Just the Beginning | a series of misleading titles #7

At this point, this last(!!!) blog post is more of a formality. I’m sitting at work in East Lansing, Michigan — decidedly not in Albania. And if you couldn’t tell from the title, my one-of-a-kind internship in eastern Europe is officially over. The end. Thank you.

The last day of my internship was about three weeks ago, and for the remainder of my time in Europe, I was gallivanting across a few different countries because why not?

Fisherman’s Bastion in Budapest, Hungary
Mozart statue in Vienna, Austria
Church in Lake Bled, Bled, Slovenia
Ljubljana, Slovenia
Sunrise in Salzburg, Austria
Locks on Makartsteg Bridge, Salzburg, Austria

I went to four different cities in three different countries in just ten days, and with the whirlwind of traveling I did, my time in Albania seems like a distant memory in the back of my mind. Even sitting here, back home and doing work as if nothing changed, my entire two months in Europe seems like it might’ve never happened. Thankfully, this is just a product of our strange human minds, and I have the memories and the pictures to tell my 80-year-old self that once upon a time in college, I did in fact go to Albania and it was an unforgettable summer.

To tell the truth, I wasn’t sure if I would make it past my first few weeks in Tirana. Work consisted of going to a mind-numbingly white office and half-heartedly Googling various things because I didn’t get to see my boss until a week in and even then I didn’t have a clear idea of what I would be working on until three weeks later. Tirana was a cool city until I’d explored most of what it had to offer in, oh, three or so days. And the “work” I did at work was entirely self-driven with the help of Google, and I honestly could’ve done it from the comfort of my own home in Michigan. And unless you’re naturally a productive person like our roommate who can’t sit still and will find herself an Albanian tutor, a taekwondo gym, and ten other things to do in just two days (she is such an inspiration to us all), you’ll find the pull of air conditioning and Netflix on a couch much greater than wandering from cafe to cafe to drink coffee and more coffee because that’s all there is to do in Tirana.

However, after I finally figured out the focus of my internship — designing a waste management system in a southern village — things picked up. My boss actually started taking us places, and weekend trips turned into three-day trips turned into five-day trips. Unfortunately, I never got to see any places north of Tirana, but at the end of my seven weeks with the NCA, the south became a familiar, well-traveled place. The current focus of the NCA is on the village in the south, Nivice; they’re trying to develop the village for sustainable tourism, which consists of teaching the men how to speak English, restoring some buildings, and a proper waste management system (my brainchild). And so we spent most of our time in the village, without running water or working toilets in the house we stayed in, just chilling with the conservative patriarchal society and admiring the livestock and their poop. And it was GREAT. It sure was better than sitting in an office for five days a week. (see blog #4 for my thoughts on the poop).

By the end of my seven weeks in Albania, I had learned a lot about composting, the village culture, my boss, and how to sit and do nothing for hours on end while sitting in the grass, in the mountains, in the unique wilderness of such an underrated country. But the most unforgettable and life-lesson-teaching experience I had was at the end of my stay, two days before I was to leave the country for good. A few days before, my boss learned that I play violin. “Why didn’t you tell me earlier?” he exclaimed, before picking up the phone, making a few calls, and then telling me, “I got you a violin.” He then painted a picture before my eyes: a foreigner, from Taiwan no less — the first Taiwanese to set foot in Nivice! — serenading these rough men of the village who had never heard such music in their lives with my violin. The first live violin concert in Nivice.

The idea terrified me, and yet I was excited — mostly because I missed my own violin and I wanted to practice (for once in my life). So I agreed. And then stressed myself out for the next few days because I didn’t have music and what if I messed up and what would the villagers think and what would my boss think because he has a very particular taste and even though he said no pressure the next sentence he said was but don’t let me down so of COURSE there was no pressure whatsoever. And I knew that my fingers and memory have hung me out to dry in the past and I’ve had some humiliating moments on stage so what if that happened here?

I’m sure we all know how our minds can betray us in these times of stress and self-doubt. But if you carpe diem and just do it then you’ll find that, most of the time, everything turns out fine in the end. It was hard for me to relax into playing, as I had never played a concert in a dusty schoolyard in the mountains while thirty or so Albanians watched/whispered amongst themselves (it never truly got quiet; what’s concert etiquette anyway?) while there was literally a small pile of sheep poop two feet to the right of me; and yet, none of it mattered in the end. Everyone smiled and clapped at the end, saying “Faleminderit shume — thank you very much” — they even asked for an encore! And to top it off, after I had exhausted my (limited) list of performance-ready pieces, a group of men made their way to the front of the audience to perform their own music. It was a musical exchange of sorts, a way of saying thank you to me for sharing my music, and in return, they would share their culture. So we were treated to a form of music so unique to Albanian folk music that it is part of UNESCO’s intangible cultural heritage list, Albanian folk iso-polyphony. And let me tell you — it was such an unforgettable experience.

The group of men singing Albanian folk iso-polyphony

So what did I learn from my internship? My takeaway? It’s hard to put into words. It’s all of what I wrote above and more. I of course learned the details of designing and implementing a waste management system, but let’s be honest — that’s just a resume booster. The real lessons taught would be pretty hard to put in three concise lines on a sheet of paper. I learned how beautiful a country can be, but also how exploring it as a tourist gets old after a while. I learned how to ignore stares and ethnic ignorance, but also how to approach a difference in culture with curiosity and respect. I learned just how hospitable Albanians can be and how to drink coffee for at least three hours. I learned that music can transcend all barriers. I learned that, yes, cliché life-changing experiences do exist!

And here we are. Back at work, just like normal, as if the past two months didn’t happen. Did they? Sometimes I feel as though my life and experiences are happening to someone else and I’m just watching from behind a screen. But I know, as I sit here and scroll through these memories on a screen, seemingly someone else’s experiences, that I was there, I lived it, and it is, in fact, the beginning of a (however infinitesimally) changed life.

One thought on “Just the Beginning | a series of misleading titles #7

  • August 1, 2017 at 8:32 pm
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    Nora, thanks for a funny and thoughtful reflection to wrap up your internship experience. I agree that the tourist experience is fun, but gets old after a while. Making genuine connections, having conversations on cultural differences, and learning is much more satisfying to me in the long run. The violin performance sounds so amazing! I’m happy that you were able to wrap up your time in Albania by sharing some of your music, and getting music in return.

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