March 18th marked the anniversary of my coming to Albania. For a year now, I have spent my days suspended in the time-space-continuum, standing still, only to escape this petrified state upon the time machine that is Lufthansa Airlines, and only upon my return to the land where time moves its fastest – as if making up for its stillness elsewhere – the United States of America. Of course, this is a lie. In the last year I have been running like a sprinter supplanted into a marathon race. Or, perhaps it has been more like a marathon runner in a sprint – meandering at a comfortable pace as if he were setting off on a long journey, but whose journey would inevitably end much sooner than he expected. Either way, the year I have spent here has not been what I suspect many of you have imagined it to be. If a tree falls in the woods but no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? Yes. And though I am off in some obscure, far-away land, away from my former life, time does not stand still for me. I am not suspended but in full motion.
In the last year, I have learned a new language. I have befriended new people. I have come to appreciate another culture much different than my own. I have made millions of mistakes, and I have learned from all of them. Though many perceive Peace Corps as an altruistic organization, I know that its members gain much more from the experience than they could ever hope to give in return. The same is true for me. I have been humbled. I have been quieted. And, I have learned so much more about myself than I thought there was to be learned. To those of you who say, “but two years is such a long time,” I say, “it can seem that way, but you have to spend it somewhere.” Any moment in life is an opportunity. A year or two in a long life is but a moment, and as I intend to live a long life, I hope to take full advantage of the opportunity this moment has provided.
This video chronicles my first year as a Peace Corps volunteer in Albania. It’s missing many of the down, quite moments. And, though a video can say 1000 times as many words as a photo, it is inadequate in capturing the full experience. Though, for those of you who cannot imagine the range my experiences in Albania, I hope it can offer a tiny glimpse into my life in the Land of Eagles.
Peace Corps describes the emotional life cycle of PCVs as a roller coaster ride, complete with its ups and downs, twists and turns, nose dives, and loop-ti-loops. If the analogy holds true, than I must be at the very beginning; where the coaster rounds the bend, and begins it’s slow climb upward – tick, tick, tick, tick, tick. The preparation I have done thus far has set me up for this slow climb, and I feel that it is beginning to gain momentum. The last six months especially have set me up for the rest of my service. In that time, I worked closely with a team of nine high school students in preparation for Albania’s national Model United Nations (MUN) conference. If you’re unfamiliar with MUN, it is essentially what it sounds like – a simulation of the United Nations. These mock conferences are held all over the world, and cater to different age groups. On February 13th, 121 Albanian students from 14 schools around the country convened in the capital to compete in the 5th Albanian MUN conference. Team members acted as delegates representing their respective country, debating topics relating to major world issues (i.e. Nuclear Disarmament and Development, The Crisis in Syria, and Human Rights of Migrants).
I did MUN in college. The conference was held in New York City at the Marriot hotel. Almost 200 schools were in attendance, including Brigham Young University and Kings College. After a week of debating, my school earned the highest award of “Double Outstanding”, sharing the top spot with only ten other schools. Though challenging, that experience made a lasting impact on me, building my confidence and opening my eyes to the world of politics as it is practiced on the international level. I believe the experience was equally cathartic for my students. The educational system in Albania is boxy. Creativity in education is not widely practiced, but opportunities like MUN offer something both new and different, and prove that learning can be a lot of fun. As a huge proponent of MUN, I have been selected to be the coordinator of Albania’s 6th MUN conference. In the coming year I will be working with a steering committee comprised of Peace Corps staff, the Albanian American Development Foundation (AADF), the Ministry of Education, the US Embassy, and the United Nations Resident Coordinator in Albania. Running this conference will inevitably be a major part of my Peace Corps service, providing the opportunity to have an impact at the national level.
Other than MUN, I have been involved in a variety of other projects. Just last week my counterpart and I submitted a Small Projects Assistance (SPA) grant for $4,000. If approved for funding, she and I will begin working on a poster competition for high school students entitled, “Tell the Story of Gjirokastra.” To give a bit of background, Gjirokastër is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s a beautiful city built into the side of a mountain, complete with cobblestone streets, stone-slated roofs, and a castle overlooking its patrons like an eagle on its perch. The preservation of Gjirokastra’s cultural heritage is vital to the city’s economy. The city’s rich built heritage, colorful traditions, and historic figures present an opportunity for targeted economic growth in cultural tourism. However, if the rapid deterioration of the city’s cultural heritage continues, Gjirokastër will lose its comparative advantage in the tourism sector and be forced to develop its economy through less strategic industries. For many years, insufficient state investment in the preservation of Gjirokastra’s cultural monuments has placed the primary burden of preserving the public’s cultural resources on private homeowners. The public value of these cultural monuments is lost on private owners who consider their homes private assets. Without a protracted and coalescing effort to inform and engender appreciation for the history and intrinsic value of these monuments, illegal interventions and indifference will continue to be the norm.
Accordingly, the idea for our project is essentially to reacquaint young people with their cultural heritage and to engender in them a renewed appreciation and understanding of its value as a cultural and economic resource. Through the education, awareness, and participation of youth and other important actors, we hope to build the capacity of the future generation to preserve and protect the city’s unique cultural heritage. The competition will be supplemented by regular information sessions, trainings, courses, and community meetings to help students tell the story of their city through photography, painting and drawing, and creative writing.
At the same time, much has changed with the advent of my first year anniversary in Albania. Group 15 volunteers are moving out, and Group 17 is moving in. On March 19th, 43 trainees arrived in Elbasan to begin their service. Only a few days ago I received a call from my host mother to introduce me to the volunteer who has replaced me in their household. It reminded me of my first day with them, completely lacking any knowledge of the language, completely at the mercy of their hospitality and understanding. For two and a half months they fed me, washed my clothes, gave me a place to sleep, and accepted me into their family – all the while exhibiting the utmost patience despite my slow progression with the language.
Today, my living circumstances are much different than they were then. I now live with three other people – a Swede, a Swedish-Iranian, and a Belarusian. They will be interning with my host organization for the next two to three months. It is a cliché of Peace Corps, but nonetheless true – “every Peace Corps volunteer’s experience is different”. When I signed up, I never imagined that I would be living in a UNESCO World Heritage Site with three European interns. Though now, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Here are some pictures: