5 Truths I Learned While Planning My Wedding in Albania

1. What the bride says does NOT go.

As a newly engaged woman planning her wedding I had certain assumptions about how the experience would unfold thanks to an early education in bridal reality TV shows. Number one being my omnipotent role as THE bride which gives me veto power, the right to have emotional tantrums, and my overall role as ‘baller shotcaller’. Not that I planned to take my bridal responsibilities to the Bridezilla extreme, but I did expect to wield a certain amount of influence, and rightfully so.

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However, I quickly realized that instead of being asked what I wanted or what I thought about any given wedding planning topic, people were making their own decisions without me. If I offered a peep of disapproval, they were quick to bombard me with reasons why their idea was infinitely better than any idea I might concoct. You can imagine that this exchange, which continued to play like a broken record, very often brought me to tears. All I wanted was for someone to ask ME, the bride, what I wanted.

Hello, cultural differences! I quickly realized that these interactions I was having with Albanians were not malicious nor intended to usurp me from my self-imagined throne of bridal power. The reality is that, in Albania, wedding planning is a family affair. It is not something the bride and groom do on their own (thus guaranteeing a certain amount of freedom and decision-making).

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2. No deposits!

Most of my wedding checklist items (ex. venue, cake, flowers, DJ, etc.) did not require a deposit. Several of these businesses did mention a deposit, but it turned out to be more of a friendly suggestion than a requirement. Additionally, I felt we had more freedom when it came to ‘negotiating’ with these businesses.

A lot of businesses in the American wedding industry will offer a desirable list of services but they are also quick to have you sign a contract that very explicitly outlines what they will not accept from their clients. In Albania, it is no secret that things are a bit more ‘loosey goosey’.

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3. It’s cheaper – KA-CHING

One of the biggest draws to living in a developing country is the cheaper cost of living. This translates into most facets of life including groceries, dye jobs, car rentals, and wedding planning. Our most expensive wedding checklist item was our photographer, followed by my two rented bridal gowns, followed by the combined cost of reception venue, food, drink, and decorations. Of course, you have to keep in mind that a lower cost of living does not necessarily make things more affordable because salaries are also low.

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4. Bigger is better.

I remember doing a bit of bridal dress scouting in Tirana and happening upon a particularly gaudy bridal shop. The ceiling was adorned with golden trim and hand-painted cherubs, so…I rest my case. I was ushered to a plush couch worthy of Marie Antoinette’s best pastry chef and given a dress catalog. While perusing, I could not help but notice a group of women fawning over their ‘bride to be’ who had just emerged from the dressing room in a fairy-tale ballgown, complete with a bejeweled bodice and sparkling tiara. It suddenly occurred to me that this is the expectation for brides in Albania. The higher the hair, the fluffier the dress – the more beautiful the bride.

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5. The reception is not really about the bride and groom – it’s about the guests.

Like a glutton for punishment I was really stubborn about coming to a healthy place of acceptance when it came to the proactive management of satisfaction guests would potentially be having at our wedding. In other words, I did not think that it mattered whether or not the wedding guests would be ‘tickled pink’ by the decorations and favors we had picked out, but I was swiftly and insistently told otherwise.

Weddings in Albania are not only planned by the entire family; they are also paid for by the community. How so? In the weeks leading up to the wedding friends, work colleagues, neighbors, and family visit the home of the groom and bride (separately) to offer their well wishes, drink a Turkish coffee with the family, and leave a monetary gift. That money is collected and used to pay for the wedding reception. This is at least one of the main reasons why the family pays very close attention to their guests and the ways they can make the wedding more enjoyable for them.

I think this is also true in other countries – in varying degrees, of course. Even in the United States, we want our guests to enjoy themselves. That ‘party anxiety’ is tough to shake, especially when you sometimes feel you are working against tradition.

Hello, Stranger

It’s been a hot minute since the last time I wrote a blog post. I think one reason for my silence, if I’m being honest with myself, is that I have completed my Peace Corps service. As a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (RPCV), the assumption is that because I have moved on to a different life chapter I therefore no longer have an exciting international culture/travel story to share. In many ways, this assumption holds true. A lot has changed over the last year. But I find that I still have something worth sharing.

Number one being, I GOT MARRIED.

The plan was always to finish my Peace Corps service and move back to the U.S. to join the working class and start doing some ‘normal adult things’. However, about one year into my service I found myself seriously dating a red-headed Albanian barber in my community. When my status changed from PCV to RPCV, I was not ready to leave. I had too much to lose. In a town of 30,000 people, 6,000 miles away from my beloved Texas, true love had found me.

After a 3 month trip to the U.S. I returned to Albania and began assistant teaching at an international school in Tirana. The salary was acceptable, but I grew increasingly unhappy with my job as time went on. My love and I played hooky for Valentine’s Day and on our way out for dinner that evening, he asked me to marry him. We quit our jobs one month later and moved back to the small town where we first met.

After months of wedding planning tears, highs, lows, and getting his new business up and running, we got married.

And that is the first story I would like to share.

Coming soon 🙂

All We Ever Do Is Say ‘Goodbye’

This past week proved to be one of the most emotional experiences I have had as a Peace Corps Volunteer. The Close of Service Conference marks a pivotal point in a volunteer’s service journey; a point at which we realize how far we have come and how much our lives will change in the very near future.

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For some, this is an exciting and rewarding result of two years’ worth of weird rashes, work conflicts, and stress-induced peanut butter comas. For others, it’s an alarm in our brain reminding us that all good things must come to an end. And our panicked and heartbroken response is proof that we aren’t ready to say goodbye.

The COS Conference itself focuses mostly on the logistics and administrative tasks associated with ending one’s Peace Corps Service. Final medical appointments, readjustment allowances, flights back to the U.S., and landlord agreements were some of the main topics of conversation (and confusion). A lot has to happen before a PCV in Albania steps onto that airplane and returns to American soil. The ‘to-do’ list can be divided into two categories: physical tasks/duties and mental steps to take in an effort to avoid an emotional breakdown at the airport. Like it or not, this period of preparation inevitably includes saying goodbye to the people who have made our experience in Albania what it is.

Having lived overseas, I have experienced these types of farewells – the kind that you try to avoid because the reality of being thousands of miles away from the people you love is like an anvil sitting on your heart. One of the most difficult goodbyes I’ve had to experience was watching my mother walk down the stairs of my college dorm room and begin her long journey back to Azerbaijan. Starting university without a nearby home base was scary, but it made me stronger and it was never really goodbye. If “all we ever do is say goodbye” (cue John Mayer moody swoon), is it a real farewell?

In other words, a goodbye implies a disengagement; a finality in at least the physical nature of a given relationship. But if you do intend to reconnect at a later date, it makes more sense that your “goodbye” is in fact a “see you later”.

It is very likely that there are people I have met during my PC service that I will never see again. Those are authentic goodbyes. But for those that I have adopted into my international family of gal pals, thoughtful coworkers, travel buddies, fellow foodies, gym rats, mermbabes, and friends of a feather, this is not goodbye; merely a “see you later”.

You aren’t rid of me yet.

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Christmas Cheer and Culture Shock

A very merry and belated Christmas, and Happy New Year to you, dear reader! After a blissful two weeks in the United States, I am now back in Albania. The skies are gray and my well-worn boots are caked in mud, but I am happy to be reunited with my Albanian family and return to work.

I was reflecting on my time spent in America and realized how much I was able to see and do with the limited time I had, as was my intention. To better illustrate my productivity, here is my homemade calendar that I diligently followed while back stateside:

 

Monday

Tuesday

Wednesday

Thursday

Friday

Saturday

Sunday

21 22

Arrive in Houston!

23

Family Christmas in Port Arthur

decorate the tree

24

Make Christmas cookies

Star Wars – The Force Awakens

Christmas Mass

25

Christmas Caroling at the nursing home

Family Dinner

26

Escape Room in Houston

Niko Niko’s for lunch

Dinner with B downtown

The Nutcracker-Houston Ballet

27

Visit Collin in Austin, TX

Rainey Street

28

Yoga class with Adriene in Austin, TX

Drive back to College Station

29

Sugar Loaf Mountain 

Lunch at Fuego

30

Mail hair donation to Pantene

Shopping for Albania

31

White Christmas

make bread with Dad

drinks at  Fox  & the Hound 

NYE with the family

1

Visit A in Fort Worth

Get lost in Central Market

First slurpee experience at 7 Eleven

2

Breakfast with twinsies

Family Photo Shoot

Texas A&M Men’s Basketball Game

Family Beer Pong

HOMEMADE FALAFEL

3

Mass at St. Mary’s

Visit family friends in Katy, TX

4

Rest and pack

5

Depart for Albania

 

Robotic? Maybe. But at least a bit impressive, right? In 6 months I may be woefully unemployed and open to a personal assistant position if you are somehow in need of an organized, candy-fueled, and detail-oriented employee to make sense of your mess. You think I’m joking.

I’m not.

My trip was a good reminder that at the end of the day, what really matters is people. Sure, I wanted a Chipotle burrito the size of my face and I also wanted to drizzle Kahlua over a pint of Blue Bell ice cream…and greedily consume every motherloving last drop. I also wanted to go pond hopping and line dancing. But more important to me was spending time with people I love; reconnecting with the beautiful souls that know me to my core and inspire me to be a better version of myself. You know, the kind of people who offer hugs and forgiveness when culture shock turns you into an emotionally-drained and crazy-eyed Looney Tunes character.

I experienced culture shock most viscerally when my family and I went to see the Nutcracker Ballet in downtown Houston. While walking to the theater, I saw a homeless woman sitting on a bench surrounded by her many bags. I stopped to ask if she was interested in the Christmas treats that I had been conveniently carrying in my bag. She was concerned about her nut allergy, but after assuring her that the cookies were safe for her to eat, she accepted. Five minutes later, a homeless man approached my dad and asked for money. I handed him a tupperware full of baklava and wished him a good evening.

We arrived at the theater and I was overwhelmed by what we found upon entering: hundreds of twinkling lights, 10 foot Christmas trees, floor-length ball gowns, diamonds, expensive cell phones, and a whiney 8 year old eating Chick-fil-A in her fanciest party dress. The contrast broke my heart. While these theater-goers were busy taking selfies and drinking $8 glasses of wine, there were people just outside and down the steps who had no home, no one to protect them. There are a lot of things about America that I love, particularly the diversity, freedom, and options (in food, schooling, careers, dating partners, hard candy, etc.), but there are also parts about our culture that I have not missed, namely the consumption and waste. It feels excessive; as if we think that the phones/cars/TVs/designer underwear will fill a gaping hole that has ripped through our souls. It’s equal parts confused, happy, and conflicted. Shaken, not stirred.

This holiday was, in a sense, a bittersweet homecoming for me. I met with old friends, visited my grad school stomping grounds, and ate the foods that once cured my homesick heart. Everything was the same, and everything was different. Well-known establishments have gone out of business, only to be replaced by newer buildings. Thirsty Thursday is still a thing. So-and-so got engaged. The Century Tree still stands. Popular culture has coined new words and phrases. And so we hold on to the old while welcoming the new.

May 2016 bring you fewer worries, more joy, less doubt, and more adventures.

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Give Thanks!

Thanksgiving is a time to give thanks (duh). In other words, we shamefully ignore the upsetting history of this American holiday and instead focus on the positive practice of reflecting on our blessings. It’s probably not an uncommon tradition among American families to ‘go around the table’ and ‘say something you are thankful for’. I remember dressing up as a pilgrim and reciting adorable poetry that my 6-year-old brain had produced. And as an adult, thinking about, and even writing down, what I am thankful for is not only a positive use of my time, but also an important exercise in identifying priorities. Does how I spend my time match up with the items on my Thankful List? Food for thought.

I would argue that most adults would list the following when asked to share what they are most thankful for:

– Family
– Friends

Solid. Who isn’t thankful for good people? These are the saints who forgive us when we throw up in their car, motivate us when we have no will to leave a Netflix-induced couch coma, and laugh with us when we make complete fools of ourselves. I’m sure many of us have a tribe: a group of talented, brave, smart, and compassionate individuals that make us better people. I know I do. It makes sense that we put them at the top of our list.

But what about YOU? This Thanksgiving, are you thankful for you? Does your current reality reflect a practice of self-love and acceptance?

One of the most challenging realities of being a PCV is learning how to handle loneliness. Serving in Peace Corps can be an isolating experience and we often spend large chunks of time alone. So when it’s just you, are you happy with the company? When you are left to your own thoughts, quirks, paranoia, idiosyncrasies, and flaws, do you embrace them?
If we are intentional about the relationships we have with others, should we not also be intentional about a relationship with oneself?

Being thankful for friends and family is not difficult.

Being thankful for who you are and the skin you’re in is.

May your Thanksgiving be full of love, self-acceptance, and pie.

Ciao, bella!

It is no surprise why Italy finds itself on many travel bucket lists around the world. Its history alone is enough of a reason to visit – and once you have arrived, the pasta and wine will make you wish you could stay longer.

When I was 18 I jumped into a hotel pool in Azerbaijan and broke my foot. It was quite a feat, especially when you consider that I was not jumping into the shallow end and the pool did in fact have water in it. Pure, raw talent, my friends. I was rushed to an SOS clinic where I was told that my foot was definitely broken and may need surgery. Since the doctors staffing the clinic were not orthopedic specialists, they recommended I make an appointment with an orthopedic surgeon in “the developed world”.

Traveling with a broken foot was, in a word, awful. I was given shots in my stomach to thin my blood and prevent clotting during the flight. Security was convinced I was hiding something in my cast. One of the crutches broke. My foot needed to be elevated, which meant I had to sit sideways in my seat while awkwardly resting my foot in my mother’s lap. There were a few perks (wheel chair, line-cutting, sympathy from airport staff), but overall, it was quite a challenge and I have never been so thankful for the ability to walk.

And Italy was no picnic either. Don’t get me wrong, I am so very glad that I was able to see and experience Italy as a recent high school graduate. I am grateful that my parents take good care of me and brought me to see a specialist at a private Italian hospital. Thankfully, I did not need surgery. We bought a wheelchair, from which I saw the Colosseum and the Vatican, visited David, gaped at gorgeous cathedrals, and ate my weight in gelato.

Fast-forward to 2015. With two perfectly healthy feet, I met my parents and grandmother in Rome last month to celebrate my mother’s 50th birthday. We celebrated Mass in St. Peter’s Square, visited museums, enjoyed good company, took naps, Skyped with family, rode trains, ate delicious food, and went on a wine-tasting tour. It was wonderful. Let’s go back!

I am a jelly donut

Germany is one of those countries that I have frequently been to, but never actually seen. The Frankfurt Airport and I are old acquaintances and I have spent hours upon hours in those terminals. When my friend and I first talked about visiting Germany we were freshly-minted Peace Corps Volunteers fantasizing about meeting tall, bearded, European mountain men. We also figured, given its unique history, Germany would be as good a country as any to host us for a Peace Corps Volunteer budget-friendly Eurotrip. Our flight from Skojpe to Belgium was hassle-free – our greatest challenge was navigating public transportation- but after an overnight in Brussels, we finally made our way to our rented room in Berlin.

In his 1963 West Berlin speech, President John F. Kennedy promoted the freedom and resiliency of Berliners, proclaiming,“Ich bin ein Berliner!” (“I am a Berliner!”). Urban legend insists that, due to his thick Boston accent, Kennedy actually said “I am a jelly donut!”. This is because the word ‘Berliner’ is used in both North and West Germany to describe a jelly-filled, circle-shaped pastry. Easy mistake.

Even though we experienced Berlin ‘on the cheap’, we were still able to see and do a lot in the city. Berlin is an easy city to fall in love with. It’s clean, interesting, beautiful, and historic. To have witnessed so much hate and pain, Berlin has amazingly come a long way in the last century.

Rather than give a play-by-play of our 4 days spent in Berlin, here are the top places to see if you ever find yourself in Berlin:

  • Mauerpark (the drunk karaoke, flea market, and food trucks are on Sunday)
  • Free Walking Tour Berlin
  • DDR Museum
  • Turkish Market (open on Tuesdays, don’t miss out on falafel)
  • St. Hedwig’s Cathedral (the 10AM Mass has the most adorable children’s choir)
  • Berlin Wall
  • Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe
  • East Side Gallery

 

Skopje, Macedonia

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Belgium

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Berlin, Germany

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