Sometimes, when walking around my PST (Pre-Service Training) city, I feel like I’m in any European city. But then I hear the adhan (call to prayer for Muslims) and realise that there is something very different to this place. It’s hard to put your finger on it, but the sheer mix of ethnicity and culture is astounding. Western N Macedonia is heavily Albanian, and the city I find myself in has representation from all ethnicities. To best illustrate this, another PCT (Peace Corps Trainee) and I went to lunch together, and the menu was Albanian (until we got an English one). Our server was Macedonian, and they served Turkish coffee and tea to Turkish music. (Speaking of Turkish tea, it was a balm to my tea-loving soul–I have unluckily chosen another country that thrives on coffee.)
My host family is Albanian. When I say host family, I really mean host mother, as both her husband and her son are working in Germany. We live in what I would truly call a compound, houses surrounding a courtyard where we take most of our meals. She only speaks Albanian, which puts me on a bit of a back foot as I speak none of it. But I’m pretty sure I will catch on quickly and for now, charades and pointing get things done. However, my host mum does know two German words: spazieren (which means to go for a walk/a stroll) and essen (which means food). So at least I know when to eat and when to stroll about the city.
Part of a total immersion into a new and completely different culture is the ability to sit back and just let it wash over you. There are things that happen that I legitimately don’t understand, and can only describe. My host mum usually cooks dinner on a camp stove, but has two refrigerators (one for upstairs in what I call the “show kitchen” and one for downstairs in the “work kitchen”). Do I know why? No. We were warned in Orientation that we may have to negotiate for shower time because of the boiler situation (electricity is very expensive compared to the salaries); I can take showers whenever I please. My observation about having to put toilet paper in the bin in only true in my classroom now. I have a big bed and a television, and a desk at which to do my homework.
If you have ever seen Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “The Danger of a Single Story”, you are probably thinking that my experience does not line up with what you may have heard about Peace Corps. I can hear you thinking You have running water and electricity! You have WiFi and I see BMWs in that picture up there! But it is not without hardship–the poverty of my city is palpable. There are casinos everywhere, false hope for a desperate people. A third of the population of the city is abroad, having given up this country for a bad job. You hear the scorn in young peoples’ voices when talking about it, and the wish to go anywhere else is strong: Germany, Switzerland, Italy. America is the holy grail, but one word stops a dream: ‘Visa’. A part of my job in the Peace Corps is to show host country nationals (HCNs) the beauty and worth of their own country. I hope they are infected by my enthusiasm.
NB: Sorry for all the initialisms/abbreviations. Like any federal government programme, Peace Corps is full of them. There are a few things I have to keep private (my exact location, for example), but I will never keep these secret from you.