On Thursday, May 30, 2013 the thirty-four members of Peace Corps Albania’s sixteenth group were sworn in as volunteers. It’s been a long time coming for most of us. I remember beginning the application process back in February, 2011. Hundreds of pages of paperwork followed. As did numerous doctor’s appointments, a federal background check, in-person and over-the-phone interviews, a hundred goodbyes, hours of packing, and somewhere in the middle of it all – grad school. That was all before I left the country.
The last two and a half months have seemed almost equally as long as the previous two-plus years and yet, it has flown by. Pre-Service Training (PST) is strange in that way. We have been living in a time warp in which days drag on like a cart without wheels, while the weeks pass by like cars on a highway. In this time warp, time progresses according to milestones: Orientation, meeting your host family, Volunteer Visit, Site Announcement, Practicum, Site Visit, the Language Proficiency Interview (LPI), Swearing-In. When you finally get to the end you wonder how you got there.
When you get to the end you think about the beginning. How your ability to communicate makes a sudden jump from mimery to hand-gesture supported expression. “I want to eat.” “I don’t want to eat that.” “I will go to school tomorrow at eight o’clock.” “I enjoy running, talking with friends, and relaxing on weekends.” “Hello.” “Goodbye.” We stick to the basics, become great at Charades, and make fools of ourselves all the while. Somehow though, you find yourself higher up the gym rope than you realized you had climbed. You become comfortable with the language, the people, and the culture. Or you sink. Luckily, if you sink, you’re new found friends are there to save you from drowning. They’re people you never knew previously but whom you have come to trust with your lives in just two-and-a-half short months. Though you may trust some more than others.
The thirty-four people I have come to trust and rely on gathered together that morning just outside the Scampa Theater. I was with them. We were all dressed to the nine, as the saying goes. If it were any other Peace Corps country, being dressed to the nine likely would have meant Crocs, pants from REI, and probably a shirt from REI as well. But this is Peace Corps Albania. We looked good. Some more than others. For sure, the girls looked better than the guys. They always do. But on this particular occasion the disparity between the sexes outstripped its typical arrangement on account of the fourteen mustaches which plagued the fourteen faces of the men in Group Sixteen. We wore the mustaches with pride and at the expense of a decent picture.
We were ushered into the theater and took our seats on the stage. The Mayor of Elbasan was in attendance, as was the Ambassador of the United States to Albania, and Peace Corps Albania’s Country Director. They each said a few words on our behalf. Three of the volunteers made speeches in Shqip (Albanian). Then we were asked to stand, place our right hands in the air, and to “repeat after me”:
I, (state your name), do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge my duties in the Peace Corps. So help me God!
We were sworn in. We were volunteers. We hugged and kissed, thanked and thanked again, smiled, cried, and posed for pictures. We shaved the mustaches (those of us who had them), made our rounds, and slowly trickled out of the theater. Some went for lunch. Some went to their new sites. I stayed for a while to eat, drink, and be merry with some of the others. Eventually though, the time came to say our goodbyes. PST was over. We would all be heading out on our own now. We all did.
Actually, some of us stayed behind. I did. I’ll be spending a few more days with my host family before leaving for Gjirokaster. Until then I’ll enjoy the quite, and quietly remember the loud moments. There will be more to come I’m sure. It’s the end of the beginning and the beginning of the start, both at the same time. Peace Corps is strange in that way. You’re in a time warp in which time progresses according to milestones: PST, “Post-Training Service (PTS),” Mid-Service Training (MST), Close of Service (COS), and a hundred other acronyms which indicate progression over time. When you get to the end, you wonder how you got there. When you’re in the beginning, you wonder how you’ll get there.
Here’s some pictures:
Oh, and here’s my new Peace Corps Issued Glasses. Enjoy.