Hiking in Peja, Kosovo

School doesn’t start until Monday, so I’ve had free time this week and last (which has been really nice!). I’ve been settling in and getting to know a different part of Kosovo. There are a couple of K2 volunteers (Peace Corps Volunteers from the group before mine, who are in the middle of their service) who live in my general area. They have been really helpful in showing us newbies around.

One of the K2s organized a hike in Peja last Thursday. (I wrote a previous post about Kosovo’s first Olympic gold medal winner, Majlinda Kelmendi. Peja is her hometown.) As I mentioned, Peja is in the BIG mountains. 🙂

It was a beautiful day, clear and sunny and not too hot. Here are some pictures from the trip.


Shumë Speca!

You know that old saying, “You are what you eat.” If that is true, I am a pepper.

The Albanian word for peppers is “speca” (I pronounce it  SPAYT-SA, and to me, it sounds like others pronounce it this way, to. [Even though there is no “t.”]). I hear “speca” so often that in complete honesty, I sometimes have trouble remembering the English word for it.

I like speca, but over this past summer I have eaten enough to grow tired of it. But, I thought, Ah-ha! Autumn is coming. And that means no more speca.

I thought wrong. I forgot about canning. It seems I will be enjoying speca for months (and years) to come!

My host mother asked me if I’d like to accompany her to her sister’s house to see the canning process. We arrived at 11:30 a.m. and did not leave until 8:30 p.m. (I had been warned this would be an all-day affair.)

Speca for days …
There’s more where that came from …
Speca! I mean, peppers


Literally, my only contribution to the process
In the future, there will never be a time when I am not eating speca.




Swearing-in Speech

Our Peace Corps trainee group, K3, elected two members of our group to give a speech (entirely in Albanian) at our swearing-in ceremony. We elected Valeriana Dema and Michael Kuriyama. With Val and Michael’s permission, I am posting the English version of their speech below.

Welcome all and thank you for being with us today. We would like to especially thank Mr. President Hashim Thaqi for coming here today. We also would like to thank the U.S. Ambassador, Greg Delawie. We would like to thank volunteers, teachers, the Peace Corps staff, and most importantly we would like to thank our host families.

Michael: Eleven weeks ago, when we got on the plane in Washington DC and took the first step in our PC journey, we never imagined that we would have the honor of addressing you today, as we take the next major step in our service as PCVs

Val: We have spent the past eleven weeks training and preparing for our two year service in Kosovo. We got through it with plenty of laughs, some tears, and a lot of sweat. Most importantly, however, we got through it together with many of the people in this room.

Michael: When looking at our fellow volunteers, we see a group of intelligent and kind people working together to do something good here in Kosovo. We come from different places and backgrounds that give us unique perspectives.

Val: And as an Albanian American, the volunteers here have opened my eyes to seeing Kosovo from new angles. One day when I was feeling down some volunteers showed me a new path in the hills behind our village. When we finally made it all the way up the mountain, the sun was setting. The view from the top was breathtaking, and I asked myself why people would leave this beautiful place? The family rituals and slower rhythms here in Kosovo seemed to make more sense to me than the more hectic and faster paced lifestyle I had in America. I thought about Albanian families, my own and others, split up across continents and realized leaving was no easy decision for them. I’ve realized that my biggest hope as volunteer is that I can help Kosovo in some small way become a place that people don’t feel that they have to leave. I don’t think I could have come to these sentiments about myself and the people here in Kosovo without having my fellow volunteers and host national children show me the way. They’re the ones who took me up the mountain to a new path that I’d never seen before, and I think they’re the people that are going to continue to show me new and beautiful things about Kosovo throughout my two years here.

Michael: There is a contagious energy that makes us hopeful that anything is possible, that every project or task we set out to accomplish will succeed. We have been a great support network for each other, and we will continue to be so after we move to our permanent sites across Kosovo.

Val: I’m sure that we are all anxious about moving to our new homes in just a few hours, but we are prepared for this move thanks to a special group of people – our teachers. Our teachers have worked hard to provide us with a foundation to learn the languages of Kosovo, but they were way more than just the people who taught us.

Michael: They were the person who helped us interpret a new culture, the person who watched us grow, and the friend we’re grateful to have. Kosovo has the youngest population in Europe, and seeing how intelligent and driven our teachers are has made us extremely hopeful for the future of Kosovo.

Val: We spent time with our teachers every day, but there was also always staff working hard behind the scenes to help us. They helped us with whatever we needed: from providing medical care and giving technical training, to meeting us at the airport and helping set up our bank accounts.

Michael: Regardless of the task, the Peace corps staff was eager to help. However, we believe what we’re most thankful for is the hard work they put into finding the perfect host families to live with.

Val: Throughout the summer, you cooked us delicious pita, pasul, and flija and poured us endless juice, Turkish coffee, and Russian tea. But more than just providing a place to stay and something to eat or drink, you welcomed us into your homes and invited us into your families.

Michael: I remember when we arrived at the school in Kamenice with our luggage and no idea of with whom we were going to be living with. I had a few phrases memorized and could say shume mire and s’ka problem relatively well. My host dad picked me up and brought me back to his home, showed me to my room, and invited me to have coffee with him and his wife. I nervously sat down and frantically used my phrase book and google translate to come up with small talk. When I said I didn’t understand something, they didn’t give up and kept on trying to communicate with me. We smiled and laughed at my mistakes, and sometime before I had finished my coffee, my nervousness disappeared. Despite not being able to communicate with words, we always understood your hospitality, your generosity, and your care. While the volunteers didn’t always have the words to say how much our families meant to us, we hope you understood through our actions.

Val: We’re so grateful to have spent the past few months with you. You invited us to your celebrations. At weddings, you grabbed our hands and took to us to dance in the valla. My family even threw me a wonderful birthday party.

Michael: During Bajram, you took us from house to house to meet your families who served us countless dishes of delicious baklava like we were your own sons and daughters. You introduced us to your family who came back home from all over Europe and who were just as nice as you are. You were some of the kindest, warmest, and most welcoming people we have ever met.

Val: We might be moving to different parts of the country, but no matter where we go, we will always have a home and family with you all.

Friday Gratitude

“It’s really good to be here and as I always say, it’s really good to be anywhere!” — Keith Richards

Happy Friday! I’ve been settling into my new (and permanent!) site this week. It’s so nice to be fully unpacked — that means even my winter clothes are out of my suitcase now. My host family has been very kind thus far; happy to include me in things, but respectful of my time and space, too.

Here are some things I am grateful for this week:


I’ve been enjoying my morning coffee in my new mug, which was a sweet gift from a friend.


My host parents brought this bracelet back from their vacation in Albania. I haven’t taken it off, not even to shower or sleep.


One thing I love about being in other countries is the sheer randomness of everything. I don’t know what the difference between “sheep” or “butterfly” is when it comes to clothing … maybe a fluffy wash versus a light wash? My clothes are clean, at any rate.


I (stupidly) did not bring any printed photos to Kosovo. With the help of my friends, I found a printer and pulled some photos off my phone to have printed. It’s nice to be able to look at my family, friends, and our pets in the States. (Also, I plan to post my photos of my new room once I am a bit more settled in.)


I found yarn at the grocery store without even l00king for it. I just rounded a corner and bam! There it was. I’ve got a couple of ambitious crochet projects in mind … we’ll see how they pan out.


I bought a lamp for my new room … and managed to break it the next morning. My host father made a new lamp stand for me. Isn’t this so cute?! It seriously made my day. 🙂

Also, I downloaded The Joy Luck Club to my Kindle (thanks, still-working Chicago Public Library card!) and re-read it this week. I think I was a teenager the last time I read it … I’d forgotten what a great novel it is. 🙂

Have a great weekend, everyone!

Sworn Virgins

We watched the following 20-minute video as part of Peace Corps training the other day.

The following is a practice found in northern Albania (and not in Kosovo). It’s not widely practiced today, but some burrnesha still exist.

What is a burrnesha? A burrnesha is a woman who pledges life-long celibacy and adopts a male identity, thus inheriting the rights and property of a man. This was done in the past in families that did not have a male heir. Because women were unable to own property, families would lose what they had unless a female member of the family became a burrnesha.

We had an interesting discussion following our viewing of the film. Rather than repeat what was said, I’ll just post the link and let you form your own opinion.

Songs of Summer

An official survey of my fellow Peace Corps volunteers (no, really, I took an actual survey) has revealed that the following are our “songs of summer.”

Here is “Bon Bon,” by Kosovo’s own Era Istrefi:

I’ve heard the following song so many times, it plays on a near constant repeat in my head.

And finally, here’s “Bow Down”:

I wasn’t terribly familiar with Eastern European music videos before I moved to Kosovo. (And at age 35, I can’t say I’m all that familiar with current American music videos, either.) I’ve been kind of surprised by how scandalous some of them are … lots of scantily clad women and “thug” men … pretty similar to stuff you’d see in the U.S.



Last Week of Pre-Service Training (PST)

Yesterday I posted about Saturday’s swearing-in ceremony. Let’s go back in time and talk about my last week of Peace Corps pre-service training.

We finished up with language class on Monday, and had our last Peace Corps training on Tuesday. On Wednesday, we gave final presentations to the Peace Corps staff on TEFL (teaching English as a foreign language). I couldn’t have asked for a better group!


On Thursday, we hosted a cultural fair as a “thank you” to our host families. I made cucumber sandwiches, complete with mini flags I found at a tiny store in my tiny village. Go figure! My friends Sierra and Jalysa helped with sandwich production.



I also volunteered co-lead circle dancing, which got the room on their feet. Never underestimate the power of circle dancing.


It was a fun day. Other activities included thank-you speeches, a poem, a sign-language presentation to the song “Happy,” the Macarena, musical chairs, limbo, a photo booth, and a photo slideshow of pictures of the volunteers and their families.

For pre-service training, the 35 Kosovo trainees were divided among families in four villages. Charlie, Sierra, and I were the only trainees placed in the farthest village. As a result, we became close friends. This picture pretty much sums up our personalities:


And here’s a picture of me with my friends Christian and Ingrid, along with all of the awesome Albanian and Serbian language teachers. (My teacher is the one hiding.)


I miss everyone already! A small, unofficial “committee” decided to bestow “Most Likely” superlatives to their fellow trainees. Some of the more exciting titles included “Most Likely to Break Gender Stereotypes” and “Most Likely to Marry a Host Country National.” I was given the boring, predictable, and probably accurate title of “Most Likely to Adopt a Kitten.” Thanks, guys.