There and Back Again

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Surprise! I’m home.

I have the same conversation with my Albanian students over and over again: “Kate, Albania is a bad place to live. There are no opportunities here. I want to leave and study in [Italy/Germany/the UK/America]. I want to find work and have a good life. I can’t do that here.”

And, seeing things as I always do through my rose-colored Peace Corps lenses, I beg these bright, progressive students not to abandon their country. Because their country needs them. If all the best minds leave, then who is left to help Albania? So I tell them, “Sure, leave! Study abroad in Italy or Germany or the UK or America. But then come back. See the world, learn as much as you can, and then come back and give to your country to make it better and share what you’ve learned.”

***

As some of you already know, I am back in the USA now, about half a year earlier than I planned. I have been “medically separated” from Peace Corps, which means that I’ve developed medical condition(s) that can’t be accommodated in Albania. I understand that people are curious, and that’s only natural, but health is a very personal matter and it’s not something I want to go in to great detail about in a blog post. Please do not bother my family or friends or fellow PCVs if you have questions. You can ask me directly if you really need to know that badly.

Suffice it to say that I have been through the wringer, and I’m very happy to be home so I can recover. As a friend told me before I left, “Mos luani me shendet,” or “Don’t play with your health.” And I don’t intend to.

I used to think of Peace Corps service as a 27-month marathon, and everyone had to cross the finish line. But now, I’ve realized that everyone is just running a different race. Mine was 19 months long rather than 27, but I truly feel like I’ve finished. I can look back on my service and know that I have done what I could to help Albania. And I have learned things and changed in ways that I don’t think would have been possible had I not had this experience. I can say that I have no regrets.

***

Now that everything has come full circle, I can take off the rose-colored lenses. My students are right: Albania is a difficult place to live. I had good memories there and will miss some things about it, but I also had some bad memories there and am happy to be relieved of some of the struggles I had. At the same time, I now know that the advice I gave to my students applies just as much to me. I think about myself even just a year ago, the state of mind I was in and what I wanted out of life. I was hustling to get out of America and experience something new. I grew fatigued of my hometown and was bursting at the seams to escape the familiar. I wanted to leave, maybe forever.

Then I joined the Peace Corps and did what I did. And now that it’s over, I’ve come back. My home stands to benefit from what I learned in Albania as much as Albania stands to benefit from one of my students studying abroad. I appreciate my country and my family and my old life now. I know it’s cliché, but I’m grateful to live here, because there are lots of people suffering around the world and I’ve met some of them. I will never forget this experience. This is why Peace Corps is a thing. This is why it works.

I spent all of last week saying some very difficult goodbyes. I could write fifty blog posts thanking all the people who helped me through this, but I’ll narrow it down to just PCVs, because they’ve been my rock this past year-and-a-half:

  • Mary: Thank you for coming to my house, peeling me off of my bed, feeding me, and doing an EXCELLENT job packing my bags for me. (Because, let’s be real, you did all the packing and I did all the vomiting-and-curling-up-in-the-fetal-position that night.) If Suitcase Stuffing were an Olympic event, you’d put Michael Phelps to shame. You said I would do the same for you, and you are right, but I would have been way suckier at it.
  • Ian: Thank you for hitch-hiking from the airport to my site in the middle of the night to see me off. Thank you for staying the next day, lugging all my crap around, and missing your furgon home in the process. Thank you for fixing my sink this summer. Thank you for all the Real Talks. And thank you for always being there for me.
  • Jill: Where do I even begin? When we first got our assignments, little did I know that my sitemate would become my best friend. I majorly lucked out having you with me and don’t know what I did to deserve it. You are a great Volunteer and an even better person and I’m so proud of how far you’ve come during our service. Thank you for putting up with my constant bitching, doing favors for me, and lifting me up when I was feeling down. Thank you for taking all of that extra stuff from my apartment and helping me move out. I love you and will miss you and have no idea what to do without you.
  • Susan: Thank you for your advice and expertise and for checking up on me the week I was in the hospital. I wish I could’ve seen you and Paul before I left.
  • Jessica: Thanks for being my Medevac buddy and for supporting me physically, mentally, emotionally the past several weeks. I really enjoyed the time we spent together and wish you all the best with your service.
  • James and Colby: Thanks for the day-drunk dial. Love you.
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12 responses to “There and Back Again

  1. kate: it’s very sad to hear that you’ve left Albania for good this time as i was looking forward to reading more about your colourful adventures in that hidden part of Europe. i hope there’s nothing serious about your health and wish you a good recovery. thanks for your interesting posts in the past and I’m sure you will be missed terribly by many…it’s sad to see such great bonds between you and your communities end!

    Good luck with your future and i hope Albania has left a sweet and special memory in your life!

  2. Thank you for sharing your experiences, Kate! You’ve made richer those you met personally as well as your readers. I had a little taste of your experience after visiting World Vision project site in Elbasan. Although it hurts to see many such wonderful people struggling with very little to no government support, it is very encouraging to see them findin ways and help support each other. Like you, I also met friends I’ll treasure forever. I’m starting to miss them, barely a few hours after leaving Tirana airport and now here in Vienna for the long layover to Washington DC. I hope you’re well soon and even made stronger by your experiences and continue to bless more lives. Thank you again for sharing so much.

  3. Oh Kate, I feel so blessed that we were able to spend that last 24 hours together. It was my pleasure to help pack 😉 and it’s my honor to be your friend. Love you, and see you State-side!

  4. You are amazing. I am so sorry to hear you haven’t been well. Its never fun to have health issues, no matter what they are. I am praying for you and sending good thoughts your way. And remember, Mean Girls can make you feel better. 🙂 love ya!

  5. I’m really sorry you had to go home under such awful circumstances and I hope you get the help that you need. Your blog has been so interesting to read and I’m sure it will continue to be so on whatever your next adventure turns out to be.

  6. Beautiful and brave Kate, It’s a honor to have served in the Peace Corps with you. Your poise, wit and super-smartness is a wonder to behold. You are going to shine like a superstar, no matter what path you choose. Looking forward to seeing you out there doing more great things for the world. Love you.

  7. Detoxing from the culture will take some time. I’m so thankful for your blogs because you captured moments that I had similar experiences with 10 years ago. You will be so thankful for your writing and how important your blog will be to your future self. I will miss reading them!

  8. I remember you, Kate, when I was hurrying up with my big breakfast in the small hotel. And the hotel owner was asking if I want more fruits. At first I forgot what you said and I shook my head, so she said ‘okay’ and filled my plate with fruits. By now, I was eating double time, and when my plate was empty, she asked again, and I forgot again, so my plate was full again. Finally, I need to leave so asked if I could bring the plate of fruits in my room. I love fruits and I kept accumulating fruits in my room that I cannot consume fast enough until after a week and had to leave. I figure whoever will clean my room won’t mind enjoying them as much as I did. Wonderful Albanian people!

  9. I was in Albania for only a week and I was already sad leaving the Country last October 6. So many made me feel welcome and at home, from the two boys who accompanied me to look for the Church in Tirana, to the owner of a gas station in Elbasan with a beautiful pomegranate bush that I took photos of and they invited us for a drink but my companion had to decline to keep with our schedule, and all of them good people in between. Maybe I just looked like a lost dog, so everywhere I went and whenever I need help, especially a couple times when I was lost, there’s always someone who made sure I was safe. When some of them found out it was my last day, I got busy with appointments for drinks one after the other! I didn’t expect one I met only a few days or a few minutes would care just because I was leaving. I have a taste of your experience, Kate. So I somehow have idea how you and your friends there felt when you left. ‘Though it feels heavy being separated from them, the thought that they are not that far surely helps brighten our otherwise cold and cloudy days.

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