Kampi Pa Emer

These past few weeks have been some of the busiest weeks of my service thus far. My roles on all the committees I serve on have come to fruition and it’s summer, which means it is the season of camps. Like I mentioned in my last post, I recently planned and implemented a girls empowerment camp in my city. After that camp, it was time for another camp! Back to back camps?! Some may think I am crazy, but I will take whatever work comes my way.

Last year I heard about Kampi Pa Emer from other volunteers, but was unable to attend because of previous commitments. After seeing last year’s success I knew that it was something I wanted to be a part of this year. Kampi Pa Emer is an annual summer camp in Librazhd which seeks to bring together Roma children and Albanian children to build bridges between the two communities. The camp was founded in 2008 by an Albanian from Librazhd and her husband, who is a returned Peace Corps volunteer from Albania. They met during his service 5 years ago – super cute!

I had the opportunity to volunteer for the first three days of camp, but the camp went the entire duration of the week. We had three current Peace Corps Albania volunteers, two returned Peace Corps Albania volunteers, two Peace Corps Macedonia volunteers, and four Albanians serving on the staff. We worked together to schedule the program everyday and implement the entire camp. It was a blast! This camp also embodies the idea of sustainability because it is run by Albanians and Peace Corps volunteers come in to support with activities and lessons. The camp is funded through donors in America, local donors, and through World Vision. World Vision provided the campers with breakfast and lunch for the first three days of camp this year. Kampi Pa Emer is actually in the process of applying for NGO status and should hopefully begin implementing other camps in other cities across the country.

The camp was full of fun activities for the children including: stretching, meditation, hula-hooping, soccer, arts and crafts, games, skateboarding, and much more. On my final day, the camp-director and I implemented an awesome GLOW: Girls Leading Our World lesson about self-esteem and empowering others. It was really heart-warming and a special experience for me, the director, and the girls. The whole lesson was also done in Shqip, so I felt pretty accomplished that I was able to co-lead a lesson in the local language.

This was another great experience in one of the best summers of my life. I love Albania. If you’d like to learn more about Kampi Pa Emer and donate money to make next year’s camp a success, please check out the Facebook page. Also, check out this amazing slideshow video another volunteer made. It really is quite powerful.

The best medicine is laughter.

The best medicine is laughter.

Leading the GLOW discussion.

Leading the GLOW discussion.

All the GLOW girls.

All the GLOW girls.

Hula-hooping with some of the girls

Hula-hooping with some of the girls

These kids were beyond adorable.

These kids were beyond adorable.

Love all around. Some of the sweetest kiddos in the world.

Love all around. Some of the sweetest kiddos in the world.

Heads, shoulders, knees, and toes.

Heads, shoulders, knees, and toes.

Drawing the sign for our group photo with the other counselors.

Drawing the sign for our group photo with the other counselors.

The whole crew.

The whole crew.

All the wonderful counselors who made this camp a possibility.

All the wonderful counselors who made this camp a possibility.

 

How Running Helped with Integration

During Peace Corps pre-service intensive training volunteers were taught about how to effectively integrate into the community while being culturally sensitive and maintaining our own unique individualism. For me, integrating into the community was extremely important and I didn’t want to do things that were outside of something that an average Albanian woman my age would do. Acting within the norm of an average Albanian girl definitely took away some of the privileges that I was once privy to in the states. For example, in my site it is rare to see a woman walking outside alone after a certain time of day, most cafes and restaurants are “off-limits” to women and are only frequented by men (there are only 3 coffee shops in my city that most of my Albanian friends and colleagues consider appropriate for women), and many women are not given the same amount of respect as men in many different areas of life. This was definitely difficult for me to adjust to at first because I consider myself a feminist and don’t want to feel put in a box because of my gender. At first, I took this desire to integrate to the extreme. I did not leave my apartment during the evening/night hours. Most women spend their days indoors, whether that be inside the home cooking and cleaning or inside their offices. I also did not eat lunch or drink coffee at bars or restaurants frequented only by men, and I completely ignored most men that would acknowledge me in one way or the other. I hated this. Back home I made choices and didn’t have to think about the way that others in my community viewed those choices, but here it’s another story because everyone knows everyone. And everyone knows everyone’s business.

Not choosing to do things because of my gender was extremely frustrating and ended up hindering me from making connections with people in my community during the initial first half-year at site. After time I began to feel more comfortable with myself and began letting more Albanians into my life slowly. I started going out whenever I pleased, despite time of day. If I needed to buy some chicken for dinner and it’s dark outside, I’d still head to the corner store where the entire family that owns it now knows my name and refers to me as zemer or “heart”. I have found several restaurants usually packed full of men (no women) and go there weekly. I speak to the owners in my broken Shqip and they know my lunch order. I go outside with wet hair, which makes most Albanians gasp and tell me to get back inside to dry my hair because, ya know, if I have wet hair for one second I may catch a cold and get sick. Now I basically do whatever I would have done in America because I am who I am and the community members have learned to love me anyways, regardless of our inherent differences.

One of the biggest things that has helped me integrate and get my face out in the community has been running. I never ran in America. I hated running and winced at the idea of running more than a mile. For some reason though, having a bunch of extra time here to work on my physical health persuaded me into the “why not run a marathon” category of crazy. On November 16th I will be running in the Istanbul Marathon alongside several other Peace Corps volunteers and thousands of other runners from across the globe.

How does one go from hating running to deciding to run a full marathon. Well, let me tell you, I began by running a short loop in my community. At first I honestly couldn’t even run a block, but over time I made it up to a mile, then three miles, and most recently the first long run of my marathon training program was six miles. Running in my city has gotten my face out in the community and different people around town are consistently asking me if I am going to go for a run that night. It is so interesting when people who I don’t even know ask me about my running habits. They all seem to be very impressed and it doesn’t even matter that I am a woman. I have even received the thumbs up from women in the community dressed in full hajabs.

Running has opened up a dialogue with all different kinds of people here. The money-collector on the furgon, the ladies at work, the owner of the ice cream shop, the random lady down the street, and many others are curious about the crazy American girl (or English girl – no one seems to know whether I am American or English) that is whaling about town running like a crazy person. At least people are beginning to realize that I am here, which in turn could possibly open the door for me to meet more people that I could potentially work with for future projects. It’s also a great way to plug in health education in an informal setting and discuss with people the benefits of xhiros (evening strolls), running, and other forms of exercise. Hypertension is prevalent in Albania and taking small steps towards managing health would help this country immensely. My example opens the door for others in my city to start running too pa turp (without shame). It also allows me to work on Peace Corps Goal 2 which is “to help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.” Running shows my community an important part of American culture.

Overall, breaking the gender norms and running in my community has been a win/win. Win for maintaining my physical and mental health and win for stepping outside of my comfort zone and making a name for myself in the city. Wish me luck on the marathon! I’m going to need it!

A beautiful sunset over one of the villages surrounding my city during an evening run.

A beautiful sunset over one of the villages surrounding my city during an evening run.

 

Group 16′s Lessons Learned First Year in Albania

 

 

On March 18th I left America with a group other Americans from across the country to volunteer in the 16th group of volunteers serving in Peace Corps Albania. Check out the video I created to celebrate our successes and lessons learned thus far in country. We have been here 484 days exactly and still have 7 more months until we begin heading back to America or other parts of the world for our next adventures. I am very happy to have learned so much about myself, this country, and life this past year. It has hands-down been the best experience of my life. You can check out the video here or click on the picture below. Enjoy. :) 

BeFunky_albaniarah.jpg

GLOW Camp | Vajzat Drejtojne Boten

During the last week of June, Kate and I held the first ever summer day camp for girls in our site. Girls Leading Our World “GLOW” summer day camps are a new Peace Corps Albania initiative that is being piloted this summer at eleven different sites. Official camps are being held in Delvine, Durres, Gjirokaster, Kavaje, Leskovik, Lushnje, Orikum, Patos, Permet, Peshkopi, and Vau i Dejes. At these day camps the girls discuss different topics such as gender, self-esteem, body image, leadership, empowerment, health education, volunteerism, and much more! The girls also get to play sports, get creative with crafts, and have FUN! Our camp focused on working with girls in the high school. We had around 8-10 participants per day and most girls attended consistently during the entire week. This was our camp schedule that was based off of a 50+ page manual that I compiled together as a starter-kit for new volunteers hosting GLOW camps in their communities:

Monday June 23rd

  • Orientation
  • Yoga
  • Team building games
  • Self-esteem
  • Friendship bracelets
  • Painting picture frames

Tuesday June 24th

  • Yoga
  • Public Speaking
  • What is Beauty?
  • Blogilates – POP Pilates
  • Stereotypes
  • Vision Board Collages

Wednesday June 25th

Thursday June 26th

  • Partner Yoga
  • Managing Stress
  • Gender
  • Hula-hooping
  • Recycled picture frames

Friday June 27th

  • Excursion to the swimming pool

GLOW camp was the best thing that I have done with my service thus far within my own community. The camp was extremely enjoyable and educational for the girls (and me too)! The girls told us that this was one of the best weeks of their lives. We were able to have many deep discussions regarding important topics that are often considered turpshem (shameful) in Albanian society. It was amazing to hear how insightful these girls are regarding significant issues towards women in today’s society. Seeing the world through their lenses of being a young female in a conservative Muslim city was extremely interesting. Everyday there was something special about the camp. One highlight was during a discussion on stereotypes one student said, “Just because I am a girl does not mean I am your property.” Another girl told me, “I didn’t realize I was a creative person until you gave me the opportunity.” Teaching yoga classes was also really rewarding. It was a nice intro into the yoga class that I’ll begin teaching this summer and this next year. The sex education class was also another highlight for me. During this past year I have tried to convince my Albanian counterparts of the importance of giving sex education classes in the schools, but it has been a topic that we have yet to cover (even when it came up on the national health calendar provided by the Institute of Public Health). It was nice to have an open conversation with the girls about STDs, contraception, and making positive choices about when to engage in sexual activity. We even did a condom demonstration, which was the first time many of the girls had even seen a condom in person. I would like to continue to give more lessons like this throughout the next year of my service. Overall the week was an amazing experience and I finally felt like I was doing something meaningful (that I could visibly experience) for the girls and for my community. Seeing their smiles and excitement everyday made it all worth it.

Thanks again to everyone that helped donate materials, money, and supplies to this camp. I couldn’t have done it without your support. It was an extremely special and worthwhile experience for everyone involved. Special shout out to Lane and her family, my grandmother and aunt, Shawna, Vicki, my dad, my step-dad, and especially my mom. You are the best mom. I love you so much and we really appreciate all of your help.

The camp motto

Our camp motto was: “I am powerful and beautiful. I can change my life. I can change the world.”

The human knot team-building game.

The human knot team-building game.

Making self-esteem flowers.

Making self-esteem flowers.

Painting our picture grames

Painting our picture frames

Thanks everyone! We love our beautiful hand-painted frames.

Thanks everyone! We love our beautiful hand-painted frames.

Susan, another PCV, came to give a guest lesson on beauty.

Susan, another PCV, came to give a guest lesson on beauty.

Helping position some of the girls during yoga class.

Helping position some of the girls during yoga class.

Our beautiful vision boards.

Our beautiful vision boards.

Sexual education is important!

Sexual education is important!

Talking about different forms of contraception.

Talking about different forms of contraception.

An anti-trafficking NGO from Tirana came and gave a special presentation.

An anti-trafficking NGO from Tirana came and gave a special presentation.

The whole group

The whole group

Partner yoga.

Partner yoga.

Showing examples of gender in our society.

Showing examples of gender in our society.

Getting creative with recycled picture frames!

Getting creative with recycled picture frames!

Hula-hooping!

Hula-hooping!

One of my special students. I consider her to be one of my best friends in Albania.

One of my special students. I consider her to be one of my best friends in Albania.

 

Albanians: The Most Hospitable People

Moving across the world to a foreign country has given me the independence that I yearned for during most of my life. Freedom from obligations of American culture, independence from my friends and family that I have spent most of my life with, and the opportunity to completely immerse in and experience a brand new culture outside of my own. With this independence also comes the reality that I often have to rely on others to complete some of the most basic tasks. I’ve learned that sometimes I have to be dependent on my Albanian friends, counterparts, and strangers to live a semi-normal life here. This is one of the reasons why I feel incredibly grateful to be placed in a country like Albania. Most Albanians that I meet love Americans. You almost see as many American flags here as you do Albanian flags. This really helps me because once people realize I am foreign (which isn’t difficult to realize) and that I am American, their interests peek. There have been countless times since living here that I have been lost, confused, merzit, or just plain helpless. During those times however, I have been able to find solace in many hospitable Albanians. Here are some of my favorite stories:

The Water Bill

  • After living at site for over a year, the place where I pay my water bill mysteriously changed. I still have NO IDEA why it changed, but it did. The lady who works in the water payment office tried to explain to me where the other building is that I have to pay my bills at from now on. Instead of explaining it to me in Albanian, she explained it with random words in Shqip and hand signals. A lot of people refuse to speak to me in Albanian, even if I speak to them in Albanian, because I am obviously foreign. They must think to themselves, “Why would a foreigner in Kavaje speak Albanian?!” Anyways, after several attempts to find the other building I returned to the initial place that I paid my bills and asked her again. The lady looked confused and told me she didn’t know how to explain it to me. Luckily, there was a kind man in the office at the time and he offered to escort me. He walked me all the way across town to show me exactly where I needed to pay my bills from now on.

Hitch Hiking

  • Now I know what many of you back home may be thinking when you read the title hitch hiking. You’re probably thinking, “WHAT?! Jill you’re hitch-hiking in Albania?! Don’t be an idiot!” Honestly though, hitch-hiking in Albania is relatively safe. Whether I am traveling by furgon, bus, or private vehicle, I am getting into random cars with strangers. Traveling outside of my site has been difficult lately because many of the illegal furgons that were roaming the roads before the last election have been banned. This means that there are less vehicles on the road picking up passengers, and that the vehicles on the road are often stuffed to the brim with people in every seat and aisle way. One rainy day my site-mate Kate and I were trying to find transportation to a Peace Corps conference in Tirana. After standing in the rain with no luck, a friendly Albanian couple pulled over and motioned for us to get in. Hitch hiking in pairs is definitely preferred, so we thought pse jo (why not) and hopped in. During the car ride we learned all about Albanian culture and history, their family, and their lives. It was extremely interesting to hear their stories. They even ended up dropping us off at the hotel our conference was at, so we didn’t even have to walk in the rain.

My Fallen Underwear

  • When I first moved into my house, I barely had any language skill at all. I had enough to talk about myself (where I am from in America, my favorite food, how old I am, etc), but not enough to get by in many conversations and definitely not enough to deal with awkward situations. A perfect example of an awkward situation is when my lace underwear fell onto my neighbor’s clothesline below me and stayed there for several days. I had no idea how to ask for my underwear back, so I decided to just pretend like it didn’t happen. After a few days, my neighbor stopped me on my way to work and gave me back my underwear in a Ziploc bag. Embarrassing, but friendly.

V.I.P Treatment (Very Important People)

  • Sometimes being foreign in another country has its advantages. I will receive VIP treatment for events, activities, and other things. Most of the time I don’t feel like I should receive special treatment, but I can’t deny the benefits. I have had the opportunity to meet several famous and powerful Albanians just because I am American and a Peace Corps volunteer. Often times I will find myself at important lunches or coffees for really no apparent reason at all besides the fact that I am an expat in Albania. One of my favorite times that I received VIP treatment was at the recent high school beauty pageant. When I arrived at the event all of the chairs were already taken by a bijillion students that wanted to come and cheer on their classmates. After standing around in the back of the auditorium, one of the photographers for the event helped me find a seat. He took me right up front to the first couple rows that were blocked off for important members of the community like the major, school director, and workers at the municipality. I felt very special and got to view the show from a great seat!

Translations

  • Often times to do a lot of my work here in Albania I need to have things translated into Shqip. Most of the posts on my health facebook page, materials for students, and lessons we give all need to be in the local language. I need help with a lot of the translation because, let’s be honest, Google translate makes people sound like babbling idiots. So many of my Albanian friends, coworkers, and students have been extremely helpful in translating documents for me. Without them I could not nearly reach as many people in Albanian that I do.

Cleaning My House

  • Most of my neighbors have a pretty good idea of how often I clean my house, what I do during my day-to-day life, and many other random things about me. They know when I usually go on my run, when I leave my house in the morning for work, that I often leave my clothes hanging on the clothesline for a day or two longer than necessary because I am lazy, and that I have a hard time trying to clean my rugs. Cleaning my rugs is probably the most difficult and tedious task because everything in my house is dusty all the time! I have no idea why dust forms so quickly, but it makes cleaning the rugs a real drag. To clean these bad-boys I have to haphazardly hang them over the 4th story balcony and pound them with a wooden stick. Even after a good pounding they never seem to be rid of the dust and dirt. This is why I rarely clean the rugs. I am sure that there is a easier way to do this, but this is another mystery to me. When I do make the spectacle of cleaning my rugs, many of my neighbors like to come outside and watch. Some of the girls below me even offered to come up and help me clean my entire house. While that is a sweet offer, I politely declined. I know that Albanians could clean anything a million times better than me, but I’ll at least pretend that I can do a good job for my own pride.

The Gas Tank

  • My stove runs on gas. Cooking with gas is actually pretty nice and can cook things better than electric current in my opinion. One of the downsides to using a gas stove is that the gas tank needs to be filled up at the gas station every once and a while. This is a problem for me because I do not have a car and the thought of carrying my gas tank full across town and up four flights of stairs is not my idea of a good time. One of my Albanian friends with a car was able to take me to the gas station the first time I filled up. The second time my friend Sara and I decided that if we filled it up together we’d be able to get it back to my house in one piece. One block in, we quickly realized that was a big gabim (mistake). Luckily, one of the students in my youth group just happened to be riding by on his bike at the time and put the gas tank on the back of his bike and helped us fill it/bring it back to my house. Definitely grateful that I didn’t have to carry that all the way back home because I was afraid the rusted handles were going to break off at any moment.

Olives, Byrek, and Ice Cream – Oh My!

  • I tend to get a lot of random free goodies. This is definitely nice for my taste buds, but not as nice for my plan to eat healthy. My coworkers love to have little treats at work most days of the week. Someone will often buy pastries, ice cream, byrek, or some other form of junk food for everyone in the office. I definitely get to cash in on some of these goodies when they are brought into work. My counterparts have brought me my favorite homemade byrek, shared their fruit and lunch, and shared a lot of their things. This is different than in America. People often are very independent and sharing is not quite as common. That is one reason why I love Albanian culture. Sharing is a frequent phenomenon here. Other Albanians also like to help me out. Sometimes I will receive an extra piece of fruit from some of the vendors, or even an entire kilo of olives. These small acts of kindness are always appreciated and definitely can help bring me up from a merzit mood. My neighbors will also, hajde me over for a beer or coffee on occasion. It is fun to defy gender norms and sit at a male-dominated café with my older male neighbors and drink a beer. I like to keep people on their toes. You never know what that crazy American is going to do next!

Furgon Friends

  • Furgons (small public transportation vans) are a great place to meet Albanians from across the country. I often have the opportunity to travel by furgon or bus all around Albania to visit friends and attend conferences. I have met many interesting and kind Albanians on these trips. I have met Albanians abroad living in Greece and Kosovo. I have met people who have read my blog. I have met random students and members of my community. Many of the local furgon drivers know me now. On a recent short trip to the biggest city near me for peanut butter and an afternoon coffee, I met several boys who attend the professional school in my town. They were on their way to Tirana to apply for University. All the boys spoke great English and were actually really sweet. At the end of the ride, one of them even paid my fare before I could pay myself. It was nice to meet good çuns who are trying to make a better life for themselves.

Locking Up My Bike

  • Albania is not a culture where people often steal from each other, like they do in America. Break-ins, pick-pockets, and other forms of buglary are not common. Many Albanians have a sense of trust in their fellow community members. This trust transcends into many people not locking up their bikes, cars, homes, etc. In my town hardly anyone locks up their bike and I follow suit during the day. When I am at work or coffee I leave my bike outside unlocked and unattended. I know that it would be extremely rare for someone to take my bike. The doorman at my workplace is very sweet though and always keeps an eye on my bike. Everyday he will take a bungee cord and use it to help keep my bike secure. It’s nice to have people looking out for me.

 

This is one of my best Albanian friends Entela. She is also my GLOW "Girls Leading Our World" camp counterpart. She has been a great friend to me this past year.

This is one of my best Albanian friends Entela. She is also my GLOW “Girls Leading Our World” camp counterpart. She has been a great friend to me this past year and it’s been to nice to have her to rely on for any support.

OMG, Let’s Take a #Selfie

We live in the age of technological exploration. Facebook, social media, and Internet usage is seen across all areas of the world, including many 2nd and 3rd world countries where Peace Corps volunteers serve. A lot of people have smart phones from which they can access the Internet, post statuses and photos, and share information instantly. We’ve moved away from interactions in person and much of our daily communication is being done over the web. People have work meetings over Skype or Google chat, you can network via LinkedIn, and you can even find a date without ever having to actually speak with someone in person. Some people have completely separate lives being lived out solely through the Internet.

Being able to snap a photo and immediately post it online for others to view has completely revolutionized our lives in an interesting way. Often times we are all so obsessed with getting a good picture, rather than actually just experiencing situations for what they are. Some people see this as a bad thing because we are so connected to the gratification of sharing our lives online for others to see, rather than actually experiencing these situations for what they are. Others see this as a good thing because it allows them to stay connected to people despite our busy, conflicting schedules.

This obsession with media, sharing our lives, and taking photos has led to an epidemic. The Selfie Epidemic. For those of you who do not know what a selfie is, a selfie is the common expression used for taking a picture of yourself. There are more photos taken every two minutes across the world, than were taken during the entire 18th century. I certainly can’t deny that I am among those who love to capture a cute photo and share my funny life stories online for everyone to admire. Yes, I use the term admire because, let’s face it, my life is super intriguing (hope you’re picking up on the sarcastic undertone).

Most Albanians I know love selfies. I wouldn’t be surprised if Albanians actually were the epicenter of the Selfie Epidemic because many that I know love having their pictures taken. And they bask in the glory of a beautiful selfie photo. Any Shqiptar event can turn into a 5-minute selfie photo shoot. Some people refer to taking selfies as being narcissistic, but I beg to differ. Selfies have the clout to empower people in their daily lives. Taking a striking selfie and posting it online shows confidence. That confidence, in turn, can spill into other areas outside of social media. Many people today lack confidence because of societal pressures to look and act a certain way, but taking selfies puts the power back in our hands. It says, “Hey, look at me. I’m confident. I’m gorgeous. Deal with it.” And I love that. Everyone is beautiful. The social constructs of beauty in the world today are unrealistic and daunting. Why not use selfies to empower us to think outside of the box, get creative with our own individual beauty, and show the world our confidence.

Here in Albania, I watch people of all ages and all backgrounds stop for the occasional selfie. Boys, girls, men, women, grandpas, grandmas – almost everyone loves a good selfie. This is a bit different than what I remember from selfies in America. Usually the females in the States tend to take more selfies than the males. Hence why my Snapchat account is constantly full of selfies from my female college friends and their dogs. My male friends on the other hand usually send photos of landscapes, concerts, etc. This is totally different in Albania. Men love a good selfie just as much as the women. I love this phenomenon. Why not share our lives? And why not share our confidence? Male, female, who cares! Let’s take a selfie!

Besides the actual act of taking the selfie, another important aspect of the Selfie Epidemic is posting these selfies to various social media outlets including, but not limited to: Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and personal blogs. Often times, selfies will receive more likes on Instagram with the hastag #selfie than many other photos my friends and I post. In Albania, selfies receive lots of attention on social media. Seriously, they receive a lot of freaking attention. When I go on my Albanian Facebook account and scroll through my newsfeed, I am instantly bombarded by a bijillion-million selfies of people doing all sorts of random things.

  • Look at the beautiful lake. Hey, let’s take a selfie!
  • Just spent several hours perfecting the makeup for a family wedding. Hey, let’s take a selfie!
  • Hanging out on a furgon. Hey, let’s take a selfie!
  • Pretending to listen to the teacher give a lesson in school. Hey, let’s take a selfie! (Now I don’t condone taking selfies in the middle of lessons, but after class – s’ka problem!)
  • Anytime, anyday: HEY, LET’S TAKE A SELFIE!

These selfies receive hundreds of ‘likes’, literally hundreds, from other users. This baffled me at first because the only people I ever saw on Facebook getting more than 40 likes for something were celebrities, or they were posting something really freaking fantastic. Like I mentioned before in my social media post, most Albanians I know, especially the younger generation, are extremely connected with others through media accounts on the Internet. Most of my online friends are often people who I have not actually met in real life. My friends may be someone who reads my blog, a guy who drinks coffee in the lokalle near my apartment palace (apartment buildings are literally translated into palaces in Shqip), a student who has seen me give a health presentation at the schools, or someone who was curious about why there is an American living in Albania. These people often like a lot of things that I post on my Albanian Facebook account, which can be really satisfying on a boring afternoon in my apartment. Sometimes when I accept new friends and they will go back through my entire Facebook account and like pictures from years ago. It brings a whole new light to the term “Facebook stalking”.

The main reason why I decided to write this blog is to encourage people to continue taking selfies. Relish in that confidence. Love yourself and empower yourself through beautiful photos. Share them with your friends, family, and random Facebook friends. Pse jo?! We live in a time where most interactions happen online, so why not take advantage of that and put the control back into our own hands. Society does not need to continue to feed us magazines, television, and other junk to cloud of perception of what beauty is. We’re all beautiful, so let’s just take a selfie to prove it.

I’ll leave you with a bunch of selfies that I have taken during my first year in Albania. Proof that I truly do love a good selfie (or even a bad one because those can be pretty freaking funny).

Some #selfies

Some #selfies

Some #groupies

Some #groupies

The Choices We Make

A good friend of mine recently left me with this message from the famous Harry Potter series:

“It’s the choices we make that define us far more than our abilities.”

As I sat around in my apartment this past month without internet, I began to contemplate this quote and how it relates to my time in Albania. Things at my primary assignment, the Directory of Public Health (DHSP), have not been going that well. To be honest, things at the DSHP really haven’t been going that great since I moved to site a year ago. A lot of Peace Corps volunteers actually do not find success in their primary assignment placements, so I find some solace in the fact that I am not the only one that has a difficult time actually getting any work done at their primary assignment. My Albanian counterpart rarely uses me to help out with anything in the office, besides making posters. Even though I do make a pretty awesome poster, I did not join Peace Corps to move across the world and make posters. I have a bachelor’s degree in Social Work and plenty of experience working with all different populations across the board. I may not have been extremely knowledgeable regarding certain health issues that are common in Albania before moving here, but I have quickly learned enough to understand and teach the basics.

In America, students are taught from a young age how to give presentations, how to speak in public, and how to engage the audience. These public speaking skills are not commonly taught in the schools here, so many presentations are quite dull. Some of the presentations that my counterparts give fall within this lackluster category. Sometimes I can barely even pay attention to some of the lectures because the lessons do not involve audience participation or supplementary materials. Lessons without any materials, activities, or interactive games are boring in my opinion and it is really easy to begin implementing small modifications into what is already in place. I have tried to help my counterparts implement some changes into the workplace, but after many attempts I have still not had much luck.

I would like to give sexual education courses at the high school, but there is a lot of turp (shame) surrounding these lessons. I would like to work with the Roma/Egyptian community on life skills, but apparently working with that population can often times be difficult. I would like to visit all the kindergartens and 9-year schools to teach children how to properly brush their teeth and wash their hands, along with other pertinent life skills for that age group. Some parents here actually think that you do not need to begin brushing children’s teeth until the permanent teeth appear. Yikes. I would like to write a grant for First-aid/CPR classes for teachers/directors in all the schools, so that if an accident were to arise during school sessions someone would have the skills to help. The cervical cancer grant that I proposed was not approved during the first round, but I am also hoping to reapply for that project since there is a community interest in the endeavor. I would like to help with the monthly planning and actual implementation of lessons/activities. There is no reason that we should not be giving health presentations daily or at least weekly.

Instead, my workplace only uses me to help them with the occasional computer issue, to make posters, to take photos of them giving health presentations, or to make Powerpoint presentations (which we never even use half the time). It has been extremely frustrating because I have some great ideas that could really benefit the community. Being a photographer is also not a reason why I joined Peace Corps.

You may wonder how this relates to the original quote at hand…

I have personally made the choice for the past year to stay within a negative work environment and I have not tried hard enough to network inside and outside of the DSHP. Partially this is because I have felt that I do not have the ability to work within some other agencies and organizations in my community. This is stupid. I let my negative self-perception affect making other relationships with people who do think that I have something to offer. I have not been giving myself enough credit for the past year. I would not have been accepted to serve in Peace Corps if I was not competent. Being young, being female, lacking experience in the health field, and being anxious regarding my “abilities” has really hindered my time here thus far. I am a year into my service, yet I do not feel like I have done enough work for being here a full year. This is about to change!

Lately, I am making the choice to be more open to new opportunities and I have been actively choosing to look for new work outside of my primary assignment. I really want to make my primary assignment work, and I still have hope that things will get better with the right communication on my end. I need to be assertive regarding activities and lessons that I would like to implement, rather than waiting for someone to tell me what to do. Luckily I have other projects outside of the DSHP, so it is not like I have been sitting around my apartment twiddling my thumbs for the past 14 months. I am also involved in several secondary projects and have plenty of Peace Corps committee work.

This experience has already begun to define who I will be for the rest of my life. I have learned more about myself within this past year than I learned during the other 23 years of my life. I want to make the choices to define myself as a hard working, competent, kind person who doesn’t give up when the road gets a little bumpy. No longer am I letting my situation and my own negativity stop me from trying to find success here. I can’t wait for this next year of my service. So many volunteers have told me that things are better during the second year. I guess all that IRB-ing (intentional relationship building), integrating, and language learning eventually pays off. I’m excited to see where my choices will take me. I am ready to move forward and I think that I finally have the connections within the community to do so. Who knows, I may even decide to extend my service for a 3rd year…

Proof of my beautiful poster making skills. Also, gotta love that outfit. True integration.

Proof of my beautiful poster making skills. Also, gotta love that outfit. True integration.