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Living Conditions in Albania and Montenegro

Communications

Mail

The Peace Corps will send you a mailing address that you can use for letter mail during your first 10 weeks in-country. Once you have been sworn in as a Volunteer and move to your site, you will have your own address for mail. Letters from the United States can take two to three weeks to arrive, while packages can take two to six weeks. Packages are held by post office officials until you pay a small customs fee. Packages cannot be received at the Peace Corps/Albania and Montenegro office addresses at any time during your service.

Telephones

Albania and Montenegro use the European GSM cellular system, so most U.S. cellphones will not work in the country. If, however, you have a SIM card phone in America, it is worth having it unlocked by your carrier for international use.

Internet

You will be provided with a certain amount of mobile data through your phone plan which you can use for work, safety, and health purposes. Almost all Volunteers have an internet cafe close by, but there is no guarantee that internet service will be available at your host family or agency. If you own a laptop, you are strongly advised to bring it for work purposes. Volunteers find that USB flash drives or external hard drives are also very useful.

Housing and site location

After living with a pre-service training host family, Volunteers live with a host family at their permanent site for a minimum of six months and potentially for their entire 24-month service. Living arrangements are in modest living quarters. While Volunteers have their own room, they have less privacy than what they are used to due to societal norms for communal activities. For the majority of Volunteers, kitchen facilities and bathrooms are shared with host families. Communities are often conservative and close-knit. Housing depends entirely on local availability and varies from Volunteer to Volunteer. Occasionally, electricity and running water may not be consistently available, and internet access may not be available at all. Housing for all Volunteers meets Peace Corps safety and security requirements.

Economic challenges

Recent inflation, especially in the energy sector, has had an impact on all families in Albania and Montenegro. While PC helps to defray the increased costs associated with hosting a Trainee or Volunteer, you should be mindful of your energy consumption while staying with a host family and seek ways to reduce it.

Electricity

The electric current is 220 volts, 50 hertz. Electrical outlets use round, two-pronged plugs that are standard in Europe, so most American appliances (e.g., hair dryers and CD players) will require transformers and plug adapters. It is best to buy these before leaving the United States. However, European-made electronics are becoming more widely available at somewhat reasonable prices, so if you do not already own an American item, you can wait until you arrive and buy one that does not need a transformer or plug adapter. More expensive electronics like laptops should be purchased in the United States. Electricity can be very unreliable and of poor quality. Some areas have experienced outages lasting as long as 10 hours per day during the winter and summer months. Some Volunteers like to bring battery packs that allow them to charge their cell phone during power outages.

Toilet

Most toilets are western-style toilets. However, in some cafes and in some host family homes, you’ll find squat-style toilets. Though uncommon – some toilets may be detached from the main home/structure.

Water

Most Volunteers have consistent access to water, but there are outages at times and some Volunteers only get water (especially in the summer) at certain times of the day according to the town’s water schedule. Community members and host families will guide you on how to adjust and save water in buckets or containers, and Peace Corps provides water filters to all Volunteers.

Weather

Albania and Montenegro are known to have four seasons. As everywhere, the climate varies from mountainous areas to towns/cities or seaside. It is cold and damp in the winter, hot and humid in the summer. Concrete and cinder blocks are the main construction material for homes and offices. Most buildings aren’t properly insulated, which means the heat or cold is felt to a greater degree indoors than in most American homes. Wooden stoves are commonly used during the winter in colder regions. No form of heating is common in the coastal regions. Likewise, air-conditioning and fans are not common in rural housing or offices.

Living allowance and money management

Volunteers receive a monthly allowance in local currency that is sufficient to live at the level of the local people. The allowance covers food, housing, household supplies, clothing, transportation to and from work, utilities, recreation and entertainment, and incidental expenses.

Peace Corps Volunteers are expected to live at a level that is comparable with that of their host country counterparts. The Peace Corps discourages the use of personal money to supplement living allowance. It can be challenging to explain that you are a Volunteer living on limited means, but this is a key component of the Volunteer experience.

Albania and Montenegro are mainly cash economies, with no personal checks for payment and limited use of credit cards. ATMs are available, enabling access to local banks, and certain accounts in U.S. banks. There will be an ATM in or near your site.

However, Volunteers often wish to bring additional money for vacation travel to other countries. For this, credit cards are preferable to cash. It is advisable to leave some money in your U.S. bank account to access via ATMs in euros or dollars for vacation travel. If you decide to bring your bank/personal debit/ATM card, be sure you notify your bank that you will be living overseas and inform them of the possible countries you may be visiting while living as a Volunteer. Otherwise, the bank will likely reject your attempts to withdraw cash.

Food and diet

You should enter service ready to adapt your diet to the locally available foods, and local culinary traditions and customs. For example, it is uncommon to eat meat with every meal, and for most host families, it is prohibitively expensive. While many imported foods that you are used to may be available in some stores (for example, avocado, pineapple and imported nuts), they are usually prohibitively expensive, and you will need to find local foods to replace them in your diet. Common foods include cheese, yogurt, rice, beans, soups, pasta, fresh and seasonal fruits, and vegetables. Albanians consume large amounts of bread in every meal. Gluten intolerance is difficult to accommodate as the diet is heavy with bread. Milk and dairy products are very common. Volunteers who experience issues with lactose should be prepared to communicate this often and be flexible.

During pre-service training you can learn how to find and cook local foods. In winter in some areas, only potatoes, cabbages, leeks, onions, oranges, carrots, apples, bananas, and rice or pasta may be readily available.

While it is usually possible to eat a vegetarian diet, it is not common and requires a level of responsibility on the part of the Volunteer to communicate with their host family and flexibility/adjustment to the Albanian diet. Even after communicating that you are vegetarian/vegan your family may cook food with meat/dairy and remove it from your portion or state that, for instance, poultry is not meat and still want to serve it to you.

There are not many spices used in cooking, so you may want to bring a supply of your favorite spices and recipes as well as collect them throughout your travels to neighboring cities and other countries.

Peace Corps will provide all Volunteers with a water filter. It is required that you drink out of it throughout your entire service. At cafes it is common to be served a glass of tap water with your coffee – some Volunteers drink this without issue; however, most Volunteers carry a water bottle filled with filtered water wherever they go.

Transportation

Public transportation safety

Albania and Montenegro have a large network of public transport vehicles that make it possible to travel to practically all destinations, given enough time and persistence. However, some Volunteers/Trainees have reported incidents of theft while traveling or riding buses. You should be aware of the people around you and protect your valuables using good judgment and be careful where you place them.

When using any form of public transportation, you should avoid overloaded vehicles and look out for vehicles in poor condition (bad tires, cracked windshield, etc.) and driver’s poor conditions (such as intoxication).

Buses are the primary mode of transport, with routes connecting most towns and cities. It is easy to locate them because there are bus terminals in each main city, easily accessible. Travel by bus is economical and buses travel almost exclusively during the day, but they do not always run according to regular schedules. There is at least one bus station for each city where most of the buses depart.

As Volunteers do most of their travel by minibuses, it shouldn't come as a surprise that they are also the source of most of the transportation problems experienced by Volunteers/Trainees. The minibuses may go faster than buses. They operate all over Albania and Montenegro, including in rural areas.

Road and travel safety

Historically, transportation accidents have presented the greatest risks to the safety of Volunteers and Trainees during PC service globally. Because the transportation systems available in Albania and Montenegro may present specific challenges and because the traffic rules are often disregarded, the following policies have been enacted to minimize risks to Volunteers while traveling. Volunteers are strongly advised to choose the safest transportation option available and should travel at times and on routes that present the lowest risk. When available, seatbelts must be always worn in accordance with local laws and good common sense.

Roads conditions continue to improve. Major thoroughfares between cities are usually paved highways. Many smaller roads in villages or neighborhoods are primarily dirt and rock and are in poor condition. In the winter, roads through the mountains in northern Albania can be snow-covered and icy.

Traffic rules in Albania and Montenegro are often disregarded. Traffic accidents involving other vehicles and pedestrians are much more common than in the United States. Volunteers/Trainees should be aware of surrounding traffic and keep well clear while walking near roads.

It is prohibited for Volunteers to travel at night. Almost all types of inter-city public transportation shut down around 7:00 to 8:00 pm depending on the season of the year. This schedule is even earlier in winter when daylight hours are limited. Most roads in rural regions are dangerously narrow and hazardous during daylight hours and much more so at night and in winter. Most of the roads in Albania and Montenegro, especially in rural regions, are not marked with a center line or other highway safety standards and do not have road signs. The traffic statistics show a marked increase in traffic accidents during night as compared to daylight hours. The only exception is if there is an imminent threat to Volunteer health & safety and security related to NOT traveling after dark, in which case the Volunteer should contact the health or safety staff for advice and assistance. Night is defined as: between the hour following the setting of the sun (sunset) and the hour preceding the rising of the sun (sunrise).

Professionalism, appearance, dress, and behavior in Albania

Professionalism in the Peace Corps requires an awareness of the host community workplace culture, community values, and your self-presentation. To maintain a positive, culturally appropriate professional standing within a host community or workplace, Volunteers may need to adjust their style of dress, hair style, facial hair, make-up, piercings, manner of greeting others, etc., to demonstrate respect for local culture and customs. How you present yourself, in both informal and professional settings, is a reflection of you as an individual and of you as a representative of Peace Corps and the United States. In the U.S., dress (and other elements of personal appearance) may be seen as an expression of personal freedom and identity. In many host countries where Peace Corps Volunteers serve, the way you dress and present yourself may be interpreted as an expression of regard—or disregard—for those host community members around you.

Volunteers are encouraged to spend time in their communities, to develop their language skills, and to get to know the individual members of their community to better understand their traditions, culture, and local norms. As mutual trust is established over time, there may be opportunities for Volunteers to adjust their personal appearance and dress outside of the more rigid local standards. Volunteers are encouraged to discuss these potential adjustments with staff and other cultural mentors.

In Albania there are some specific considerations regarding professionalism, appearance, dress, and behavior. Albanians typically dress in their best clothing in public, particularly in professional settings. Visible body piercings (other than earrings for women) are not generally accepted in professional settings. Tattoos for both men and women are generally uncommon in professional settings, so please be prepared to cover tattoos whenever possible. Wearing facial piercings may make it more difficult to integrate into your community. Some Volunteers have recommended that incoming Trainees wear clear retainer jewelry during pre-service training and for the first several months at their permanent sites while they acclimate and integrate into their respective community. Volunteers will participate in an orientation on culturally appropriate behavior and cultural sensitivity during pre-service training.

Professionalism, dress, and behavior in Montenegro

Professionalism in the Peace Corps requires an awareness of the host community workplace culture, community values, and your self-presentation. To maintain a positive, culturally appropriate professional standing within a host community or workplace, Volunteers may need to adjust their style of dress, hair style, facial hair, make-up, piercings, manner of greeting others, etc. to demonstrate respect for local culture and customs. How you present yourself, in both informal and professional settings, is a reflection of you as an individual and of you as a representative of Peace Corps and the United States. In the U.S., dress (and other elements of personal appearance) may be seen as an expression of personal freedom and identity. In many host countries where Peace Corps Volunteers serve, the way you dress and present yourself may be interpreted as an expression of regard – or disregard – for those host community members around you.

Volunteers are encouraged to spend time in their communities, to develop their language skills, and to get to know the individual members of their community to better understand their traditions, culture, and local norms. As mutual trust is established over time, there may be opportunities for Volunteers to adjust their personal appearance and dress outside of the more rigid local standards. Volunteers are encouraged to discuss these potential adjustments with staff and other cultural mentors. In Montenegro there are some specific considerations regarding professionalism, appearance, dress, and behavior:

Volunteers in Montenegro are required to have an unwavering professional and “pioneer” attitude, as they have a unique opportunity and responsibility to help establish and build up the foundation of the Peace Corps presence in Montenegro. Volunteers should anticipate considerable interest in, and attention to, their work performance and cultural integration by their Montenegrin colleagues, the Ministry of Education, and the broader public. The highest degree of professionalism is expected.

Volunteers will be working in a professional capacity and will be expected to dress and behave accordingly. Stylish business casual is acceptable in most situations. Away from the office and social events, you can wear shorts, t-shirts, or casual clothing, but keep in mind that clothes play important role in how people in Montenegro may perceive you.

Body piercings and tattoos are lately more present in Montenegro, yet they are not very common in professional settings, other than earrings for women. Please be prepared to cover tattoos whenever possible and not wear noticeable piercings, because in some areas, wearing facial piercings and displaying tattoos may make it more difficult to integrate into your community.

Volunteers will participate in an orientation on culturally appropriate behavior and cultural sensitivity during pre-service training.

Social activities in Albania

In the summer, the major source of entertainment in most towns is a daily evening promenade on the main street where people socialize with friends and acquaintances. In winter, entertainment comes primarily from visiting the homes of friends and people tend to go outside once the sun goes down less often. Throughout the year Albanians visit cafes for daily conversations with friends and family, although outside of the major towns this is often a predominantly male activity, and women gather more frequently at home.

When men and women are seen socializing together, locals may assume they are married, engaged, or part of the same family, especially outside of Tirana and other major cities. Men or Volunteers presenting as men will be freer to socialize in pubs and cafes than women or Volunteers who present as women, particularly after dark. Host country nationals may perceive that women Volunteers who smoke or consume alcohol in public are compromising their reputations and those of their host families, as well as their own safety.

Volunteers should expect limited opportunities for dating and know that their dating will be publicly scrutinized. 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. To effectively serve, Volunteers should be open to adapting to this reality to successfully integrate into the local culture.

Social activities in Montenegro

Depending on the size of the community and the level of development, social activities across Montenegro vary. Each part of Montenegro provides unique experiences and as a Volunteer, you will get to know and spend time with members of the community and enjoy Montenegro in the same manner as local community members.

Each community celebrates numerous religious holidays depending on the predominant religion or religions in the community. Besides the predominant Christian and Muslim holidays, another common holiday in Montenegrin Christian families is “Slava”, which is a feast organized in the honor of each family’s saint. For most, if not all, social events, it is usually women who prepare the food and logistics, and also serve the guests.

Watching sports, especially soccer, is a popular social activity in Montenegro. This is usually done at home or at cafes. Be mindful that gambling, especially among men, is also very present through online or live betting, etc. Despite the popularity of watching sports, participating in sports, especially outdoors, is less common.

Retired people often do not engage in many social activities outside of their homes; they may spend much of their time watching TV or having coffee with family or neighbors.

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. Volunteers should expect limited opportunities for dating and that their dating will be publicly scrutinized.