Final Blog Post

Hello, everyone! I COS next week so this will be my very last post on this blog. (COS = “close of service”). I cannot believe two years have gone by and I am SO excited to go HOME!

I reached out to some friends to ask me some questions for my final post. Here are their questions and my responses.

From Patrick:

1. What is the thing you missed most about not living in the U.S.?

Aside from the obvious stuff (people, food, my cat), the thing I missed most about not living in the U.S. was clean water. Early on, Peace Corps gave me a boiling water filter to use for my time in Kosovo. Here’s what the bottom of the filter looks like after cleaning my tap water:

water filter

Several women I know have had problems with their hair falling out. I’ve thankfully not had that problem, but my hair is breaking off, gunky to the touch, and discolored (I’ve been dyeing it with box dye, which I hate). I am looking forward to getting my hair back into healthy shape once I’m in the U.S.!

From Dana: 

2. What was the most challenging part of your service?

All of it was challenging. I’d say the most challenging was having less autonomy over my life than I am used to, and living with a host family.

3. What was surprisingly easier than you had anticipated?

Working with my counterparts was surprisingly easy. Other volunteers had varying experiences, of course, but my counterparts were very welcoming, supportive, and open to trying new ideas in the classroom. The situation had the potential to be extremely awkward — walking into someone else’s classroom and presenting new teaching ideas and ways of doing things. I always felt welcomed, though, not just by my counterparts, but by my school directors and the other teachers, too. It probably helped that I replaced another volunteer, so my community was already familiar with Peace Corps.

4. What was surprisingly more difficult than you had anticipated?

Kosovo is Peace Corps’ second-newest host country (the newest being Mynmar), and beforehand I hadn’t given much thought to what it would be like to serve in a program that is still being established. There were more administrative bumps than I expected. If I were to do Peace Corps again, the length of the program is something I would take into greater consideration.

5. Any food you’ll miss?

I’ll miss my four favorite restaurants in Pristina: Gresa and Ponte Vecchio (pasta), Babaganough (vegetarian), and Le Sandwich. I’ll also miss paying like 3 Euro for a really good meal.

6. What is the most unique thing about Kosovo?

Wow, good question. Hmm … I would say the most interesting thing is the mix of east and west, and old and new traditions. In the United States there are big variances in religion and traditions and education and values, but because it’s such a large and diverse country it is kind of expected. Kosovo is much smaller and so I think the differences between city and village life are more pronounced. For example, you see people wearing traditional clothing like plis (white, conical hats that men wear) and women in hijabs. But then you also see men and women dressed like they are starring in American music videos.

Buildings are surprisingly large and modern, because a lot were destroyed in the war and had to be re-built.

Kosovo is also very tolerant in terms of religion, much more so than the United States, in my opinion. I had the unique experience of living in a Catholic village in what is a predominately Islamic country. I had both Catholic and Muslim colleagues at my school.

But having said that, Kosovo is still very divided in terms of ethnicity. Tensions between Albanians and Serbians continue to this day. I also think people here identify much more strongly with their ethnicity (being Albanian or Serbian, for example) than with their nationality (being Kosovar).

From Matthew:

7. What food/drink surprised you the most; did you like the most, did you like the least?

I found all of the food surprising, because I had never encountered Balkan food in the United States. I was “meh” about the food because I did not like how it is prepared (LOTS of oil) and it tends to be unbalanced in terms of nutrition. Furthermore, meals rely heavily on peppers, cucumbers, and tomatoes. I always wished for spinach and broccoli!

I don’t like pork but I live with a Catholic family and we eat pork often. When I get home, I am really looking forward to not having to eat pork.

8. Is there anything you encountered that we should all be cooking at home?

If you are interested in cooking Balkan food, I would recommend starting with fasule, which is a bean stew. Fasule is my favorite local dish. It is bland but can be dressed up any way you like with spices and other vegetables. It can also be vegan if you don’t cook it with lard.

Here is a picture of fasule and a link to a recipe.
Fasule
Photo Credit: Albania Adventure

From Pauline:

9. What was the most rewarding / high point of your service? 

In terms of projects, the high point of my experience was probably the week I volunteered with the Anibar Animation Festival in Peja. I got to meet interesting people from all over the world, see good films, spend time with friends, and spend time in my favorite city in Kosovo.

As far as the most rewarding part of my service, I would say being submerged in another culture for so long. It is a unique experience and while there are things about Kosovar culture I definitely dislike, I appreciate knowing something about a country most Americans are totally unfamiliar with.

10. What was the worst / low point of your service? 

I had two low points. The first one was my first winter in Kosovo. It was a cold, snowy winter and I had a series of arguments with my host family about various things. I was really depressed from January until my spring break trip to Rome in April.

My second lowest point was that autumn (2017, my second school year). Mid-service is typically a low point for volunteers. I found the prospect of another school year and another year living in Kosovo to be daunting.

From Jocelyn:

11. What would you consider to be your most memorable moment with your students (the most impactful) and why?

My two favorite groups of student were my fourth grade class in my village and my students at the orphanage. Both groups were really enthusiastic and eager to learn. I don’t think there was any one project I thought was particularly impactful. However, I appreciated being able to work with at the orphanage because those students are among a minority (Ashkali) community that I don’t think typically get a lot of services.

(Ashkali are a group who share language and culture with the Albanians but whose origins are in the Middle East, not the Balkans.)

From Roman:

12. What currency do you get paid in?

Kosovo is on the Euro and my monthly living stipend is paid in Euro. I get paid 350 Euro per month, 180 of which goes to my host family. The remaining 170 Euro is mine to spend how I like.

I also accrue money for every month I am in Peace Corps, which will be given to me once I complete my service. That will be paid in U.S. dollars.

 

Thanks, everyone, for your questions! 

FYI, I visited 12 countries while I was serving in the Peace Corps (including Kosovo) and read 105 books. 🙂

 

Adem Jashari Memorial

Yesterday, I visited the Adem Jashari Memorial in Prekaz, Kosovo. I only have two weeks left in Kosovo and I felt I couldn’t leave without seeing it.

Adem Jashari was the leader of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA). (If you say in in Albanian, it is “Ushtria ç Kosovës” with the acronym UÇK.) The KLA was a separatist group of ethnic Albanians who wanted to secede from Yugoslavia. Adem Jashari has since become a symbol of Kosovo’s independence.

In March of 1998, Serbian forces attacked the Jashari family compound in Prekaz, Kosovo. Over a course of three days, 59* members of the Jashari family were killed, including children. (*I’ve read varying reports of the numbers, ranging from 55-59. But there are 59 family photos displayed at the museum, so I am sticking with that number.)

Disclaimer: This post contains photos of bombed-out buildings and may be disturbing to view.

The memorial site consists of a small museum, the family graveyard, a memorial park, and the Jashari family compound.

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Adem Jashari statue in the nearby village of Skenderaj.
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Photo in the center of Skenderaj
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On the walk to the museum
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First house that I saw. I tried googling the names of its occupants but I am unsure of who they were in relation to Adem Jashari.

The Adem Jashari Museum is free to visit. It is about a ten-minute walk from the Skenderaj bus station.

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The Adem Jashari Museum
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There wasn’t an English translation but I am fairly certain these are all of the people who died in the massacre, 59 in total.
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Adem Jashari’s gun. Almost every depiction I have seen of him shows him holding his gun.
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Adem Jashari’s motocycle
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Munitions used by Serbian forces during the attack on the Jashari family compound.
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The Jashari family tree

After stopping in the museum, I went across the street to the park. This is the cleanest and most well-kept space I have seen in Kosovo. There were two military guards standing watch.

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In the photo below, each marble slab bears the name and birth/death date of a member of the Jashari family.

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I don’t know the symbolism behind these red flowers. Red is a popular color in Kosovo because it is the color of the Albanian flag, and the majority of Kosovars are ethnic Albanians. However, the flowers made me think of a river of blood, personally.

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Jashari family cemetary, with the museum in the background

Here are photos of the family compound. Scaffolding has been built around the remains of the buildings so that visitors can walk around and look inside.

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I cannot imagine the force needed to blast through walls these thick.
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Without offering an opinion on Kosovar history or politics, I will say that visiting the memorial site was a somber experience. It is hard to imagine what it would be like to not only put your own life on the line for your beliefs, but also the lives of your family members. It was also sad to think of the children who died during the attack on the Jashari compound.

What I’ve Been Up To (May-June 2018)

In May, I attended my Peace Corps Close-of-Service conference. The U.S. Ambassador to Kosovo, Greg Delawie, attended on our last day. I had met him twice before. At lunch I sat at his table and was able to speak with him for longer than I had before. It was an honor.

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The ambassador is seated in the front row, wearing a blue tie.

Since I decided to stop blogging regularly around the time of the conference, I didn’t take many photos. It was an emotional week and I wanted to sit back and process my feelings. However, I did take this photo and it is one of my favorites:

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Sierra and Chester

As I mentioned in this post, my friend Ingrid visited from Amsterdam at the end of May/beginning of June.

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Stephanee, Todd, April, Ingrid
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Visiting Rugova
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Group dinner with Ingrid
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Visiting Prizren

My friend Val and I presented another writing workshop at KosovaLive.

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Photo courtesy of KosovaLive

Sierra came to my site for a sleepover. I made her watch my favorite bad movie, Boxing Helena.

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April and Sierra

Chester came to my site the next day and the three of us had lunch.

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Famous chicken restaurant!

I attended a Faces of Kosovo exhibit at the National Library.

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Faces of Kosovo exhibit
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April at the National Library

I visited Mitrovice for the first time. Mitrovice is one of Kosovo’s largest cities, but I had never been there. Mitrovice is divided, Albanians in the south and Serbians in the north. The bridge behind us in this photo famously links the two halves of the city:

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Mitrovice bridge

I made a few “goodbye” gifts:

I attended my director’s retirement dinner, said goodbye to my students, and took my counterparts out for a “thank you” lunch.

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April, director, counterpart
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Grades 1-5. Yep, it’s a tiny school!
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Saying goodbye to students
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Lunch with my counterparts

In other news, I turned 37. Spending another milestone far away from home was rough. I really miss all of you at home and can’t wait to see you! xoxo

My White Whale: The Church on the Hill

For the last two years, whenever I rode the bus between my village and Pristina, Kosovo’s capital city, I saw a church sitting high up on a hill above the freeway. I made it a goal to visit the church and take photos.

My friend visited Kosovo from Amsterdam the other weekend and I convinced her (and our three friends) to drive our rental car up to the church. We bounced up a long, rutted dirt road and finally reached it!

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Sam, Sierra, Ingrid, Chelsea and April
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As I’ve said before, Kosovo is a predominately Islamic country. I live in a Catholic community, however, so I was interested to visit another kishë (church) aside from the one in my village.

You can read about my experiences visiting churches, monasteries, and mosques in Kosovo here:

 

Lonely Planet Thinks You Should Visit Kosovo

Lonely Planet listed Kosovo as one of their “Best in Europe” destinations for 2018. Well, all right. I can do my part to help Kosovo’s tourism. Here are some pictures I took in Rugova Canyon and Bogë this last weekend when my friend visited and rented a car. I am so glad I was able to visit because neither place is accessible via bus.

The restaurant we visited in Bogë (where I took all the sheep photos, below) is called Guri i Kuq, which is Shqip (Albanian) for “Red Stone.”

Rugova Canyon:

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Lots of construction …

Bogë:

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Tiny baby goats!

Driving back down through Rugova Canyon:

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Yours truly

Kosovo is a gorgeous country in general, but the views in Bogë were especially stunning!

Friday Gratitude: Close-of-Service and Winding Down

Hi, Everyone! I’ve been in Pristina since Tuesday, attending my Peace Corps close-of-service conference.

Thanks to my parents for sending me this awesome care package:

care package

My parents have been ON their care package GAME since I came to Kosovo. I so appreciate it, and not just for the snacks. It is nice to feel remembered but it is also comforting. Thanks also to others who have sent me packages: my sister, my aunt, and my friends Katie, Dana, Lisa, Heather, Whitney, and SJ.

Remember when I was crocheting kids’ trick-or-treat bags? I wanted to get them lined so my mom sent me some cute material from the U.S. I hired a local friend’s mother to sew linings into the bags and I got them back this week. They turned out beautifully, SO adorable! She sewed pockets inside and I didn’t even ask for pockets! Here are just a few pics:

Media consumption this week:

  • I enjoyed recently reading Sarah’s Key, so I decided to read another book by the same author: A Secret Kept: A Novel. It was the story of a man who makes a discovery about the life of his long-deceased mother. I enjoyed it.

This post will be the last time I blog on any kind of schedule. For my first nine months of service, I blogged every week day. Since March of 2017, I’ve consistently posted 3x per week. I have enjoyed involving all of you in my life and service. However, by this point, my mind is consumed with topics other than this blog. I am bursting at the seams with ideas for jobs, new creative projects, travel, and people I want to see and talk to when I return home to the States. The last thing I want to do is post blog content just for the sake of posting. I want to provide interesting and useful information to my readers.

Please be sure to follow my blog via email so that you will receive a notification the next time I post. Also, I will continue to update my book list every time I finish a book. If you’re looking for something to read, be sure to check it out!

Finally, I am considering starting a monthly (?) newsletter once I complete my service to keep everyone updated on my first few months post-Peace Corps service. Due to anti-spam laws, I actually need you to opt in if you are interested. Please click here to sign up.

Guest Blogger, Christian: I Choose to Stay

April’s note: The following guest blog post was written by my friend Christian, who is choosing to extend his Peace Corps service.

This week is our close-of-service conference, a reflecting period on our two years here and marking the final sprint of our 27-month service. In 60 days, most of my peers will pack up and begin returning home to new careers, new lives, and wish lists of missed foods. However, I elected to continue my service for a third year. I choose to stay.

Not everyone understands my reasons for staying, I think. After living and working in Kosovo for two years, I finally think that I am beginning to hit my stride. I’ve realized that this time has been a relatively short period to adjust and integrate into a new culture and where my weeks are still marked new discoveries. Extending my service will allow me to continue with my work which I feel is making an impact. Formally switching into the “Community Development” portfolio allowing me to work with several non-governmental organizations and Kosovo’s vibrant youth culture. There are dozens of organizations filled with young, progressive Kosovars that I would have the privilege and excitement to work with as they shape the future of their communities and their newborn country.

During my service, I’ve struggled with the strict gender roles that exist within my community. Being the only male volunteer placed within a village from our cohort, which I’ve had difficultly reconciling my struggles with these gender roles since I am cultural permitted so much more than female volunteers, but exist within the same paradigm. The village’s traditional gender roles which promotes anachronistic masculinity; manual labor, football, and objectification of women exists as the basis or preface of most conversations admist lingering cigarette smoke. This has always left me in a strained position because this is not me. I don’t typically do manual labor (though I’ve chopped wood with a teacher once before, much to my community’s delight), I’m bad at football, and cigarette smoke leaves me nauseated. This has left me feeling alienated when I don’t align with the male sphere and a more sensitive sphere is not an option. Though spared the strict cultural boundaries of a woman, inclusion in the permitting café culture promotes a natural separation. Familiarity always ends at the family home.

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Christian’s village (Photo is courtesy of Christian)

I’ve tried addressing these challenges by working on learning the history of my village. My village was occupied by Serbian forces and sustained American bombing to dislodge them. Every summer, Halo Trust searches the various nondescript fields that comprise the village for the unwanted remnants of the war. Amenities such as water and electricity, everyday utilities that Americans and other developed world citizens take for granted, are relatively new to the village. Both of which were installed by USAID in an effort to rebuild the village and Kosovo in the post-war period. I have found my own solace with my difficulties by remembering theirs and their small, but significant gestures of showing me that I’m welcomed in their community, an honor that many wouldn’t receive.

Extending my service will require me to leave my quiet, farming village into the city of Peja. I adore Peja. I like the frequent rains and sipping makiatos by the soaked windows and walking between the scintillating trees and their ladel like leaves. Watching the fog banks roll down the mountains every morning and the blueish gray tones of the overcast skies melding with the light of Rugova Canyon. How the city exists almost in tandem with the nature around. The street dogs resting in sun lite patches through the parks’ canopy while the gyjshit nap on the benches, both in their usual spots. The gyjsha at the hole-in-the-wall pasta shop and how she slips between speaking Albanian and Dutch effortlessly, a skill she learned from husband who she met while studying cooking in Sardinia. Staying would let me become part of this dynamic rather than an observer.

One of my motivations for joining Peace Corps two short years ago was to experience something different. Initially I was offered or interviewed for several posts; Jordan, Armenia, Ukraine, before fate aligned with Kosovo. During our COS conference, I’ll reflect on my village and the conclusion of my tenure here. The surprisingly vivacious topic of whether I am a “Berisha” or a “Gashi” (both are local family names). The innate skill of knowing which cows belong to which family. Knowing where the spring puppies will be hiding, nestling into the wild grass for its generous reprieve from the heat (This is behind the mosque and next to the barbershop if you must know). The villagers giving me assorted squashes and gourds from the back of their tractors from their autumn harvests. And of my creative, selfie-eager students preparing for their final year exams, trips, and prom. I was motivated to experience something different and being a member of this community for the past two years was surely that.

Read posts by other guest bloggers:

I am considering starting a monthly (?) newsletter once I complete my service to keep everyone updated on my first few months post-Peace Corps service. Due to anti-spam laws, I actually need you to opt in if you are interested. Please click here to sign up.