Doing it for the Children

Sometime next week, we will find out what our permanent Peace Corps sites will be (meaning, where in Kosovo we’ll each be moving). Right now, I see my fellow trainees almost every day. But after our swearing in ceremony on August 19, we’ll be scattered all over Kosovo.

There has been a lot of talk amongst ourselves regarding our permanent sites, and some people definitely have strong preferences in where they are placed and what age groups they’ll be teaching (not that our preferences matter). As for me, I don’t know what to expect or hope for.

I’m a city kid through-and-through, so part of me would prefer to be placed in a larger village or city. But bigger cities mean a higher enrollment and more students in each classroom. Since I am an inexperienced teacher, maybe a smaller village with a smaller school/enrollment would be better for me.

At my last job back in Chicago, I worked with teen substance users. This is probably why Peace Corps initially told me I would be placed in a secondary school (subject to change, of course). I’m not sure how I feel about teaching in a high school versus an elementary school. I’ve heard from more experienced teachers in our group that younger kids tend to be more obedient. But, I can see drawbacks with that age group, too.

I like babies, and I’m used to being around teenagers, but those ages in between (like, 3-13) turn me into an awkward adult. “How old are you?” “What grade are you in?” and then, yeah … I got nuthin. (“OMG, do you think Jon Snow is really a Targaryen? BECAUSE I SURE DO!”) If I can’t cuddle you or speak to you like an adult, then I don’t know what to do with you.

There were four of us who worked on our last Peace Corps trainee project. The school children we met were particularly drawn to one of my colleagues. I tried to approach several of the quieter children, the ones who weren’t swarming with the rest. They looked at me with terror in their eyes. I tried to boost my self confidence by telling myself they probably felt intimidated speaking English to an American. (Ditto. I feel stupid when I try to speak Albanian to a native speaker.)  But, who knows. Maybe I’m actually terrifying.

Novo Brdo

On June 10, the Peace Corps trainees visited Novo Brdo. I was inspired to write about gratitude that evening, so I never got around to sharing my field trip experience. I’ve decided to write about it now.

What is Novo Brdo, you ask? Well …

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The fortress is under reconstruction, and is thought to have been originally constructed sometime between 1300-1400 A.D. Our guide said they recently had the soil tested, and it dated back to 1250.

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Here’s the Peace Corps, enjoying the view …

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Aside from the fortress, there are other sites to see. We visited Saint Lazar’s mausoleum. He was a Serbian Christian Orthodox saint. According to legend, if you flip over one of the tiles on the mausoleum’s roof, you will soon get married (and have a happy marriage).

I figured, what the heck …

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There is also an active mosque and a tower on the grounds. (I believe I heard there is a Catholic church, too, though I did not see it.)

Below is a picture of the tower.The woman on the left is a fellow Peace Corps trainee, while the man on the right is my language teacher.

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Here’s a picture of me with my friend Val, another trainee. We were warned to be careful of vipers in the grass. Yikes!

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Another one of my fellow trainees, Nicole, has some more beautiful pictures of Novo Brdo on her blog.

 

 

 

The Power of Words and Stories

“The Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti writes that if you want to dispossess a people, the simplest way to do it is to tell their story and to start with, ‘secondly.'” — Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, The Danger of a Single Story

Last week we went through a powerful Peace Corps training that broached the topic of serving in a post-war environment.

The war in Kosovo ended in 1999. I am not going to attempt to explain any Kosovar history on this blog. Anything I’d write would come from a very limited knowledge and a foreign perspective. Before I moved here, I read Kosovo: What Everyone Needs to Know by Tim Judah. I found it to be a fairly comprehensible book explaining a very complicated history.

In the training I attended, we talked a lot about the power of words and stories. We were asked to consider how words color what we think. Consider the word “conflict” versus the word “war.” Consider the word “killed” versus the word “murdered.”

We were warned not to adopt any one version of the story of Kosovo. There are many sides to the story. Many, many people on both sides of the war were deeply affected by what happened here.

During the training, we participated in a powerful exercise. We were asked to come up with a list of words that describe our own identities and personalities. We were then asked to choose a word or words from our list. I was one of the first people the facilitator called upon. I gave him my words: “good listener.”

“You are no longer a good listener,” he replied, “because everyone you used to listen to is dead.”

Then he went around the room, asking my fellow trainees for their words.

“You are no longer a daughter because your parents are dead.”
“You are no longer a wife because your husband is dead.”
“You are no longer a teacher because your school was bombed.”
“You are no longer an American because America isn’t recognized as a country anymore.”
“You are no longer a soldier because you are now considered an ethnic minority, and you’re not allowed to serve.”

Afterward, the mood in the room was sober. One of the other trainees stated the exercise, “pointed out the fragility of things that don’t seem fragile.” We went on to talk about loss suffered due to war.

Prior to the training, we were asked to watch a Ted Talks video on “The Danger of a Single Story.” In it, writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie discusses the danger of reducing a story to a single perspective. Below is the video, if you would also like to watch.

Hold the Butter

As I’ve mentioned previously, I am busy every day Monday-Friday, from 9:00 a.m. until 5:00 p.m., and from 9:00-1:00 on Saturdays. I’m going through pre-service training (PST, in Peace Corps language). At this point, I am technically not a member of the Peace Corps yet. I am a “Peace Corps trainee,” versus a “Peace Corps volunteer.” Once I complete PST, I will swear in as a volunteer in August.

My days are a mix of Peace Corps trainings (safety, TEFL, cultural awareness, etc.) with my whole group, and small-group Albanian language classes with a Kosovar teacher who is also fluent in English.

I haven’t taken a language class since high school French. Prior to my departure, people kept asking me if I am “good with languages.” How the heck do I know?

Language classes seem to be going well, as in, I think I am picking up the vocabulary quickly, although my communication with my host family is still very limited. I overheard another volunteer say, “Sometimes, I just want to shout at my host family: I AM A SMART PERSON!” I know how he feels.

We had a mini evaluation last week and I scored well. That made me feel good, though I suspect my teacher was being generous.

When learning a new language, of course you run across all kinds of quirks, rules, and pronunciation issues. One word my class struggles with is “gjalpë,”the Albanian word for butter. To me, the vowel sound seems to fall somewhere between the English words “oil” and “all.” No one in my class can say it properly, although we’ve probably made our teacher pronounce it 100 times.

At this point, it just seems easier to go without butter.

On Chickens

Here is a series of random thoughts I’ve had about chickens this week:

      1. The other day, I was reading in the garden. My host family owns a number of chickens who freely wander around the yard, though there are fences that open and close to confine them to certain areas, if needed. A group of chickens was gathered on the opposite side of the fence from me. A rooster wandered up on my side of the fence. Upon seeing that the gate was closed, and that all of the other chickens were on the other side, the rooster began to make the most pitiful, distressed noises. I felt sorry for him. (I also had a hard time not projecting my feelings onto him. “I understand how you feel, buddy! I’M SEPARATED FROM ALL OF MY FRIENDS, TOO!”) I’ve never expended much mental energy on chickens before, as I prefer animals of the furry and four-legged variety. But as I watched the rooster, I realized that I think he’s cute. He’s much prettier than the plain, brown hens. His underbelly is a rich dark color, while his top feathers are reddish. He’s also bigger and sleeker than the hens. The rooster acted distressed for a few moments and then, as I watched, he turned, crossed the front of the house, rounded the side yard, and joined his friends in the back. Perhaps chickens are not as dumb as I previously assumed.
      2. There is a chicken who lives on my street who appears to have been born with a twisted foot. When it walks, it comes down on the back of it’s wrist/ankle (whatever that’s called in chickens.) I wonder if it hurts, coming down on the pavement like that.
      3. The new kitten seems to want to pounce on the hens, as evidenced by her wiggle-butt action. I have to keep my eye on her when we’re in the yard. I appreciate her confidence but don’t think it would end well.

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Have a good weekend, everyone! I’ll see you back here on Monday.

 

 

Cross Breezes Have Been Known to Kill People

The temperature here in Kosovo has been in the high 90s all week. Remember how I posted that some of our training sessions have been held in a conference room atop a hill with a beautiful view? Yeah, no air conditioning or fans in there! No air conditioning or fans anywhere — home, training, school, anywhere.

I know you’re probably don’t feel sorry for me. Like, “Geez, she’s in the Peace Corps! Didn’t she sign up for this?”

Yeah, I know, I should feel lucky I don’t have to wash my hair by dunking it in a bucket. Peace Corps volunteers sign up for anything! Why am I complaining about the heat? But the thing is, I DIDN’T sign up for this. I chose Kosovo based on one criteria and one criteria only — it gets COLD. If I wanted to live in a warm climate, I would be living in a hut south of the equator right now.

Before I moved here, I checked the weather, and the average temperature range for Kosovo was listed as 35-65 degrees Fahrenheit. I wasn’t expecting 95 degree heat in June. I was so concerned about fierce mountain winters I only packed one skirt and one pair of capri pants. 😦

I also know several people who are fasting. That means no eating or drinking (including water) until the sun goes down. I don’t know how they haven’t fainted in the heat.

(Here’s a fun cultural fact for you — Albanians are very concerned about drafts and cross-breezes, because they believe drafts and cross-breezes cause illness. Which means if you are riding in a taxi, only one window can be open. Even if that taxi doesn’t have air conditioning.)

On a more fun note, today our culture lesson focused on dancing. If you ever want to see something funny, watch a group of Americans try to learn an Albanian circle dance.

And then the Americans reciprocated by teaching an important cultural dance of our own.

Commitment

Commitment has been on my mind this week. As I was going through the process of being accepted into the Peace Corps, I knew I would need to learn to love Kosovo. I began to tell myself how much I loved Kosovo before I ever set foot on the ground here.

Before I moved here, a few well-meaning people reminded me that if I didn’t like the Peace Corps, I could always quit. (Which is true. I can quit at any time.) But while I understood where they were coming from, I also knew I didn’t want to begin my commitment thinking that way. It would be like entering a marriage with the thought of getting divorced — probably not a good idea.

In the months leading up to my departure, I thought about Kosovo so much I felt like Kosovo was leaking out of my ears. My training group is only the third that has ever been placed in Kosovo. We also happen to be the first group in Peace Corps history to receive all of our training in our host country. And I am so thankful it worked out that way. When I arrived in D.C. for pre-departure, I was antsy to leave. I felt many emotions leaving the United States (hope, fear, excitement, restlessness, irritability, stress, uncertainty), but my predominant feeling was one of READINESS.

I stumbled across this blog post a few months back, and it eloquently discusses choosing love and commitment. It was written by Katie Davis, a Christian missionary in Uganda. Although her blog (and book) have a religious overtone, I think even those who aren’t religious or Christian might find ideas that resonate with them. (I’m a fan of most anyone who leads an interesting life.) Katie Davis moved to Uganda at age nineteen and has lived there ever since, adopting fourteen daughters along the way. And although the blog post I linked to specifically addresses adoptive mothers, I like what she has to say about love, how, “the action of love precedes the actual feeling.”

For me, I am attempting to apply this idea to a country and groups of people I am only just beginning to know.