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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Lucky Number 7

Schools across the country have now welcomed back their beloved students. Summer is officially dead. I did manage to squeeze in a couple beach trips and a tour of Shkoder, but otherwise, I was kept busy with summer camps. Seven summer camps to be exact.

Last week I was fortunate enough to participate in the 2015 National GLOW Conference. Forty-one high school girls from around Albania met in Durres to learn about feminism, discuss womens’ issues, make new friends, and to #GLOWlikeAgirl.

More specifically, sessions included self defense, important historical female Albanian leaders, gender in the media, pursuing higher education in the United States, yoga, advocacy, slam poetry, resume writing, what it means to be an ally, gender stereotyping, and learning the One Billion Rising dance (video provided below).

My greatest joys in Albania have often been my interactions with Albanian youth. Singing ‘I’m A Little Teapot’, making friendship bracelets, discussing our ambitions, GLOWing, taking all the selfies, circle dancing, bonding over personal stories, practicing yoga, going for coffee, and sharing awesome Albanian music videos.

The youth truly are the future. And the future is looking pretty bright from where I’m standing.

#likeagirl

#likeagirl

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Congratulations, Mothers of Dragons

Congratulations, Mothers of Dragons

OA 2015: Where the Wild Things Are

Outdoor Ambassadors (OA) is a Peace Corps Albania initiative to engage youth in environmental education and give them the opportunity to gain an appreciation for nature through awareness campaigns, leadership training, and outdoor activities. Our goal is to not only get students outdoors, but to also be inspired by nature and share that appreciation with their communities.
Last year I assisted the 2014 OA Camp Coordinator in planning the annual Outdoor Ambassadors National Summer Camp. As her shadow, I witnessed her tireless efforts to plan and implement an environmentally-focused camp for Albanian high school students that combines educational lessons with some good ol’ fashioned summer camp fun.
learning from the best

learning from the best

This year, as the 2015 OA Camp Coordinator, I was in charge of managing the details concerning summer camp. This includes finding a venue, creating a national application, selecting campers, ‘hiring’ camp counselors, collaborating with funders, and overseeing itinerary and travel logistics. To have come full circle is a realization that I have been having every week since my birthday. The reality is that I have been living in Albania long enough to have celebrated 2 Fourth of July’s, 2 birthdays, and 2 summers full of amazing camp experiences.

And OA Camp is no exception.

At this year’s camp, 48 youth members from cities around Albania met in Peze to strengthen their knowledge on environmental issues and endangered species, to make new friends, and to have an amazing 5 days of fun and laughter! Camp activities included hiking, capture the flag, volleyball, environmental song-writing, making s’mores, creating art with recycled trash, and lessons on First Aid, volunteerism, self-awareness/goal-setting, and media campaigns. Our camp theme was “Where the Wild Things Are” and on the third day of camp a non-profit organization, PPNEA, came to present their Balkan Lynx Ambassador Program. While planning this camp, my shadow and I envisioned camp to be a way for campers to not only learn something new, but to also make new friendships with students that they otherwise would never have had the chance to meet and interact with.

 

check in/registration

check in/registration

 

counselor love

counselor love

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confiscated phone counselor selfies

confiscated phone counselor selfies

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sisterhood selfies

sisterhood selfies

Berat/Kucove represent!

Berat/Kucove represent!

 

Counselors/Staff

Counselors/Staff

te gjithe jemi yje

te gjithe jemi yje

OA Camp was draining, stressful, overwhelming, and one of the best experiences of my Peace Corps service to date. I let my freak flag fly (hello fanny pack, blue hair and Princess Leia buns), ran around like a crazy person, sang and danced to my heart’s content, and met some of the most amazing students I have ever had the pleasure to work with. You know who you are, my little teapots! It was truly an honor to meet you and I am so excited to see how you, the future leaders of Albania, continue to grow and shape this amazing and beautiful country!

Many thanks to my wonderful shadow and fellow 2015 Camp Counselors. I could not have done this without y’all.