2014 in a Glance: My 365 Grateful Project

At the beginning of 2014 I decided to begin a project where I reflect on something that I am grateful for every day. I was having a hard time maintaining a positive attitude and I felt that this project could really help me reflect and appreciate more in my life. I never really knew what kind of effect that doing something like this would have on my life, but it really helped me realize that in every day (even really crappy days) there is something to be grateful for, whether it’s a hot meal or good friends. I found something to appreciate every day in 2014.

2014 was the best year of my life. I have grown so much over the past year and I had the pleasure and opportunity to experience so many new things and travel to new places. During my first year of Peace Corps work and life moved very slowly for me and it wasn’t until 2014 that things really started to pick up. I felt more integrated into my community, hung out with more Albanians, and began to find meaningful extra projects outside of my primary assignment. I traveled to Japan, Croatia, Belgium, Washington D.C, Colorado, and Italy. I reunited with friends and family that I had not seen in over a year. I also met Quinn. Quinn is the most amazing and kind guy that I have ever been with. I am continually grateful to share this experience with him.

Here are some highlights from my 365 grateful project:

january 11

January 11th: I am grateful for beautiful bike rides to the beach.

I started biking around the villages surrounding my town to explore and get some exercise. This was a photo from the first long bike ride I went on. I biked for about an hour and a half to get to this spot and was completely in awe when I found this beautiful area. I remember sitting on this pier and contemplating about how amazing my life had become.

jan 14

January 14th: I am grateful for my wonderful neighbors. They gave me some homemade byrek for lunch and delivered it by tossing it in between our balconies.

My neighbors always wanted me to help their daughter with improving her English skills. They paid me in delicious homemade byrek. I had a pretty good laugh when they were tossing me food like a football between our balconies, which are not part of the same apartment complex.

february 18

February 18th: I am grateful for Irida. She is a leader in our new youth group and a sweetheart. Today she invited me and my site-mate over for homemade lunch. Te lumshin duart Irida!

At this point in my service I just started the Outdoor Ambassadors group at the high school and it was completely new. Irida was one of the first students interested in taking part of the club. This was the first time that I was invited over to an Albanian’s house for lunch and she specifically made my favorite dish, fasule, because I had mentioned how much I loved it and how I couldn’t find it anywhere in town. It has been amazing to watch Irida grow over the past year and she is now one of the top contenders to go and study in the USA next year as part of the YES Program.

feb22

February 22nd: i am grateful for our first youth group hike.

This was the first time that we went on an excursion with the Outdoor Ambassadors students. It was such a new and fun day for all of us. It had rained the day prior and the pathway was extremely muddy. Right after this picture was taken the group got caught in the mud, trying to take a shortcut back into town. Luckily, we all helped each other get past the mud, but I can’t honestly say that my shoes have ever been quite as clean since.

march 5

March 5th: I am grateful to Skype with my long-lost best friend. We haven’t been able to talk for almost a year because of schedule differences. It was nice to catch up and we can’t wait to catch up more.

It can be hard to keep in contact with friends and family back home with the distance and the time difference. This was the first time that I was able to talk to Lane since joining the Peace Corps in March 2013. Keeping in contact with people back home is very important to me, even though it can be difficult at times.

march 28

March 28th: I am grateful for evening coffees with my good friend Erin in Shkoder.

Erin has always been such a good friend to me throughout Peace Corps. We don’t get to see each other as often as I’d like because we live in different regions of the country, but occasionally we are able to get together and it’s always a blast. This picture does not do that sunset justice, but it was absolutely beautiful. Erin and I were enjoying coffee together before having dinner with a bunch of Italians who are also living in Shkoder working with families in Northern Albania regarding blood feuds.

april 8

April 8th: I am grateful for late night showings of How I Met Your Mother with Quinn.

Quinn visited me and my old site-mate during his volunteer visit while he was in training. While he was visiting I was in the middle of marathoning How I Met Your Mother, so we spent our evenings watching HIMYM together in my apartment. It was nice to kick back, relax, and get to know Quinn.

april 17

April 17th: I am grateful for my host family.

The children in my host family are absolutely adorable. I always loved hanging out with all of them. I went for a short day visit to see the family that took care of me during pre-service training before giving a presentation to the new trainees. This was such a nice day because I was able to have a coffee (and a real conversation because my Shqip skills had improved greatly) with my host family.

april 20

April 20th: I am grateful to reunite with my mom in Japan after a year of not seeing each other.

This was the first time that I was able to see my mom in person since starting my Peace Corps service. My step-dad had a work meeting in Tokyo and agreed to fly me out there to be part of the trip. It was amazing to experience a completely different part of the world while hanging out with my family, who I had not seen in such a long time. I had such a fun time shopping and exploring the city with my mom. Plus, all the Japanese food was to die for!

may 10

May 10th: I am grateful that I finally had the opportunity to climb to the top of the pyramid.

Basically if a Peace Corps volunteer in Albania does not climb to the top of the pyramid in Tirana before the end of their service then it’s a crime. On this day I was helping give a “Tirana Tour” to the trainees in the new group. As part of the tour we walked around the entire city, had lunch at a Mexican restaurant, and climbed to the top of the pyramid.

may 20

May 20th: I am grateful that Entela and I are spending the afternoon planning GLOW.

This was a fun afternoon for me and Entela, one of my best Albanian friends (and now counterpart). Entela and I met through another previous Peace Corps volunteer who was her teacher at university. We became close friends and I asked her to be my counterpart to help run the GLOW: Girls Leading Our World summer day-camp in my community. That afternoon we made lesson plans, started compiling a GLOW manual, drank wine, and ate American goodies (cookie butter). It was lots of fun.

june4

June 4th: I am grateful for the crazy high school beauty pageant I attended tonight. It gave me a good laugh. Is this real life?

This was seriously such a strange event. I had no idea what I was getting myself into when I agreed to buy some tickets from a few of my students. During this show, the high-school students modeled and acted out skits. There were also some talented hip-hop dancer and other performances. The weirdest thing about this though was the progression of the modeling outfits. It started out as regular school clothes, more scandalous “summer” clothes, prom clothes, and then ended with all the girls in wedding dresses…

june12

June 12th: I am grateful for afternoon beers from Brauhaus on the beach with my site-mate.

It ended up working out that Peace Corps sent another volunteer to my city who also enjoyed biking and drinking. Chuck and I would go to the beach together often when the weather was nicer to have a few brews. I especially enjoyed coming to this spot because they served Brauhaus beer from a micro-brewing restaurant in Tirana.

june24

June 24th: I am grateful to teach yoga at GLOW camp.

I love yoga. And I love teaching yoga. I was not able to teach yoga since a summer camp in 2013 and I was really excited about the opportunity to show some of my girls at camp how amazing of a stress release yoga can be. I prepared flows and music that I thought would be appropriate. They learned the moves and were extremely attentive during the first class.

june 28

June 28th: I am grateful for this cutie. Think I’m gonna keep it.

I had a cat for a little while in 2014. I found Spec on the road near my house and noticed immediately how he was more friendly than other street cats I had met. I also noticed how he was a little baby and I really wanted to take care of him. He was one of the best cats I have ever had, but sadly I did not keep him because he was too big of a responsibility for me. I was traveling too much over the summer to really properly take care of him. I miss snuggling with Spec and having him to come home to. Luckily, another volunteer agreed to take care of him for me.

july2

July 2nd: I am grateful for Kampi pa Emer.

Kampi pa Emer was a camp coordinated by a Returned Peace Corps volunteer and his Albanian wife. They come back to Librazhd every year to hold this camp. The aim is to help integrate Roma and Albanian children through shared activities and games. This was such a fun camp to work at because it was with younger cuties. I taught hoop dance and GLOW. The GLOW lesson was led entirely in Shqip, and I was pretty proud of myself for that.

july8

July 8th: I am grateful a friend from America is visiting Albania.

My friend Bryan visited me in Albania before we went together to a music festival in Croatia. Bryan is the only friend (or family member, for that matter) that has visited me in Albania. Hint hint everyone.

july11

July 11th: I am grateful for epic selfies and night 1 of Ultra Music Fest.

I saved up a bunch of vacation time working during my first year of Peace Corps. I took some time off over the summer to go to some big name music festivals in Europe. I always loved live music, especially electronic music, so I was extremely excited to go to a real concert again. It was also a lot of fun to hang around Croatia in summer. It’s true; the beaches are spectacular.

july27

July 27th: I am grateful for an amazing last night of the best festival of my life. Thank you Tomorrowland. Hope to come back someday!

Tomorrowland was an epic festival. There were so many famous electronic musicians there and over 100,000 people from across the world. I met people from all continents. It was quite the experience and I don’t think any festival will ever top how awesome that experience was.

august11

August 11th: I am grateful to finally commence the summer camp I’ve been planning for the past 9 months.

I spent the majority of the summer coordinating all the details for the Outdoor Ambassadors summer camp. It was a lot of work and there were times that I wanted to gauge my eyes out. The camp ended up being quite the success and it was worth all the blood, sweat, and tears. Thankfully I had a lot of other amazing volunteers to help make sure the entire event went off.

sept7

September 7th: I am grateful to live in such a beautiful country and to partake in such a gorgeous hike to the northern blue eye.

Hiking in Thethi/Valbona was always at the top of my Albania to-do list. My friends and I finally planned the trip up and it was everything I could have imagined. It was beyond beautiful and it was actually my first experience backpacking. Back in Colorado I hiked a few 14ers, but never with a pack. It was fun to hike, camp, and then hike some more. Northern Albania is absolutely gorgeous and I may even try to do this hike again before I head back to America for good.

sept15

September 15th: I am grateful to be in Washington DC for the Blog It Home competition and for my first Chipotle burrito in over a year.

I was honored by Peace Corps and chosen as one of the winners of the national blog competition. During my entire flight back to America I dreamed of American cuisine, specifically Chipotle. After my extremely long flight, almost 24 hours to be exact with layovers, I finally made it to the hotel in DC. Immediately I convinced my roommate that we must get Chipotle burritos NOW. That burrito was so delicious. I miss Chipotle and guacamole.

sept 24

September 24th: I am grateful for a day in the breweries in foco with my friends.

Since Peace Corps flew me back to America I decided to take advantage of my geographical location and head back home for a few days to visit friends and family. I wish that I would have stayed a bit longer in Colorado because a week really wasn’t long enough to catch up with everyone. I was able to travel back up to my college town of Fort Collins and reminisce with some of my social work buddies. We also went to the breweries, one of my favorite past times, to have a few good beers.

sept27

September 27th: I am grateful for family.

My family is so important to me and I really wanted to see everyone while I was home. I miss spending holidays with everyone and being able to catch up on the phone anytime. It was truly wonderful to see everyone again.

oct23

October 23rd: I am grateful that the municipality has agreed to give us a room to start the youth center!

This was the first time I was able to check out the room that would become the future youth center of Kavaje. Having Chuck at the municipality finally gave us the in to make my dream of a youth center a reality. It’s crazy for me to see this picture now because this room has been completely transformed. I actually just came back from a meeting at the youth center. The room is fully functioning with internet, the necessary essentials, and a lot of the art materials that friends and family sent me. We have four different groups meeting their weekly with activities almost daily. I will update you more on the youth center later!

oct27

October 27: I am grateful to run into one of my OA students on the road just in time for a bike ride to the beach.

This was a fun bike ride to the beach. We ran into one of my students on the road and asked him to join us to the beach. The man on the left ended up giving me and Chuck handmade raki (Albanian moonshine) and some other traditional food. Just because. It was nice to be treated for absolutely no reason at all. I cannot tell you enough times how much I love, and appreciate, Albanian hospitality.

nov7

November 7th: I am grateful for these crazy kids. They are not only my OA students, but my friends. I love them all so much.

Can you tell that biking to the beach has become a theme in my service? This was the first time that we biked to the beach together as a group. It was absolutely pouring rain that day and I was shocked that any of the students actually showed up in the first place. Since they showed up I was ready, and willing, to go on the adventure. Most of the students had never even seen the areas of town that we were biking around and they mentioned that I know our city better than they do.

nov15

November 15th: I am grateful for a nice dinner with good friends.

Sometimes volunteers get together and enjoy delicious meals together. This is always a nice contrast from my usual daily dinner alone. It can get boring, and tedious, to continually cook nice meals alone.

nov23

November 23rd: I am grateful for my new tattoo.

I got another Albanian tattoo to commemorate my service thus far. This time I got the word “avash” tattooed on my left wrist. It’s funny because avash is actually a Turkish word, but it is used so common here in Albania. Avash avash is a phrase that means slowly slowly and it is representative of life and of many situations here in country. I always try to remind myself avash when something is frustrating me. I also want to be reminded of how working quickly is not always necessarily the best way to get things done.

dec24

December 24th: I am grateful to hear part of the Pope’s Xmas Eve mass and the ballet.

I tried not to include too many posts about Quinn and how grateful I have been to have him in my life. His fresh perspective and caring personality has helped me so much throughout the past year. He has been the main person that has been there to listen to me complain, to share in my successes, and to spend time with. To celebrate Christmas and New Years we went on a vacation together to Rome, Florence, and Venice. It was a blast and probably the best vacation that I have ever been on (probably because he is the best company that I could ever ask for). We spent the morning of Christmas Eve at the ballet watching the Nutcracker, which is one of my childhood favorites. Then we ventured out at night to hear the Pope give mass.

january-1

January 1st: I am grateful for new beginnings and the new year. I am grateful that I finished my 365 Grateful Project.

Back in Albania again and happy to begin 2015. The grateful project truly taught me a lot about myself and about how perspective changes everything. I am proud of myself for actually sticking to a New Years goal for the entire year. How often does something like that actually happen?! It was a nice ride. I can’t wait for all the things I have to be grateful for in 2015. It is already turning out to be a very special year. Life is so beautiful.

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20 Life Lessons Learned in the First Year of Peace Corps

1. Life is all about perspective. Perspective can make or break your Peace Corps service, and your life. If you look at everything with a negative lens, everything will seem negative. It is important to maintain a positive perspective on life.

2. Networking is important. Networking and establishing relationships with people is an vital part of maintaining work and community connections. I learned that in order to get any work done in my community it was imperative to have a positive relationship with my Albanian counterparts.

3. Patience truly is a virtue. This is especially true when working in a community outside the hustle and bustle of the states. Things that would normally happen in a day in America, often take a week or more here. Things that happen in a week, usually take a month and things that happen in a month could often take up to a full year. I often remind myself of the mantra, “just breathe” because I am in situations daily that test my patience. Whether it be waiting for over an hour to catch public transportation or dealing with a difficult work situation – patience is key.

4. Don’t measure success only through work. This one was especially difficult for me to comprehend because my whole life I have been conditioned to think that success comes from work, but in reality, to be successful in life is so much more than doing a good job at work. It is better to look at success through how many positive relationships you foster in your life, or how many people you make smile in a day.

5. Know when to say ‘no’ and when to say ‘yes’. People are always going to want things from you and it is important to know when to say no. Personally, people are always stopping me, asking to help them get to America or learn English. I honestly don’t have time for certain things and have learned the skill of letting people down easily. I am not going to have a billion coffees with people everyday because my alone time is important for my sanity. Guard your time and know when to accept and when to decline.

6. Be grateful for something everyday. I spent a good majority of my life in a depressive state of mind, often feeling sorry for myself for things that happened in my past. The only person that this negative attitude really affected was myself. Everyday is full of special moments and something to be grateful for. Even just being grateful for a warm bed or the sun shining can turn a negative day in a positive day. Changing your mindset and having gratitude really helps in fostering a happier, healthier lifestyle.

7. Admit faults and failures. Failures are merely stepping stones and life lessons. If you never fail, then you are never pushing yourself outside of your comfort zone. My service has been full of ‘successful failures’ and admitting those failures have helped me grow and find projects that are truly worth my time. No one is without failures.

8. Don’t waste time in one-sided relationships. This has been a continuous struggle for me for most of my life. I have put a lot of time and energy into relationships and friendships that were mostly one-sided. It isn’t worth it to stay in unhealthy, unsupportive relationships just because it is comfortable or easy. If people don’t treat you with the respect and support you deserve – drop them. I am a hopeless romantic at heart, yet I seem to always fall for those who don’t treat me right. Relationships and friendships should be built on mutual understanding and compassion.  Surround yourself with supportive friends. I have realized the most important relationship in my life is the relationship with myself. Like Carrie from Sex and the City says, “The most exciting, challenging and significant relationship of all is the one you have with yourself. If you can find someone to love the you that you love, well, that’s just fabulous.”

9. Mental and physical health is key to maintaining sanity. Taking time out of my day everyday to exercise and meditate has been my savoir here. I am now in the best shape of my life because I have taken time to work out everyday. Fitness doesn’t just happen overnight, it is a process. I am still working towards a more healthy, fit lifestyle. Now I can proudly say that, for the first time in my life, I can do a real pushup and I can run for over a mile outside without stopping. These are great accomplishments for me.

10. Kindness is more important than correctness. This one can be hard for me sometimes because I often get into discussions with others where we do not agree on certain topics or issues. I now take these conversations as an opportunity to be kind, rather than to be correct. We all have different experiences, perspectives, and ideas in life. Sometimes it is better to nicely disagree, rather than arguing about who is correct.

11. Time is of the essence. Time flies by. Life flies by. Sometimes the days felt like they were years, but looking back at my first year in Albania I sometimes find it hard to believe that I have already been here for a year. Now my service is almost half-way over. Use your time wisely. Whether that means picking up a new hobby or spending time reading or exploring. Do one thing everyday for yourself and remember that time doesn’t stop for you.

12. No one is going to hold your hand through life. I definitely learned this one quickly after Peace Corps dropped me off after staging with my host family and I could barely say, ‘how are you’ in the local language. Awkward. Then relearned this again after traveling to site and having the overwhelming feeling that no one will be there to hold my hand along the way. Self-motivation is key to being successful in life and in Peace Corps. Staff will not be following you around or calling you everyday to see what you’re doing. You have to motivate yourself to do things in your community that you want to do. You have to motivate yourself to have successes.

13. Everyone isn’t going to like you. Ain’t that the truth? I have always wanted everyone to like me. Really who doesn’t want to be liked? But the truth is, not everyone is going to like you. And sometimes people don’t even have a good reason not to like you. Everyone in life is not going to always get along and like each other. Spend time with people who do like you and forget about those who can’t see how amazing you are.

14. Love yourself. Cliché I know, but if you don’t love yourself how can you expect anyone else to. I have spent so much time not liking myself and not liking certain aspects of the way I look or the way I react to things. I can honestly say, that I truly do love myself now. It took a move across 5,869 miles to finally realize that I am worthy of love and that I am worthy of self- love.

15. Don’t judge what you don’t understand. Sometimes it is so easy for me to judge things here that I don’t understand, but I often have to put myself in check and realize that there are lots of things here that I will never understand. Rather than judging people or things, I try to learn from these experiences and expand my mind regarding differences in all of us.

16. Comparing yourself to others is deadly. This one is a killer of most Peace Corps volunteers that I know. We are often all comparing ourselves to each other (whether we admit it or not). This isn’t only a Peace Corps thing, but also a life-thing. It is easy to envy others and things that they have that you don’t. In Peace Corps specifically we all may be in the same country, but we all have vastly different experiences. Two people may even live in the same town, but have completely distinctive understanding of life here. Men and women live dissimilar lives here and it’s often hard to imagine the other side of things. Instead of comparing ourselves, it’s better to just support each other in our successes, failures, and everything in between. Remember that your Facebook feed is full of people’s happy moments and things they want to share with friends. Usually people don’t post things regarding disappointments, depression, or the like. Facebook is not a well-rounded reality, so don’t compare your daily routine to the fake reality of social media.

17. Slow down. Like I mentioned before, time is of the essence. Slow down. Take time to smell the roses or go on a bike ride to the beach. Take time to sit and have coffee with your coworkers, even when you just want to work, work, work. Life is too precious to rush through without noticing the little things that make it wonderful. Xhiro, and xhiro slowly.

18. Set realistic goals, and set them often. I came into Peace Corps knowing that I wouldn’t change the world, but I still wanted to try. I had a lot of unrealistic expectations about what my service would entail. After being here for a year, I have realized the importance of creating reasonable goals and reevaluating them often. Having sensible goals makes for a successful service and a successful life.

19. Everyone is a student and everyone is a teacher. Just because I am here, as a health educator, does not mean that I am the only teacher in the equation. I have learned so much from my Albanian friends, students, coworkers, and other volunteers. Everyone has something that they are good at, and everyone knows something that you don’t. Take time to learn from others. Even those who may drive you crazy are teaching you different things, such as patience and compassion. As my Albanian tattoo says, “Sa të rrosh, do të mësosh,” which in essence means, “You are never too old to learn.”

20. Be yourself. I was so worried that I needed to act a certain way because I am living in a completely different culture. It is good to be culturally sensitive, but also maintain your true character through it all. I feel like I have impacted far more people just by being myself and sharing a positive life outlook than I have with actual health sector work. Be yourself, because YOU are awesome!

At my parents house the night before I left for Albania.

At my parents house the night before I left for Albania.

In my host-families village during pre-service training a year ago.

In my host-families village during pre-service training a year ago.

Hanging out in my city over the summer.

Hanging out in my city over the summer.

Happy Women's Day!

Celebrating Women’s Day recently. One year down! One to go!