OMG, Let’s Take a #Selfie

We live in the age of technological exploration. Facebook, social media, and Internet usage is seen across all areas of the world, including many 2nd and 3rd world countries where Peace Corps volunteers serve. A lot of people have smart phones from which they can access the Internet, post statuses and photos, and share information instantly. We’ve moved away from interactions in person and much of our daily communication is being done over the web. People have work meetings over Skype or Google chat, you can network via LinkedIn, and you can even find a date without ever having to actually speak with someone in person. Some people have completely separate lives being lived out solely through the Internet.

Being able to snap a photo and immediately post it online for others to view has completely revolutionized our lives in an interesting way. Often times we are all so obsessed with getting a good picture, rather than actually just experiencing situations for what they are. Some people see this as a bad thing because we are so connected to the gratification of sharing our lives online for others to see, rather than actually experiencing these situations for what they are. Others see this as a good thing because it allows them to stay connected to people despite our busy, conflicting schedules.

This obsession with media, sharing our lives, and taking photos has led to an epidemic. The Selfie Epidemic. For those of you who do not know what a selfie is, a selfie is the common expression used for taking a picture of yourself. There are more photos taken every two minutes across the world, than were taken during the entire 18th century. I certainly can’t deny that I am among those who love to capture a cute photo and share my funny life stories online for everyone to admire. Yes, I use the term admire because, let’s face it, my life is super intriguing (hope you’re picking up on the sarcastic undertone).

Most Albanians I know love selfies. I wouldn’t be surprised if Albanians actually were the epicenter of the Selfie Epidemic because many that I know love having their pictures taken. And they bask in the glory of a beautiful selfie photo. Any Shqiptar event can turn into a 5-minute selfie photo shoot. Some people refer to taking selfies as being narcissistic, but I beg to differ. Selfies have the clout to empower people in their daily lives. Taking a striking selfie and posting it online shows confidence. That confidence, in turn, can spill into other areas outside of social media. Many people today lack confidence because of societal pressures to look and act a certain way, but taking selfies puts the power back in our hands. It says, “Hey, look at me. I’m confident. I’m gorgeous. Deal with it.” And I love that. Everyone is beautiful. The social constructs of beauty in the world today are unrealistic and daunting. Why not use selfies to empower us to think outside of the box, get creative with our own individual beauty, and show the world our confidence.

Here in Albania, I watch people of all ages and all backgrounds stop for the occasional selfie. Boys, girls, men, women, grandpas, grandmas – almost everyone loves a good selfie. This is a bit different than what I remember from selfies in America. Usually the females in the States tend to take more selfies than the males. Hence why my Snapchat account is constantly full of selfies from my female college friends and their dogs. My male friends on the other hand usually send photos of landscapes, concerts, etc. This is totally different in Albania. Men love a good selfie just as much as the women. I love this phenomenon. Why not share our lives? And why not share our confidence? Male, female, who cares! Let’s take a selfie!

Besides the actual act of taking the selfie, another important aspect of the Selfie Epidemic is posting these selfies to various social media outlets including, but not limited to: Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and personal blogs. Often times, selfies will receive more likes on Instagram with the hastag #selfie than many other photos my friends and I post. In Albania, selfies receive lots of attention on social media. Seriously, they receive a lot of freaking attention. When I go on my Albanian Facebook account and scroll through my newsfeed, I am instantly bombarded by a bijillion-million selfies of people doing all sorts of random things.

  • Look at the beautiful lake. Hey, let’s take a selfie!
  • Just spent several hours perfecting the makeup for a family wedding. Hey, let’s take a selfie!
  • Hanging out on a furgon. Hey, let’s take a selfie!
  • Pretending to listen to the teacher give a lesson in school. Hey, let’s take a selfie! (Now I don’t condone taking selfies in the middle of lessons, but after class – s’ka problem!)
  • Anytime, anyday: HEY, LET’S TAKE A SELFIE!

These selfies receive hundreds of ‘likes’, literally hundreds, from other users. This baffled me at first because the only people I ever saw on Facebook getting more than 40 likes for something were celebrities, or they were posting something really freaking fantastic. Like I mentioned before in my social media post, most Albanians I know, especially the younger generation, are extremely connected with others through media accounts on the Internet. Most of my online friends are often people who I have not actually met in real life. My friends may be someone who reads my blog, a guy who drinks coffee in the lokalle near my apartment palace (apartment buildings are literally translated into palaces in Shqip), a student who has seen me give a health presentation at the schools, or someone who was curious about why there is an American living in Albania. These people often like a lot of things that I post on my Albanian Facebook account, which can be really satisfying on a boring afternoon in my apartment. Sometimes when I accept new friends and they will go back through my entire Facebook account and like pictures from years ago. It brings a whole new light to the term “Facebook stalking”.

The main reason why I decided to write this blog is to encourage people to continue taking selfies. Relish in that confidence. Love yourself and empower yourself through beautiful photos. Share them with your friends, family, and random Facebook friends. Pse jo?! We live in a time where most interactions happen online, so why not take advantage of that and put the control back into our own hands. Society does not need to continue to feed us magazines, television, and other junk to cloud of perception of what beauty is. We’re all beautiful, so let’s just take a selfie to prove it.

I’ll leave you with a bunch of selfies that I have taken during my first year in Albania. Proof that I truly do love a good selfie (or even a bad one because those can be pretty freaking funny).

Some #selfies

Some #selfies

Some #groupies

Some #groupies

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The Choices We Make

A good friend of mine recently left me with this message from the famous Harry Potter series:

“It’s the choices we make that define us far more than our abilities.”

As I sat around in my apartment this past month without internet, I began to contemplate this quote and how it relates to my time in Albania. Things at my primary assignment, the Directory of Public Health (DHSP), have not been going that well. To be honest, things at the DSHP really haven’t been going that great since I moved to site a year ago. A lot of Peace Corps volunteers actually do not find success in their primary assignment placements, so I find some solace in the fact that I am not the only one that has a difficult time actually getting any work done at their primary assignment. My Albanian counterpart rarely uses me to help out with anything in the office, besides making posters. Even though I do make a pretty awesome poster, I did not join Peace Corps to move across the world and make posters. I have a bachelor’s degree in Social Work and plenty of experience working with all different populations across the board. I may not have been extremely knowledgeable regarding certain health issues that are common in Albania before moving here, but I have quickly learned enough to understand and teach the basics.

In America, students are taught from a young age how to give presentations, how to speak in public, and how to engage the audience. These public speaking skills are not commonly taught in the schools here, so many presentations are quite dull. Some of the presentations that my counterparts give fall within this lackluster category. Sometimes I can barely even pay attention to some of the lectures because the lessons do not involve audience participation or supplementary materials. Lessons without any materials, activities, or interactive games are boring in my opinion and it is really easy to begin implementing small modifications into what is already in place. I have tried to help my counterparts implement some changes into the workplace, but after many attempts I have still not had much luck.

I would like to give sexual education courses at the high school, but there is a lot of turp (shame) surrounding these lessons. I would like to work with the Roma/Egyptian community on life skills, but apparently working with that population can often times be difficult. I would like to visit all the kindergartens and 9-year schools to teach children how to properly brush their teeth and wash their hands, along with other pertinent life skills for that age group. Some parents here actually think that you do not need to begin brushing children’s teeth until the permanent teeth appear. Yikes. I would like to write a grant for First-aid/CPR classes for teachers/directors in all the schools, so that if an accident were to arise during school sessions someone would have the skills to help. The cervical cancer grant that I proposed was not approved during the first round, but I am also hoping to reapply for that project since there is a community interest in the endeavor. I would like to help with the monthly planning and actual implementation of lessons/activities. There is no reason that we should not be giving health presentations daily or at least weekly.

Instead, my workplace only uses me to help them with the occasional computer issue, to make posters, to take photos of them giving health presentations, or to make Powerpoint presentations (which we never even use half the time). It has been extremely frustrating because I have some great ideas that could really benefit the community. Being a photographer is also not a reason why I joined Peace Corps.

You may wonder how this relates to the original quote at hand…

I have personally made the choice for the past year to stay within a negative work environment and I have not tried hard enough to network inside and outside of the DSHP. Partially this is because I have felt that I do not have the ability to work within some other agencies and organizations in my community. This is stupid. I let my negative self-perception affect making other relationships with people who do think that I have something to offer. I have not been giving myself enough credit for the past year. I would not have been accepted to serve in Peace Corps if I was not competent. Being young, being female, lacking experience in the health field, and being anxious regarding my “abilities” has really hindered my time here thus far. I am a year into my service, yet I do not feel like I have done enough work for being here a full year. This is about to change!

Lately, I am making the choice to be more open to new opportunities and I have been actively choosing to look for new work outside of my primary assignment. I really want to make my primary assignment work, and I still have hope that things will get better with the right communication on my end. I need to be assertive regarding activities and lessons that I would like to implement, rather than waiting for someone to tell me what to do. Luckily I have other projects outside of the DSHP, so it is not like I have been sitting around my apartment twiddling my thumbs for the past 14 months. I am also involved in several secondary projects and have plenty of Peace Corps committee work.

This experience has already begun to define who I will be for the rest of my life. I have learned more about myself within this past year than I learned during the other 23 years of my life. I want to make the choices to define myself as a hard working, competent, kind person who doesn’t give up when the road gets a little bumpy. No longer am I letting my situation and my own negativity stop me from trying to find success here. I can’t wait for this next year of my service. So many volunteers have told me that things are better during the second year. I guess all that IRB-ing (intentional relationship building), integrating, and language learning eventually pays off. I’m excited to see where my choices will take me. I am ready to move forward and I think that I finally have the connections within the community to do so. Who knows, I may even decide to extend my service for a 3rd year…

Proof of my beautiful poster making skills. Also, gotta love that outfit. True integration.

Proof of my beautiful poster making skills. Also, gotta love that outfit. True integration.

You Say Goodbye and I Say Hello

Since making the choice to join the Peace Corps, my life has been full of many goodbyes, or I prefer to look at it as a “see-you-later”. Before moving to Albania, my life was also full of many different goodbyes. Goodbyes to family, to my best friend of almost 10 years, to the rest of my rad comrades, to my house, to my cat, to my job, and to my American lifestyle. I gave up so much to come and serve here in Albania.

These past couple months have been full of another round of goodbyes. Every year a new set of volunteers arrives in March to begin their pre-service training. With the influx of new volunteers, comes the departure of others in the group before ours. Group 15, the group of volunteers before my group, has been such an important part of my service thus far. They were my friends, lovers, and coworkers.

I was lucky to make a very close friend in Group 15 – Sara. Sara has been mentioned often in my blog throughout this past year because she was such an important person in the first year of my service. Sara was located in a larger city about 30 minutes from my site. I could go and visit her for the small fee of 100 lek or one dollar. I first met her at a small volunteer get-together for people in my region and we immediately hit it off. Sara and I began meeting in between our sites during the slow summer months to enjoy the beach and each others company. We would travel the country together to visit other volunteers. I spent a vast majority of my first summer in good company. We did more than just travel and party together though. Sara and I also served on the Anti-Trafficking in Persons committee, planned projects with the American-Albanian development foundation, and attended events held by organizations in her area. I honestly don’t know if I would have made it through my first year without Sara’s support. She was my rock – a constant shoulder to cry on, an ear to vent frustrations to, and a person to grab drinks with by the beautiful beach. Sara officially ended her service last week after full completing her time as a Community Development volunteer. I am sad to see her go, but happy that she will get to move on with the bigger and better things in the next part of her life. We will cross paths again in the future. No doubt about it. Thanks for being a true friend Sara. I can’t wait until we can share another gotë vere te kuqë together in the future (but next time, I can guarantee it may be a little better quality than some of the fshati stuff we have had together out of plastic makeshift containers).

Traveling in Pogradec together over the summer.

Traveling in Pogradec together over the summer.

Having fun at a holiday ugly sweater party.

Having fun at a holiday ugly sweater party.

Getting fancy drinks in Durres. A Durres princess tradition.

Getting fancy drinks in Durres. A Durres princess tradition.

Goodbyes are never fun, but they are a necessary part of the cycle of life. As a Peace Corps volunteers, we are aware that our lives here are not permanent and that we will continue to have goodbyes throughout our service. Within country we say goodbye to the group that served before us, the friends we made here, our host-families who took care of us during pre-service training, and so many others who have touched our lives.

But with the goodbyes, come new beginnings and fresh starts. I am lucky enough to have a new volunteer who will be living in my site for the next two years. I lost one sitemate, but gained another. Chuck, my new American sitemate, is a Community Development volunteer who will be working at the Bashkia (town hall). I am very excited to collaborate with him on projects during my second year. He is full of great stories, life experience, and a youthful spirit. I can tell that this second year of service is going to be great! I am looking forward to spending time with more Group 17 volunteers and seeing the country through their fresh perspectives.

My new sitemate Chuck is in the middle. He took Kate and me out for a fish dinner his first night in town. Such a great man!

My new sitemate Chuck is in the middle. He took Kate and me out for a fish dinner his first night in town. Such a great man!

You Look Fat Today

Before coming to Peace Corps, I remember reading several different books and blogs regarding people’s experiences abroad in their host countries. Many women spoke about how empowered they became through their service because they were finally able to strip away the importance of physical beauty. A lot of women spoke of how they stopped wearing makeup all together and began to care less about wearing “fashionable” clothing items. When I used to think about Peace Corps, I certainly never expected that how I looked would be so important to how people perceive me in my community. Gotta love that fun, little phrase that PCVs constantly throw about, “Every volunteer’s experience is different.” Ain’t that the truth.

My appearance is always a discussion topic. Literally every single day. It’s a topic with my coworkers, with the random lady sitting next to me on the bus, with the corner store owner where I buy my eggs, with random people who are my Albanian Facebook friends, with the doorman at the high-school, with the guy who likes to give me free olives, and with most-everyone else that I interact with here. Here are some of the fun things that people have said to me, along with my inner-monologue:

 

“You look fat today.”

Well I guess it’s good that I don’t look fat everyday. Right?

 

“Look how skinny you’ve become.”

Thanks. I work out.

 

“Xhill you’re so weak.” (This one is interesting because weak and skinny translate the same in Shqip).

Weak?! I am so confused…. This led to an interesting and memorable interaction with my host sister during pre-service training.

 

“Your hair looked better long.”

I know. I am growing it out, but I can’t grow it out overnight.

 

“You look sporty today.”

This means that I look like I don’t give a F*&$ I guess.

 

“Your eye makeup looks like Madonna.”

Madonna, alright. I can live with that.

 

“How can I become skinny like you?”

Don’t eat bread and byrek for every meal. Also, use less olive oil. Just because olive oil is healthy doesn’t mean that you should douse all your food with it.

 

“You are not as beautiful as [insert other volunteer’s name here].”

Well, I suppose beauty is just perception anyways. Plus, all my Peace Corps friends are hot. So it’s understandable.

 

“Why did you cut your hair? Only men have short hair. Long hair is better.”

I cut my hair because I wanted a change. Now I have to live with that change until it grows back! Give me a break.

 

“You are fatter than [insert other volunteer’s name here].”

Comparing people’s weight it so rude in America. I don’t even have a real response for this one most of the time besides an eye-roll.

 

“Only your thighs are fat.”

Well, okay then. I prefer to think of them as “curvy”.

 

“You look like a samurai.”

And I thought my outfit was cute today…

 

“Why do you wear such long skirts? You’re not Muslim.”

When I wear short skirts it’s a problem, but it also seems to be a problem when I wear long skirts. How can I win?!

 

“You shouldn’t wear short skirts if you don’t want attention.”

People shouldn’t harass women on the street no matter how they are dressed.

 

“Why are you so skinny now?”

 Because I work out and eat healthy. You should try it.

 

“Your calves are so big.”

Maybe she’s born with it!

 

“You used to be fat, but now you are skinny. Good job.”

Thanks, I try.

 

I have always had an eccentric style. I enjoy mixing in bright accessories, feather earrings, tie-dye, and fun-colored pattern tights/leggings. I have had almost every hair color in the book. My bold style eludes confidence and character. But to be honest, I used to have really low self-esteem. I was extremely self-conscious of how I looked and never really thought of myself as pretty. This is a shame. I spent a good majority of my life thus far not really liking myself.

That being said, I took things into my own hands and have slowly begun to change my physical appearance, along with how I feel about myself. I still have “fat days” (days where I don’t particularly like my body), but they are few and far between now. Working out has empowered me to love myself more and I am grateful everyday that I can take time out of my day to work out and go on bike-rides/runs around town. It is always fun to see people’s reactions to my running. My whole office and neighborhood knows that I run and they find it very intriguing.

As many of you know, I also cut off all my hair back a year ago. I did not like my short hair, but there was nothing I could do about it. And to top it off, Albanians always told me how I looked much better with long hair. Ehhhhh, I know. Avash avash. It was good though because the change forced me to learn to love myself without it. Living without one of few characteristics that made me feel beautiful was difficult at first, and persisted to be difficult throughout the growing-out process.

You would think that since my look is a regular focus of conversation that I would be more insecure about myself, but Albania has strangely empowered me. I have developed a thicker-skin and don’t take things so personally anymore. It took me a while to realize that most Albanians are not commenting on how I look to be mean or hateful, but really just as a basic observation. Also, now I just don’t care. I don’t need other people to tell me that I am skinny now or that my calves are enormous. All this talk of exterior beauty does not matter. It’s what is on the inside that counts. Corny, I know, but hey, I am a Peace Corps volunteer. Can’t get much cornier than that. Being a nice person, a charismatic leader, a caring friend are much more important. Having determination to change the things that I didn’t like about myself physically, made me a stronger person mentally. I will always have my time in Albania to thank for that.

Here is me at a recent TEDx event in Tirana. Not looking fat, or whatever.

Here is me at a recent TEDx event in Tirana. Not looking fat, or whatever.