Paying the water bill – a 3-day adventure!

Albania utility company sign on wallOften as a missionary, you find that tasks that once were simple have become serious adventures. What was a simple part of everyday life, now takes exponentially more effort and time. I would like to tell you about our latest adventure in Albania, an adventure involving paying utility bills.

“Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may dwell in me.” [1]

Near the end of every month, we receive our utility bills. Since there are no mail boxes and no individual addresses, you find your bills stuck in your door or grouped somewhere in the stairwell of your building. One fine evening, I saw our monthly bill sticking out of our door. I opened the bill and saw that being careful with our electricity usage had paid off. (Since electricity is more expensive in Albania than in America, most people, including us, have to do everything they can to keep costs low. Florescent bulbs are available on the street and in the local stores. Air conditioners, which are in a number of the newer buildings, sit dormant despite the sweltering Mediterranean sun.)

Now the time came to pay the utility bills. I did some research, found the utilities websites, and found general instructions on where to pay the bills. They seemed pretty close, and I naively hoped this would be a quick errand. I walked a few blocks to the square where the utility office should be, but I didn’t see anything with electric or water company logos on them. After 45 minutes of walking up and down tiny alleys around the square, I finally gave up and decided to walk half a mile to the next possible location I had seen on the website. I thought this next location was going to be easy to find; after all, the website says the office is across from the Hotel Diplomat, which is really easy to find!

It was getting hot, and I almost decided to put it off until later, but I really wanted to pay the bill. After finding the Hotel Diplomat, I was faced with the same problem I had before: I saw no buildings or shops that looked even remotely like they might be related to utilities. It was all coffee shops, hair salons, and markets totally unrelated to my quest to pay my bills. After 20 minutes, I finally decided to ask someone, in my broken Albanian, if they knew where the utilities were. They gave me an answer that sounded hopeful, “Make a right on the main street, go to the apartment building, and ask…” After 40 minutes of wandering around, I decided it was time to go home. On the way back, I called Gabriela (Hoppe) to ask if she could give me some guidance. She gave me enough of a picture that I had an idea of where to pay the electric bill. It’s a small storefront with no marking other than the word “Arka” (cash box/pay office). Success! After 4 hours of work, I could finally do ten minutes of work.

I still had to find where to pay the water bill. I did some more research that night and even found a pin of the office on Google maps. It seemed pretty straightforward and was only ½ a mile away. I embarked on another attempt to find this elusive office. Much like the day before, there was a lot of walking in circles, a lot of hopes that rose and fell. I called Gabriela again, but she did not know where the “Arka” for the water was. A little frustrated, I returned home having run out of time for the day.

The next day after Church, the Bendo Family came over for brunch. After a wonderful meal with them, I asked Fr. Anastas for some important guidance. “Where do I pay my water bill?” He laughed a little and gave me directions. Finally, Monday arrived, and I was determined to pay this bill. I enlisted the help of my Mother who was visiting Albania. We followed Fr. Anastas’ directions and quickly found a sign for UKT, the name of the water utility. We went through a gate under the sign and found ourselves in a thin alley way that looked like it belonged to a private house. Thinly spray-painted on the wall was the phrase “UKT à”. We hesitantly walked down the alley, wondering if someone was going to come out of the house and yell at us for being in their yard. Finally, at the end of the alley, we saw two windows with tellers sitting behind them. After eight hours of searching, my quest to pay the electric and water bills for the month had come to a close.

This story has more value than its frustration and humor would entail. Events such as this are common to being a missionary. You have left your home culture where you are a highly functioning member of society (hopefully), and have now become like a baby. You are weak. You need help. As we read in the Epistles, “He has said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.’ Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may dwell in me.”[2] As Christians, we understand that through this weakness, we can come to trust in God more fully. Our weakness can be a tool “that we should not trust in ourselves, but in God who raises the dead…”[3] Through our weakness, we are forced to rely on our God. Through our struggles, our attitude is paramount. Do we take these challenges and regress into ourselves, saying “Oh how hard my life is”? Or do we embrace these experiences as ways to make ourselves tougher, as moments of growth in our personal lives that helps us come closer to our God, our spouse, and those around us? Do we take these moments as a time to rely on God? Do they serve as a wakeup call from the self-sufficiency we think we have, to a realization that we do need help from our neighbor and from God?

Challenges and the illumination of our weaknesses happen often as we cross cultural boundaries, but they are not limited to missionaries or travelers. Through challenges, we can come to realize we are not okay without God. We can learn that God sustains us and the entire world, whether we realize it or not. As Christians, we must respond to these challenges and ask ourselves, “Is His grace sufficient for me?”

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Stephanos Ritsi, son of Father Martin & Presvytera Renee, grew…
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