More money, more problems: or, Life as a Fulbright


When I told my co-workers at my school in Debar that I was moving to Tirana after I finished my Peace Corps service they all joked that I would soon speak cleaner Albanian than they do. This seemed funny at the time (a) because of course I’ll never speak better literature Albanian than they do and (b) because despite my occasionally voiced reservations about how far my Dibranchi would take me in Albania, I was pretty sure that the Albanian would be mostly the same. After two weeks I’m starting to realize there might be something to their jokes, since I keep finding words we used in Debar that mean nothing here (as when I asked how much a “complete trainerka” [tracksuit] cost, to be met with a blank stare – here they’re called “sports costumes,” or something) and am met with the oddest looks when my Debar-style pronunciation slips out. (I don’t know how to describe the differences in pronunciation, other than that in Debar Albanian is spoken with a more rounded, open mouth – sort of dropping the bottom out of your mouth – and is more nasal, and some letters we pronounce differently, so that my Dibranchi “two” sounds like “know” here.)

When I came in to Tirana the city felt overwhelming, way too big for me to ever be able to navigate. Every time someone tried giving me directions I felt kind of weepy: “Meet at the park? WHAT park? Just tell me what direction to turn when I leave my apartment.” It’s not such a big city as it felt at first, though, and I’m starting to find my way around and explore some of the areas outside the “Bllok”, this very hip area of bars, restaurants, coffee shops, and shoe stores that’s near the center of the city.

As far as work goes, there’s not much happening. I’m beginning to understand how so many Fulbrights land in their countries and spend nine months traveling and drinking rather than working on their projects. If I didn’t know any Albanian I’d be completely lost right now, and as it is I worry that the things I picked up in Macedonia (doing everything slowly, putting my foot down when I’m unhappy in a situation [as in the great library grant debacle]) aren’t going to help me when people are expecting to face someone straight out of America, overflowing with that can-do attitude.

For as many problems as I think there are in the Peace Corps bureaucracy, the organization does some things – in teaching volunteers the local languages and cultures, in helping them to form connections with their host families during training, in providing them (at least the English teachers) with clear job descriptions – very well, which Fulbright doesn’t begin to address. After two weeks I’m still bumming around Tirana, slowly adding people to my contacts list and meeting for coffees and lunches; I won’t have my first meeting with someone from the history department of the University of Tirana until next week, and my secondary job as an English professor in the university in Elbasan is faltering, owing I think to poor communication on all sides. (That said, the English professor thing is looking better now – more on that later.)

Even with what feels like two weeks of setbacks, though, there are some good things happening now. Since I’m only a little over four hours from Debar, I was able to visit my host family there for Bajram. After my somewhat disheartening first week in Tirana, it was nice to go back to a place that’s so familiar and spend a night eating baklava, talking with my host mother, and playing with A. And my list of contacts in Tirana is expanding; I can see that little as is going on right now, learning to network (after this you know what I’ll be googling) may lead me in some good directions a few months from now. I’ve found oatmeal and peanut butter and Heinz ketchup and pine nuts and (this last should be followed with roughly 100000000000 exclamation points) not just mozzarella and parmesan but grano padano, ie The Best Cheese Ever. So even if I’m not doing much right now, at least I’m eating well.


5 responses »

  1. glad you are adjusting! what no Pop Keks in Tirana?!? Yes, i agree re: peace corps sets you up to be better adjusted than “just moving yourself to a Balkan country” not that i would know…anyway, happy to hear you are happy and eating well. xx..

  2. I heard an echo of my thoughts about what Peace Corps does right..learning the language and culture and breaking down that barrier in forming friendships with host country nationals in a couple months!

    • right – as scary as it was to find yourself sitting in the home of a family that didn’t speak english, after less than a week in macedonia, i can’t imagine coming to albania without having had that experience. it gave me such a clear picture of the albanian & macedonian muslim cultures – everything from what their language actually sounds like to how families interact to what shows are on tv to what they eat on normal days – and i think i’m far more appreciative of that now than i was as a pcv. as much as i loved my host family in debar, i didn’t fully realize what i had till i had to move to the big city!

  3. I had been wondering how you were doing in Tirana. I always enjoy reading your posts. Sometimes things get a slow start, but then take off and are terrific. Not coming in with the American can-do attitude, you might be better prepared than anyone else! No inevitable crashing letdown, more realistic expectations, etc. And at least you have the peanut butter and grana padano. (And then when you come back here, you will be searching all the Russian and Arabic markets for something you can’t find anywhere else but could find in Macedonia or Albania.) Also, I was thinking about you last night because the giant Russian (but actually “former USSR”) cookbook I have, Please to the Table, has some Albanian recipes. It is getting cold and dark in Portland, time for recipes from that book. Do you like how I write comments on your blog more like personal emails? Your Friend, Sarah.

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