After a long plane ride, I arrive in Albania! The first two days in Tirana are a whirlwind of sights, sounds, and emotions. From orientation sessions to our first language classes, we are kept very busy! In a nutshell: I love the food, the language is really difficult, and I’m at information-overload!

Wednesday, March 8, 2017, 7:45pm

Whew. The worst is over (for now)! After two plane rides and lots of napping, I’m finally in Albania! It still feels like a dream – like I’m not really here at all.

Our Peace Corps crew got going in the late morning. We piled onto the buses, said goodbye to our facilitators, and then headed for the airport. Check in was organized chaos, and despite all of the confusion no one got left behind in Miami.

I mostly slept for the entire nine-hour flight, and when we arrived in Frankfurt we had a really difficult time trying to find the right gate. We got turned around and retraced our steps – all while maintaining a very brisk “Amazing Race” pace. It was kind of intense.

The final plane ride was only two hours. When we landed in Albania we went through immigration, and then there was another flurry of organized chaos as we all tried to find our checked bags and board the bus for Tirana. Our staging manager greeted each of us at the airport by name (first and last!), and he could recognize us all by our faces!

Getting off the plane, I think everyone was in a state of extreme exhaustion – though adrenaline kept some people awake and energized. As I looked out the airport windows at the beautiful, scenic mountains I felt a burst of excitement – but that pretty quickly faded as I boarded the bus and exhaustion took over again.

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Colorful buildings against a pink sunset in Tirana

My first impressions of Tirana (and Albania) were all very positive. There were older communist villas in the countryside juxtaposed against newer car dealerships and casinos masquerading as faux-ancient architecture. I noticed the bright colors of all the buildings, the slick, stylized hairdos that many people were sporting, and the numerous English language signs that adorned the sides of buildings.

Once we arrived at the hotel, we had a chance to just relax for a couple of hours. So my roommate and I laid down on our beds and instantly conked out. Around 4:30pm, everyone gathered downstairs in the conference room for an hour an a half meeting about money, water filters, and SIM cards. I was mostly paying attention, but because I was so exhausted I think there were some things that I missed.

To end our first day in Albania, we went upstairs to the hotel restaurant and were served a delicious four-course meal. There was bread, some sort of vegetable and potato soup, pasta and chicken wings, and ice cream with nuts and candied orange peels. Yum.

Now it’s only 8:00pm, but I’m totally ready for bed. My roommate’s already asleep, but I’m probably going to try and stay awake at least until 9:30pm to get on a more regular sleeping schedule. One day in Albania down, 730+ more to go.

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The first of many, many coffees here in Albania

Thursday, March 9, 2017, 11:31pm

And another day in the Peace Corps is offically in the books! To be completely honest, it hardly feels like I’m Albania at all. I spend all my time in the hotel, I’m still surrounded by Americans and people speaking English, and apart from the great food, there’s nothing that feels extraordinarily Albanian about Tirana yet.

We started out the day with back-to-back sessions on everything from Peace Corps policies to security, health, and the PST schedule. It was a long morning, but I found myself totally engrossed in all of the material. Overall I was just excited to be in a new country and eager to start learning the language.

During our wonderful coffee breaks, the weather was so beautiful and sunny that I lingered outside for as long as I possibly could. After a delicious lunch (risotto followed by two pork cutlets and potato wedges), we finally dove right into language training.

The initial language sessions themselves were completely overwhelming. We were grouped into four different “classes,” and the instructors wasted no time in diving right into the language. Because I had absolutely no experience with the alphabet or even the general sounds of the language itself, I found myself struggling a bit to parrot back the words and phrases that the instructors flung at us one after the other.

After learning Chinese for so long I’ve gotten accustomed to a certain type of language study, and now it seems I’m going to have to change up my entire approach. Learning Chinese had so many benefits that I take for granted now – mainly the easy to understand Pinyin that makes pronunciation a breeze. Right now with Albanian it’s almost impossible for me to pronounce the word without a lot of practice and repetition, and because I want to get the accent just right I have to listen to a real Albanian speaker before I feel comfortable with my pronunciation.

Despite the challenges, I really enjoyed the language session. Everyone was enthusiastic and engaged, and we’re all in a very similar place language-wise, so I felt comfortable even when I messed up.

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Beautiful sunset over the artificial lake in Tirana

After the language practice, a group of volunteers went over to the nearby park to walk around. The park was beautiful – the setting sun against the mountains and colorful houses was just gorgeous! The park itself was mainly a walking trail around a large man-made lake, and there were also vendors, street performers, amusement rides, and restaurants nearby. It reminded me of the mega-parks in China, now that I think about it.

As we walked around, my African American friend and I noticed that we’d turn heads or get extra long looks in passing. It was a totally new experience for me to feel so out of place in a foreign country. From my travels in Asia I’ve gotten used to being mistaken as a local – with all of the advantages and challenges that come with that assumption – and now I’m definitely going to have to switch gears and prepare for a lot of attention, especially once I move into a more rural area.

Dinner was delicious (again) – a fish soup followed by cucumber salad and flan. Yum. After the meal ended, I went back upstairs to call Mom for her birthday! I also made language flashcards, watched Albanian TV, and filled out paperwork. I still have lots more work to do, but I’ll save that for another day!

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Hard at work in one of many, many informational sessions

Friday, March 10, 2017, 9:34pm

It’s been another lovely (and exhausting) day in Albania!

We started the our morning bright and early with breakfast and a sector-specific session. The Community and Organizational Development (COD) director talked to the group about goals, objectives, and activities of previous volunteers. She stressed that building relationships is key and that the best way to make connections is by becoming proficient with the language. She also mentioned that most COD volunteers would get off to a pretty slow start, so secondary projects (like teaching English) could become pretty important.

I couldn’t help but feel a little overwhelmed by the presentation. I looked at the long list of goals and successful projects, compared my work experience to the long careers of other COD volunteers, and found myself coming up short. I think being a young female volunteer will have its benefits and challenges – I can connect with other young female professionals and it might be easier for me to outreach to youth, but I’m worried I might not be taken as seriously in the workplace.

I left for the break feeling both anxious and cautiously optimistic. Then I settled down into the morning language classes and got overwhelmed all over again as we started to learn new words and phrases. I haven’t even learned the alphabet!

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One of the many delicious meals we were served at our hotel

Lunch was amazing – the best pork chop I’ve ever eaten – but the session after our meal was a struggle. (How is it possible to fully pay attention while also nursing a food coma?) After another short break, we had a very long presentation on host family do’s and don’ts. All the information was incredibly valuable, but I was so exhausted and overwhelmed that I had trouble focusing towards the end of the presentation. Dinner was also amazing – salad followed by a noodle dish with pork and a delicious custard-pie dessert. Yum.

Once we’d wrapped up dinner, a group of volunteers and I went exploring and found a little coffee shop not far from our hotel. We took over the entire restaurant area, and we enjoyed drinks and free appetizers (on the house)! It was so nice to just kick back and relax with the other volunteers. I felt such a spirit of camaraderie as we all took in the entire orientation experience and looked forward to our home stay adventures.

Now I’m back in the room feeling tired, overwhelmed, and yet optimistic. I have faith that no matter what the Peace Corps throws at me, I’ll do my best to rise to the challenge. I’m excited to finally dive into the “real” Albania and to start my true Peace Corps experience.

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The full A20 group in front of our hotel
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