Hey out there friends and family. We’re coming home! Seems like a good time to finish out this blog thing with some reflections, although I think the real reflecting will happen over the next year or long after.
When you’re lucky enough to go to new places and meet new people, there are all sorts of impressions. It’s said that the first ones are often the best but you must stay awhile to find something honest and true. Even then our feelings change like the weather – one day up, one day down and many in between. On a recent road trip we found that with Albania, some of our first impressions still hold true – the geographic diversity and beauty, the striking dichotomy between what things look like and what they really are, the terrible trash problem, the homeless people and animals, the serious, mistrustful faces and many more small and large details.
But after two years, what will we take as lasting impressions? In sharp contrast to the list above we will take home a realization of deeper meanings. That dichotomy of the flashy appearances vs. the underlying shabbiness has come to represent the desperate need of a people who can cope with the future only by living in an sort of imaginary world of beautiful coffee bars and shops full of expensive goods. Could it be that looking like Italy will lighten the heavy burden of rampant corruption and hopelessness? When there is no escape, at least for the majority of Albanians, perhaps one can learn to ignore the trash and beggars – keeping the eye on the next marriage in the family, the next baby born, the next birthday celebration, the coming summer spent by the “sea”. No wonder “what can we do?” (C’ te bejme) is such a common expression here. The culture has evolved to survive by practicing those 4 words – every minute of every day.
Our lasting impressions of Albanians will have many faces. The strength of our host family mom, who raised 6 children, 4 now living in western Europe, her husband working in Greece, trying to manage a small farm with her youngest son. Waking up every morning to milk the cow, feed the chickens, tend to the garden, cook, clean and do it all over again day after day. Year after year welcoming overwhelmed and needy Americans to live in her home, a small financial supplement to make ends meet. We will see our medical colleagues, struggling with low to no supplies or medicines, the societal resistance against their care, the competition, corruption and less than ethical practices – trying to find ways to increase that $400 per month salary from the state. How can we expect them to have our American work ethic, our striving for excellence that cannot even be approached here, what did we actually think they were going to do….become like us?
Most of all, however, I think we will see the faces of the youth we have mentored here. So much energy, positivity, thrilled in being recognized for once in their lives just for who they are. The simplest things can make them smile, laugh, stand up with pride in their achievements and special skills they never knew existed. Many say we’ve changed their lives but they have touched ours in ways never before imagined. It has been pure joy to watch them grow, exhilarating to see them perform flawlessly. The young men and women we have grown to know and love will hopefully each have a chance at a good life, either inside or outside Albania, realizing they do not have to live the lives of previous generations here, unless that is what they desire. And some striving to provide the only hope for this struggling little country.
And what impressions have we left behind? Probably that Americans are crazy about work, dress poorly, don’t always wear make-up, exercise too much, eat too little and are friendly to a fault, no matter how uncomfortable the situation or language barrier. We’ve tried to be forever positive, encouraging, never giving up no matter how ridiculous or fruitless the task seemed to be. We hope the youth will remember us as those who took an interest in them and tried to teach them a different way of learning and thinking. How you really can dream big and reach those dreams if you work hard. And of course how to laugh at yourself to make others feel at ease (thank you Paul).
Regardless of those first or final big impressions, I guess it’s the stuff in between that really matters. Giving recyclables to the Roma man who is scouring the dumpster and wishing him good morning when no one else does. The small hint of appreciation in his smile. Those little interactions with the women who sell vegetables and bread, the surprise of the janitor when I thank him for his work, the waiters at our local hangout who welcome us like family, the goodbyes from our landlord and lady who have become so much more and all the rest. We’ll remember it all, and perhaps they will too.
See you all soon back there in America. Phone and email may take a few days to hook up but please get in touch. Arriving May 1st. (to see the complete blog and previous entries, click on the little square thingy at the top of this post).