Over 20 years ago, in a fit of pique, and with a vague sense of needing to do service and nothing resembling a plan, I decided to join the US Peace Corps. This involves a surprisingly lengthy selection process including interviews, health checks, background checks and lots of shots. Somewhere in this process you get to list your preferences. I picked Europe, Asia, Africa and Central/South America in that order.
Once you’re accepted, the Peace Corps gives you some control over where you’re sent. They tell that a position in XYZianastan (not a real country) is available and you leave in two months. If you’re not interested in that, you go on hold until another position is available. That could be one month, it could be six.
In my case, I was offered a chance to teach English in Albania as part of the first Peace Corps group. I checked the map and Albania appeared to be attached to Europe. I didn’t notice, though, that the cheapest ways out ran through the war zone in Bosnia and Serbia which meant Albania wasn’t actually attached to Europe. Armed with this ignorance, I said yes.
A few months later, I was in an airport in Rome choosing which of my two large pieces of luggage I loved best and which I wanted to leave behind on a Roman holiday. I was like, the bags can go on ahead, I’ll stay here but the Peace Corps was like, um, no.
We than boarded the Alitalia crop duster that would take us across the Adriatic Sea to Albania. I was teased for a brief second when the luggage handler picked up my second bag and started to carry it toward the plane. I celebrated too early, though, as he took two steps, looked at the bag, initiated scientific weight measurement by raising and lowering it twice, and then chucked it back on the cart.
I slept through take off, but I do remember the sound of panic when one of the propellers either stopped or appeared to stop during a throttle down. I also remember the look of operatic, yet surprisingly attractive horror on the face of our Italian flight attendant when we hit a nasty batch of turbulence. We all turned around expecting to see a hole where the tail had been and prepared to pray for our eternal souls. Instead she was worried about her loose drink cart. Even through it was harmless, the look of horror woke me up.
The real shocks hit when we landed on the cobblestone runway at Rrinas International Airport. It was a series of hexagons designed to be replaced quickly during an attempted bombing by US forces. We also noticed the dozens of pill-shaped concrete bunkers surrounding the airport designed to keep invading US forces off the cobblestones. When we finally finished the welcome ceremonies and met our language trainers and got on a bus, we noticed dozens and dozens more bunkers built at random locations as we drove to Tirana.
As we passed a vineyard, we noticed that every vine was attached to a concrete pylon that was topped with a nasty looking spike. We were told the spikes were intended to, how shall we say, become intimate with the buttocks regions of US paratroopers dropping in the vineyard during an air invasion.
Needless to say, with all the stuff designed to keep us out, it was sometimes hard to feel welcome–we’d later learn, as mentioned before, that our hosts thought we were being punished by being sent to Albania. Finally, we arrived at the Hotel Arberia–which would eventually become my home away from home–and discovered we’d missed the time of day when running water was available. If we wanted a shower, we’d have to wait until two, or maybe three a.m.
Culture shock hit at about that moment, became worse when we met our host families the next day, and, in my case, lasted the remaining two years.