While I was waiting for a permanent living situation, I worked at US AID and explored Tirana, trying to learn my way around a city that’s not built on a grid. About a week later, Peace Corps identified a furnished, relatively spacious, one-bedroom apartment about 20 minutes from work (and about 10 minutes from the Peace Corps office). The apartment — a fifth-floor walkup — is in a stable residential neighborhood of Communist-era buildings (an apartment building is a pallat while the apartment itself is an apartment) and is fully furnished, with heat in the main room, and with amenities that aren’t always part of Peace Corps housing (upgraded kitchen and bathroom, lots of built-in drawers and cabinets, an oven and a TV). And, a bonus: the landlord doesn’t speak English but his daughter, who also lives in the neighborhood, has a PhD in English translation and (simultaneous) interpretation and speaks absolutely perfect English.
At the two-week point I moved into the apartment. I am now at the five-week point and am finally feeling settled. During the last few weeks there were problems that needed to be fixed (oven didn’t work*, drawers were falling out, windows wouldn’t close), plus I needed to buy dishes, pots, containers, hangers, clothespins, sheets, and so on and needed someone with a car to take me to the low-price, large-selection shopping mall just outside of town. Then, about a week ago, just as things were starting to come together, I developed a horrible rash on my legs from sitting on my living room rug to sort through a bunch of items. I have no idea what toxic chemical was on the rug, but I ended up with a case of contact dermatitis that, within a matter of days, spread all over my legs and feet and caused swelling and truly disgusting purple lesions. I am now finishing up a round of steroids and things are much better, but the episode, which included doctor visits and lots of cold showers, were an unwelcome distraction.
* It appears that, in Tirana, the oven repairman doesn’t come to the house. Rather, the landlord comes to the apartment, removes the stove (which means carrying it down five flights of stairs), takes it to the repair shop and then brings it back, carries it upstairs and re-installs it.
Some pictures of my apartment follow below. You will, I’m sure, be surprised to see that I have WiFi, an air conditioner, a washing machine and other amenities one doesn’t normally associate with the Peace Corps. In the Peace Corps, countries-of-service like Albania and sites like Tirana are sometimes referred to as the “Posh Corps” because they don’t conform to the to the common perception that Peace Corps service means a mud (or grass) hut somewhere in Africa. I won’t deny that I am very, very fortunate to have ended up with a “Posh Corps” posting but it’s important to remember that there is more to the story. The most obvious example is that Albanian winters are long, cold and damp and I live in an uninsulated apartment with only one heated room, windows that don’t seal, an unheated bathroom, tile floors and extremely expensive electric heat. A less obvious example is that I have a five-day-a week job in an office where I am expected to dress professionally, so I need to shower regularly and wear clean, well-maintained clothes.