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. 

June 19, 2016

What I Will Miss About Albania (and what I won't...)

I am not Albanian. For those who are reading my blog for the first time (although I don't know why this particular entry would be the one that got you reading), let me get that right out there. I am American, a Peace Corps volunteer who has lived here for a little over two years, and any time a foreigner takes the risk of commenting on particular aspects of a culture not their own they open themselves up to a gamut of responses, from thoughtful agreement or criticism to blind rage and threats of "I will kill you." It's part of the package, and I am not the first Peace Corps volunteer to speak about Albania and receive a mixed response.

Still, the fact is that Albania is a really odd place. The nicest people I have ever met have been Albanian. The biggest jerks I have ever met have been Albanian. People's homes are spotless, yet there is no strong sense of a shared home in Albania itself, which means those who mop their floors three times a day think nothing of throwing trash in the street. Nothing seems to be done here in the middle, and that's been a tough thing to get my head around. 

The time is coming, and soon, when whether or not I ever get Albania's various quirks will become a strictly academic matter. I am closing service soon, and moving on to other things, another culture I will do my best to understand, an endeavor which, like this one, is likely to meet with mixed success. Living in a country different from one's birth is challenging, even if where one lives is not much different, at first blush, than one's homeland (and Albania is not America, not by a long shot). I have written a great deal about this country, both good and bad, and will do so one last time, a sort of general summary of a place that ended up being, and feeling like, my normal.

However, before diving into what has resonated the most, either personally or for the culture at large, take a gander at the legally-required disclaimer above (if you are reading this before June 22, 2016), or just take my word that this is all just my opinion, that my experience in Albania has largely been positive, and in the cases where I do get negative, it is practically a guarantee that none of the offenses I've noted were committed by anyone who would read my stuff anyway.

Let's get started.

1. I will miss the religious tolerance that exists here. Muslims marry Christians, celebrate Christian holidays, and vice versa. It's great, even if a large part of the reason for this was due to Enver Hoxha's cracking down on all religions, creating an officially atheist state during his dictatorship. Expressions of belief are coming back, and largely without the hate that extremists of all camps hold in their hearts. The Pope has hailed its tolerance, and I know many Muslims, Catholics, and Orthodox Christians who live their lives in peaceful coexistence. Yes, a few have been radicalized, but it is such a small percentage, and the tolerance I have seen here is a lesson to the United States on how to get along...

...but there is a church across from my apartment (cool), I have visited it (cool), and the man responsible for the bell used to work out at my gym, and he's pretty nice (cool). What is not cool is that while there used to be a pattern to the bells that would wake me up, keep me up, or let me know it's time to eat lunch, that pattern has long since been abandoned, and they are going off at random times for up to ten minutes at a time, and I don't know why. I will not miss those bells.

2. Speaking of celebrations, I love the willingness of Albanians to party it up at the drop of a hat, to get circle dancing with anyone and everyone wanting to join in. A lot of other volunteers can attest to this, can recall weekend-long weddings, big dinners with plenty of "gezuar!"s, and traditional music (often clarinets) playing all night long. I admire that Albania has managed to keep its traditions against a lot of forces, whether it be the Ottomans, Hoxha, or globalization. There's a lot to be said for the stamina of a people who have faced so much and still play music all night long...

...but people don't seem to care if what they are celebrating is keeping the entire neighborhood up, whether it's a wedding or the occasion of having some extra fireworks. The concept or caring that one's actions affect others haven't yet taken hold, and they need to. However, it might be too late for me in one aspect, for I will forever hate clarinets.

3. Every 7 to 10 days I walk across the street to buy 30 eggs from the lady who runs one of the many local markets (it's not a hole in the wall, but definitely has cave-like features). She doesn't have much, but she has eggs. And ice cream when it's the hot season. I don't know her name, but we always smile at each other, exchange greetings, and she helps make sure my egg carton is sturdy enough to make it up the eight flights of stairs to my apartment. It's the nicest shopping trip I have...

...because the other shopping trips, or other errands in which lines are involved, can be a nightmare. Simply put, people don't queue here. There is a concept called i zgjuar. Literally it means "smart", but in practice what it really means is the ability to outsmart, get one over, or take advantage of others to get ahead, even if it's a minor gain in convenience for you at the cost of a major inconvenience for everyone else. To get ahead at all costs is seen in a positive light by a lot of folks, and I'm guessing it's a holdover from communism, when one did whatever it took to make it work. It's why cheating is not frowned upon, but getting caught is. And it's selfish and wrong, and I have literally shoved my arm between an old man (they are almost always old men) who thought he was going to jump in front of me and the lady (always a lady) at the counter (whether it was to pay my power bill or buy milk). Without fail they have backed down, at least in my case, and I think it's because they are shocked that someone would dare to stand up to their nonsense. I won't miss entitled old men trying to cut in front of me; they can wait to get their cigarettes like everybody else.

4. I have been blessed with some very good collaborators, educators who want to improve their practice and help me improve my own as an educational leader. By and large, if Albania is to better itself it will be because the youth of today were inspired to do well by the teachers with whom I work, and those like them. They are faced with tremendous odds, and the term "scarce resources" barely scratches the surface of what little they are working with. It's cold in the winter, hot in the spring, and they write on old blackboards and share chalk. Yet despite this my friends and coworkers come in day after day and do their best, afterwards working with me to figure out how to make their best even better...

...and they do it in a system that is chaotic at the best of times, and often corrupt. Even in education, which should set itself apart, there are directors who take bribes in exchange for jobs, and one's political party often determines whether a job is kept for the next year, or given to someone else. While it's all bullshit, this last part is really frustrating. I am a pretty left-wing guy, but I have worked with teachers of all stripes, and the idea that one's pedagogical ability is enhanced or diminished based on their political stance is absurd (one's way of looking at information and critically examining it is not the same issue, although some in one party are quick to deride the ability of those in the other based solely on their party affiliation). This system still smacks of the totalitarian communism from which this country is trying to extricate itself, and if Albania ever hopes to join the EU it will need to cut the crap in this area, as well as many others.

5. The food here is pretty wonderful. Being ideally situated, geographically, Albania has Italian, Turkish, and Greek options, as well as their own traditional foods. Here in Durrës, my city, the seafood is quite good, and very well-priced. At one of my favorite restaurants I can get a huge bowl of mussels, able to be shared among two or three people, for the equivalent of four dollars. I also have a favorite Italian-style pizza place, where a mushroom pizza runs me three dollars. A nice rotisserie chicken also costs three dollars. And there is always the sufflaqe, their take on the gyro, which fills the belly for about a dollar...

...but I don't understand the appeal of byrek, and I think I am the only one. I just don't like byrek. I don't even want to talk about it. So I won't.

A list like this can go on and on, and likely I have forgotten certain things, which is okay. In short, and as I said before, the good has far outweighed the bad, and it was a lucky turn (or a few turns) that brought me to this place, where I met some wonderful people, and made connections that will last a lifetime. 

All in all, I'll miss this place. It was home.