The New Normal

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April 23, 2015 by theloneblonde

Today, I found mold on my butter. I did not even know butter molded. I scraped it off and continued on my crusade to make apple crisp.

As a volunteer you are thrust into a new culture, a new environment and a new life, and then you are trained for a million and one hours on how to accept this. Altogether we are a grouping of very accepting people. We accept cultural changes, we accept weirdness and quirks, and as strange as it sounds we all come to accept fate.

We accept working with limited resources and in conditions of hardship. We signed up for the Peace Corps! Though Albania I will admit may not be the hardest place to live we still all entertain the acceptance of normalcy. We don’t always have to accept these things, but we do.

I bet there could be a gene that could be identified in us all that would explain the ways we accept things, solve the problem in the most efficient way possible at that split second and move on. They talk about the warrior gene that apparently scientist have identified motivates people to rage and fight. PC Volunteers have some kind of accepting gene that is valid for a short amount of time, 27 months generally.

We have this idea that for the given period of time everything is going to be different and we start to accept this gradually, and often times the moment the plane lands.

You get off the plane in the early morning, after traveling for around a day or more you realize that your expectations are shot. Reality is the bag lunch on your bus seat. A French-fry and Ham Sandwich smothered with “mustard”, “ketchup” and mayonnaise, perhaps you get lucky and get a little cheese as well. You may question it at first, but then you dig in, and you accept it because you are hungry. This activates the gene.

Sometimes it takes a little longer to activate in others. For some it’s an instant reaction to acceptance, in some it takes a little bit longer. Three maybe four months later a strange emotion will creep up on you remembering back thinking that was the best sandwich ever and promptly head to the closest hole in the wall sandwich place and order yourself one.

You sign up for acceptance, and with that comes a host of strange behaviors that may or may not be normal in your host country. Here in Albania, and I am sure in many other PC countries volunteers sometimes just do really strange things without question and it’s just normal.

We have strange habits and most of them are not really major concerns of the majority of our counterparts in our host countries. But we accept and deal with our issues perhaps very passively but we all have ideas that we should be living under “hardship,” but really we are just super lazy problem solvers.

The following are antidotes taken from various volunteers from around the country, to explain some of the things, which to us have become The New Normal.

Bathrooms

PC Volunteers lives often times revolve around the toilet. We spend a lot of time on the toilet. 1400 odd miles away from home, everything messes with your gastrointestinal track. It’s also a very key bonding experience. We are a group of people who bond over the toilet and something going wrong. Sharing stories about the last time you pooped your pants during a professional conference is unexceptional.

Everyone has rules about their toilet. I was once visiting a friend down in Sarande, when I asked to use the bathroom she said sure no problem, and passed me a fork. A fork that was necessary to use to flush the toilet.

A lot of us don’t have water for long periods of time, so big buckets and water collections are somewhat necessary. But if you cannot get it down, well we will look the other way. Unless it is an assault on humanity, then by all means gather anything regardless of portability. I once had a visitor dump the entire continents of my water filter into the toilet due to this exception. It was the only safe drinking water we had collected for the next 5 hours.

Food

A couple of former volunteers were passing through the region, and we happened to run into them and decided to go out for drinks on the beach. It’s always interesting to hear about the service of other volunteers around the world, because honestly it is pretty alarmingly similar no mater the country. We have the same concerns (survival), same talking points (poop), similar gripes against random policies, etc. These volunteers in particular decided to discuss their miserable attempts at cooking in their host country. All in all they wanted to make ground beef, and decided to put beef in something that thought would function as a blender. Well it did not function as a blender, and they ended up with 360 degrees of beef chunks. They questioned how we dealt with such failures. One of our volunteers responded with, “I eat my failure for breakfast.” That statement is pretty correct for all areas of service.

Unalarmed Attitudes

As things become normal, we deal with things in what we believe to be a rational sense. Recently my friend’s bathroom broke. The entire bathroom broke. It had been a long time coming, and until something really breaks we often chose to deal with it and find a way to overcome or problem solve. When things break there is the immediate instinct to come up with a solution in various ways and McGyver fix it. I can solve this problem I am a PCV! More often then not you can do one of two things, become complacent, suck it up, and deal with it; or admit defeat and call someone.

So when everything breaks in your bathroom, where you spend a lot of quality time it’s time to call someone. The problem was that when you ran the washing machine all of the dirty water backed up into the bidet and then overflowed onto the floor and clogged up the central drain in the middle of the bathroom. When there is black stuff all over the bathroom, it’s time to call the landlord.

Upon the arrival of his landlord, he informed him that it was no problem! There are far fewer problems then you would expect in Albania, specifically among landlords. He announces that he will go and get his tool. He runs downstairs and comes back with a stick. A stick that will solve the problem! In this particular case, the stick was just not strong enough. So he proceeded to tell him that he would get the pump! He once again runs downstairs and returns with the smallest plunger (pump and plunger are the same word), that said volunteer had ever seen. It must have been a sight to see because his landlord is a pretty big dude. So picture this, a very large man (owns a big gym) using a plunger the size of a key chain as black water is pouring all over the bathroom. No problems were solved, and the landlord was stumped, he locked the door and told him to use another bathroom. It’s still locked, I was over there last week, and it’s been 6 months.

This same volunteer also is blessed with a washing machine that runs. Literally, it runs straight into the hallway if you forget to close the door.

Broken Houses

Poetically stated another volunteer detailed the crumbling infrastructure that dons her communitist era apartment. Every time I sweep my apartment the ceiling decides to fall and my apartment just falls apart a little bit more. It’s an on going battle between the crumbling walls. I just accept it, it’s not something I am going to tell my landlord. Just don’t make any sudden movements. It could scare the paint right off the wall, but we don’t worry about this!

We may not have hot water even though we have begged our landlord up and down, we may not actually have water depending on our town. Our lights on constantly broken because of poor wiring, but we accept these things. Nothing is really a problem, is it?

Being Cheap

We are taught to use resources wisely. Though there is a fine line between resourcefulness and being downright cheap. One volunteer once sent out a pamphlet about how refrigeration is unnecessary. He suggested that refrigeration is an exorbitant expense that we could avoid by using just our sink and some plastic bags. Perhaps that is the line in which resourcefulness and being cheap intertwine.

But my biggest concern is not what I deal with everyday; I accept these things because I am a volunteer. I may be crazy for accepting such things, but I have that genetic mutation in which I just solve the problem at face value and deal with it or get over it.

My real concern is going back to a place where things that used to be normal are seemingly unfamiliar.

So you are telling me that things will be easy when I get back.

What do you mean this is this appliance that cleans your dishes for you, that must be expensive to run!

What do you mean I don’t need to create a crazy apratus on my stove involving boiling water, a metal strainer, and multiple pot lids to cook broccoli. You are telling me that I can just put it in this thing called a microwave?

A house is heated through underground gas pipelines, piped through the entire city 24 hours a day. That does not sound safe.

Not only is there applications for your mobile smart phone which encourage you to meet people near by and your phone can plot out where they are and how far they are from you. That sounds really big brother like? But there is also professional events in which professionals all get together to talk about professional things in a central location over fancy and potentially half price drinks? I don’t have to wait around in a central location-begging people to talk to me, and if I did do this it would be strange.

Slow realizations and acceptances have been plaguing my mind for the last six months, and as I begin my transition back into the US I will still remain baffled and confused over the concept of mundane everyday things, that were once so normal.

So let the countdown begin, it’s almost time to go. With a little less then a month left of my service, I guess it’s time to crank out a few more post, which I have been so bad at recently.

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