Monthly Archives: October 2011

COS, Fulbright, Being Awkward

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Oh man! I am really lazy when it comes to updating the world (mom, dad) on my Thrilling Adventures. As you may have surmised – and that’s the wrong word to use, because anyone who might be thinking about this has been speaking to me, and doesn’t have to make guesses – I’ve COSed, I am no longer a Peace Corps Volunteer, and I am in Albania starting Fulbright.

For COS volunteers have to go into Skopje for a few days. Peace Corps staff spent a lot of time “encouraging” us to schedule meetings and appointments before our actual COS date, so that by the time I arrived in Skopje I had maybe three hours of paperwork-ing and meeting-ing and two days of “I got a TB test and now I have to wait for the results.” Once I finished everything on Thursday, though, I took the kombi back to Debar for a final coffee with one of my friends, some time with Ava, dinner with my family, and some frantic last-minute packing and cleaning.

Friday morning I finished the cleaning and called up the taxi company. My travel down to Tirana reminded me of a lot of the things I’ve loved about Debar – the relationships I have with all the people who provide me with the basic services I use every day. My favorite taxi driver showed up and told me he had taken the fare because he realized it was me, his friend (my heart melted right then), talked up my work to the border police (who then wanted to know if I was of Albanian origin – touching his cheekbones to suggest, I don’t know, that I have Albanian cheekbones?), and put me on a furgon (see: kombi) that passed us just before we entered Maqellare.

I spent my ride south wedged between two older Albanian women who kept trying to feed me and give me gum, the grandma patting me on the leg every time I said something and donating part of her lap blanket to me. The furgon dropped us on the street and I took a taxi to the apartment of one of the other Fulbrighters. I was pretty happy because the driver told me his family was from the Dibër region of Albania (so, close to my Dibër) but I think sounded like an idiot to him – just stared out the window going, “Whoaaa! Kam qenë këtu një herë, por unë harrova sa i madh Tirana është! Whooaaaa! Sa makina ka! Whoaaa! Sa njerëz!” (This all translates to a bunch of pointless gushing about the number of people and cars in the city.)

I’ve spent the past two nights on a Fulbright sofa, but found my own apartment today and am planning to move my things over tomorrow. Being in Tirana, so far, feels like being on vacation. After my fantastic trip down, I’ve hardly spoken any Albanian; the second you walk into a store or restaurant, people speak English. The food is fantastic (all similar to what I got in Macedonia) but I can’t handle eating out anymore; I may be on a Fulbright budget now, but I still remember my Peace Corps one. It’s a great city for walking but I have no sense of direction here and keep finding myself thinking, “I wish I were in Skopje.” I’m finding it awkward, too, to negotiate host family things; I spoke on the phone with A. today, and she invited me back for Bajram. Of course I said yes – there’s no way to say no to a six-year-old who won’t talk about anything but you visiting – but the thought of figuring out a new relationship with my family is horrifying. (This would be easier except that a trip up there also means a night spent up there – and the only place I can stay is their house.) As much as I thought it would be a good thing to ease out of Macedonia by being in Tirana, I worry that not having a clean break from my life in Debar will just end up being awkward.

What everyone keeps saying, probably correctly, is that Tirana is a sort of halfway house between Debar and America. A big city, but not as big as the one I’ll live in in the States; an expensive city, but not as expensive as the one I’ll live in in the States.

10 More Days?

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Next Friday I’m going to be a kombi on my way to Tirana, only I’m going to be a Fulbright student instead of a Peace Corps Volunteer and I’m going to be calling the kombi a “furgon,” since that’s how things go in the Shqipëri. I’ve been trying and failing for about a week to sum up how I feel about this; everything decent I manage to write gets lost in my word vomit about how I’m going to miss my host sister. She is an invaluable baking assistant (actually, I may be her assistant now; my job is to stand by her side handing her ingredients as needed), has learned the complete lyrics to “Always” by Erasure by playing Robot Attack Unicorn, but also cries for a full day every time I leave Debar.

Compounding the weirdness of leaving my home for two years, last Friday I traveled to Kumanovo to speak on a panel at a hub day for the MAK16s, the new group of trainees. There are four or five hub days during training. Every other week the trainees meet at a hotel in Kumanovo for a day of meetings and lectures and, as I remember it, struggling to stay awake until being let loose for beer and dinner. (Admirably, only two trainees fell asleep during my panel.) I went to a hub day last year, too, but walking into the hotel on Friday was weird; suddenly it hit me that I had two weeks left and that, especially in the eyes of someone who arrived in Macedonia a month ago, I’m out of here.

In some sense, I feel like I’m not in such a different position than the trainees. In a couple weeks I’ll be starting at a new job, settling into a new apartment, trying to set up internet and phone plans, and I don’t know what any of these things are going to look like. Although there are certain things I’m ready to leave behind, like waking up in the middle of the night because a mouse has run over a glue trap and I need to finish the job so it will quit its squealing, I don’t want to leave all my kombi drivers or my “impressive” mental map of Macedonia* or skilled juggling of three languages.** It took me a while to figure my way out around Macedonia, and the Fulbright is looking awfully short to me – only nine months to ingratiate myself to a new set of kombi furgon drivers and local prodav dyqan owners? How’s that gonna work?

* On this map: my house, the Peace Corps office, the falafel restaurant in Skopje, the Mexican restaurant in Skopje, the good grocery store in Skopje, most bus stations west of Skopje.

** To wit, I don’t know English, Macedonian, or Albanian very well at this point, and will speak a garbled mashup of the three whenever given the opportunity: “A mundët të stop kaj студенски дома? Ej, фала!”