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 office address at any time during your service.
Albania uses 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.
Almost all PCVs have an internet cafe close by, but there is no guarantee that the internet will be available in your assigned town or agency. If you own a laptop, you are advised to bring it. Volunteers find that USB flash drives or external hard drives are very useful.
Housing and Site Location
Upon arrival in Albania, all trainees stay three days at a hotel in the city of Elbasan. During these days, Peace Corps will assign you to a training site where you will live during pre-service training (PST) with a host family. The training site is located outside of Elbasan, and there will be four to six other trainees living in your village. Together, you will have language, culture, and technical classes.
Before you complete pre-service training you will be assigned to your permanent site in Albania where you will serve the remaining two years of your term. Permanent sites are decided based on your skills and knowledge and the needs of a particular community or organization. These sites may be located anywhere except the capital city of Tirana, and are often smaller villages that have greater need for Peace Corps Volunteers. Volunteers live with Albanian host families both during pre-service training and at their permanent site. Living with and becoming part of a host family is often one of the most rewarding aspects of Volunteer service.
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 in Albania at somewhat reasonable prices, so if you do not already own an American item, you can wait until you get to Albania and buy one that does not need a transformer or plug adapter. More expensive electronics like laptops and MP3 players should be purchased in the United States. Electricity can be very unreliable and of poor quality. Some areas of Albania have experienced outages lasting as long as 10 hours per day during the winter and summer months.
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 Volunteers from supplementing their living allowance with funds from home. However, Volunteers often wish to bring additional money for vacation travel to other countries. For this, credit cards and traveler’s checks are preferable to cash. If you choose to bring extra money, bring the amount that will suit your own travel plans and needs.
The Peace Corps will provide you with a monthly living allowance in Albanian lek for food, recreation, entertainment, and a very limited amount of replacement clothing, local transportation, and other incidentals. The Peace Corps expects you to live within the modest standards that most Albanians do.
It is challenging to explain that you are a Volunteer serving while living on limited means, but this is part of the essence of Volunteer experience. The Peace Corps discourages the use of personal money to supplement living allowance. Albania is mainly a cash economy, 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.
It is advisable to leave some money in your U.S. bank account to access via ATMs in euros or dollars for vacation travel. Traveler’s checks and credit cards are also an option for vacation travel outside of Albania. 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
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. During PST 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. Vegetarians will have to be tactful, 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 recipes as well as collect them throughout your travels to neighboring cities and other countries.
Travel in Albania is an adventure, and 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 bus and mini-bus, but some private cars and vans operate as taxi services among towns and villages. There were virtually no private cars in Albania before 1992, resulting in a relatively young automotive culture. 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.
In the summer, the major source of entertainment in most towns is a daily promenade of men and women up and down the main street where they socialize with friends and acquaintances. In winter, entertainment comes primarily from visiting the homes of friends and you will rarely find people outside once the sun goes down. Additionally, there are interesting historical and archaeological sites throughout the country to visit. When men and women are seen socializing together, locals assume 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. Host country nationals may perceive that female 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 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. Volunteers must accept and conform to this reality to successfully integrate into the local culture.
Professionalism, Dress, and Behavior
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. Albanians dress in their fashionable best in public even if the clothes are worn and threadbare. A foreigner who wears ragged or unkempt clothing is likely to be considered an affront. Although you must dress professionally for work, away from the office you can wear shorts, T-shirts, or casual clothing at your home. Body piercing and tattoos are not common in professional settings in Albania. Visible body piercings (other than earrings for women) and tattoos for both men and women are not generally accepted in professional settings. Please be prepared to cover tattoos whenever possible. Wearing facial piercings may make it more difficult to integrate into your community. Peace Corps/Albania may ask Volunteers to remove facial piercings through PST and for an adequate amount of time during the beginning of service as Volunteers. This will allow time for you to be introduced and acclimate to your community. You will need to decide when to begin wearing your facial piercings based on the climate of your individual community and workplace. Some Volunteers have recommended that incoming trainees wear clear retainer jewelry during PST and for the first several months at their permanent sites while they acclimate and integrate into their respective community.