Peace Corps has a three-part mission that has not changed since the organization was founded in 1961: To promote world peace and friendship by fulfilling three goals:
- To help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.
- To help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.
- To help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.
Within the Peace Corps there is a lot of focus on these three goals. In fact, “Three Goals” is a piece of Peace Corps lingo and our training included explicit conversation about the expectation that we will fulfill all three during our period of service. So, for example, this blog is more than just a way to stay in touch with friends and colleagues; it’s also a tool for fulfilling Goal #3. That’s why, thus far, I have used the blog as an opportunity to both learn more about Albania by researching particular topics and to present Albania and the Albanian way of life to Americans, many of whom have no idea where Albania is!*
*Side note: There is a marked (but unsurprising) asymmetry in the connection between Albanians and Americans. Albanians adore Americans because two American presidents – Woodrow Wilson and Bill Clinton – took action to help Albania when no one else would. Albania is trying to become part of the EU, but the fact is that there’s not much love lost between Albania and Europe, their hearts belong to America.
In contrast, Albania is scarcely on the radar of the vast majority of Americans. This is understandable given the country’s history of isolation and, more recently, the neutrality that keeps it out of the headlines (religious harmony, no terrorism, no egregious human rights violations, minimal impact from natural disasters, etc.). But, because Americans don’t know about Albania, they also don’t know that Albanians have a huge crush on them. They love to tell Americans how much they love Americans and, 100 years later, they still talk about how Woodrow Wilson saved the country. A couple of times, I have had elderly Albanians offer to pay my bus/furgon fare simply because I am an American.
But today, Sept. 15, 2015, is exactly six months since my Peace Corps cohort (aka “Group 18”) arrived in Albania and so I am going to depart from my usual Goal #3 approach and reflect more generally on what it’s like to be a Peace Corps volunteer….something I’ve been thinking a lot about over the last weeks.
First though, a digression…
When I was a kid there was a sapling tree next to my house that was having trouble staying vertical. My father tied a rope around the tree and nailed the rope to the side of the house. Because the tree was on the far side of the house — in the part of the yard no one used — we forgot about it and at some later point discovered that, as the tree had grown, it had “swallowed” the rope. The tree had grown around the rope so that the rope was now inside the trunk of the tree. More or less this is what happened:
At eight years old I heard about the Peace Corps for the first time. Something inside me triggered; I got a shot of adrenaline and every part of me felt (not thought), “wow…I want to do that.” I can’t remember if anyone ever asked me why the idea of the Peace Corps was so appealing, but if they had, I’m reasonably sure that my inexperienced, inarticulate eight-year-old self wouldn’t have been able to say much more than, “I don’t know…I just want to…it seems neat*.” I could feel the spark, but I didn’t have the language to describe or explain it and as I grew up, the spark became more and more deeply embedded in that youthful part of me. It became part of me, but without words to describe it.
*In 1962 we didn’t say “cool,” we said “neat.”
Are you seeing the connection?
When I was eight, the Peace Corps tied a rope around my psyche. And as I grew, my psyche grew around the Peace Corps rope until it was no longer visible and no longer separate – it was just part of who I was.
Fifty-one years later, when I applied to be in the Peace Corps, one of the essay questions (big surprise!) was “Give your reasons for wanting to serve as a Peace Corps Volunteer.” I found it nearly impossible to answer this question because although I could feel the Peace Corps dream embedded deep inside me, there were no words surrounding it that I could call on. I was pretty sure that “uh,…because it’s neat?” wasn’t going to cut it so I ended up responding to the essay prompt without actually answering the question! Instead, I backed into an answer by describing other things in my life that had been propelled by the same spark, thereby demonstrating that I was a Peace Corps-type of person without ever really describing what that was.
What It’s Like: Macro Level
Now, I am six months into my service and I find it similarly difficult to articulate what it’s like to be a Peace Corps volunteer. I can describe my daily life and/or work, I can tell you more than you ever wanted to know about Albania and/or Albanians, but I am hard-pressed to explain why I find this experience so deeply rewarding and so deeply moving. Nearly every day – in spite of whatever frustrations come my way – I feel privileged to be here. And I realize that the phrase “privileged to be here” is a cliché, except that it’s a sentiment that I never, ever use and it really does describe how I feel.
It’s been 25 years since Communism fell and Albanians are still waiting for the miracle to happen.
Albania is a country with a perpetual ache. It’s been nearly 25 years since Communism fell and Albanians are still waiting for the miracle to happen. Repression is gone, there are no more rations and lines, but for the masses, the dream is not yet a reality and, after 25 years, hope is beginning to wear thin. People live with a constant push-pull of optimism and pessimism. Students believe that education will help them even as they are painfully aware that there are no jobs. My Albanian colleagues at USAID stay in this country and persist at trying to change the system at a foundational level but are honest that they are not sure it’s possible. People see progress and want to believe the country is digging itself out of its hole, but also know that corruption – the ultimate corrosive – is rampant.
And all of this is what makes the work so moving. I feel the ache and I want to help; I have the capacities needed to enable change, but I don’t know if the change will come. I feel the frustrations of pushing against systems that can’t get out of their own way. And all the time I am aware that the words “American” and “Peace Corps Volunteer” engender hope that may never be fulfilled. I think what I mean when I say “it’s a privilege to be here” is that being a Peace Corps Volunteer is both an opportunity and a responsibility and that it’s important to take the responsibility seriously.
What It’s Like: Micro Level
So, that’s that it’s like to be a PCV at the macro level. Here’s what it’s like at the micro level:
Surreal – About every seven to 10 days, in the middle of doing something, I am suddenly filled with amazement that I am living here in the Balkans (of all places) and yet it simply feels like regular life. It’s a surreal, “how did I get here?”, almost out-of-body moment. Usually it happens in a routine, everyday context – like walking home late on a summer evening or browsing the vegetable stands to see if I can find some ever-elusive celery. It’s a moment of realizing that the new normal is sort of becoming the normal normal.
Tiring #1 – Living in Albania is exhausting because — even six months in — daily life still requires considerable effort. For example, making conversation involves so much work that by the end of the day my brain hurts at just the thought of speaking/listening in a foreign language.
Deciding what to cook is often similarly effortful: what substitutions do I need to make because not all ingredients are available or in season? By the time I come home from work will the vegetable stands be sold out of key ingredients I need to buy? The meat store in my neighborhood doesn’t sell chicken and the store that does sell chicken is of suspect quality, so do I need to go to a different neighborhood to buy chicken? I can’t use the burners on top of the stove at the same time that I use the oven so how do I need to adapt accordingly?
Tiring #2 – Paradoxically, life in Albania is also exhausting because the sameness – the lack of variety – wears on me and saps my energy. The Albanian diet lacks not only variety but also imagination; people eat the same few dishes over and over again (pilaf, qofte (meat patties), byrek (filo pies), spec (stuffed peppers)) and it’s all pretty bland. When I was in training (i.e., before I could cook for myself), the sameness became greyness and mealtime seemed like more of a burden than a joy. Now, I cook for myself but there are times when I’m coming home after a long day or a weekend away and I’m tired and I simply want to eat out. In my head, I review the options and they all seem so dull, so unenjoyable, that it’s preferable – even though I’m tired – to go home and make dinner myself.
Another example: Albanians engage in a lot of ritualized greeting and leave-taking. There is a whole little script that goes on – in stores, at work, in restaurants, on the street – an entire set of questions and answers that are pre-programmed: “Good morning….how are you?…Good?…What’s new?…Good?….Are you tired?….Did you sleep well?” I’m not sure why I find it wearying, but I do.
Frustrating – I’m grateful to have a washing machine but how do I pick a laundry detergent when all of the boxes and bottles in the store are in Italian/German/Greek and I don’t know what the words mean and none of the employees have a clue?
Perhaps most frustrating: Albanians are exceedingly friendly and helpful and one of the manifestations of their friendly helpfulness is their tendency to finish other people’s sentences. Imagine that you are making casual conversation with a neighbor. You’ve just returned from a weekend away and they ask where you’ve been. You are attempting to tell them – in Shqip — about your trip. You are partway through a sentence, struggling — really concentrating — and your Albanian neighbor finishes the sentence for you, but [buzzer sound] that wasn’t what you were trying to say! Now you need to try again but they’ve broken your concentration, which means you need to try even harder to find the words. They see that you are trying hard and they want to help so they finish your sentence again, but [buzzer sound] its still not what you were trying to say! You get the idea.
Isolating – I’m actually less lonely here than I was in the U.S. thanks to the socializing that goes on among Peace Corps Volunteers. But, there’s a thread of isolation that I feel living and working with people who are so culturally different than Americans. Albanians love Americans, but they don’t necessarily “get” them — the subtexts are different. As a result, I feel a constant sense that I am being misunderstood and that I don’t belong.
Perplexing – A recurring theme for me is “to be or not to be?”…as in “to be or not to be an American?” This is another push-pull struggle. On the one hand it’s important to be respectful and open to Albanian culture; we are not here as American imperialists! On the other hand, we are here to help Albanians realize their dreams for their country and part of that is developing more functional systems and approaches. There are moments when it’s so hard to know how honest to be or how hard to push a point.
Saving the Best for Last
And now I’ll tell you the best part about being a Peace Corps Volunteer: the other volunteers. Once again I am hard-pressed to find words that do justice to what I feel for my fellow volunteers and once again, I feel privileged to find myself among them.
Peace Corps Volunteers have a spark. They are engaged — propelled from within to make things happen. They have a restless energy that goes way beyond “I want to help others.” They are do-ers and care-ers. They are solve-ers, constantly scanning the horizon for solutions and improvements. They are driven to make a difference in some way, shape or form. They like to do things well.
I didn’t realize that much of my success as a volunteer will result from the skills, knowledge, talents and generous spirits of my peers
Peace Corps volunteers are incredibly eclectic. There’s all the types of diversity you’d expect: differences in race, age, ethnicity, orientation, geographic background, socio-economics, religion and even height. Then there’s the types of diversity that make our group richly textured: sci-fi fans, students of meditation, heavy metal aficionados, cooks who are actually chefs, die-hard sports fans, classically trained musicians, frat boys, nth-degree introverts, fine artists, country music lovers, people in recovery, readers of the NY Review of Books, party people, sensitive souls, and Type A personalities. And, finally, there’s the types of diversity that make Peace Corps Albania volunteers – as a group – a massive, endlessly capable organism: different types of intelligences, different types of creativity, different technical skills, different media habits and news feeds, different world views, training in different disciplines. Thanks to this diversity, I can pick up the phone, call a fellow volunteer and suddenly have capabilities I don’t actually possess. I didn’t realize before I got here that much of my success as a volunteer will result from the skills, knowledge, talents and generous spirits of my peers.
A couple of times I have found myself engaged in conversation with a group of volunteers and I have had the sort of out-of-body experience I mentioned before. The conversation starts with people catching up about how they are and what they’ve been doing. And then at some point the conversation shifts and people are talking about the problems of Albania, the structural issues that contribute to the problems, the dysfunctional systems that impede solving the problems, and the mistaken beliefs that make it hard to implement solutions. And, finally, the conversation shifts again and people are coming up with ideas and trying to figure out initiatives that we can undertake to address the issues and it’s at this point that I find myself both participating in the conversation and also sitting at a different vantage point, watching what’s going on and thinking, “listen to us…listen to the energy, the enthusiasm, the intelligence, the heart, the commitment” and I realize that I am part of a tribe of like-spirited people and I am so, so lucky.