I Have Malaise

I completed two “Friday Gratitude” posts for two different topics this week, but in the end, I trashed both of them. Both felt false to me.

Of course, I have plenty to be grateful for. There are moments, hours, days when I love being in Kosovo. There are moments, hours, days when I don’t. This week I have been struggling with restlessness, of a general sense of discomfort. The other trainees are feeling similarly. As someone said yesterday, “I have malaise.”

My aim with this blog is to remain positive while also being truthful. That can be a fine line to walk. No one wants to listen to a privileged person whine.

I am struggling with the loss of autonomy and control over my life. Training is structured and rigid, which contributes to the feeling. We aren’t allowed to travel or really do much of anything on our own. It can be frustrating.

Another factor is that I am still adjusting to Kosovar culture. A group of us planned to meet up with a Kosovar man we know for something Peace Corps related. But when everyone except me canceled at the last minute, he declined to meet with me alone because of how our meeting could be perceived. And I get that. I understand. But it makes me miss being in Chicago, of being able to go anywhere with anyone at all hours of the day or night, and not having anyone take notice or care.

I miss being able to jump in my car and run to the store. As much as I hate grocery shopping and cooking, I miss having control over what I eat.

I am usually a bad sleeper and my sleep has been especially bad this week. I’m awake all hours of the night, restless and wanting a distraction.

We officially swear in as Peace Corps volunteers on August 19. After that, we move to our permanent sites. I am hoping this will afford me some freedom again. Everyone keeps assuring us that training is the hardest part of being in the Peace Corps.

What I am most grateful for this week is my fellow Peace Corps trainees. As much as we are all feeling bored and restless, everyone is still trying to remain positive. It makes a difference.


An American in Kosovo

Some experiences and observations:

  1. The other week, I was walking through one of Kosovo’s larger cities with some fellow Peace Corps trainees, all three of whom happen to be blonde and blue-eyed. I joked that I looked like a local, showing my American tourist friends around.
  2. The next day, during one of our training conferences, a Kosovar man I didn’t know sat across from me and said something low and rapid and in Albanian. I said, “What?” in English, and he looked surprised. He apologized and said he thought I was Albanian because I look Albanian (I took it was a compliment. ;))
  3. I went to the phone store to add minutes to my phone. The man behind the counter spoke English. At one point, he asked me a question. I replied, “Po” (yes). He jokingly asked, “Are we speaking English or Albanian here?”
  4. I’ve mentioned before that Albanians believe cross-breezes cause illness. (It’s called promaja in shqip.) I am beginning to understand more and more in shqip. At dinner the other night, my host brother said he had a headache, and my host father blamed it on promaja. I asked about promaja, and they were surprised I knew what they had been saying. (My host brother helped to translate the conversation that followed.) My host father said he knows a man whose “face was destroyed by promaja.” I laughed and said Americans don’t believe in promaja. My host father replied that it doesn’t matter if Americans believe or not, promaja is real.
  5. Another trainee and I were walking through a playground, and a group of boys who looked to be about twelve kept shouting, “I like your a**!” to us over and over.
    1. Being catcalled is creepy.
    2. Being catcalled by 12-year-olds is creepier.
    3. Being catcalled by 12-year-olds who sound like robots is the creepiest.

Talk Shqip to Me

“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” — Nelson Mandela

Last week, we took a mid-training oral language exam, just to see how our Albanian (shqip, pronounced “ship”) language is progressing. I did more poorly than I thought, which has really lit a fire under me to study more.

One thing I got marked down on was this: When I was asked what my profession was in the United States, I replied (in English) “social worker,” because I didn’t know how to say it in shqip. My language teacher later defended me, because “social worker” isn’t one of the professions listed in our textbook. (And for the record, the only professions listed in our textbook are: actor, ecologist, teacher, and businessman. I don’t know how many actors or ecologists I can expect to meet here in Kosovo. So, yeah, SUPER HELPFUL.) I have since asked my language teacher to teach me how to say “social worker” in shqip, in case I am asked that question in the future. He asked me what a social worker is, specifically. (HAHA, good question!) I told him about my last job, and he translated my profession as “këshilltare për të varurit e drogës,” which literally means “counselor for the addicted to drugs.” That’s a mouthful.:)

Shqip is a difficult language to learn for a number of reasons. Not only do verbs get conjugated — nouns do, too. (Even proper nouns). Before I moved to Kosovo, I did some research on the country and could not figure out why there were so many spellings for the capital city. I’ve since discovered the differences:

  • Pristina (rhymes with the name “Christina”) is the English word for the city.
  • Prishtina is the Albanian way of saying the name.
  • Prishtinë is the indefinite version of Prishtina (“in Pristina” translates to “në Prishtinë”).

Further complicating things is that there is “standard Albanian” (ex: the language that is spoken on the news) versus “dialect,” which is an informal language typically spoken at home, among family. Not everyone speaks standard Albanian, and dialects can vary by region. Our language classes mostly focus on standard Albanian. But, at home, some of our families speak only in dialect. It gets confusing.

The only way in which I think shqip is easier than English is that words are pronounced the way they are spelled. So if you understand the shqip alphabet (36 letters to our 26) and the sounds the letters make, you can sound things out. (Unlike English words like “knife” or “through” or a million others.)

A few weeks ago, we took a test to determine what type of learners we are: visual, audio, or kinesthetic (carrying out physical activities). I would’ve guessed that I’m an audio learner, since I prefer lectures in the classroom. But, I actually scored as a visual learner (with kinesthetic coming in second place).

I suppose I shouldn’t be so surprised. Flashcards are my favorite way to study. There are a number of things I didn’t pack and wish I had. Index cards are at the top of the list. I could kick myself for not thinking to bring any.  I can’t find them here, so I’ve had to make do by cutting up pieces of paper.

I need to study more! We have another oral exam coming up at the end of training. *gulp* The good news is that once we move to our permanent sites, Peace Corps will pay a tutor to continue working with us individually. That’s something I definitely want to take advantage of. I might never have another opportunity to be immersed in a language. I want to learn shqip! Help!

Making charts to practice and learn

Friday Gratitude

I am one of those weird people who doesn’t like summer.

Summers in Chicago are miserable endeavors (much like winters in Chicago). I would fantasize about lake houses in Wisconsin, about spending long days by the water. But no one I know owns a lake house in Wisconsin. And so I used to sit in my small, humid apartment, the inadequate window air conditioning units rattling so loudly I had to turn them off to watch television. To go outside meant to be in a public space. It meant cement and sticky crowds.

What I am most grateful for this week is my host family’s garden. It is lush and shaded. I sit there to read with a kitten at my feet and a richly green mountain to my right. I have not spent this much time outdoors since the summers of my childhood.

I discovered the kitten’s eyes have changed from gray to brown, a much more suitable color for a tiger-striped kitten, in my opinion.

Kosovo is teeming with life. On hikes with my host mother, we’ll sometimes stop to sit and rest. When I peer at the ground, every inch is crawling with bugs.

Bugs are everywhere. Our windows don’t have screens. Flies swarm. Ants scatter across our kitchen counter. I crush daddylonglegs in my bedroom, only to find that new ones have taken their places in the morning. Moths tuck themselves into the slats of my window blinds. A dead wasp lies upturned in my doorway. I keep forgetting to dispose of its body.

The vegetables I eat are organic, but they were not purchased at the expensive grocery store, the one I used to go to only on rare occasions. The vegetables I eat were plucked from the garden where I sit every afternoon, and read.

I am reading All the Light We Cannot See. I have not read such a gorgeously written book since The Goldfinch. The story is about a blind French girl and a German soldier set during World War Two. I’ve been recommending it to my loved ones. The other night, I recommended it to my grandfather (he usually reads what I tell him to).

This week, I am grateful for the deep quiet I find in a shaded garden. I am grateful for a warm kitten who purrs in my lap. I am grateful to find moments of contentedness during a time in my life when change feels constant and unrelenting.

May you find your own quiet this weekend.


Kosovo Facts

[Note: When I recently asked for suggestions for what people would like to see on my blog, my sister mentioned she would like to learn more about Kosovo’s culture. I realized I haven’t said much about Kosovo itself. I figured that when I joined the Peace Corps, my friends and family probably did some research on Kosovo. But, I still think it’s worthwhile to post something here. I’ve listed my sources, too, so you know I’m not pulling stuff out of thin air. 😉 Also, I’m going to be mindful of writing more about culture in the future.]


“The Balkans produce more history than they can consume.” — Winston Churchill

So what are “the Balkans”? The term refers to a region in southeastern Europe and currently includes the countries Kosovo, Albania, Bosnia and Hercegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia. (U.S. State Department website) [I don’t know why the map below highlights countries other than those on the State Department’s website, but it was the best map I found.]

The Kosovo War ended in 1999. On February 17, 2008, “[Kosovo] declared independence, becoming the world’s newest and most controversial of states.” (Kosovo: What Everyone Needs to Know by Tim Judah)

According to this unofficial website, Kosovo is “slightly larger than Delaware.” So why is this small country so important?

“Look at the map. Kosovo and the rest of the Western Balkans are countries that are now surrounded by the territories of two of the most important and powerful organizations on the planet. On every side the region is enveloped by the European Union and NATO. So Kosovo and its neighbors are not some place out there in Europe’s backyard, but rather they constitute its inner courtyard. Nobody wants trouble here.” (Kosovo: What Everyone Needs to Know by Tim Judah)


Here are some facts about Kosovo’s population. I pulled all of this information from the CIA Worldfact Book.

  • Population: 1,870,981 (July 2015 est.)
  • Ethnic groups: Albanians 92.9%, Bosniaks 1.6%, Serbs 1.5%, Turk 1.1%, Ashkali 0.9%, Egyptian 0.7%, Gorani 0.6%, Roma 0.5%, other/unspecified 0.2%
    [note: these estimates may under-represent Serb, Roma, and some other ethnic minorities because they are based on the 2011 Kosovo national census, which excluded northern Kosovo (a largely Serb-inhabited region) and was partially boycotted by Serb and Roma communities in southern Kosovo (2011 est.)]
  • Language: Albanian (official) 94.5%, Bosnian 1.7%, Serbian (official) 1.6%, Turkish 1.1%, other 0.9% (includes Romani), unspecified 0.1%
  • Religion: Muslim 95.6%, Roman Catholic 2.2%, Orthodox 1.5%, other 0.07%, none 0.07%, unspecified 0.6% (2011 est.)

Kosovo has the youngest population in Europe. According to the CIA WorldFact Book (again), 43.56% of Kosovo’s population is age 24 or younger. Kosovo has the second highest unemployment rate for people ages 15-24 in the world.

The following quote comes from a PowerPoint presentation I received as a Peace Corps trainee:

“According to the United Nations Human Development Report, one out of every four Kosovars lives outside of the country. Remittances from the Kosovar diaspora account for one fifth of Kosovo’s entire GDP. Because of limited economic opportunities in Kosovo, many families choose migration as a way to support the family unit, primarily to destinations in Western Europe.”

On a personal level, it is easy at times to wonder how much of an impact I’ll have when I’m serving in the Peace Corps as an English teacher. But then I remind myself that by teaching Kosovar children English, I am helping to set them up for a brighter future, one where they will potentially have greater education and job opportunities.