For Hood River grads in Albania, Peace Corps work is all about relationship building

To the surprise of Hood River natives Kyle Roberts and Chris Barber, both Hood River Valley High School and University of Oregon graduates, wound up in the Peace Corps in the eastern European nation of Albania, where they are working in different parts of the country.

Six years apart in age, they never knew each other in Hood River, nor in Eugene. They met in the Albanian capital of Tirana in March when they arrived for their orientation and training, and were sworn in by the president of Albania.

Here is what Chris Barber had to say about his experiences in an email interview:

Tell us your background in Hood River and about your time at U of O.

I grew up in Odell, but attended May Street Elementary and Hood River Middle School. I was on the Summit snowboard team all four years of high school and was team captain my senior year. I also played football and track my senior year. I completed my bachelor’s degree at UO with three majors: international studies, political science and Italian. I was also vice president of Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity my junior year.

Is this your first international experience?

I also studied abroad in Italy during the summer before my junior year at university. After I graduated from UO I spent a year in northern Italy, where I was teaching English for a private language school in the Dolomites (in the Alps). I also did a lot of traveling throughout Europe while I was there.

When I returned from Italy I began to work for Levi Strauss in Eugene as a travel and expense auditor for their European branches. Here I also helped with Italian/Spanish/French translations for communications with the European employees.

How long have you been in Albania, and how much longer will you be there?

In March 2012 I left Oregon for Washington, D.C., and then Albania to begin training for the Peace Corps. I’ve been here for about four months and will be here until late May 2014.

How did you get into Peace Corps. and what was your motivation to enlist?

My motivation for the Peace Corps was for humanitarian reasons as well as personal reasons. I wanted to see more of the world and have experiences that normal tourists aren’t able to have. I wanted to learn the intimacies of another culture and people.

I am hoping to take the Foreign Service Officer test this next year, in which I aspire to work for the State Department as a foreign diplomat. If I am unable to pass the test, I will return to school for my master’s degree.

What are your duties?

I will be teaching English in the local high school. I will be teaching the 11th and 12th grades, and will have probably three to five classes per day. I will also be assisting another Albanian English teacher with alternative teaching methods.

Describe the town/village/community where you are.

Currently, I am located in southeast Albania, about 9 km from the Greek border and 20 km from the Macedonian border. I live in a small town, surrounded by hills, mountains, fields and farms. I’m about a 20-minutes’ furgon (minibus) ride from the bigger city of Korçë, which is one of the more historic cities in Albania.

The neighboring villages are very old and traditional. The road that passes through it is the same overland trade route that has been used for thousands of years to cross through Greece into Istanbul.

My town is small, but somewhat progressive due to the amount of Albanians that have spent time in Greece and Italy as immigrants for work. The area I live in is considered one of the coolest/coldest parts of Albania, which is nice because central Albania can get very, very hot in the summer.

I do have a wood-burning stove for the winter, which is nice because the buildings and houses don’t have insulation here. I will expect a meter or two of snow this winter.

What special preparations did you need for Albania and/or your specific assignment?

The only special preparation needed was language training when I arrived and some shots.

How things are going now? What is it like working in an evolving nation, and one that until a few years ago was totalitarian, and closed to the rest of the world?

I do meet with people every day for coffee and to try and integrate better into the community.

For example, I meet with an old Albanian poet everyday to chat. He speaks a little English and I speak Albanian with him. The Peace Corps refers to this as “relationship building.” I also have other Albanian friends that I’ve met in the gym, and they don’t speak English so I get plenty of opportunities to practice my Albanian.

As for the younger generations, they don’t really reflect the effects of a closed, post-communist state that was shut off from the world. They are fairly open and Europeanized.

How are you as an American accepted?

The older men are very nationalistic and have a deep pride for their heritage, people, culture, language, etc. Some like capitalism but many are nostalgic for the communist lifestyle. The men who have worked hard and have benefited from capitalism only have positive things to say about the change in regime.

As an American, I am accepted greatly everywhere I go. Albania and the U.S. have had a great relationship since Woodrow Wilson promoted an independent Albania from Yugoslavia, as well as Bill Clinton (and NATO’s) help during the Serbian/Kosovo conflict in 98/99. (Kosovars are ethnically Albanian and speak Albanian).

Overall, I love it here. In comparison to the other countries I have visited and even Italy where I lived, Albania is still very pure, the people are genuine, and the culture is very rich.

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