CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY, APRIL 2013
so i did these series of interviews throughout the GREATER ALBANIA region which encompasses parts of neighboring NORTH MACEDONIA, KOSOVO and MONTENEGRO. i didn't make it into GREECE for interviews due to security concerns. again, i did this in order for my students to have material to translate so that 1) they could prove their worth to possible employers by having their written translations published with the original audio embedded and 2) the UNIVERSITY OF VLORA would have a collection of interviews to start an oral history archive of a generation that saw a lot of political/cultural/social/technological upheaval that was getting older. all told by the time i left i believe we had around 700 interviews.
i also did this, mind you, without the support and approval of PEACE CORPS. they tend to like projects that are visible but without substance at best and mindlessly parochial at worst. imagine you are a privileged american that is used to something small like garbage collection and then suddenly you find yourself in a poor eastern european country with garbage in the streets. trash pickup sounds like a good start, right? WRONG. where does that trash go? what are you going to do with it? something like this is a municipal issue that requires urban planning and carry through. unfortunately most places here have bigger problems. so you are satiating a need that the community doesn't see as viable, rather than other more pressing concerns. whats worse is that volunteers were encouraged to pursue what they thought was best. in my opinion i was there to serve the people of my community, period. when i got to VLORA i asked my university what were the biggest problems they'd like to see me tackle. with their answer i came up with 5 projects i presented. they picked one. i then came up with 3 variations of it. they chose that. ultimately my project came about in this manner. if they'd have picked public speaking i'd have been on a totally trajectory with my time as a volunteer, as well i should have.
so when PEACE CORPS put up any hurdles the university pretty much had my back. it was a crazy time and very very stressful. i had shingles at one point due to the stress of PEACE CORPS potentially taking away my project.
eventually my counterpart at the university and i wrote a paper that utilized a lot of these interviews we had. after writing it my counterpart wished to send it to conferences and journals in western europe, which i agreed with but thought nothing of. what's funny is we sent one to CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY and got in. that was quite the shock. i had a small dilemma on my hands because my unsanctioned project had now been successful to the point that i was asked to speak at a conference at a prestigious university.
PEACE CORPS had this policy that no one was allowed to travel outside of the country in the last 3 months of your service. my "vacation" time at that point was used up and the conference was within a few weeks of my exit. luckily we had a new director who allowed it. to me it didn't matter because i was going either way, it was an opportunity i created with my colleagues at the university. of course, i wanted PEACE CORPS to sanction it and i'm glad they did.
real quick i just want to say that during this year-long period i did this project i opted out of every meeting i could where i would have to see other volunteers. that or i took vacations during the mandatory meetings. i was never asked to participate in clinics for new volunteers and pretty much kept my activities under wraps with the exception being my director albanian supervisor who overlooked TEFL. i didn't brag or boast or participate in the internal pissing match of volunteers. i was a ghost. my site-mate spoke about me to the new volunteers from his class but luckily for me he had a reputation for lying. turned out he wasnt. i became an urban legend of sorts and when i did finally depart post-CAMBRIDGE, volunteers i ran into at the capital couldn't believe i existed. they heard about me and what i did, but didn't believe it was an actual thing. they were angry PEACE CORPS didn't include me in trainings, but with due deference to them, i wouldn't have come if asked.
back to CAMBRIDGE. i went and co-presented and truth be told i wasn't really nervous about it because i didn't speak beyond what i knew or had evidence for. it was surreal taking questions from OXFORD professors and the like but my mindset at the time was that i wanted to effectively represent the UNIVERSITY OF VLORE at a conference and also accurately present the stories of the people i met. to me that was the responsibility of the moment and i think i did alright. honestly, as cool as it was being there and taking it all in, the real treat was doing the interviews. getting the support of those people was all the validation i needed. the fact that PEACE CORPS came around and ultimately sanctioned the project didn't really change my opinion of the work one way or another. if anything i still pitty the PEACE CORPS and their priorities to this day. enough about them.
one very interesting thing that happened at the conference was a former editor at THE GUARDIAN had written a book at the time about his time working in RUSSIA. he spoke about the level of harassment (online, in person or telegraphed through surveillance) the intelligence services reeked on his family. what was startling was that he said anytime he spoke in public there were RUSSIAN goons that sought to dismantle his reputation. and that is what happened. several russian participants of the conference stood up during Q&A and severely denounced him. who knew that this was gonna be a thing in a few short years during the next US presidential election? i certainly did not.
former GUARDIAN reporter LUKE HARDING speaking about his book MAFIA STATE
looking back at my time as PEACE CORPS volunteer i am glad to have done it, as i learned about myself and the pressures i could handle. i immensely proud of the work i did and the friends i gained and peers i worked with. as an organization the PEACE CORPS is what it is. if you spend your time worrying about their approval then its not a worthwhile experience. i am happy to this day that i sought the approval of the people on the ground that i sought to assist in any way i could. and that is the true gift i take with me.