Moving across the world to a foreign country has given me the independence that I yearned for during most of my life. Freedom from obligations of American culture, independence from my friends and family that I have spent most of my life with, and the opportunity to completely immerse in and experience a brand new culture outside of my own. With this independence also comes the reality that I often have to rely on others to complete some of the most basic tasks. I’ve learned that sometimes I have to be dependent on my Albanian friends, counterparts, and strangers to live a semi-normal life here. This is one of the reasons why I feel incredibly grateful to be placed in a country like Albania. Most Albanians that I meet love Americans. You almost see as many American flags here as you do Albanian flags. This really helps me because once people realize I am foreign (which isn’t difficult to realize) and that I am American, their interests peek. There have been countless times since living here that I have been lost, confused, merzit, or just plain helpless. During those times however, I have been able to find solace in many hospitable Albanians. Here are some of my favorite stories:
The Water Bill
- After living at site for over a year, the place where I pay my water bill mysteriously changed. I still have NO IDEA why it changed, but it did. The lady who works in the water payment office tried to explain to me where the other building is that I have to pay my bills at from now on. Instead of explaining it to me in Albanian, she explained it with random words in Shqip and hand signals. A lot of people refuse to speak to me in Albanian, even if I speak to them in Albanian, because I am obviously foreign. They must think to themselves, “Why would a foreigner in Kavaje speak Albanian?!” Anyways, after several attempts to find the other building I returned to the initial place that I paid my bills and asked her again. The lady looked confused and told me she didn’t know how to explain it to me. Luckily, there was a kind man in the office at the time and he offered to escort me. He walked me all the way across town to show me exactly where I needed to pay my bills from now on.
- Now I know what many of you back home may be thinking when you read the title hitch hiking. You’re probably thinking, “WHAT?! Jill you’re hitch-hiking in Albania?! Don’t be an idiot!” Honestly though, hitch-hiking in Albania is relatively safe. Whether I am traveling by furgon, bus, or private vehicle, I am getting into random cars with strangers. Traveling outside of my site has been difficult lately because many of the illegal furgons that were roaming the roads before the last election have been banned. This means that there are less vehicles on the road picking up passengers, and that the vehicles on the road are often stuffed to the brim with people in every seat and aisle way. One rainy day my site-mate Kate and I were trying to find transportation to a Peace Corps conference in Tirana. After standing in the rain with no luck, a friendly Albanian couple pulled over and motioned for us to get in. Hitch hiking in pairs is definitely preferred, so we thought pse jo (why not) and hopped in. During the car ride we learned all about Albanian culture and history, their family, and their lives. It was extremely interesting to hear their stories. They even ended up dropping us off at the hotel our conference was at, so we didn’t even have to walk in the rain.
My Fallen Underwear
- When I first moved into my house, I barely had any language skill at all. I had enough to talk about myself (where I am from in America, my favorite food, how old I am, etc), but not enough to get by in many conversations and definitely not enough to deal with awkward situations. A perfect example of an awkward situation is when my lace underwear fell onto my neighbor’s clothesline below me and stayed there for several days. I had no idea how to ask for my underwear back, so I decided to just pretend like it didn’t happen. After a few days, my neighbor stopped me on my way to work and gave me back my underwear in a Ziploc bag. Embarrassing, but friendly.
V.I.P Treatment (Very Important People)
- Sometimes being foreign in another country has its advantages. I will receive VIP treatment for events, activities, and other things. Most of the time I don’t feel like I should receive special treatment, but I can’t deny the benefits. I have had the opportunity to meet several famous and powerful Albanians just because I am American and a Peace Corps volunteer. Often times I will find myself at important lunches or coffees for really no apparent reason at all besides the fact that I am an expat in Albania. One of my favorite times that I received VIP treatment was at the recent high school beauty pageant. When I arrived at the event all of the chairs were already taken by a bijillion students that wanted to come and cheer on their classmates. After standing around in the back of the auditorium, one of the photographers for the event helped me find a seat. He took me right up front to the first couple rows that were blocked off for important members of the community like the major, school director, and workers at the municipality. I felt very special and got to view the show from a great seat!
- Often times to do a lot of my work here in Albania I need to have things translated into Shqip. Most of the posts on my health facebook page, materials for students, and lessons we give all need to be in the local language. I need help with a lot of the translation because, let’s be honest, Google translate makes people sound like babbling idiots. So many of my Albanian friends, coworkers, and students have been extremely helpful in translating documents for me. Without them I could not nearly reach as many people in Albanian that I do.
Cleaning My House
- Most of my neighbors have a pretty good idea of how often I clean my house, what I do during my day-to-day life, and many other random things about me. They know when I usually go on my run, when I leave my house in the morning for work, that I often leave my clothes hanging on the clothesline for a day or two longer than necessary because I am lazy, and that I have a hard time trying to clean my rugs. Cleaning my rugs is probably the most difficult and tedious task because everything in my house is dusty all the time! I have no idea why dust forms so quickly, but it makes cleaning the rugs a real drag. To clean these bad-boys I have to haphazardly hang them over the 4th story balcony and pound them with a wooden stick. Even after a good pounding they never seem to be rid of the dust and dirt. This is why I rarely clean the rugs. I am sure that there is a easier way to do this, but this is another mystery to me. When I do make the spectacle of cleaning my rugs, many of my neighbors like to come outside and watch. Some of the girls below me even offered to come up and help me clean my entire house. While that is a sweet offer, I politely declined. I know that Albanians could clean anything a million times better than me, but I’ll at least pretend that I can do a good job for my own pride.
The Gas Tank
- My stove runs on gas. Cooking with gas is actually pretty nice and can cook things better than electric current in my opinion. One of the downsides to using a gas stove is that the gas tank needs to be filled up at the gas station every once and a while. This is a problem for me because I do not have a car and the thought of carrying my gas tank full across town and up four flights of stairs is not my idea of a good time. One of my Albanian friends with a car was able to take me to the gas station the first time I filled up. The second time my friend Sara and I decided that if we filled it up together we’d be able to get it back to my house in one piece. One block in, we quickly realized that was a big gabim (mistake). Luckily, one of the students in my youth group just happened to be riding by on his bike at the time and put the gas tank on the back of his bike and helped us fill it/bring it back to my house. Definitely grateful that I didn’t have to carry that all the way back home because I was afraid the rusted handles were going to break off at any moment.
Olives, Byrek, and Ice Cream – Oh My!
- I tend to get a lot of random free goodies. This is definitely nice for my taste buds, but not as nice for my plan to eat healthy. My coworkers love to have little treats at work most days of the week. Someone will often buy pastries, ice cream, byrek, or some other form of junk food for everyone in the office. I definitely get to cash in on some of these goodies when they are brought into work. My counterparts have brought me my favorite homemade byrek, shared their fruit and lunch, and shared a lot of their things. This is different than in America. People often are very independent and sharing is not quite as common. That is one reason why I love Albanian culture. Sharing is a frequent phenomenon here. Other Albanians also like to help me out. Sometimes I will receive an extra piece of fruit from some of the vendors, or even an entire kilo of olives. These small acts of kindness are always appreciated and definitely can help bring me up from a merzit mood. My neighbors will also, hajde me over for a beer or coffee on occasion. It is fun to defy gender norms and sit at a male-dominated café with my older male neighbors and drink a beer. I like to keep people on their toes. You never know what that crazy American is going to do next!
- Furgons (small public transportation vans) are a great place to meet Albanians from across the country. I often have the opportunity to travel by furgon or bus all around Albania to visit friends and attend conferences. I have met many interesting and kind Albanians on these trips. I have met Albanians abroad living in Greece and Kosovo. I have met people who have read my blog. I have met random students and members of my community. Many of the local furgon drivers know me now. On a recent short trip to the biggest city near me for peanut butter and an afternoon coffee, I met several boys who attend the professional school in my town. They were on their way to Tirana to apply for University. All the boys spoke great English and were actually really sweet. At the end of the ride, one of them even paid my fare before I could pay myself. It was nice to meet good çuns who are trying to make a better life for themselves.
Locking Up My Bike
- Albania is not a culture where people often steal from each other, like they do in America. Break-ins, pick-pockets, and other forms of buglary are not common. Many Albanians have a sense of trust in their fellow community members. This trust transcends into many people not locking up their bikes, cars, homes, etc. In my town hardly anyone locks up their bike and I follow suit during the day. When I am at work or coffee I leave my bike outside unlocked and unattended. I know that it would be extremely rare for someone to take my bike. The doorman at my workplace is very sweet though and always keeps an eye on my bike. Everyday he will take a bungee cord and use it to help keep my bike secure. It’s nice to have people looking out for me.