The ugly truth behind a beautiful photo

I recently uploaded pictures on Facebook from my trip to Albania. A friend sent me a message saying how jealous they were that I am living such a fun and adventurous life. That comment prompted me to write a brief post about the trip, because even though it was a privilege to travel with my school and see Albania, it was actually one of the hardest weeks of my Peace Corps service so far.

Trip- Durres
The view from Kruja Castle.

Allow me to explain by presenting the good, the bad, and the ugly parts of my trip to Albania:

The Good

  • It was FREE: Every year the secondary schools in Kosovo organize a trip to Albania for their 12th grade students. As a 12th grade teacher I was invited along as a chaperone. Who could say no to a week-long, all-expenses paid vacation in Albania? The transportation, room, meals… everything was covered. The meals were spectacular and we even got free drinks from the hotel. Of course it was a school trip, so the teachers were not drinking in excess, but the wine with dinner and daily macchiatos were still a treat!
  • Albania is GORGEOUS. We had sunny weather all week and were able to watch the sunset over the Adriatic Sea almost every night. I will definitely be visiting Albania again. (And I did! Check out my post about my trip to Albania with friends.)
  • Sunbathing on the beach.  We spent a few hours at the beach every day, sunbathing in the sand and swimming in the sea. I even got a decent tan!
  • Bonding with teachers & students. The trip was a great opportunity to get to know the other teachers, even with my limited Albanian. There were also some fun moments with the students.
    Trip- Students at castle2.jpg
    Some of the 12th grade students and I posing outside of the Kruja Castle Museum.

    When we visited the city of Kruja I walked with about 50 of the students up to the city’s castle ruins. There we found a museum with half-price admission for the students. The condition of entry? At least one teacher had to accompany the group. But there was only one teacher around. Me. The museum curator approached and asked (in Albanian) if I was their teacher. I replied in Albanian, “Yes, I am their English teacher,” feeling proud of myself for understanding him and being able to respond. He then said, “Okay, before we enter the museum I’m going to need you to explain these three rules to the students…” And there ended my understanding of what he was saying. Here I am, supposed to be the adult in charge, and I have no idea what is going on. I just played along and to my great relief no students got us kicked out of the museum. I still have no idea what those three rules were, but I guess none of us broke them!

The Bad

  • Trip- CastleMy Albanian is lacking: When volunteers arrive at their permanent sites, they quickly realize how little of the local language they actually know. It’s easier to be optimistic about Albanian when you are surrounded by other Americans struggling to learn alongside you. I was feeling pretty good about my language abilities at the end of PST.Even in Gjakova things have not been too bad. Day-to-day interactions in Albanian are incredibly draining, but at least I am able to speak some English with my host sisters and escape to my own room when I need to.

    On this trip there was no escape. I was surrounded by Albanian speaking teachers and students 24/7. Everyday I spent several hours sitting around a table with the teachers as they rapidly chatted about the most recent gossip, politics, financial issues, and a number of other topics that I am completely unable to discuss in Albanian. I was lucky if I could pick out a few keywords. This led to me awkwardly sitting there in silence most of the time. Frequently a teacher would turn to me and say, “Why are you being so quiet Brita? Say something!”

    Then everyone is staring and expecting you to contribute to a high-level conversation in a language you just started learning three months ago. It’s rather unpleasant.

  • Trip- beachBug bites: It was a hot week, so we slept with open windows. By the end of the week I was covered in red bug bites, including at least ten bites on my face. Now I’m being whiny… but still, bug bites are never fun.
  • Broken toilet: Right before the trip began I had just gotten over nine days of diarrhea. (Yeah… I wrote a post about it.) Unfortunately I developed the opposite problem, not having a bowel movement for six days. I guess the upside is that I did not need to frequent the bathroom, because our toilet had cracks and holes in the porcelain bowl and would not flush… not a pretty sight.

The Ugly

  • Memorable showers: Our shower consisted of a hose hanging from the wall with only one temperature: frigid. We also discovered when I first “showered” that the single drain in the bathroom floor was totally clogged, thus flooding the bathroom. For every other shower I had to wash my hair leaning over the toilet with the hose. Looking back, it’s actually kind of funny, but at the time I was not laughing.
  • Harassment from students: I will probably dedicate an entire post to this in the future, so for now I’ll just say that disrespect and inappropriate comments from my male students has been a big issue. Being an American woman in her twenties working with 12th graders at a school that is predominantly male has its challenges.
  • Being called fat: People in Kosovo speak much more bluntly about physical appearances than Americans. This has led to my feelings being hurt from time-to-time, but never so much as my week in Albania. Obviously I was feeling a bit anxious about being at the beach for the first time with hundred of beautiful, thin Europeans. Turns out my fears were justified. When I first removed my cover-up at the beach the teachers openly looked me up and down and then commented that I was fatter than they expected. Some even pointed out the parts of my body where I need to lose weight. I was also mocked for being so shockingly white. I felt like I was under a microscope, and some of the comments were very hurtful.(I’ve since realized that this is primarily cultural. Even the most caring and sensitive Albanians I know talk about weight with incredible openness. It is not mean, just honest commentary. Maybe Americans are overly sensitive.)
  • Trip- Sunset
    Sunset over the Adriatic Sea.

    No Wi-Fi: This complaint makes me sound spoiled, and you are probably thinking, “Really Brittany? You’re in the Peace Corps, remember?!” But not being able to connect with other Americans or my family during the week made the feelings of isolation more difficult to bear. You don’t realize how much you rely on the internet for your mental/emotional health until it is taken away. Being the only foreigner and being unable to communicate makes you feel very lonely. Not being able to cry to your mom when you are at a low-point makes you feel even lonelier.

So let this post be a reminder that things are not always as they appear. This is one of the fundamental issues with social media. We photoshop our lives and put forth an image of ourselves that crops out the crap. We post the best photos of ourselves doing the most exciting things, making our lives seem much more glamorous and enviable than they actually are. It’s easy to feel jealous when you can’t see the hard stuff. You see a smiling picture of me sitting on castle ruins, but if you had high powered zoom you’d see the bug bites on my arms, the grease in my hair from not properly showering, and the puffiness around my eyes from crying earlier that day.

That’s the case with life in the Peace Corps: It’s an eye-opening, perspective-building cultural experience full of rich memories and sublime moments. But the flip-side is that it is hard. Sometimes people yell at you for not knowing enough of the local language. Sometimes you get called fat. Sometimes you get diarrhea for weeks. Sometimes you find yourself feeling isolated and miserable.

There’s a reason the Peace Corps has been called “the toughest job you’ll ever love.”

I conclude with a picture of this macchiato I was served during the trip. Its traumatized facial expression perfectly sums-up the confused emotions of my week in Albania.
Trip- coffee

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8 thoughts on “The ugly truth behind a beautiful photo

  1. Another well-written, thought-provoking blog post! 🙂 I’m so sorry you had to deal with all of that, but I’ll always admire you for being strong enough to keep going! I think your point about how social media shows a photoshopped version of life is so accurate. Real life isn’t pretty like an instagram photo, and people would do well to remember that. You got this!

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  2. Thanks for the honest post Brittany! The isolation and struggles of language reminded me of the times I was left alone with Kujtim’s non-english speaking family, so hard when you want to communicate but can’t! Also they love to tell me how much fatter I’ve gotten since the last time I saw them, haha, you’re not alone there! Many tears shed on that topic alone. Kujtim assures me though that fat-ness to them is not the dreaded thing that it is here, which is probably why people are more blunt about it I guess! Thanks again for sharing!

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  3. I really enjoyed reading this post and I can completely understand some of the things that got you down. I have received a lot of body shaming comments since I moved here 2 years ago, and good luck trying to buy clothes here if you’re anything bigger than a UK size 10 (US 6). I think that people here are just a bit more blunt and not too concerned if they offend. The language thing is also really frustrating, especially when you know what you would say in English but just don’t have the vocabulary in Albanian. Don’t forget that most people in Albanian and Kosova have been learning English since they were about 10 years old, they have English/American films, songs and TV shows so it’s not so hard for them to understand English. I still can’t hold a conversation after 2 years of being here but a friend of mine reminded me that we didn’t learn English overnight either, it took several years for us as children to build up our vocabulary and pronunciation. Keep your chin up as we would say in England!

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  4. Thank you for sharing your experiences so honestly, Brindy! I’m always so excited when I see that you’ve put up a new post. Sitting here in India currently and whole heartedly agreeing with each of these points. 🙂

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