Saturday, June 18, 2011
The local elections held throughout Albania a couple of weeks before my close of service date could not have been closer. The counting went on for more than a week, and even that took prodding from the American ambassador and representatives from the EU. The closest count was for the mayor of the capital, Tirana, which is by far the biggest and richest city in Albania. The incumbent, a socialist, is also the head of the opposition party and had run against the current prime minister two years ago in a highly contested election. Protests against that result had lead to shooting deaths of marchers in February, which had affected my departure on my visit home. Now, with the initial result of this election a win by the current office holder by only 10 votes out of about 300,000 cast, a painfully slow recount was conducted, live on television. It seemed to go on forever, although Albanians throughout the country watched intently. I suggested that, to make it more interesting, they might bring in celebrity counters, sort of a “voting with the stars”. My Albanian friends have learned, as my friends back home already know, to ignore me.
Protests were held in the center of Tirana. I was afraid that I would end up being evacuated from the country as I was in the midst of my close of service processing. Fortunately, they remained peaceful and we only had to avoid the large gatherings in the center of town. As of Wednesday, May 15, I became a former Peace Corps volunteer. I took a bus to Kukes and spent the night with a volunteer in my group who was still in for a few more weeks. The next day I took a furgon across the border into Kosovo. I went to visit another from my group who had closed service a couple of months back and now lived in Prizren. Kosovo is off limits for volunteers without special permission. Given the turmoil surrounding the election, it actually seemed safer.
I visited the museum that marks the League of Prizren formed in the waning of the Ottoman Empire to work for the independence of the Albanian people. The buildings were demolished by the Serbs during the Kosovo war in 1998, but have been carefully reconstructed. Prizren, in general, was quite beautiful, with most buildings restored, with the exception of Serbian homes and churches scattered along the hillside, whose owners had fled when Kosovo went for independence. It was interesting for me to see the contrast after more recent destruction than that seen in Albania following the anarchy of 1997.
Early Saturday morning I took an express bus back to Tirana to meet up with my friends Lawrence and Nicole and join them for a road trip through Montenegro, Croatia and Bosnia. When they turned back to return to Korca, I caught a bus from Dubrovnik to Zagreb. I then took the train to Vienna, Prague and Berlin. From there, I flew on Air Berlin to JFK, visited friends and relatives in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Rhode Island and Massachusetts, before flying on Southwest Airlines non-stop to Phoenix, where Catherine is in outpatient rehabilitation at Barrows Neurological Institute.
After two nights back in the States, I drove a rental car in 16 lanes of traffic to Philadelphia. Even though I was driving ten mph above the speed limit, cars passed left and right, cut in front of me and across three lanes to gain a couple of car lengths in the stream. I visited a couple from my Peace Corps group in Saranda. They had returned in November for her to have surgery on her knee. She is finally scheduled to have it in a week.
We talked about the after service experience. We discussed the pace, the aggressiveness, the fiscal difficulties (he had only recently been able to find a job, having been greatly limited in his search by the need to stay with family while awaiting the surgery and she couldn’t take a new job only to take medical leave), and the daunting array of choices for almost everything. We drove downtown, past the statue of Rocky Balboa by the Art Museum. I was reminded of the heroic statue in front of the library in Korca, only that one honored the partisans who struggled against the Nazi occupiers during World War II rather than a mythical boxer who trained on the steps of the museum.
In other visits, I told my stories about Albania. They seemed to flow out to the general boredom of my listeners, and even though I tried, I don’t think I listened enough to their experiences in the past two years. I have to keep reminding myself that there is a limit to their interest in the Peace Corps and Albania.
Catherine met me at the airport in Phoenix. She was with our good friend, Kristine, who was with our Peace Corps group in Elbasan. She is studying in the critical languages program at ASU in preparation for her FBI exam. If you thought the Peace Corps was full of volunteers in tie dyed shirts, sitting in circles, singing kumbaya, you are misinformed, but even among the generally impressive young people in my group in Albania, Kristine stands out. I am glad she is in Tempe, close to where Catherine has her apartment for the duration of her program at Barrows. I could not wish for a better person to have close at hand, if Catherine needs help or just someone who knows her to chat.
We joined Kristine and her friend Chris and their dogs at the dog park in Gilbert early Saturday morning. Kristine brought her adopted dog, Albie, back with her. He is turning out to be a great dog, and is now learning English and Spanish in addition to his native Albanian. The dog park in Gilbert should be on the map for any dog loving tourist. It has a pond and an obstacle course and even a fenced area for timid or disabled dogs, not something one would ever see in Albania.
We went to a gigantic shopping mall near Catherine’s place and caught the new Woody Allen movie in the 24 plex theater. The mall was more than overwhelming. The heat of Arizona drives the locals into the air conditioned space so there were throngs of shoppers. We bought a coffee maker for Catherine’s apartment, even though her doctor limits her coffee intake (very un-Albanian). There were way too many choices. We finally settled on a percolator model similar to the one she had in her apartment in Permet, probably as much for reasons of nostalgia as utility. We can use it for camping after Catherine finishes her program. On Sunday, we drove the rental car to Sedona and hiked among the towering red rocks.
On Monday, we met with Catherine’s doctor and I was able to watch her in therapy. It seems like a good program and there is no doubt she is progressing rapidly. They could use a social worker, however, to help with problem solving and counseling. I hope Catherine isn’t tempted to take a job with them after she finishes, although I am certain she would be a terrific asset to them. I am pretty sure she has no intention to be a permanent resident of Phoenix.
Catherine told me that while she was spinning her wheels at her sister’s house in Tucson, waiting to begin rehabilitation, she attended a meeting for the Peace Corps Fellows program at the University of Arizona. This is a program at several US universities that allows Peace Corps service to be credited towards a graduate degree. A woman told Catherine that because she had served in Europe, she wasn’t a real Peace Corps volunteer. The premise was that unless you served in the jungle, lived in a thatched hut, used a snake and spider infested pit toilet (I guess the rats in Catherine’s Turkish toilet didn’t count), hauled water from a distant stream and brought home at least one parasite as a souvenir, it wasn’t the Peace Corps. That reminds me of the zealots who believe that you can’t be a Christian unless you belong to their particular church. I hope there is a special place in heaven reserved for people like that because, assuming I get in, I wouldn’t want to spend eternity with such sanctimonious snobs, indeed, I don’t want to spend any time with them at all. Catherine didn’t tell her the reason she was in Tucson. One afternoon, Catherine went with Kristine to a Peace Corps recruiting session at ASU. She spoke and answered questions about her experience in Albania, but didn’t mention the accident. She told me she thought the attendees seemed more interested in employment than service.
My friend Paul picked me up at the airport in Boise and drove me to his hangar in Caldwell where he had kindly let me store my car for almost two and a half years. He had taken it off the blocks, disconnected the trickle charger and made sure the tires were properly inflated. It started right up. He then asked if I wanted to fly with him in his Husky tail dragger to a back country strip to drop off some equipment. He has befriended the young son of a caretaker family at Sulfur Creek Ranch on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River in the Frank Church Wilderness. It was a cool, clear evening and there was plenty of daylight left for the trip. We flew low and slow over the snow covered mountain tops and meadows verdant with snowmelt and spring rains. We met some French pilots who were buying light sport aircraft made in Idaho. They were spending the night at the rustic lodge adjacent to the strip. They had a guide from the manufacturer introducing them to Idaho Mountain flying in aircraft like their new ones. We chatted briefly and then took off on the return flight. The angle of the sun set the mountains aglow and cast deep shadows in the valleys. We flew over a few rafters enjoying the high water of the early float season. We scanned the terrain for moose and elk that are most active at twilight. It was good to be home.