I Spy?

After one and a half years in Durrës, the newness of having the Americans around is wearing off and it is interesting to see how relationships change. Some have realized we are not the traditional NGO types coming with bags of money and have moved on, some have started telling us their initial views about us, but most are still confused.

One challenge is that we are often offered money for our services, or asked to help on a project and offered a fee. It is very difficult to get everyone to understand that we cannot accept any money as we are paid by Peace Corps. After establishing this, the next questions is how much are you being paid, we tell them and they say that is not enough and the offers start all over. The other interesting item is that recently we put together the fact that under communism, you volunteered for an assignment or went to prison. With that background, you can imagine when we say we are volunteers the initial reaction is surprise and it is even harder to explain that we choose to be here. (“How stupid are you?” is the question that follows, but our Albanian in not good enough to be certain.)

When first arriving in site, it takes about six months to develop trust and relationships within the workplace and social setting. We thought this was due to the distrust that hat been instilled during communism. Recently at a coffee, an Albanian friend confided that he really thought we were spies. We dismissed this as paranoia, but additional background was recently discovered while reading a bit of Peace Corps history and about a popular Russian spy series. In the early days, there was an effort by the CIA to use Peace Corps as a cover for spies. Fortunately, Sergent Shriver was able to prevent this (as far as we know). Then in the early G.W. Bush administration days, there was a failed effort by the administration to change the recruitment policy which prohibits Peace Corps volunteers from working in intelligence for five years after service. And more interestingly, there is a series of popular Russian spy novels with the main character being a PC volunteer in Nicaragua who is a CIA – KGB double agent. So all of a sudden, the idea of us being spies is not so far fetched.

Best of all are the times we are approached by strangers, talked up and then asked if we could provide an introduction to the Ambassador or President Bush. In a country as small as Albania, it is just impossible for people here to comprehend that we do not have a personal connection with the ambassador (isn’t he/she a cousin or something?). After the guide at the museum gave the ambassador a tour, she felt she could call the ambassador for her visa application and was very hurt when the call was not taken directly, but passed off to the ambassador’s aide. In fact, when we explain we cannot get in the embassy without an appointment three days in advance, there are just blank stares. While we don’t think the claim that we don’t know the ambassador is accepted as true, we have not come up with a better response. As for the meeting with Bush, we just suggest they schedule that through the office of the mayor of Fushe-Kruja (town Bush visited).

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