Albania Living Conditions
As a Peace Corps Volunteer in Albania, you will have to adapt to conditions that may be dramatically different than you have ever experienced and modify lifestyle practices that you now take for granted. Even the most basic practices— talking, eating, using the bathroom, and sleeping—may take significantly different forms in the Albanian context. You will need to learn to live on far less money than you are now used to, give up most of your privacy, and adapt to different ways of socializing. You may not be able to go out of your house much after dark or have an opportunity for dating within your community. Women will have many more restrictions than men. You will come to Albania to assist people in their efforts to improve their lives, which will be difficult. It will be up to you to adjust to Albanian lifestyle and work practices—Albania is what it is and it won’t adjust to you. If you successfully adapt and integrate, you will in return be rewarded with a deep understanding of a new culture, the establishment of new and potentially lifelong relationships, and a profound sense of humanity.
- 1 Communications
- 2 Housing and Site Location
- 3 Living Allowance and Money Management
- 4 Food and Diet
- 5 Transportation
- 6 Geography and Climate
- 7 Social Activities
- 8 Professionalism, Dress, and Behavior
- 9 Personal Safety
- 10 Rewards and Frustrations
International mail to and from Albania is somewhat slow and unreliable, but generally works. Both letters and packages are sometimes opened in transit and valuable items taken.
Packages are usually held by post office officials until you pay a customs fee. Letters from the United States usually take two to three weeks to arrive, while packages can take up to two months. Despite these issues, it is important to keep in touch with family and friends and share your experiences.
Before you leave for Albania, the Peace Corps will send you a mailing address that you can use for letter mail during your first three months in the country—the period of pre-service training. Once you have been sworn in as a Volunteer and move to your site, you will have your own address for mail.
Local telephone service is generally poor, and the installation of new phones and repairs can be extremely slow. Telephone lines sometimes disconnect in mid-conversation. Although it is expensive and often time-consuming to place international calls, direct dialing is available in many sites. Many communities in Albania have just a few phones that are shared by all residents. Cellular phone service is becoming more widely available, and most of the country is now covered by various providers. Many Albanians make sacrifices in order to have cellular phones, which are rather expensive. Calls from family and friends to a cellular phone in Albania may be the best way for you to keep in contact. Albania uses the standard European GSM cellular system, so most U.S. cellular phones will not work in the country.
As part of Peace Corps Albania’s overall safety and security program, Peace Corps gives each trainee a cellular phone within a few days of arriving in the country, as well as a monthly allowance for phone time for emergency calls for health or safety and security. Trainees keep the phones after they become Volunteers and use them throughout their service. These phones can receive international calls at no charge to the trainee or Volunteer. You will need to keep your cellphone charged, on, and with you.
Computer, Internet, and E-mail Access
It is unlikely that you will have access to a computer and highly unlikely that you will have access to the Internet at your assigned organization. If you already own a laptop, we advise you to bring it for personal and professional use and to insure it. Volunteers also find that a USB flash drive is a very useful tool for managing e-mail and sharing documents. The Peace Corps does not provide computer support (software, hardware, Internet access, repairs), nor will it replace damaged or stolen computers. Insurance is readily available, and the Peace Corps will provide you with an application for such insurance before you leave for Albania. Internet access in Albania is reaching more towns all the time, and Internet cafes are springing up in unexpected places. But you may have to walk across town or ride a bus for an hour or more to find an Internet cafe where you can read and send e-mail messages. You won’t have the access to the Internet that you may be used to and Internet use can be expensive, so you will have to adjust.
Housing and Site Location
Before you complete pre-service training, you will be assigned to a site in Albania where a workable match can be made between your skills and knowledge and the needs of a local organization and the community. Sites may be located anywhere in Albania outside of Tirana, and many are in smaller towns in the more rural areas, which are the areas of greatest need. The Peace Corps is striving to serve more of the northern areas of Albania. Due to the potential isolation in winter, the agency will consider assigning married couples or multiple Volunteers from different projects to these northern towns and villages. Housing can be scarce in Albania, especially in rural areas, and you may need to live with an Albanian family for your entire time in the country.
You will live with a host family during pre-service training and then with another family for the first few months at your assigned site to help you become integrated into your community. The Peace Corps will assign you to a training family, and your assigned organization will help find you a host family at your site that meets Peace Corps standards. The Peace Corps visits every host family to make sure that it understands its role and can meet your basic needs. After you have been at your assigned site for the required host family period and are well integrated into the community, you may search for independent housing if you wish, if it is available in your site. Independent housing must meet Peace Corps safety and security criteria as well as cost limitations. A Peace Corps staff member must check and approve any new housing situation before you move.
Living Allowance and Money Management
The Peace Corps will provide you with a monthly living allowance in Albanian lek, the local currency. The living allowance amount is based on reviews of local living costs, as well as surveys of Volunteers already in the country. It is to be used to pay your host family for room and board, for recreation and entertainment, for a very limited amount of replacement clothing, for local transportation, and for reading materials and other incidentals. The Peace Corps expects you to live within the modest standards that most Albanians do.
In some cases, you will find that your living allowance is less than the income on which your Albanian colleagues live. Many in Albania receive money from family members living and working abroad, helping them to afford extra luxuries.
It can be challenging to explain to colleagues that you are a Volunteer and are in the country to serve while living on limited means, but this is part of the essence of the Volunteer experience. We discourage you from using personal money to supplement your living allowance. Albania is mainly a cash economy; there are no personal checking accounts and limited use of credit cards and traveler’s checks. There are an increasing number of ATM machines in the country that enable access to certain accounts in U.S. banks. It is advisable to bring some cash in Euros or dollars for vacation travel. Traveler’s checks and credit cards are also an option for vacation travel outside of Albania.
Food and Diet
The availability of some vegetables and fruits in Albania is seasonal, but prices for locally grown produce are low. Imported produce is usually available year round at higher prices. Local produce in summer is wonderful in Albania. Salt, sugar, rice, flour, eggs, cooking oil, pasta, long-life milk, and other basic items are readily available and are of good quality. Fresh meat presents a problem, as inspections and refrigeration are minimal. Your host families during pre-service training and your first few months at site will help you find local foods in every season. In winter in some areas, only potatoes, cabbages, leeks, onions, oranges, carrots, apples, bananas, and rice or pasta may be readily available. Vegetarians will have to be flexible, as many Albanian families will not know what it means to be a vegetarian and will want to serve you meat as an honored guest. Albanians do not use many spices in their cooking, so you may want to bring a supply of your favorite spices and some recipes that you can use with your host families.
Travel in Albania is an adventure, often a very slow one. Buses may be crowded and unreliable, and roads in poor condition are made more dangerous by the chaotic mix of vehicular, pedestrian, and animal traffic. Train service is limited to a few areas and is very poor. Most travel is by mini-buses, but some private cars and vans operate as taxi services among towns and villages. There were virtually no private cars in Albania prior to 1992, and Albanian drivers are learning as they go. You will have to take delays and detours into account when planning your trips and travel with a trusted companion when possible to help ensure your safety. The difficulties of travel are a good incentive for staying at your site and becoming part of the local community. Traffic accidents are one of the highest probable risks here. To mitigate that risk, Peace Corps/Albania has a transportation policy that you will need to learn and follow.
Geography and Climate
Albania is located on the Balkan Peninsula in southeastern Europe, across the Adriatic and Ionian seas from Italy. It is bordered by Montenegro and Kosovo to the north, Macedonia to the east, and Greece to the southeast and south. It is a small, mountainous country with a narrow coastal plain. The climate is Mediterranean in much of the country, with four distinct seasons, though the rugged and broken mountains help to create microclimates. Summers tend to be quite hot and dry; and winters, very damp and cold in all parts of the country, including coastal areas. Winters can be very severe in the higher elevations, with snow on the ground throughout the winter. Layering your clothing is the best way to deal with the variable weather.
In the summer, the major source of entertainment in most towns is a daily promenade of the men up and down the main street where they socialize with friends and acquaintances.
Women may join the promenade during the daylight hours, but disappear inside at dusk. In winter, entertainment comes primarily from visiting the homes of friends and acquaintances. Most other social activities revolve around the family. The first modern movie theaters did not appear in Tirana until late 1999. And while Tirana has several interesting museums, many provincial museums were damaged during the civil unrest in 1997. There are interesting historical and archaeological sites throughout the country, however. You will depend on your Albanian family and friends and your own creativity for most of your social activities.
Public socialization between the sexes is uncommon in Albania outside of Tirana and a few of the larger cities. When men and women are seen socializing together, the assumption is that they are married, engaged, or part of the same family. Male Volunteers will be freer to socialize in pubs and cafes than female Volunteers, particularly after dark. In many smaller towns, female Volunteers may patronize cafes only during the day or only with women friends. Female Volunteers who smoke or consume alcohol in public may be compromising their reputations and those of their host families, as well as their own safety.
All Volunteers should expect that opportunities for dating are limited, and that any dating that they do will be publicly scrutinized. All actions of individuals—Albanians and Volunteers alike—reflect on that individual’s family. Just as Volunteers are embraced and protected by host families as family members, their actions and public behaviors are also considered to reflect on the honor and respect of the family, as would those of any family member. Volunteers must accept and conform to this reality to successfully integrate into the local culture.
Professionalism, Dress, and Behavior
One of the difficulties of finding your place as a Peace Corps Volunteer is fitting into the local culture while maintaining your own cultural identity and acting as a professional, all at the same time. It is not an easy thing to do. You will be working in a professional capacity and will be expected to dress and behave accordingly. Stylish business casual is acceptable in most situations. Albanian fashion is influenced by Italian television programming and Spanish soap operas, and looking good matters. Albanians dress in their fashionable best in public even if the clothes are worn. A foreigner who wears ragged or unkempt clothing is likely to be considered an affront. Although you must dress professionally for work, there are times when you can wear shorts and T-shirts or casual clothing at your host family’s home.
More detailed information about the Peace Corps’ approach to safety is contained in the Health Care and Safety chapter, but it is an important issue that cannot be overemphasized. As stated in the Volunteer Handbook, becoming a Peace Corps Volunteer entails certain safety risks. Living and traveling in an unfamiliar environment (oftentimes alone), having a limited understanding of local language and culture, and being perceived as well-off are some of the factors that can put a Volunteer at risk.
Volunteers experience varying degrees of unwanted attention and harassment in Albania. Petty thefts and burglaries do happen, and incidents of physical and sexual harassment also occur, but Peace Corps Albania has experienced relatively few serious personal security incidents since the post reopened in 2003. The Peace Corps has established procedures and policies designed to help you reduce your risks and enhance your safety and security. These procedures and policies, in addition to safety training, will be provided once you arrive in Albania. At the same time, you are expected to take responsibility for your own safety and well-being. For example, one of your responsibilities will be to inform Peace Corps whenever you leave your assigned site.
Rewards and Frustrations
The Peace Corps experience is sometimes described as a series of emotional peaks and valleys that occur as you adapt to a new culture and environment. The potential for being productive and satisfied with your service is high, but so is the probability of being frustrated. Your organization may not always provide the support you want, or it may not be sure about what it wants you to do. Living with a family in close quarters may be quite challenging. The pace of life and work may be different from what you expect, and many people will be hesitant about changing age-old practices. You will not be able to leave your site without informing Peace Corps in advance.
In addition, you will have a high degree of responsibility and independence—perhaps more than in any other job you have had. You will be in situations that require an ability to motivate yourself and your colleagues with little support or guidance from supervisors. You may work for lengthy periods without seeing any visible impact and without receiving any supportive feedback. Development is a slow process, and you must possess the self-confidence, patience, and vision to continue working toward long-term goals without seeing immediate results.
You will need maturity, flexibility, open-mindedness, and resourcefulness to approach and overcome these difficulties. Albanians are a hospitable, friendly, and warm people, and Peace Corps staff members, your Albanian family, your coworkers, members of your community, and fellow Volunteers will support you during times of challenge as well as moments of success. The peaks are well worth the difficult valleys and you are likely to leave Albania feeling that you have gained much more than you gave during your service. If you make the commitment to integrate into your community and work hard, you will be a successful and satisfied Volunteer. You will also have contributed to the overall mission of the Peace Corps to promote world peace and friendship.