I am here. I have made it. After a tiring day of travel just within Europe itself, I have arrived in Tirana, Albania. Within 24 hours, I converted all of my US dollars to Albanian Lek, got an Albanian SIM card for my cell phone, and unpacked and settled in to my very own apartment. But the most challenging part of all of this?
Realizing that, for the first time, I am alone.
Though my internship with the National Coastal Authority of Albania was quite popular with students from my university last year, this year I am the only student interning with them from anywhere in the world. And though I am excited to see not only how I can help the organization but also how they can help me, waking up the morning after I arrived and coming to the realization that I could do whatever I wanted to do was a scary and exhilarating rush. It is an ongoing emotional experience, one that sometimes I want to cry about, and other times I want to laugh and smile about.
I have never lived alone. I have never had my own apartment. I have never lived in a big city. I have never been this far east of the United States. I don’t speak the language except for some basic phrases (to be honest, much of the language looks like gibberish to me). Heck, this is only my second time ever leaving the U.S. To say this experience is full of firsts is an understatement.
On that first day after rising from a restless sleep, a woman from my office told me she would show me around the city, but not until 5 PM, and so I had quite a bit of time on my hands to explore. It took a lot of courage (more than I’d like to admit) to get myself out of my apartment. I had to speak out loud to myself to convince myself to get a move on, and I laughed sheepishly as I realized how silly it sounded. But it was what I needed, and I decided that if these first 24 hours solo traveling were to be about anything, they would be about what I needed. After all, who really gets the opportunity to take an entire day to think about what only they need? So that’s what I did.
I needed to explore the main points of interest, and so I did. I needed to learn some history from the museum and see ancient artifacts dating back to 7,000 B.C., and so I did. I needed to see my first mosque, and so I did. I needed to walk around, get some fresh air, get a coffee, and relax, and so I did. And I survived.
It was liberating, doing what I needed to do. In life as a whole but especially during college, sometimes it seems like we spend countless years doing something only to check off a box on a monotonous and predictable list, and not because we want to do it. I didn’t realize how badly I needed to do what I wanted to do until that first day.
But soon, I learned that this freedom is not always so – how should I put this? – freeing.
I was warned by the girls who had interned here with the NCA in Albania last year that it is very loosely structured, which is hard for people who are used to having someone telling them what to do. For example, as I am writing this now as 1 o’clock quickly approaches, the director hasn’t arrived at the organization yet (most likely because he is constantly busy), and besides being given a few past projects in English to look through, I have been given no instructions as to what to do today. I am someone who, for the most part, thrives on structured, organized days with to-do items to check off, so in anticipation of this, I came up with a lot of ideas as to what I could do with the organization. The endless list of opportunities was both exciting and challenging, as I am also someone who struggles with too many possibilities. However, I brought up a few of my ideas to the woman from the office who showed me around the city yesterday and she seemed excited about them, especially the fact that I am a hobbyist photographer with a nice camera and would be more than willing to take pictures for the organization. Hopefully, this way I will get to travel around Albania with the director and see the beaches, mountains, and everything in between so I can take pictures of them to promote tourism. I am incredibly excited for this opportunity to do something that I love.
Sometimes it’s quiet in the office; other times, it’s full of chatter – completely in Albanian, of course. I worry that my tendency towards shyness when meeting new people combined with my inability to speak or understand Albanian will keep me from bonding with my coworkers. This is a challenge, but also an opportunity to learn how to be more open towards strangers and to ask for help when I need it. I have already learned that a smile is universal.
Even though it seems distant from my major of Biopsychology, Cognition, and Neuroscience, I know that all experiences are connected, and this opportunity to learn how to communicate across cultures and see how a developing organization works to show natives and the international community alike just how beautiful and precious the country of Albania is, all while combating cronyism and corruption within the local government, is mostly unprecedented for students like me. I am confident that this internship will grow me in ways that many in the sciences and law will never experience. Whatever my eventual profession, I know this experience will influence the decisions that I make in the future in a positive, more understanding and compassionate way. In the next 9 weeks, I can’t wait to see how I change Albania, and how Albania changes me.