Tag Archives: peace corps

On being back in America, an RPCV

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I’ve been back in America for a while now so it seems fair to update you all on what it is like, you know, coming back to America.

To sum it up as fast as I can, no one thinks I’m important or interesting anymore, things often are not where I left them three years ago (I mean both places, like the Spice Terminal in Reading Terminal Market, which I just today discovered is no longer there, and things, like a Joe Sacco comic book and my blender and my French press), more things are automated than I think need to be automated (doors, toilets, sinks, towel dispensers, supermarket checkout lanes), and public transit is unnervingly efficient and consistent in terms of where it goes and when and how much it costs to get there.

So, then. I am happy to be back and to be back in Philly, but every once in a while I find myself wanting to cry because I miss my host family, or embarking on a long-winded story about that time that that thing happened on the kombi (that no one is interested in hearing). I have realized that all the news reports I’d been reading about how hard it is to find a job nowadays were not exaggerations, and have the worrisome suspicion that many potential employers view Peace Corps and Fulbright as a fun three-year vacation I took rather than as three years of me managing projects, writing grants, and collaborating with everyone on any project they could think up, all with me speaking either Macedonian or Albanian. I feel moderately to very abandoned by Peace Corps, and would like to humbly request that they one day consider giving more to their former volunteers than a few thousand bucks, a reusable grocery bag, and a Peace Corps mug. (I mean, like, options to buy healthcare if you have a weird return schedule, not more money.)

I’m going to stop now, because I’m trying not to spend too much time reflecting on how strange it is to be on the other side of this Peace Corps thing. For years it was my only goal, and it never occurred to me that one day I would finish Peace Corps and would have to figure out what would come next. Now I’m almost 27 years old, unemployed, uninsured, and hoping that I work things out soon. Fortunately I can do so while reading my library books, eating Reese’s cups, and drinking all the good beers Philly has dreamed up in my absence.

Work From Home

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One of the things I liked most about the Peace Corps was that it is a largely self-directed experience. There is an office in the capital full of people there to train you in the culture, the language, your job, but once you get to site you’re on your own and no number of phone calls to Peace Corps staff is going to get your job done for you. The projects I worked on that succeeded worked mostly thanks to my hardheadedness and willingness to keep testing out new things with my co-workers and students until I found something we could get behind. (I think the best result of this was the regional spelling bee we worked on last year. Awful as it was at the time – doing spelling bees for a month drained me like I still can’t believe – I almost wish I could go back and do the project again.)

Fulbright, I’m finally realizing, is the same way. Because I’m here on a research Fulbright rather than an English teaching one or on a project being run by a host country organization, the results of these nine months depend mostly on my willingness to get off my ass and push myself to network, which isn’t the most natural thing for me to do. It’s also not unlike Peace Corps in that my “office” is my sofa; I’ve got to do most of my research and planning from home, something that feels oddly reminiscent of all the nights I spent making materials for classes while watching doofy romantic comedies.

I’ve met a couple people this week I’m very excited to work with in the coming months – one who is an English professor and runs a nonprofit organization, the English Language Teachers’ Association (ELTA), and one who is a history professor at one of the universities here in Tirana. I’ve started to plan the first big leg of my research project, a quick run through the major Albanian towns of Macedonia to run discussion groups on Albanian national identity with Albanian high school and university students. I’m hoping to get this trip in before the winter break begins, and then to follow up with similar discussion groups within Albania after the break.

I feel like I’m starting to get a clearer sense of my role here as a Fulbright grantee, after a few weeks of struggling with the need to shift the way I identify myself and the reason for my work here. Spending nine months working on a research project doesn’t lend the sort of results that my work in the Peace Corps did; just a couple weeks ago, I found myself lost for words when a volunteer here in Albania asked me what the point of my work was. I can’t say that my research project has some obvious benefits, like my work in the Peace Corps did – you know, I’m not going to be working with any teachers to come up with new ideas for the classroom, I’m not going to be running after-school programs to “make kids love school” (which was always my goal while I worked in Debar – I guess I am still an idealist, a little bit), and because I live in Albania’s capital I’m not getting the same feel for the culture that I did while I was living in Debar. This Fulbright project may be valuable in a different way, something that speaking with the history professor helped me see. If nothing else, I have the opportunity to discuss some questions of culture and nationalism that students don’t often have an opportunity to discuss, and a chance to get a different view of Albanian culture than I had while drinking coffee with my co-workers and friends for the past two years in Debar.

In Praise of the Furgon

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Photo stolen from Tend to Travel - click on the pic to see more

Combi: mini-bus (Macedonia)
Furgon: mini-bus (Albania)

I don’t know what it is about the act of traveling that seems so interesting, but in Macedonia, and in Albania, it’s always what I find myself wanting to talk about. When I was living in Debar my interest in travel had something to do, I think, with the level of trust I had in my combi drivers; I could count the number of drivers on one hand, I often decided what time to leave Debar based on what driver I felt like going with (at 7am the friendliest driver, at 10.30 the one who would drop me right in front of the Peace Corps office), and I got to wave to them as I walked around town. When one of the men who’d driven a combi for my first year began working at the school as a phys ed teacher, you should have seen our faces: “Hey, remember me? I used to drive you to Skopje?!” “Of course I do!”

I’m still surprised by the level of affection I felt for my combi drivers, and for combis in general. I was a little upset when I moved to site and realized I wouldn’t be riding on buses (they seemed to signal civilization for me – a big population), but over two years that shifted until I felt uncomfortable on buses, like I couldn’t lean over the driver’s shoulder and ask a question or tell him to drop me off at a specific street. Living in Tirana, now, there’s no chance that I’m going to have any relationship with my furgon drivers – there are way too many of them for that – but I’m feeling the same sort of affection for this goofy and inefficient system of transport.

When I head to Elbasan, which I’ve been doing about once a week, I walk over to a street near the Conad supermarket (the good Italian store; or the expensive Italian store) where a line of furgons sit. Most of the drivers stand outside yelling, “Elbasani! Elbasani!” to try and attract riders, and when they get one they latch on and guide them to their furgon. One time a driver signaled for me to get in a different driver’s furgon, but there’s generally no cooperation among the drivers; they’re trying to fill up their furgon (eight or nine seats) as fast as they can, which means that you often end up with three or four furgons each with a few passengers. Sometimes when the furgon is near full the driver will hop in and drive around the block tooting his horn, attempting to attract more passengers…only to pull back up to the line of furgons and see three passengers being helped into an empty furgon. I want to say that furgon drivers need a union, but they need protection from themselves more than anyone else – someone who can get them to fill up one furgon at a time and work in an orderly system that won’t leave passengers sitting in the furgon for forty minutes before leaving town, or attempting to scramble out, unseen, to go to a furgon with a driver who’s done a better job of advertising.

The pleasures of the furgon ride are similar to the pleasures of a combi ride out of Debar: the driver handing plastic bags back for people to vomit into, pulling to the side of the road for formal vomit breaks, me staring out the window trying not to sympathy vomit, listening to Albanian pop music (the regional equivalent to turbofolk, though frankly more bearable), and trying to avoid hitting livestock grazing along the road.

When I was preparing to move to Tirana the sight of the furgon “schedule” terrified me. Every furgon leaves from a different place, and the list of street names is incomprehensible to someone who isn’t familiar with Tirana; but the idea of looking at license plates to determine where a furgon is headed, and walking up and down a line of furgons to find the one with the most passengers, now feels both manageable and somehow correct. I’m not about to claim that the four-hour ride (at roughly twenty miles an hour) from Maqellarë to Tirana is a barrel of laughs, but there is something comforting about stumbling off a furgon with your fellow naseuated passengers, digging through your purse to find correct change to pay for the ride. It feels a lot like stumbling off the combi in Debar, next to the statue of fat Skenderbeg, like a piece of home in the big city.

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!”

My Tose Pilgrimage

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The easiest way I can think of explaining what Tose Proeski (Тоше Проески) means in Macedonia is to say that he is to Macedonians what Princess Diana is to the rest of the world. Proeski was a top Macedonian singer, popular all around the Balkans, known for his music, his humanitarian work and his phrase, “ве сакам ситe” (I love you all). Four years ago he died in a car crash in Croatia, when he was just 26.

I was in Macedonia a few months before I even heard of Tose. He’s a constant presence in Macedonian households, not Albanian ones, but partway through training I saw his portrait in the home of a volunteer living with a Macedonian Orthodox family. I asked if he was a cousin, trying to figure out why there were so many photos of him in the sitting room, and got my first lesson in Macedonian music.

Tose wasn’t just a musician to Macedonians; he was a symbol for the country and its rise, its great hope. At the time of his death he was working on his first English-language album, The Hardest Thing.

What I’m trying to get at here is that a pilgrimage to Tose’s hometown of Krusevo is something that must. be. done., and I finally did it, with two other volunteers, Jane and Katie. Our trip to the town from Bitola should have taken about an hour, but that it didn’t seemed fitting. The Bitola-Krusevo bus time we’d been told was incorrect, so we had to wait in the station an extra hour; then there was a police stop and we all had to get off the bus for fifteen minutes; then the bus broke down just outside Demir Hisar because, to quote the driver, “a part fell off”; then the driver and his assistant vanished, without a word, leaving us to stand next to the bus for thirty minutes; then we at last abandoned ship, walked into a few stores asking about taxis to Krusevo, and for 200 denars each made the last thirty minutes of our trip in a stylish minivan. (It has been a while since any of us have seen one, so that praise is genuine.)

Krusevo is not only the highest town in Macedonia but home to the Tose Proeski Memorial House. I was surprised by how well-done this museum was. There were stands where you could listen to Tose’s music, some very cool sections of wall and glass with etchings of Tose’s lyrics, two floor-to-ceiling segments of wall devoted to photos of Tose, and displays featuring such varied items as Tose’s numchuks, trainerkis, dental floss and Secretariat DVD.

Just up the hill from the Tose Musuem is the Macedonian Monument, commemorating the 1903 Ilinden Uprising, a revolt against the Ottoman Empire. Being the classy volunteers that we are, Jane, Katie and I took the opportunity to walk around humming the Death Star theme from Star Wars and taking glamour shots in front of the monument.

After a quick coffee (when we had the chance to watch the town cheer on the Macedonian basketball team, who after beating Greek and Lithuania were playing Spain in a[n ultimately failed] bid for an Olympic shot, if I’ve got this right [I know so much about sports]) we took a kombi to Prilep. This was my first visit to Prilep and its famed Thai restaurant. I was pretty pleased with myself when I got back home the next day, able to check two more things off my Macedonia To-Do List.

Both photos in this post are from Katie, since I forgot to bring my camera along for this epic journey. Go read her post on Krusevo too!

Things I’ve Learned in the Peace Corps

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Sometimes it’s easy for me to forget that I’ve actually learned a lot in the last two years – that, for instance, I can now understand when a storekeeper says to me, “That ice cream’s 40 denars, I only charged you 30 yesterday by mistake.” It’s not until I found myself throwing toilet paper in trash cans when I visited my family in July that I began to think I’ve changed in some pretty basic/instinctual ways and have learned a couple of things.

  1. Kids can tell if you want to be around them, and they’ll be better for you if you’re having fun. This realization turned my sixth-grade English Club into the most fun thing we did last year – when I realized it was okay to let my kids see that I’m human. Also that I have an endless supply of Silly Bandz.
  2. Kids will do almost anything for Silly Bandz or Beanie Babies.
  3. Third- and fourth-graders are the best, because they are so eager to learn and take seriously little things you throw together. When I started helping my teachers run English Stars last fall, I never would’ve guessed that eight months later our students would still be pulling their star-stickered notecards out of their books at the start of every class.
  4. You shouldn’t lie to kids…like that time I told A. she could come to America with me and told her that the passport I made for her was real. I need to keep this in mind as I prepare to move to Albania; I’ve already found myself starting to say, “You can come with me!” a couple times, only to rapidly correct to “I’ll visit you.”
  5. I know how to use squat toilets now. I even wish there were more of them – like, say, if the Skopje bus station changed all of its Western-style toilets to squatters. Soooo much cleaner.
  6. How to defend against mice: no mercy. Humane mouse traps don’t work. Putting all your food in jars doesn’t work. Hoping that the mice will move out when the weather improves doesn’t work. The only things that work? Poisoning, drowning, and gluing the mice to death. (I guess the last should actually read “letting my baba stomp on a mouse I’ve caught with a glue trap.”)
  7. It’s never a good idea to stock up on six months’ worth of basmati rice, because moths and other weird bugs will move into the bags before I can use it. (And rice, and cereal, and spices…) Nothing defends against the bugs like glass jars – as I discovered when I opened a yogurt tub of rice to find baby moths crawling around in it.
  8. How to lead the oro: I do this really badly, but I can do it. I never want to do it again, but I will if I have to. Because now, whenever they want to relive my host sister’s wedding, my family will get to see my goofy, sweaty self as I struggle to lead the dance, staring at my sister’s mother-in-law’s feet to get the steps right, and there’s something comforting in knowing that.
  9. How to speak Albanian and Macedonian: really poorly, I sometimes think, but for well over a year and a half now I’ve been able to have conversations in both languages. It is always exciting for me when someone hears my broken Albanian and wants to know my “family name” and when my parents moved to the States.
  10. Time can go really quickly. I’ve learned patience for the times when it doesn’t, though.

How COS feels like graduating college

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I just came back from my COS conference. For those of you who are not Peace Corps Volunteers, obsessive researchers of the Peace Corps, or parents of Peace Corps Volunteers, “COS” stands for “close of service.”

Somehow, I have made it to my COS, or at least to the part where we have a lottery to choose our COS dates (anywhere between late October and late November). Only I didn’t even do that – because I’m doing a Fulbright or, as I like to think of it, an “extended Peace Corps service in a different country with better pay,” and need to be in Albania in October, my date has been set for a while. It’s October 27th, if you were wondering.

Even though I know (kind of) what I’ll be doing until July 2012, I feel like I’m graduating college all over again. Suddenly I have to think about things like health insurance and What I’m Going To Do With My Life. Do I really want to move to Texas and become involved with high school football, or is that just a pipe dream inspired by watching too much Friday Night Lights? Do I still want to go to graduate school now that I’ve decided getting a Ph.D in English really is too stupid for words? Is it totally pathetic that I will be pushing 27 when I get back, and still have no idea what I want to do with my life?

Going home for a few weeks over the summer provided me with a strange picture of what life will be like when I get back to the States. Some things, like discovering I can eat Ben & Jerry’s and still weigh less than I do in Macedonia: awesome. Other things, not so much: a lot of my friends wouldn’t even return my phone calls after two years away; I kept saying “opa!” despite my best efforts not to; cultural references were lost on me; American beer was too rich for me to enjoy; the only person not in my immediate family who wanted to hear about my Peace Corps service for more than two sentences was a creep in a bar; and learning that the only people who won’t think you’re stupid for stopping halfway through a sentence, saying, “I can’t remember…that word…” before coming up with something like “seatbelt” are other Peace Corps Volunteers.

Coming back from the conference, I began to feel sad about the impending close of my service for the first time in a while. Today I was sitting outside with A., watching her color in a mermaid coloring book I found in Struga, arguing with her about the value of school, and I realized that a few months from now I won’t have a six-year-old yelling at me, “Two plus two! Is what?! So boring, Ellen, it’s so boring. And it’s hard! I’m little! We’re so little! They teach us math, English, writing the alphabet, we’re too little for all of that!” I guess I am apprehensive about finishing my service about a quarter because I’m freaked about returning to the States in less than a year, a quarter because I’m freaked about not returning to the States in three months, a quarter because I don’t know what the Fulbright is going to look like, and a quarter because I won’t have a six-year-old best friend in Albania.