I have been in America for almost a full week now and am already beginning to notice how I have changed, within the context of American culture, since joining Peace Corps. Obviously there are many differences between the States and the countries that Peace Corps volunteers serve in, but sometimes it’s easy to forget about my previous life before Albania. Being back in America as one of the Blog It Home winners has been such a rewarding experience and I cannot wait to continue our third goal outreach once I return home. For those of you who are unaware, my blog was recently chosen as one of the eight winners out of over 350 volunteer blog submissions from across the world. It has been quite the honor to represent Albania and bring a bit of the culture I have grown to love so much back to America. So, without further adieu, here are some ways I have changed in the past year since starting my Peace Corps service:
- I have been walking around Washington D.C. the past few days at the pace of a snail. This is quite different in comparison to everyone else rushing around from work to the subway. I stare at everyday ordinary things in awe with a completely new perspective on what it means to shop at a Walgreens or walk on a sidewalk. In Albania, we xhiro and take our time getting from place to place. We are never in a rush and being late is usually just part of the program. Here the hustle and bustle is apparent and, honestly, somewhat overwhelming at first. Everyone is on their way to something important or in a hurry to get somewhere else. Personally, I have grown to love taking my time to go slow. Avash avash. I also feel a bit slower because I am confused on how many things work here. It’s amazing how quickly technology changes and all the different rules there are in America. Going through building security has been super confusing for me, especially at the White House. Simple things felt like they were taking me twice as long to complete. I now feel like I have a little taste of what it would feel like immigrating to the United States from another country, although that would, of course, be much more difficult.
Overwhelmed with Choices
- There are so many different choices to make in America: what kind of deodorant you’d like to buy, which food truck you want to hit up for a quick lunch, where to have happy hour (I honestly forgot happy hour even existed), if you want chicken or beef on your burrito, etc, etc. Consumerism is a strange concept to me now, especially consumerism on such a mass level. If you think it’s difficult to make decisions amongst volunteers in host country about what the plans should be, imagine adding in 50 bijillion more options. Making a decision can be tricky process. But seriously, even making my own choices has been overwhelming, thus exacerbating the whole “moving slow” thing.
- My Shqip is at the level of a small child, at best, but I still like to throw Shqiplish (a unique mix of Albanian and English) into everyday conversation. Common phrases that I would use while speaking to my Albanian friends and other volunteers does not make sense to people that don’t understand a lick of the language. Ska problem or e kuptoj do not have relevance to most people that I interact with here. It’s led to several interactions with people that are, most definitely, somewhat confusing.
- Immediately after getting off the 9.5 hour flight from Vienna to D.C. I was quickly reminded in how much Americans value personal space. Airport security crammed everyone from my flight into a tiny moving room to transport us all to another section of the airport. The room was very crowded, but security kept yelling and insisting that people move towards the back of the area. We could not pass on either side though because of strollers and other obstacles in the pathway. As I was standing in this incredibly crowded room an older women turned to me and said, “Miss, you can not be putting your backpack into our space like that.” My backpack invaded this woman’s personal bubble and, since she is American, she would make sure that I knew this was not okay. I quickly apologized and tried to maneuver myself out her vicinity so that my backpack would not hinder her experience any further. Another example of personal space happened while some of the other winners and I were out to lunch. We decided to stop at the food trucks near the Peace Corps office and then eat in a courtyard area nearby. All the tables were full, so we sat down on some stairs near some other girls. Not even a minute after we were seated the girls turned to each other and said, “Ugh, come on! Let’s move.” They moved across the courtyard and glared at us for taking their glorious lunch spot on the stairs. Whoops.
Appalled at Prices
- Things in America are expensive, especially in our nation’s capital. In Albania I can get a great traditional meal for under 300 lek ($3). The same amount of money in America could maybe buy me a coffee, if I’m not drinking anything fancy, but even that is questionable. Pretty much every meal (including fast-food) is at least ten dollars, if not more. I still have am having a hard time paying five dollars for a drink during Happy Hour. What is that?! I could buy 10 shots of raki, or perhaps an entire bottle, for that kind of money.
- I am not used to hearing people speak English ALL AROUND ME. It’s interesting to notice how often I tune out during my daily life in Albania. If I was constantly listening to everyone around me in Shqip I would have a never-ending headache. This is mostly because I am not fluent in the language, so I would be translating a lot in my head still. Being able to understand everything that is going on has been pretty exciting, but kind of distracting as well. I can’t help myself sometimes, but I am just so fascinated in listening to the kind of things that people are talking about here.
Craving Albanian Food
- I spent a lot of time before my trip fantasizing about all the amazing food that I was going to eat back in the states. Burritos, sushi, fast-food, you name it – I wanted that in my belly. After being back for less than a few days I was already sick of eating all the high calorie gi-normous meals. Plus my stomach has not been too happy adjusting to the change in time zones and the change in diet. Where is the fasule at? Or the pilaf and sauce kosi? It’s funny because I have any sort of cuisine at the tip of my fingers, but really all I want is some rice from the friendly hole-in-the-wall restaurant right next to my work.
- Since serving in the Peace Corps I have become used to spending a lot of time by myself. I go into work daily, but the workdays aren’t quite as long as the traditional 9-5 career that most people have in America. I have a lot of time in the afternoon to lesson plan, research, read, and do whatever I want. Having so much time was extremely daunting at first, especially since I sometimes have a hard time with managing time wisely (aka I like to spend hours surfing through various social media newsfeeds). I have really grown to love all of my downtime because I have found that I need time alone to recharge and to reflect. I enjoyed the jam-packed whirlwind of a week with Peace Corps, but it was also exhausting constantly being on the go without much time to relax alone.
- Albanians integrate many different body movements into their regular conversations. Being immersed in the culture, I have also begun to have similar body movements and quirks during conversations. I think I am also used to using my hands and body to communicate because that is the easiest way to get my point across during confusing conversations. I find myself pantomiming stories about my day, shaking my finger back and forth to answer “no”, the opposite head-nod, and trying to wave down taxis in a similar manner to a furgon. The opposite head-nod and finger-wag are probably the most apparent during my conversations with Americans because people think that I disagree with their statements when I am shaking my head no, but really meaning yes. It is puzzling for those who don’t have that same experience abroad in Albania!
Talk about Albania
- When I return back to America for good I will probably be pretty annoying the first couple months because I want to talk about Albania. And I want to talk about Albania and my service A LOT. Peace Corps Albania has been my life for the past year and a half, so most things that I have to say are related back in some way to my service. Peace Corps is not a normal job because I am “working” 24/7 and I’m always “on” in my community. Someone could say completely random and I would probably have a way to relate it back to Albania in some form. I think this is common for returned Peace Corps volunteers across the board.
Once I come back to America for good, I am going to be an interesting American, but definitely a more well-rounded American as well. I have loved spending this time back in the States, but I miss my community and can’t wait to get back to Albania with this new sense of appreciation for both my homes – Albania AND America. From now on, I will always be gjysma-shqiptare (half Albanian).