Now I Am Stronger

Let me preface this blog with the fact that I love Peace Corps and I love Albania. That being said, I need to share something about my service that many people, outside of my close friends and family, don’t really know. I am harassed on the street almost every single day. I wrote a blog about street harassment in the past, but I am not sure if people really understand the struggle. Granted, no one will ever understand my struggle because no one can live in my shoes. Maybe it is because I am obviously foreign; maybe it is because I have blonde hair; maybe it was because I was too free with who I allowed to be friends with me on my old Facebook account. As I write these words, I realize what I am saying. I am blaming myself for someone else making the choice to harass me. I am blaming myself for someone else’s actions. If I heard a friend telling me this, I would console her and comfort her, assure her that this is not her fault and that is the fault of whatever jerk decided to mess with her. This is all true. So why do I continually blame myself for these kind of animalistic acts? These acts that dehumanize me and turn me into some object of desire… something less than human? This idea of shaming women for the behavior of men is common and so deeply engrained in our society that even that strongest feminists, such as myself, sometimes have a hard time reconciling these acts towards them.

Last Friday was the last straw. I was walking alone to a coffee shop nearby my apartment to meet a friend for an evening coffee after she got off work. I had my headphones in (to block out any unwanted comments from men on the street) and my sunglasses on. I was wearing a modest outfit. I was minding my own business. Two older women and a younger girl pass me. The child smiles because she realizes I am foreign and is intrigued by my demeanor. Then two men, in their twenties, walk past me in the opposite direction. The man closest to me reached out his hand and hit me across the head. This was not some friendly tap. This random guy actually just hit me on the side of the head on the sidewalk in the main street of my town during broad daylight. I was shocked and appalled. I yelled at him, but I was left with a hollow pit in my stomach and thought to myself, Why did this person feel it was okay to physically assault me? This, I will never know.

When I met my friend for coffee I told her about what happened and she was also surprised. This is not common in Kavaje, or in Albania. It is extremely out of the ordinary for someone to physically assault another person on the street like that, especially a person that they are not familiar with. Obviously this guy knew me, but I did not know him. Most people in my city know who I am because I am the American. I am the outsider. What is sad about the situation is that I have been harassed so much over these past two years that it didn’t even surprise me.

Once my friend and I were talking, we began to dive into the bigger issue of street harassment and harassment towards women in general. She also feels uncomfortable at times walking near bars that are full of men because of their stares and comments. I have noticed that many women will purposefully walk on the street, or cross the street altogether, to avoid the remarks and gazes from men at loitering or hanging around in coffee shops. Another friend of mine told me that she always drives her car everywhere she goes to avoid harassment from men. Even the younger women are not immune to this problem. Some of my high school students ask to have a male escort or avoid walking in certain areas of town because they do not want to be bothered.

This kind of street harassment needs to stop. Violence against women (and violence against anyone in general) is not okay. After living in Albania for two years, I have realized that bystander intervention is not common and speaking out for what you believe in can often be seen as turp or shameful. The usual advice I receive from people is to just ignore them and continue on. I cannot continue to condone this violence, this blatant disrespect for other people. I urge everyone, men and women, to stand up for what you believe in and what you know is right. If you see something that is unsettling – say something. Until people begin to say something, nothing will ever change.

I reported this incident to our Safety and Security officer in country. She listened to me and comforted me; she has always been great during any security incidents. Peace Corps does a great job responding to these sorts of crimes and they try to do whatever they can to make sure that they don’t reoccur. They cannot be with me every moment of every day at site, but they do try to make sure that all volunteers in country are safe. I do not think that Albania is a unsafe country to serve in and I do not think that Albanians are violent people. There are always duds everywhere in the world.

All I can do at this point is take solace in the fact that all of this has opened my eyes to the kind of gender-based violence that happens all around this world towards women. This experience has made me want to educate people about basic human rights and equal rights. My perspective has changed and broadened because of the things I have experienced. During coffee my friend reminded me of a quote, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Now I am stronger. And your inexcusable behavior can’t bring me down.

Mama Xhilli Visits Albania

The following is a guest post from my mother Analee. She recently visited me in Kavaje for a week to experience Peace Corps life and to observe my life in Albania. It was a pleasure hosting her and teaching her all about Albanian culture. This was her experience. You can check out more of her writing on her personal blog

I felt like a celebrity at Tirana International Airport. I immediately recognized Jill’s friend, Eri, not because I had seen pictures of him, but because of the sign—Welcome Analee! I never knew how much I wanted someone to greet me at the airport with a sign before that moment. Now I don’t know if I can ever go back to being an anonymous traveler. Plus, the gigantic bunch of flowers Jill sent along added to the mystique.

My first pleasant surprise was the drive from Tirana to Kavaje. When Jill first arrived in country two years ago she described some scary furgon rides, so even though I was riding in a nice car, on a nice highway, I still expected to see a herd of sheep crossing, or, at the very least, a New York taxi experience. Didn’t happen. Eri is the best driver, and tour guide, and before I knew it we were in Kavaje.

Day One: Cold, but Happy

Jill, and her good friend, Entela, met us outside one of Jill’s Peace Corps projects–the new, Kavaje Youth Center (KYAC). I just missed the grand opening that day due to flight problems back in the states. (Thanks, United Airlines. See if I fly with you again.) Off we went to Jill’s apartment. I seriously thought Jill was exaggerating when she talked about her freezing cold apartment. Well, she wasn’t. It’s warmer outside than it is inside. Apparently, it’s the same in the summer: cooler outside than inside. Both of us needed a little rest before dinner, so we fired-up the space heater, climbed under the covers, and the sleeping bag, and watched a little Netflix on her computer. Fourteen years ago, who could have predicted mother and daughter would watch their favorite show, Gilmore Girls, in Kavaje, Albania!

Day Two: The Busiest Day Ever

I woke up well rested. I think part of it was due to the grand, yummy, seafood dinner we were treated to by Jill’s site mate, Chuck. In fact, every restaurant I visited in Albania served the freshest, tastiest, multicourse meals at a mere fraction of the cost of eating out back in the states. Maybe I’m a little biased, but my vote for best food is Kavaje. After navigating Jill’s tiny, Turkish toilet, kitchen-bathroom, we were off to: (1) the market right outside Jill’s apartment, where I met her incredibly nice olive guy; (2) the DShP for Jill’s cervical cancer screening project; (3) lunch out at a favorite mengjesore; (4) a Kavaje painter’s art exhibit; (5) a youth center tour; (6) an Outdoor Ambassadors meeting, where after (7) I spoke to the kids about my life and writing; (8) a calm furgon ride to Durres; (9) a tour of said city; (10) a visit to a second century amphitheater; (11) a fast walk to see Durres street art—fast because we were being followed by a harmless, crazy guy; (12) a quick, daytime xhiro along the boardwalk; (13) a coffee by the sea; (14) another fast walk to the restaurant—we were running late, I wonder why?—with a quick stop for a pose with a random, John Lennon statue; (15) a dinner in Durres with other Peace Corps volunteers; (16) a late night, music filled, furgon ride back to Kavaje; (17) and, finally, the long walk from the center of town to Jill’s freezing cold apartment, where we (18) huddled around the computer for another Gilmore Girls episode as I questioned my bold choice to shadow a young, Peace Corps volunteer. Oh, did I mention that this whole day my photographer daughter was having me pose for my close-up at every turn? Actually, without Jill, our family would have very few pictures of the last twenty-three years, not to mention my Albania adventure. Thank you, daughter!

Sitting in on the cervical cancer project.

Sitting in on the cervical cancer project.

Jill's counterpart training the women.

Jill’s counterpart training the women.

Lunch at a mengjesore.

Lunch at a mengjesore.

A painting exhibit by a local artist to celebrate Democracy day.

A painting exhibit by a local artist to celebrate Democracy day.

Met the artist.

Met the artist.

Speaking with the Outdoor Ambassador students at KYAC.

Speaking with the Outdoor Ambassador students at KYAC.

At the ancient amphitheater in Durres.

At the ancient amphitheater in Durres.

Random John Lennon statue.

Random John Lennon statue.

Day Three: Celebration Time!

The first anti-communist protest was held in Kavaje twenty-five years ago, 3/26/1990, thirteen days after Jill was born. Thirteen just happens to be her lucky number. Again, could have never imagined back then that we would be in Albania for her birthday month! Life always has other plans. So, to fast forward to the night time celebration, here’s a quick breakdown of the day: I had my first, and only, hot shower of the trip. (Life had other plans for the water supply during my trip.); breakfast at home; Byrek-fast at the youth center (thanks Gloria’s mom); tour of the Kavaje library; my first Turkish coffee with Shpresa, the librarian; more café’s, more coffee; delicious late lunch of Albanian pilaf; and the ubiquitous long walk home where we were told various, contradictory locations for the night’s festivities. Our confusion didn’t last. We soon saw the stage as we rounded the coliseum, a couple blocks away from Jill’s apartment.

I absolutely adored the celebration concert! To use my daughter’s words, “it was pretty rad to be honest.” However, at first I was very hesitant to climb the many, irregular concrete steps to the top of the coliseum. I’d just had a very successful, quick recovery from a February knee surgery, and thought I might be pushing my luck. But I put on my big girl pants, held on to Jill and Chuck, and pushed forward. I’m so glad I did. Kavaje really put on a show with famous singers, local talent, traditional valle dancers, fire poi, and Albanian rap artists. I couldn’t figure out why Jill was laughing when one of the rappers took the stage. Later, I found out that his name was not Big, as I had thought. Turns out the word “Big” had been strategically placed on his outfit. I’m not dumb, just naïve sometimes.

So, from the early morning hot shower to the ten p.m. after concert dinner and baklava stop, it was a pretty rad day in Kavaje.

Having Turkish coffee in the library before a KYAC MUN meeting.

Having Turkish coffee in the library before a KYAC MUN meeting.

Student performers at the Kavaje concert.

Student performers at the Kavaje concert.

Interesting placement...

Interesting placement…

Democracy Day Concert

Democracy Day Concert

Baklava at the end of the night.

Baklava at the end of the night.

Days Four, Five and Six: Surprises! and New Friends

Jill and I quickly dressed in her best clothing. I basically just brought an empty suitcase so as to take her stuff back to the U.S. Our day was planned—go to neighbor’s apartment for coffee, then Gos for a day with Entela’s family. Soon we heard a knock on her door. It was the neighbor. Apparently we had misunderstood and coffee was at Jill’s place. Surprise! Unfortunately, the apartment looked like a small baggage hold had exploded over it due to our haphazard sorting method. Anyway, her neighbor couldn’t have been sweeter about the whole thing. She brought us homemade fruit juice for all that ails; a small lovely, woven tapestry; and, a kind-of holographic golden picture mounted on a fringed bamboo mat of the “church where Jesus was born.” The last one was so touching because the neighbor is Muslim and she went out of her way to find the picture for me. I will never forget her.

I was so happy to meet Entela’s mom, aunt, sister, uncle, and neighbor-auntie–#Newfriends. Their home was simply lovely, and eat-off-the-floor clean. Albanian women take such good care of their houses. We ate many snacks, delectable cake, and fruit. Then, Surprise!—more beautiful gifts, all hand-tatted and crocheted by Entela’s sweet mom. I took them all back home, even though some of the gifts are for Jill’s “dowry.”

We rounded out the day with a trip to Entela’s childhood school, coffee at an incredibly warm, comfortable café, and a visit to a friend’s beauty shop. Entela’s sister, treated Jill and I to makeup. I love my extremely flattering, bright lipstick. I would have never been able to pick out that shade on my own. Thanks! Then, back to Kavaje for—Surprise!—Jill’s homemade fasule. It took travelling to Albania to make Jill an excellent cook.

The next two days, Berat…ahhh Berat! The very best thing about my Berat weekend vacation: meeting Jill’s boyfriend, Quinn. He is an outstanding young man. We watched Quinn facilitate a thought provoking student movie club discussion, climbed above the gorgeous town of Berat to see an ancient castle, found Jill’s first European geocache, toured the charming city of a thousand windows, and, of course, café coffees and delicious food, out and in. Quinn made Chef Ramsey’s Perfect Scrambled Eggs in his—Surprise!—relatively warm apartment. Apparently, after discussing this with everyone I met, Jill’s apartment wins the prize for coldest place in Albania.

We spent Sunday night with one of Jill’s students and her family. Irida’s mom cooked a traditional Albanian meal of tave kosi, bread, byrek, salad, homemade cake, fruit, carrots, Bravo, and tea. Before dinner, we watched Albania beat Armenia in a futbol game. It was the most exciting soccer match I’ve ever seen, probably because I wanted Albania to win. Irida and I both like to read so she recommended the writings of Ismail Kadare, a famous, prize winning Albanian novelist. After dinner, Irida’s parents told me a little bit about the story of their lives under the dictatorship. I am forever changed by their struggle, and the incredible strength of the Albanian people. I left a piece of my heart in Albania with my new friends.

Coffee time at Entela's house.

Coffee time at Entela’s house.

All the ladies enjoying coffee time together.

All the ladies enjoying coffee time together.

A gift for my dowry.

A gift for my dowry.

New handmade socks.

New handmade socks.

And a little shopping afterwards.

And a little shopping afterwards.

The hidden geocache in the castle wall.

The hidden geocache in the castle wall.

We found it.

We found it.

We met someone who lives in the castle and he became our very own personal tour guide.

We met someone who lives in the castle and he became our very own personal tour guide.

Sunset at the castle.

Sunset at the castle.

The city of Berat.

The city of Berat.

Dinner at Irida's house.

Dinner at Irida’s house.

Tave kosi: an Albanian speciality.

Tave kosi: an Albanian speciality.

Cake Irida's mom made.

Cake Irida’s mom made.

Days 7 and 8: Lost in Translation and Kosovo

I woke up to Jill matter-of-factly telling me we had no water in the apartment. Avash, avash. Our first stop was the DShP. to meet Jill’s counterparts, Elvira and Dorela, for coffee. Jill and Elvira had quite the lively discussion about the disbursement of funds from the cervical cancer grant. I had actually heard quite a bit about Jill’s counterparts over the last two years. However, meeting them explained everything and allowed me to finally put faces to names. Then, off to lunch, the youth center, and the final edits of the student’s Model U.N. position papers. All hands, computers, and phones were on a deck to assist the students. Irida found an anti-plagiarism program and the finished papers were fed into the site, just to make sure everything was in the student’s own words. A task easier said than done. I have to say, the best thing about this experience was getting to see Jill as a teacher. She is tough, but fair. A student can’t get anything over on her; she knows all their tricks. I was extremely impressed, to say the least.

During Model U.N., Erijon, who works for the Bashkia (local government), came in to talk to Jill about the next day’s Kosovo trip. Jill and I had elected not to go because I didn’t know how I would fare on a long bus ride and extensive trip. Erijon assured us that we would be back in Kavaje that afternoon, so we changed our minds and went to honor the young man from Kavaje who lost his life helping the cause of democracy in Kosovo. We left the house at 6:45 a.m. the next day and returned to Kavaje around midnight. I guess we had been lost in translation the day before with Erijon’s timetable. However, the long trip was more than worth it. I saw beautiful Albanian mountain scenery, witnessed the rebuilding of Kosovo, took part in a beautiful, touching, ceremony, and got to experience what Jill calls, “embracing the chaos.” Every time we thought we were doing one thing, we would do another. The strangest part of the day, by far, was when we thought we were visiting the lovely town center of Prizren. Instead, we were dropped off at a Walmart-type store, ETC, for shopping. It was supposed to take only thirty minutes, but ended up taking over an hour. Our bus driver told us that Albanians love to shop at ETC when they visit Kosovo. Finally, we were on the way back to Kavaje, bus music blaring, people partying, singing and dancing the whole ride home. Entela told me the next day that bus parties are part of Albanian culture.

Day 9: Homeward Bound Reflections

Jill and Eri took me back to the Tirana Airport. I’m not going to lie, I kept having to fight back tears, tears that seemed to have a life of their own. I wasn’t sad to say goodbye to Jill because she will be back in the U.S. in a few months, I was sad because I’m going to miss every one of Jill’s students, the Curumi and Shyti families, and Kavaje. This was a challenging trip for me because I’ve never before travelled outside of tourist areas, have only been to Mexico, Tokyo and the U.S. Virgin Islands, plus this was my very first time travelling internationally alone. There’s no question that I’ve been sheltered. Albania opened my eyes. I will never be the same.

Waiting in line for the activity in Tharanda.

Waiting in line for the activity in Tharanda.

The celebration of Indrit Cara's life.

The celebration of Indrit Cara’s life.

A performer.

A performer.

A singing group of men from Kavaje

A singing group of men from Kavaje

Our party bus.

Our party bus.

Hanging around at the restaurant afterwards.

Hanging around at the restaurant afterwards.

Stopped at the Etc.

Stopped at the Etc…. for hours. 

The Traveler’s Guide to Albania

After living in Albania for the past two years during my Peace Corps service I have compiled a list of the thirty best things for travelers to do while visiting Shqiperi.

1. Eat Byrek-fast.

I’ve mentioned byrek in my blog before, and for good reason. Byrek is one of my favorite Albanian foods and it is incredibly cheap. Usually Albanians eat this in the morning for breakfast or a light snack at work or school. Byrek is a flaky pastry made with layers of thin dough stuffed with different fillings such as beans, potatoes, gjize (a sort of Albanian cheese), spinach, tomato, onion, and meat. My personal favorite is byrek me qepe e domate (with tomato and onion). My favorite byrek is on the served on the main boulevard in Elbasan directly next to Skampa Theater and the Vodaphone. You can find versions of byrek all over the Balkans.

2. Dance the night away at Beer Fest in Korca. 

Every summer the city of Korca holds a beer festival, usually sometime in August. This is a great opportunity to see famous Albanian performers and dancers. The festival is free of charge and beer is incredibly cheap (usually under a dollar for a cup). Several breweries from across the country come to serve their beer. I’d recommend trying Korca e zeze, the dark beer from Korca. This beer is hard to find outside of the Korca region, but it is definitely a nice addition to the available drinks in country.

Some of the volunteers at my first day of beer fest - so much fun!

3. Hike from Valbona to Thethi.

Northern Albania is breathtaking. If you have a few weeks in Albania I’d recommend making your way up north to take in the beauty that this region has to offer. You can hike the pass in a day, but camping is available along the way. There are also guesthouses in Valbona and Thethi if you’re not interested in camping. The accursed Albanian Alps are definitely worth the journey. Most of the guesthouses in Theth are actually rooms that Albanians rent out in their homes. It would be a tremendous opportunity to stay with a local family and have them cook you up a delicious, traditional meal after the long hike.

Home cooked Albanian meal after the hike.

The view from our campsite in Thethi.

4. Soak up the sun in Ksamil.

Ksamil is a small town just south of Saranda. The beach in Ksamil is absolutely gorgeous and the water is as clear as glass. Beaches in southern Albania are on par with famous beaches in Greece and Italy, but for a fraction of the price. Many Albanians take their vacation during the month of August, so I’d suggest to hit up the beaches in June or July before they become crowded.

The beautiful sunset. Everyday I am so thankful to live in such a beautiful country.

5. Try raki with a macchiato.

The most common coffee drinks to order at a coffee shop in Albania are kafe express or a macchiato. A macchiato is an express coffee with a bit of steamed milk. I prefer having a macchiato when I am out at coffee, and if you’re visiting Albania it is essential that you have coffee – every single day. It’s a must. While you’re out at coffee you should try raki, Albanian moonshine. It is a very strong drink and after a couple you’ll likely be drunk, so be careful. If you’re a woman traveler you might get strange looks ordering a raki, but it is definitely something you should experience here.

6. Eat at a Mengjesore.

A Mengjesore is usually some hole in the wall restaurant mostly serving men in the community. These places are great places to drop by for some cheap, traditional food. Don’t expect a menu at most of these places, but if you can get past the language barrier usually they are worth it. My favorite things to order are rice pilaf, fasule (a tomato and white bean soup), Greek salad, and spec te mbushura (stuffed peppers). You can find different traditional foods at these restaurants based on the region. Pilaf is usually a safe bet, but if you’re vegetarian be sure to request it pa lenge mish (without meat sauce). If you happen to be in Berat you should check out Angelos.

7. Travel with public transportation. 

The fastest way to travel around Albania on vacation would be to rent a car, which is a great option if you’re planning on spending some time traveling all over the country. Public transportation can sometimes be unreliable, but it is always an adventure. Riding around in furgons (small vans) and buses can be a great way to meet local people. It can also be quite entertaining because half the time the driver will be blasting Albanian and American music throughout the entire journey.

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Back in the furgon! The problem was fixed!

8. Celebrate Albanian Independence Day.

If you’re in Albania in the winter, specifically on November 28th, you should celebrate Independence Day with the locals. Albanians go all out for Independence Day and you’ll see Albanian flags lining the streets. People will decorate their cars, shops, and themselves with the double-headed eagle. There are usually big celebrations in Tirana and Vlore, but you could find festivities in almost every city. Be sure to buy an Albanian flag t-shirt to really get in the fun.

Happy independence day flags!

9. Participate in the pilgrimage to Kulmak.

Every year during the last week of August the Bektashi sect of Islam go on a four-day pilgrimage to Kulmak, located on the south side of Mount Tomori in between Berat and Corovode. During the pilgrimage lambs and sheep are sacrificed. After a lamb is sacrified everyone involved gets a thumbprint of blood on his or her forehead. You can hike up the mountain for the festivities or try to hitchhike with the locals. Us volunteers call this festival blood fest… you can only imagine why.

10. Buy fresh produce on market day.

In Kavaje, and many other cities around Albania, the freshest produce is available to buy at the market on Sunday. Many of the villagers from outside the city come in on Sundays to sell their fruits and vegetables. The produce in Albania is extremely delicious and fresh when it is in season. If you’re around in late-Spring I’d suggest buying a kilo of cherries. Also, the best time to buy produce is in the morning, so the earlier you go – the better.

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11. Play chess with an old man.

Everyday you will likely see many old men on the streets playing chess, cards, and other games on make shift tables in parks and on the streets. These men will sit around for hours with their buddies playing games in the morning and before dinnertime. Challenge an old man to chess if you dare. I bet he’ll give you a run for your money.

12. Climb the pyramid in Tirana.

The pyramid in Tirana used to be an old museum that was once known as the Enver Hoxha museum. Now it is a bizarre looking structure covered with all kinds of graffiti. You can find young boys and teenagers hanging out on the sides of the pyramid during all hours. If you want to climb to the top be sure to wear appropriate footwear because it isn’t exactly the safest of climbs.

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13. Take a selfie with a bunker. 

I have never met anyone that likes to take as many selfies as some of my Albanian students. Selfies are an integral part of Albanian youth culture – selfies in class, selfies here, selfies there, selfies everywhere. There are thousands of bunkers around Albania that were built during the communist Enver Hoxha regime. You can spot these bunkers on beaches, mountains, and roadsides. Take a selfie with a piece of this history.

And of course we found a bunker

14. Explore the streets of Old Town Berat.

Old Town Berat is another one of the cities in Albania that is protected by UNESCO. Explore the city of 1001 windows and see what all the hype is about. The mountainside is full of quaint white houses and the windows of these houses are lit up at night and look absolutely gorgeous from the bridge. The center of the bridge is a great spot to take those much-needed vacation photographs. Stop by the castle on the top of the mountain for only 100 lek (a little less than one dollar).

15. Spend midnight on News Years in Skanderbeg square

New Years is a big holiday for Albanians and many celebrate by giving each other gifts and having a giant family dinner the night of. If you happen to be in Tirana on New Years, I suggest you go to the center of town and spend midnight in the chaos of Skanderbeg Square. The city puts on a decent firework show and many Albanians set off their own fireworks as well. Be careful to not get stuck in the center of the DIY fireworks because there is no age restriction on who can buy fireworks. Often times you will see young boys and teenagers lighting fireworks in a frenzied manner.

Check out all that smoke. What a crazy night. (Photo cred: Alayna)

16. Experience rafting in Corovode. 

There is a rafting company that takes people on rafting trips down through the Osumi Canyon. I have heard that this is not the most exhilarating rafting trips because there are not a lot of higher class rapids, but if you’re interested in a calmer river float then this might be just right for you.

17. Shop second-hand clothes at the treg or bazaar.

Many cities will have a weekly or daily bazaar. At the bazaar you can find plenty of good-quality used clothing that has been imported in from other countries in Europe. I have found some really nice brand-name clothing for less than one US dollar at the bazaar. The only downside is sifting through piles of used clothing, but if you have the patience and the time you might find something worth keeping.

I bought a funny Spice Girls flag at the treg in Elbasan.

18. Go clubbing at Matrix.

Matrix is the best club that I’ve been to in Tirana. You can find famous local musicians or DJs mixing on the weekends. The club has LED lighting on the walls, as well as a pretty sweet laser light show. The night I went clubbing at Matrix reminded me of the fun times that I would spend going clubbing back home. Definitely worth the stop if you’re into partying. Make sure to reserve a table ahead of time.

19. Swim in Ohrid lake near Pogradec.

Ohrid lake is the perfect place to cool off during the hot summer months. The lake is crystal clear and absolutely refreshing after sweating all day. Did I mention that it gets pretty hot during the summer? Especially in July and August. You can take a paddleboat out into the middle of the lake to see the underwater vines that have grown hundreds of feet from the bottom near the surface of the water.

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20. Visit the Gjirokaster castle.

The castle in Gjirokaster is preserved far better than the other castles around Albania. Inside you will find old school artillery, the remnants of an old American plane, the prison, and the festival stage. Every four years there is an Albanian Folk Festival held on that stage to showcase folklore from across the country. While you’re in Gjirokaster also spend some time walking around Old Town.

Inside the castle

The amphitheater in the castle.

The corner of old town Gjirokaster near Tyler's apartment.

21. Take an evening xhiro.

In the evenings, especially during the summer, Albanians take to the streets in the evening before sunset to go on a stroll with their friends and family. During the xhiro you will see people dressed up to perfection walking slowly with their loved ones. If you go on a xhiro make sure to walk slowly and take things avash avash. Some of the best xhiros can be found in Durres, Shkoder, Vlore, and Berat. If you happen to xhiro in Durres you should stop by the ancient amphitheater beforehand and grab gelato on the Volga near the beach afterwards.

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22. Learn the history of Butrint.

Butrint is another UNESCO heritage site just south of Ksamil at the southern tip of the country. Butrint has been around since prehistoric times and has been occupied by the Greeks, Romans, and Venetians. You will be able to explore several different archeological sites at Butrint. Definitely worth the visit if you’re in the south.

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23. Soak in the hot springs of Benja.

The hot springs of Benja are located near the small city of Permet. Benja is a village on the hill near the city and can be reached hiking by foot. The hot springs are known for their therapeutic effects.

24. Take out a paddleboat in Durres.

If you’re in Durres it would be worthwhile rent and paddle boat and get away from the crowded seaside. If you’re looking to swim, I’d suggest General’s Beach near Kavaje (which you need a private vehicle to access) or some of the beaches further south. I would not recommend swimming in some of the waters near Durres, especially during the month of August when the beaches are packed full of tourists from Kosovo.

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When it's warm, Kate and I can get coffee at the beach 15 minutes away by furgon

25. Jump into the blue eye.

There are two blue eyes in Albania. One up north near Theth and the other down south in between Gjirokaster and Saranda. If you’re up for it, you should take the plunge into the blue eye’s pristine water. Just beware that the temperature is extremely cold, but there are definitely worse ways to cool off in the summer though.

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26. Eat seafood at Gazi restaurant in Kavaje. 

I am lucky to live in a city with some of the best restaurants in Albania, in my opinion. Gazi is a great locally owned seafood restaurant. The fish is caught fresh daily and Gazi, the owner, is sure to stop by your table to see how everything is tasting. The restaurant does not have menus, but I’d recommend ordering whatever is fresh. Whenever I eat there I like to have the mussels and makaron me fruta deti (mixed seafood pasta). My mouth is watering just thinking about it.

27. Visit Kruje.

Kruje is your one stop shop for traditional Albanian goods and touristy objects. The city has a castle, several museums, and a bazaar. You can also check out the shrine to Skanderbeg, a national Albanian hero. Also, head to nearby city Fushe-Kruje to see the George W. Bush statue.

28. Walk down George W. Bush Street.

Speaking of George W. Bush, there is also a street named after the former USA president in the capital city of Tirana. George W. Bush was the first, and only, USA president to visit Albania. After his visit, the Albanians commemorated his time here with a street and statue. As you can see, Albanians love Americans.

29. Hold a lamb or baby goat.

There are sheep and goats everywhere in Albania. You can see shepherds and their sheep walking down the streets in the center of town or grazing on the grass in the city park or in the villages just outside the city. I’d recommend taking some time to go on a walk to some of the smaller villages near the cities you’re visiting. If you happen to walk by a shepherd ask if you can hold one of the babies. It’s guaranteed that he will oblige.

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Sa bukurrrrr

Love the shepherds expression.

30. Circle dance at an Albanian party. 

There are always reason to valle aka circle dance in Albania, whether it be teacher’s day, someone’s birthday, or just a night out at dinner. If you are out celebrating with Albanians suggest circle dancing. It is likely you won’t even need to suggest it when you’re out with Albanians because valle basically happens at every single party. The basic step is quite simple, but some of the more difficult dances, like Valle Kosovare, might take a little longer to master.

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31. Eat sheep head. 

Sheep head is a delicacy in Albania and people will often serve this in their home on special occasions or holidays. This dish is often cooked with yogurt and lots of butter. I have only had this dish once, but I tried all the different parts including the brain, eye, and tongue. For those who have a curious palette, this might be a good choice of cuisine for you.

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32. Try to spot the Dordelec. 

Many Albanians hang dolls or stuffed animals from their homes to protect against the evil eye. Test how observant you are and try to spot some of these relicts hanging from balconies, roofs, etc. You might also see dolls on half-built homes. The idea behind this is to hang something ugly outside the home to keep the emotions of envious onlookers at bay.

doll

33. Check out the block in Tirana.

When you’re in Tirana be sure to check out the blloku where you can find plenty of bars and upscale restaurants to suit your fancy. Head up to the top of Sky Tower bar to get a 360 rotating view of the entire city. Mon Cherie is a coffee shop that caters to those looking for a foreign coffee feel. They specialize in making frilly drinks, much like those in the states. Radio Bar is my favorite bar. It is decorated with old school radios, records, and photographs. Don’t expect a cheap night out on the blloku though because many of these bars and restaurants have prices comparable to the states and other parts of Europe.

34. Go swimming at the lake in Vau Dejes. 

Vau Dejes is a small village near Shkoder in northern Albania. The village itself is quite small, but it is home to a beautiful and quaint lake. Take a furgon from Shkoder to Vau Dejes for the day to check out this lake. In the summer many of the kids from the village head up to the lake to keep cool from the heat. You can also find a great coffee shop nearby to quench your thirst.

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35. Speak with the locals.

Get to know Albanians while you’re traveling around this gorgeous country. They are some of the friendliest people in the world. Even if they can’t speak your language they will likely try to help you in any way possible. Say hello to people on the street and learn some basic Albanian greetings to impress them with your impeccable language skills. Even if you only know a few words in Albanian, people will likely applaud your effort and your amazing language skills. Some might even say that you’re fluent already. So kick back, relax, and enjoy everything Albania has to offer. It is one of those gems that has yet to be taken over by tourism, so you’ll get the true experience of a Balkans adventure.

A Bit of Turkish Delight

I recently took a trip to Istanbul, Turkey with my boyfriend Quinn. It was the last trip that I can take outside of Albania while I am serving as a Peace Corps volunteer. We decided that Istanbul would be a nice vacation because Turkey is relatively close to Albania (just a quick 2 hour direct flight) and because there is a lot of Turkish influence in Albania that we were curious about. We spent a week exploring all that Istanbul has to offer and each day was full of new adventures. We also celebrated my 25th birthday on vacation, which was nice. We rented an apartment near Taksim square through AirBnB and set up to discover the city.

Our first day we went to breakfast in our neighborhood and were pleasantly surprised with a big, delicious meal for a fraction of the cost of some of the more popular restaurants. The rest of the day we spent walking around and taking in the sights. We visited the Grand Bazaar and the famous Blue Mosque. One really interesting thing I noticed about Istanbul was the way that street animals are treated. In Albania, many street animals are in dilapidated conditions with broken legs, open wounds, and other problems. In Istanbul people took care of the street animals. I would see cat food out on the streets, as well as leftover food for the animals. All of the dogs were tagged to prove that they had been vaccinated and their conditions were much better. I wish a system like this was in place in Albania.

Turkish people love their tea like Albanians love their coffee. Everywhere that we went tea was served in small glasses made of glass. The shape of the glasses was very unique and unlike anything that I had seen before. After every meal it is tradition to offer a cup of tea (and we almost always accepted that hot, steamy glass of goodness).

Throughout the rest of the week we continued to explore the city, mostly by foot and sometimes by tram. It was nice being somewhere with a reliable and fast public transportation system. We took the ferry out to Princes Islands one day and biked all around the big island and came across a beautiful troop of horses. We ate plenty of traditional foods and sweets. I loved the baklava. It was always nice to stop in the afternoons for some tea and more baklava. We went underground to experience the Baslica Cistern and that was extremely beautiful. A must-see sight if you’re ever in Istanbul. One afternoon was spent smoking hookah in a small room, which was part of a larger hookah bar that is famous for being one of the oldest hookah bars in Istanbul, with a bunch of locals. Quinn and I were perplexed by a woman sitting next to us because she was a fully covered Muslim woman, smoking hookah, and playing Candy Crush on her iPad. It is interesting to observe different cultural norms, such as smoking hookah. Hookah is looked down on in the states, but it is completely appropriate for all walks of people in Istanbul. And I guess Candy Crush is just a global phenomenon (I admit I’ve never actually played it though). We also bought tickets to the White Rose show at the Hodjapasha Theater and that was pretty impressive. We were front row and were able to see all the expressions on the dancers faces throughout the entire performance.

On our final day we went to have a Turkish bath and it was absolutely fantastic. We started off changing into towels and then laid on a giant hot stone in the center of the bath house for 20-45 minutes to “help release the toxins.” After the stone, we were taken into another room and an attendant splashed us with cold water (which felt amazing after the hot stone), scrubbed down our bodies, and then soaped up. Then we laid on another stone and received another soaping with a giant loofah. The soap literally felt like a sheet of clouds covering my entire body. Getting all soaped up helped to prepare me for the massage that took place after the soaping. Overall, the experience was great and I didn’t want it to end, especially the massage. Quinn and I left feeling extremely relaxed (and a bit like jello).

We enjoyed our time in Istanbul and I am already itching for another vacation together. Anytime that I can spend with Quinn before I head back to America for grad school is extremely important for me.

Our first breakfast

Our first breakfast

Shopping in the Grand Bazaar

Shopping in the Grand Bazaar

A beautiful cat inside the Bazaae

A beautiful cat inside the Bazaae

Roaming around the streets

Roaming around the streets

Mmmmmm... delicious baklava

Mmmmmm… delicious baklava

The street cats were so friendly

The street cats were so friendly

Smoking hookah with the locals

Smoking hookah with the locals

More turkish sweets

More turkish sweets

Biking around the Prince Islands

Biking around the Prince Islands

All different kinds of Turkish deligh

All different kinds of Turkish deligh

Inside the Blue Mosque

Inside the Blue Mosque

At the Blue Mosque. I had to be completely covered and wear a longer skirt provided by the mosque since I was wearing leggings and a skirt.

At the Blue Mosque. I had to be completely covered and wear a longer skirt provided by the mosque since I was wearing leggings and a skirt.

A view from the bridge

A view from the bridge

I love how friendly people are with street animals in Istanbul.

I love how friendly people are with street animals in Istanbul.

Basilica Sistern

Basilica Sistern

Inside the Topikapi Palace

Inside the Topikapi Palace

A show at the Hodipasha Theater

A show at the Hodjapasha Theater

Walking around town some more

Walking around town some more

Fishermen on the bridge

Fishermen on the bridge

The hamaam where we had our wonderful Turkish baths.

The hamam where we had our wonderful Turkish baths.

Completely red after the Turkish baths.

Completely red after the Turkish baths.

My Surprise 25th Birthday

For my 25th birthday my students surprised me with an amazing party to celebrate. I had no idea that it was coming because they planned the entire thing while I was on vacation. Normally we meet every Wednesday after school for the Outdoor Ambassadors youth group. Instead of everyone coming to the youth center that day a few of the students came over and asked me to come to her parents café. They told me that my other friend, Entela, was crying/upset and they weren’t sure why. I immediately rushed over and to my surprise all of our youth group students were waiting patiently to surprise me with a giant cake, a DJ, and an afternoon of dancing. It was truly touching and a special day for me. I am going to miss these people so much…

The entire group.

The entire group.

This cake was absolutely spectacular.

This cake was absolutely spectacular.

Valle: circle dancing

Valle: circle dancing

Enjoying the delicious cake.

Enjoying the delicious cake.

Making a wish!

Making a wish!

Gezuar!

Gezuar!

We even had a DJ.

We even had a DJ.

The party got real.

The party got real.

Ambra's mom graciously helped plan the party and

Ambra’s mom graciously helped plan the party and

My little sis.

My little sis.

On Our Radar: March 6, 2015

jilljustine13:

Received a shout-out from the Peace Corps Mid-Atlantic region! Thanks for the support!

Originally posted on Peace Corps Mid-Atlantic Region:

We love to read Peace Corps Volunteers’ blogs! They tell the real story of life overseas, the adventures of service and the cultural insights of each Volunteer’s experience. Every Friday, we’ll feature a few of our favorite Volunteer blog posts in a weekly round-up. Whether you are a current Volunteer or thinking about applying, it’s always fun to learn about Peace Corps service around the world.

ONE //#PCWeek2015

In celebration of Peace Corps Week and Peace Corps’ 54th birthday, the Office of Third Goal launched a video contest for Volunteers. Check out the winning video below and the 25 others featuring this year’s theme of Host Country Heroes.

TWO //Host Country Hero: Kruu Ning

PCV Christine in Thailand also wanted to honor her Host Country Hero for Peace Corps Week. One of the teachers at her school, Kruu Ning, is dedicated to lifelong learning and inspires with…

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How Far I’ve Come

I have not been the best about updating my blog lately, but it is mostly because I have been extremely busy. It’s true that work really does begin to pick up during the second year of Peace Corps. Time feels like it has just been flying by and I can’t believe that Group 16 just finished our Close of Service conference. Is Peace Corps seriously almost over? I don’t know if I’m ready to leave this place yet. Albania has taught me so much about myself and about a culture completely different than my own. I love it here and I’ve made roots and made connections that I know will last a lifetime.

Before the New Year I was applying to graduate schools back in the states to receive my Masters in Social Work. I recently heard back from Washington University in St. Louis, which is the best social work program in the country, and I have been accepted as an advanced standing candidate. I also received the prestigious Peace Corps scholarship to attend the university, which is very exciting. I’m still waiting to hear back from some of the other schools that I applied to, but hopefully I will be able to make my final decision soon! I have never lived in the states outside of Colorado, so I will be embarking on another new adventure, which is also a scary thought. Will I make new friends? Where am I going to live? Which cell phone provider should I have? What about health insurance? The questions keep piling up, with no real concrete answers.

I am so excited about starting a new adventure, but I still have a lot of mixed feelings about leaving the life that I have created for myself here. I have become part of a new friend group and part of a new family. It is sad to think about leaving some of my students and friends. Now that everything is finally together, work is going well, culture shock is over, and I have a solid support network it’s time to leave and uproot myself again to a completely new city to start over again.

I have been avoiding having conversations about the future because it really is hard to imagine that my service is finally coming to a close. I remember how I felt during my first summer in comparison to where I am now and I can’t believe how much my perspective has changed and how much I have changed. Sometimes I really don’t want to leave this place and other times I wish I could start my new life right now. It’s hard to be in this limbo period of not knowing exactly what the future holds.

Group 16 at our Close of Service conference

Group 16 at our Close of Service conference

Recently, an undergraduate student at the University of Florida contacted me. She is writing a paper for her Imaginative Non-Fiction Writing Class about Peace Corps volunteers and their experiences. I told her I would be happy to help her in whatever way I could. I think her questions will help begin the long process of reflecting on my time here and what it has meant to me, although I don’t know if I will ever be able to truly express it in words, but let’s give it a go.

1. Why did you join the Peace Corps?

I chose to apply for the Peace Corps during my senior year at Colorado State University in Fort Collins. Peace Corps interested me since I first heard a presentation from a returned volunteer when I was in high school. I really wanted to try something different and immerse myself in a completely new friend group and culture. I grew up in Colorado my entire life and I really wanted a change of scenery. My social work undergraduate experience and time working in the schools helped push me towards making the leap to sign up.

2. When and where did you volunteer?

I am a Health Education volunteer in Kavaje, Albania. Kavaje is a medium sized city with a population around 40,000 people (although it feels much smaller to me). The city is predominately Muslim, with an Orthodox following as well. My service began in March 2013 and will end in May 2015.

3. How was your time in the Peace Corps different and similar from what you expected?

Well the number one rule of Peace Corps is not to have expectations, but that is basically impossible. How can one not have some sort of expectation surrounding the 27 months of their service? Here are some of the expectations that I had regarding my service before I began:

  • I would meet new friends. This is totally true. The other volunteers that I serve with here have become my best friends, my confidants, my family. We will now share a strong bond together for the rest of our lives. Besides volunteers, I also have Albanian friends that I consider like family too. I’ve created a strong bond with many of the students in my youth groups and I know that we will keep in touch for the rest of our lives. These bonds with locals did not happen immediately like I originally thought they would, but after intentional relationship building (in Peace Corps lingo we can this IRBing) our friendships grew into daily conversations and coffee dates talking about life, love, and Albania.
  • I would be fluent in Albanian. This sadly is not true. I hoped that I would reach a level in Shqip where I could teach entire classes in the local language. I could teach a class in Albanian, but it probably would not make that much sense. I am able to communicate with people and have basic conversations, but explaining details can still be difficult for me without a little bit of charades. On my final Language-Proficiency Exam I scored Advanced-Low, which was quite the accomplishment for me anyways.
  • I would be busy with work. This was definitely not true, at first. I expected that the day I started at my office that everyone would want to work with me and help me. The relationships at my office were slow and we never really became friends like I originally hoped. Over time we built up an understanding at the office and were able to work together, but it was definitely a rocky relationship. It took me a long time (almost a year) to step outside my comfort zone and finally begin some secondary projects, but the moment I stepped outside my office and looked for work elsewhere was when I really started to feel successful in my service. Now that my service is about to end I am busy every single day with different youth groups and activities surrounding my cervical cancer grant.
  • That I would help someone who knows absolutely no English become fluent. I actually thought that I could help my neighbors and other community members become fluent in English during my time here. I realized that motivation needs to come from both sides though and, even though a lot of people have the desire to learn English, they don’t necessarily have the motivation to continue learning throughout the difficult times. Learning a language is not easy; I learned that here. Motivation and consistency are key. Even though I have not helped the young children do a complete 180 with their English, I take pride in the fact that I have helped many of the students with their conversational English. I can hear the difference in the way my students speak now, in comparison to a year ago. I have also taught one of my Albanian friends a lot of American phrases that she uses in daily conversation. Things like that make me smile.
  • I would start many new hobbies. I could have spent some of my time here more wisely developing hobbies, but honestly I spent a lot of my time soaking up information from the internet: surfing Facebook, reading articles, doing stupid online quizzes, and binge-watching television shows. I do not regret how I used my time because I continued to work on myself as well. I began running, which was something I had never done before and that certainly got me a lot of attention in the community. I learned to cook, kind of. Before Peace Corps I pretty much primarily ate vegetarian TV dinners… not exactly the healthiest of options for the Health Education volunteer. Now I have several different recipes under my belt (some of them with definite Albanian influence).

4. How do you think joining Peace Corps changed you?

Joining Peace Corps changed me in so many ways, and many of those ways are hard to put into words. My entire life here is completely unalike anything I experienced in the states. Being put into a totally different environment by yourself truly humbled me. I learned how to communicate in smiles and hand gestures, and that kindness really goes a long way. I have gained more patience here and don’t think that many things will phase me when I return to the states. I am a better person because I joined the Peace Corps.

5. How did you find the application process to be?

I applied when Peace Corps had the old application process. Prospective volunteers are much luckier now because the application process is a lot easier. Just filling out the application took me over a month to complete. Then I had to wait for several months before my interview with a recruiter on campus at my university. After that I waited for several more months to hear back about my nomination. I was frustrated because two other girls from my social work program heard back a lot quicker than I did and I was worried that I would not get accepted. Finally, I heard back in the spring of my senior year that I was nominated for a world-wide nomination as a Health Education volunteer in September 2012. This meant that Peace Corps essentially had not picked the region where I would serve, but that they would just place me in whatever program fit. In July of 2012 I was still waiting to hear back about my placement and then I received a call saying that my nomination was being pushed back to March 2013. I was devastated because I did not have a plan of what I would do until March. I was still living in my apartment in Fort Collins, but my lease ended in mid-August. I was not happy about the prospect of moving back in with my parents, but I decided that would be the best fit. I could not look for a job in social work because of the short time-frame, so I began working at as a teacher’s assistant in the Special Education program at an inner-city middle school. Peace Corps has an extension process to actually serve and the medical process was a big hurdle for me. I continued having to do medical appointments almost up until my departure. I had to visit a variety of doctors at least ten times and Peace Corps required my entire medical history, which was difficult to find at first.I received my letter of acceptance in August 2012 saying that I would be serving in Albania. I honestly had no idea where Albania was and had to look it up immediately. I was pretty excited with the country and accepted the invitation that same day. I wanted to serve in Eastern Europe and the idea of traveling around Europe was very alluring to me as well. I think that Peace Corps purposefully makes the application process difficult because if you can jump through all those hurdles then you are a good candidate to continue jumping through various hurdles throughout service.

6. What is your most memorable moment in your time with the Peace Corps?

I have so many memorable moments from my service, but I was honored when I won the Blog It Home competition. Peace Corps provided me with a return trip ticket to Washington D.C. to talk about my experience abroad and about Albanian culture. I was so happy to be recognized for the blog that I have been keeping throughout service. It was a treat to talk with students at local schools and other people in the capital. We also got to meet with many different organizations and got a tour of the White House. It was a fantastic experience and definitely a highlight for me.

7. Do you feel like you made a difference in someone’s life? If yes, how?

People tell me that I have helped changed their lives for the better. One of my students told me that before she met me that her life was boring, but now her life is full of excitement. Creating the youth center with my site-mate definitely will leave a lasting impression on my community and gives the students a place to grow into the future leaders of Kavaje. Having activities and clubs that the students can participate in outside of school has definitely helped make a difference here. They have celebrated holidays at the nursing home, cleaned up their community garbage on several different occasions, and educated people about important health concerns such as skin-cancer and hygiene. They continue to amaze me and I know that they will continue to do community projects in the future. All they needed was a little push and motivation to get them started. I was that push, not only for my students, but for my friends and counterparts too. They did most of the work. I was just here to help guide them along the way.

8. What type of service projects were you involved in?

I was involved in a variety of different activities and projects while I was here. Here are a few:

  • Assisted with health education classes at the schools
  • Taught English and dance classes at the cultural center
  • Aided with health education seminars for nurses and doctors through an USAID small project assistant grant to combat cervical cancer
  • Held a local GLOW camp in Kavaje to promote gender equality, self-esteem, and the importance of girls education
  • Facilitated large garbage cleanups
  • Coordinated a national summer camp for 80 participants
  • Worked on a committee of other Peace Corps volunteers and a local NGO to plan and implement a training of trainers for professionals regarding anti-trafficking
  • Participated in Special Olympics
  • Facilitated several after-school clubs: Model United Nations, Outdoor Ambassadors, GLOW
  • Helped students plan fundraisers which gained over $500 for our community
  • Held a community health fair with my counterparts
  • Assisted with community wide health education awareness marches regarding road safety, breast cancer, and HIV/AIDs
  • Participated in several Peace Corps committees: Volunteer Advisory Committee, Anti-Trafficking in Persons Committee, Outdoor Ambassadors
  • Created a community youth center equipped with two computers, a printer, internet, craft supplies for summer camps, a meeting room, and over 500 books in English
  • Went on bike rides with the students to explore the villages surrounding Kavaje

Going through these questions was just the beginning of my reflection process on the past two years here. I am happy with how far I’ve come and how much I’ve been able to do with my time here. Here is a video that I created for my group’s Close of Service conference. This highlights our time in Albania.