I head to our first class of the day. We enter the classroom, which is about 5 degrees warmer than in the hallway due to all the students and the direct sunlight coming in from the windows. We do not turn on the lights in the classroom or anywhere in the school for that matter and just use the natural light from the windows. The room is very bare. The walls are painted white on the top and green on the bottom, there might be a couple posters on the walls and there is a blackboard at the front of the class. Sometimes it is a regular slate blackboard as the ones we are used to in the States, but other times it is just a black rectangle that is painted on the concrete wall. There are three rows of desks in front of us, where there are between 25-40 students facing us. There are two to three students to a desk.

Valbona starts by taking attendance and then reviews the homework, while I stand in the front or head to the back of the class to give some support in keeping the class in order. We then begin teaching the lessons. Valbona and I usually split up the lesson, where I do the reading and she write on the board or vise versa. She always does the grammar lesson, which is fine by me. I have to read very slowly, so the students can understand me. Most of the students have ony heard British English, as that is the kind of English that is taught in Albania and throughout most of Europe. Few of students have heard someone with an American accent speak. This difference in English has caused a few complications, such as when I write on the board the words that they don’t understand from the readings, since I spell things the American way. For example I spelt “realized” on the board and a student was really confused and asked Valbona why I spelled it with a “z.” They had learned to spell it, “realised.” This has caused some difficulties, but It is good for the students. Despite the fact that when I teach, we don’t get through everything, since I have to go so slow, Valbona is happy that I can provide the students with the opportunity to listen to a native speaker. When the bell rings to signal the end of class we leave and head to our next class.

There are 6 class periods in the day, with a 40 minute break after 3rd period. Valbona and I usually teach 5 periods in the day and during our off period we go and have a coffee. The day goes from 8am to 1:15pm.

In the afternoons, I have been planning my own lessons or I have relaxing. Valbona goes and teaches at the private English language school in town. She is very busy giving courses, which accounts for the great English I hear from the students who live in the town proper of Fushe-Arrez. She is a great teacher, which makes my job a bit easier.

My First Couch Surfer

Kumar and I had our first Couch Surfer a couple weeks ago. Simone was in his early 20s from Milan, Italy and he ended up staying for three days. I should probably explain couch surfing to those of you who have never heard of it. It is a website that you sign up on, it is free, but they request donations if you can afford to give. You make a profile and you friend people (much the same as with Facebook). You write references for your friends and those who surf your couch. You then can search for people who might live in the city you want to go to and see if they are willing to put you up for a night at their house. I always check the person’s references before accepting them into my apartment. It works really well here in Albania, because most of the couches are of Peace Corps volunteers and I can really trust what they have to say. And so this is how I came to accept Simone to come and stay in Fushe-Arrez. He ended up staying at Kumar’s house, as I did not want to harm my reputation here in town by having a boy stay with me. It was a fun few days. Simone cooked diner for us one night and we showed him what life is like in a small Albanian town. We went to a soccer game in town at our new soccer field and watched Kumar play. It was a great experience where we learned a lot about different cultures. Hopefully, someone else will want to make the trek out to Fushe-Arrez sometime soon.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

My Birthday

My first birthday in Albania just passed. It turned into a two-day event and was a whole lot of fun. On my actual birthday, my friend Alicia came to visit me. We had a laid back day, where we wandered around town and had a couple coffees. That evening, we went to go watch a soccer game at the new caged soccer field in town. It is a beautiful synthetic field. This game was going to be a very special game to see because the girls in town decided that they were going to play. It was a first and I was so excited to see Albanian women breaking the stereotypes and breaking through the invisible glass ceiling, which stipulates that women do not play soccer. When we arrived to watch, however, several of the girls got cold feet and decided they didn’t want to play. So the remaining girls were trying to figure out how to get enough people in order to play the game. They allowed some boys in the game, but they really wanted girls, so they came and asked Alicia and me. I was completely unprepared, but said ok anyway. I was wearing a skirt and flip-flops (not quite the proper attire for playing a game of soccer). They put me in the goal, so I wouldn’t have to worry too much about my skirt flying up. I then kicked off my sandals and entered the game. It was so much fun! My team ended up winning. I saved every goal that was shot at my goal that was airborne. The three shots that remained on the ground, I missed (I need some help with my foot-eye coordination). It was a great game. There was a large crowed watching, who cheered for all of the women playing. I hope that it will be all women in the game next time and that this will become a regular game.

The next day, Fushe-Arrez was flooded with Americans. Two volunteers from Shkoder, three volunteers from Puke, and two volunteers from the south, plus one of Kumar’s friends from Istanbul, came to visit and celebrate. Kumar dug a fire-pit in his front yard and made some make shift benches. We roasted chicken and potatoes in the fire and then had watermelon, tomatoes, cucumbers, bread, and most importantly brownies for dinner. It was delicious. We passed the American football and had a truly American birthday cookout. It was fantastic.

As I am talking about my American birthday, I feel that it is necessary to explain some differences between how Americans and Albanians celebrate. Unless Albanians throw a surprise party, the person whose birthday it is has to throw the party and pay for everyone who comes. If they invite people to coffee or lunch, they are expected to pay for everyone there. It is basically the complete opposite idea of how Americans celebrate. Some volunteers have had a big surprise when they have invited everyone to lunch because it was their birthday and then they had to pay for everyone’s lunch.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Pets in Albania

After taking Abby, my cat, to the vet yesterday, I thought I would write some about pets in Albania. First, pets are a relatively new phenomena in Albania. Most Albanians so not have pets and if they do it will never be allowed to enter their house. Few pets even have names. Since the fall of communism and the increased presence of western culture, more Albanians are starting to have pets, but many still think it is crazy that I have a cat. Pet stores have been springing up all over Albania in the last few years. One thing though, is that pet stores do not know quite how to sell the pets and how to hand them over to their new owners. Many pet stores will hand you your new pet in a plastic grocery bag. When a volunteer, here asked for a box instead of a bag the owner thought he was crazy and being difficult. He finally found a box and put two holes in it and then handed it to the volunteer with a perplexed look on it.

As pets are new in Albania, so are veterinarians. You can find them throughout Albania, but knowing if they truly know everything about animals is difficult. For more precise treatments, one usually goes to Tirana, where the vets are the best. So, this brings me to my story.

I learned that my kitten Abby worms. I needed to take her to the vet, so she could be looked at and treated. I tried to find a vet in Shkoder, but the only one I heard of almost killed a cat because they gave the wrong dosage to the cat. So, I opted for Tirana. That involved a 4½-hour bus ride there and another one back. Luckily I can do that in one day if I leave on the 5am bus. I, also, needed something to carry Abby in. I couldn’t find anything, but large cases or birdcages, so I put holes in a cardboard box and put Abby in it. I had to text the vet when I arrived and he came and picked me up. We walked to his office. This office consisted of one room, with a curtain that could act as a divider if they chose to close it. I put Abby in her box on the table, which was covered in rubber. All of the pills and utensils were on shelves at the back of the room. The fridge with the temperature specific drugs was an old white dorm room size fridge. The walls of the office were a dirty yellow. There were two pit bulls in the waiting section with their owners. It was a very interesting office. I wanted to get Abby fixed as well, but here in Albania, they go by age and not weight for deciding if a cat can be spayed. So, I have to wait until she is at least 9 months old, before I can do that. The doctor gave her the shot and a deworming pill and gave me some shampoo for her. And that was the end of our visit. It lasted all of 3 minutes.

Afterwards I went to a restaurant (and yes, they allowed me in the restaurant despite having a cat with me) and waited until I could go and catch the 12pm bus back to Fushe-Arrez.

Having a pet in Albania takes a lot of work. I have to go to Shkoder or Tirana to get litter and food. I have learned more about cats in the last three months than I learned in all of my previous life.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

A Fun and Sad weekend

This past weekend was a mix of enjoyment and sadness. I will begin with fun part, because I guess that is what came first, although only barely. I went Shkoder this weekend. It is a city on the coast in northern Albania. It is only a 2-3 hour furgon ride from Fushe-Arrez. I was visiting three of the volunteers there, Tiffany and Terry, and Jessie. We spent most of the day trying to stay cool. It was crazy hot there and we sought out the cafes that had air conditioning. In the evening we went to the Miss Earth Albania show. The winner would go to the international competition in Vietnam sometime later this year. The pageant was great, even if by the end it was a bit boring. There were 27 contestants, most of them in their teens or early twenties. It started with a bathing suit competition. It was pretty similar to the American beauty pageants at this point. Then they had the evening gown competition and that was also very similar to the American version (except the dresses were a bit shorter). Then came the first surprise, they put back on the bathing suit tops, but with daisy-duke shorts and a sequined cowboy hat. After that they had a talent portion, in which only three contestants performed (no one is sure why). They all sang and only the last one was a pretty good singer. The second one sang, “We’re all in this Together” from High School Musical. It was fantastic. She might not of had the best voice, but she did have good stage presence. They finished the night with a wedding dress competition. It was incredible. It just completely solidified that this pageant was in Albania. Being asked about marriage is brought up just about every time I meet anybody here. And the wedding dress competition was a great end and just seemed so fitting for Albania.

The next day, Kumar bought a rabbit for a pet and we headed back to Fushe-Arrez. This is where the sad part of my story comes in. On Saturday only about an hour or two after arriving in Shkoder Kumar and I get a call from the PC office making sure that we are ok. They inform us that there was a massive bus accident in Gjegjan village (only about 15 km from FA). The bus was headed to FA from Durres. When we were Shkoder we didn’t know much, we did notice that it was on the front of every newspaper the next day. We saw the causality count and knew that it was bad, but I felt distance from it until we arrived in Fushe-Arrez on Sunday. It was very sad. Everyone was depressed. When we arrived the head of parliament was there visiting families. Prime Minister Sali Berisha had visited earlier in the day. And yesterday President Topi visited the families. Most of the causalities were from the village, but there was one family that was hit hard in Fushe-Arrez. One of the girls I know from camp and she is now in a coma. It is extremely sad. I ask for everyone’s prayers and thoughts. It is a very difficult time in our town and only time will heal. I did hear that as of today the girl showed some minor signs of improvement, but she is still in critical condition.

I am sorry to leave this entry on such a sad note, but that is where we are now. I am still doing camp and the kids are still loads fun. I went swimming today and played some cards with several of the kids. I taught some more English words to Teacher Bardhe. I hope everyone at home is doing well! I will write more soon.