September 20, 2016

Albania: The (Short) Return.

It seems like I am always coming across some post on one of the many many platforms espousing the value of travel and how it "changes" you. They seem to be mostly targeted at younger millennials (insert angry comment here) or others who haven't yet had the opportunity to be dramatically altered by events in his or her own town.

One of the things I've heard about it is that it makes it hard to see your own country the same way again. I'm not sure that's accurate; I think it makes it out to be much bigger than it needs to be. Sometimes travel is just travel. Living in a new country might cause that kind of sea change, but I'm not sure how long that lasts, as even after only three weeks I felt myself getting into the rhythms of American living, for good or ill.

I think it takes a while before you start "living" in a country, as opposed to feeling like a visitor, and thus still a resident of wherever it is you came from. I've lived in Thailand for two months now, and that's not enough to make an appreciable difference. Of course, on this latest return I wasn't visiting America, but rather Albania, which became a home and still is in some important ways.

I was there for some necessary, if unheralded, work. You can READ ABOUT IT HERE. I was only there for a short time, but it was as if I had never left. There was nothing strange to me about the half-finished buildings (still half-finished), the food (still don't like byrek), or being stared at as I walked down the street (I still wave when it becomes too obvious and obnoxious). I was even able to speak in the same child-level Albanian of which I was previously capable.

So...possibilities. First, maybe it just hasn't been long enough. The next visit will be many more months away, so perhaps that time will be sufficient for me to feel odd again. Second, perhaps Albania has become enough of a real home to me that returning is now second-nature. The third is that perhaps all things are becoming second nature. That third possibility is intriguing. I remember when I packed for Thailand and took off; it seemed much less a big deal, despite the fact that I was going to a job, one in which I would be responsible for much more than my own performance, but that of dozens of others.

When I came back to Thailand from Albania there was no period of readjustment, just a going with the flow, even being able to laugh at (on the inside) the taxi driver who complained about the long distance he had to drive from the airport to my apartment.

Maybe I am just getting better at being in new places. I suppose I won't have a clearer idea of this until the next country. 

If I am, though, then perhaps I am one step closer to being able to call myself a "citizen of the world" (overused phrase, that).

That would be cool...

August 10, 2016

Two Weeks In (Near) Bangkok: Building Another Life

As I write this, the staff at my new workplace just finished the student/parent orientation for the upcoming school year. It was an event filled with ceremony, and one in which I came to better understand the role I am to play this year. Two days before, I had been asked to speak to the gathering about the vision of the school as it began its second year in which it would have a full complement of students, Grades 10 through 12. I found (and find) it more than a little ironic that the director with all of 14 days of experience at the school, 14 days of living in Thailand itself, was called upon to forward this notion of the future.

Regardless, I was honored by the choice, and determined to make a good go of it. So I wrote down talking points, as I find that reading word for word makes one sound like they are reading word for word. I used my new BlackBerry, a gift from a friend who always knows what I am going to need right before I am going to need it.

But I am all thumbs sometimes, and as I was walking up I must have hit the wrong button, for my phone decided to go all cattywampus on me. I had to make a quick decision: spend a few awkward seconds in front of 600 people trying to get my notes back, or just wing it, using what I remembered from taking the notes in the first place. I chose the latter, and it went just fine. In fact, it probably went a lot better than it would have had I followed the talking points I had so painstakingly taken down.

Sometimes you just know how to do something. And even though it makes me nervous every time, I have come to realize that I can speak off the cuff with the best of them. I just needed to trust that I knew enough, was good enough, that I had reached a level of professional competence that allowed me to do what was once hard.

It gets me to thinking about my time here so far, a duration still shorter in length than many vacations I have taken, but one long enough to know that the discombobulation I had experienced in Albania wasn't going to happen here. Part of this is that I dove right into my job; as the only director in the country for the first week I saw that there were needs, particularly in hiring and professional development, and took the initiative to address them. That's another thing I might not have done were I an earlier version of myself.

I think the other part of it comes from my past experience. Many expatriates live in one other country and call it good, happy to take their enriched lives and apply what they learned and how they grew to their home country. There was a very good chance I would have joined them, which would have been fine, all things considered.

But I didn't, and me ending up in Thailand was, I came to understand later, the result of a very strange situation coupled with a fortuitously timed decision on my part to check in with a school that had previously shown interest in me. I tend not to belief in fate, per se, but this was certainly a fortunate intersection, at least so far.

Long story short, this isn't my first rodeo. Much like with the speech, I seem to have acquired more of an ease with creating a life in different places, even though I am seeing it for the first time.

It makes me wonder about the time I return to the United States for longer than a few weeks. At what point will I settle into a new, old, routine, and cease to see my homeland with new eyes?

July 24, 2016

New Country, Older Me

I am writing this from my apartment just outside of Bangkok, across the street from the school at which I will work. I have been here two days, spending much of the time wandering around, finding where the stores are, and doing the necessary things to make this a home, which I have a little practice with. So, although I have never been to Thailand, never even been to Asia at all, I feel a little less at sea than the first time I had to make my way in a new country. Already my apartment has started to feel familiar; I only need look to my right to see the reminder of how rich a life I have been gifted with, rich in all types of experiences and deep connections to loved ones.

Now, like then, I am apart from the family of my blood and those who are just as close, a separation made more poignant by the fact that I feel like I have a lot more loved ones today, and that I am bound even tighter to those who came before I added to their number with fellow Peace Corps volunteers and Albanians. My time back in the United States made this clear, only verified what we have always known: that no matter the length of time that passes when we meet the years we spent in different lands fall away and we are back in our youth. I was only able to spend three weeks back home, because that is just how things worked out, and I keep thinking the same thing, over and over again.  

Three weeks is not nearly enough time.

I am reminded of a quote misattributed to Pooh, but which resonates regardless: How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard. I shudder at the alternative, that for a time it looked like I was losing, or pissing away, everything and everyone that matters to me, and to whom I mattered. Interestingly, it was leaving the first time, to Albania, or more exactly how I changed through the experience, that likely helped me better become someone these folks wouldn't mind having around. I'm certainly more resilient now, at least, less prone to the doom and gloom that turned so many people off. I am ready to face another hard transition.

Yes, hard.  

Because of course it's going to be hard. The difference this time is that I've been through this before, and I know it will be okay. There is a confidence one gets when things, whether they be work-related or just about surviving in a new context, manage to work out. It is a confidence that comes when one realizes that the reason, perhaps the only reason, that this happened is because he or she made it work. That is what the Peace Corps did for me. Well, one of the things.

So I am going to make this work, as best as I am able, to the best of my ability. And I will be content in knowing that I left nothing in the tank, that I took it in, that I grew even more as a result. What this growth will look like remains to be seen. It could be a transcendent experience, or it could come with a new set of lumps from which to learn. Probably both.

But it'll be interesting, and that's not bad.

Tomorrow I enter my new school for the first time, and will meet expats like me, the teachers with whom I will collaborate as we work to improve our practice. The first day of what, one hopes, will be hundreds.

Let's do this.