August Landscape

Every month, I am posting a photo that captures the “spirit” of that month. Here is August’s landscape …

I took this photo in Peja, Kosovo, during the week I was volunteering at the film festival. I was walking over a foot bridge, happened to glance over my shoulder, and saw this view.

peja kosovo

Kosovars like to ask me: “What’s your favorite thing about Kosovo?” I always tell them how much I love the mountains, because where I live in the United States is very flat. (Shout out to the Midwest, yo.) And then the person’s face will kind of deflate. I finally figured out that I’ve been giving the wrong answer. Locals probably want me to say I love Kosovo’s people or culture. But, I try to always be truthful. So when I am asked what I love most about Kosovo, I will continue to say I love the mountains. 🙂

A Boring Adventure

I once heard Peace Corps described as “a boring adventure.” I can’t think of a more apt description. That’s exactly what it’s like.

When I was preparing to leave for the Peace Corps, I was thinking of how many tedious things have to happen before embarking on any adventure. If you’re an adult ensconced in a real, adult life, there is a lot that must be undone if you choose to leave that life.

I had to quit my twos jobs, pack and move my belongings, cancel my utilities, find someone to adopt my chinchillas, and move my cat into my parents’ house.

And there was the paperwork. So much paperwork. Medical and legal clearance and a slew of other stuff to prepare and track and submit.

Now that I am serving in the Peace Corps, I have to submit a quarterly report about my activities. It’s not like Peace Corps turned us loose in Kosovo and said: “Have fun in Kosovo! See you in two years!”

I have no idea what happens to this report once staff reads it … I don’t know if it gets filed away somewhere in D.C. I’ve had to submit so much paperwork at this point (like all of my medical records) that it is a little scary.

[When my group first arrived in Kosovo, we were given (surprise!) more paperwork to complete. One form was about our recent medical history. They actually asked the question, “How many sexual partners have you had in the last year?” I was temped to be a jerk and write, “SIX HUNDRED.” (Who in their right mind would answer that question?) But then I realized I probably didn’t want the U.S. government to be in possession of a document that says I slept with six hundred people in a year. (Not true, btw.) Instead I wrote, “Declined to answer.”]

So, yeah, the government has all kinds of info on me. And I don’t know who has access to it or what happens to it. This is all a very long-winded way of saying that I’ve decided to share some of my answers from my recent report on this blog. Because … it’s my report, and why not?

Below is a slightly edited version. As I’ve said, I try to be respectful of others’ privacy, so I have removed some of what I wrote about my home life and school.

How could cross-cultural and language training be improved to support effective cultural integration?

I do not think training needs to be improved. My issues with cultural integration center around being a woman in a small village, and having limited opportunities to interact with local people. Spending time in the few cafes in my village is not an option, since it is not culturally appropriate for women to visit cafes alone. I sometimes shop at the small market or the bakery, and interact with local people working there. However, my interactions there are limited as well: “Miredita.” “Sa kushton?” etc. Therefore, most of my interactions take place in my host family or at my school.

What challenges have you faced in your project or other areas of your Peace Corps experience?

Living with a host family has by far been the most challenging part of my service. I feel as though I walked into a situation where expectations of who I was and what our relationship would be were already set. I continually have to set boundaries with my host mother, who very much expected us to have a mother-daughter relationship. She was not prepared to live with an independent, now- 36-year-old American woman.

What lessons have you learned about yourself, your community, or your project?

I have learned that, “Wherever you go, there you are.” My living circumstances have changed, and yet I am still the same person I have always been, with the same interests and habits I had in the United States. Living in Kosovo has prompted me to consider my own unique skills and gifts, and think of how best to use them in this context. I am never going to be the Most Outgoing Volunteer, or the Best at Language. And yet, that does not mean I cannot use what I have to be of use to my community. I am good at listening, I am good at observing the needs of my students, and I am creative, just to give a few examples. I bring all of these skills with me when I enter my classroom.

Finish this sentence: One thing I wish Americans knew about my country of service is …

that appearances can be deceiving. Despite the fact that Pristina, for example, appears very modern and “Western” in many ways, life there is very different from life in a small village. Poverty rates are high where I live, and education and health care systems are poor.

How successful has your integration with your host family been?

I am unsure how to answer this question, to be honest. I would say I have a good relationship with my host family, in that we generally get along. I eat all of my meals with them, and will sometimes go with them to visit neighbors or other relatives. I am included in family events, like engagement parties, etc. However, as I mentioned previously, my relationship with my host mother is my biggest source of stress.

My relationships with my host father and host brother are much more easy going. Both of them are quiet people, as am I, and so we don’t actually spend a lot of time talking with one another. Meals are very quiet in my household. I also try to give my host father and brother a good deal of space. My host father is not old enough to be my real father (he is 51; I am 36), and I am aware of how inappropriate it would look if he and I were close. I feel the same way about my host brother (age 21). I want to state that I feel safe in my house. My decision to give the men in my household a wide berth has more to do with awareness of perception and cultural expectations than anything else.

What opportunities have you had to build relationships outside of your host family?

Regarding my actual community of [redacted], I have had very little opportunity to interact with locals. My village is small, and again, the culture dictates that I spend my non-working time at home. I have more professional contacts in the larger, nearby village of [redacted], thanks to my site mate and her counterpart. I have also met a good number of professional contacts who live in Pristina.

***

So, there you have it — an honest look at my life in Kosovo so far.

Friday Gratitude: Anibar Animation Festival

August 14-20 was the best week I’ve had in Kosovo. HANDS DOWN! I volunteered at the Anibar Animation Festival in Peja, Kosovo.

The Anibar Animation Festival began eight years ago. It was founded by my friend’s counterpart, when he was only 17. (What was I doing at age 17? Certainly not founding international film festivals.)

My friend had asked me if I would be the festival’s Jury Coordinator. I told him I would think about it. The next thing I knew, I was having a meeting with his counterpart, where we discussed my role as the Jury Coordinator. I walked out of the meeting thinking, “Wait! Did I ever … agree … to be the Jury Coordinator?”

Anibar Film Festival Peja Kosovo 1.jpg
It was the end of the week, and we were still smiling …

I’m not going to lie, I was dreading the whole thing. I pictured a bunch of high-powered Hollywood types who would call me in the middle of the night to make strange demands. Turns out, I was wrong to be so worried.

The jury was comprised of five lovely people who came from Spain, Switzerland, Poland, the Netherlands, and the United States.

2017 Jury Anibar Peja Kosovo.JPG

I met many new people from all over the world. At one point, I was at lunch, and all four of us spoke different native languages (French, Chinese, English, and Albanian). I love that my native language is the one used to facilitate communication between people who speak other languages.

I also saw many films. The festival had two theaters, plus two screens they set up in a local park.

Anibar Animation Festival

Anibar Peja Kosovo

I loved some films, and hated others. Below are two of my favorite films shorts that were shown at the festival. (Warning: Don’t watch these if your boss or your kids are in the room!)

Volunteering at the Anibar Animation Festival also meant I got to spend time in Peja, which is my favorite city in Kosovo. I mean, would you look at this view?

Peja Kosovo.JPG

Even the weather cooperated, by backing away from the 100-degree mark.

I miss the little routine I developed every morning, where I bought iced coffee (!!!) and went to the Anibar theater to hang out with my friends (and the newly rescued theater kitten) before the start of the festival’s daily activities.

theater kitten.JPG

It was a week full of friends, film screenings, workshops, talks, a gallery opening, and free food and drinks.

Puppet Anibar.JPG

The pouring rain on the night of the closing ceremony forced people to abandon the after-party at the park and stay at the theater. Group karaoke broke out across the theater’s stage and balcony. The night ended with a group of people dancing in the flooded streets of Peja.

Yeah, it was my best week in Kosovo …

Anibar
Thanks to Todd and Stephanee for this pic. 🙂

Guest Blogger: Charlie Lowe (Faces of Kosovo)

Hi Hello from Kosovo, my name is Charlie Lowe, long time reader, first time poster. I was invited by April to write about a secondary project that I’ve been working on for some time with some friends of mine called Faces of Kosovo.

Faces of Kosovo

This group of awesome Kosovars and Americans have been working together to try and share true and interesting stories of members of our communities to show our friends and family what life in Kosovo is REALLY like.

Chester and Charlie
Chester Eng and Charlie Lowe, two of the founders of Faces of Kosovo

I truly struggled for a long time trying to find a genuine way to tell the stories of people here without sounding like a “white savior” coming to a different country and bragging about the people I’ve met (while at the same time patting myself on the back for being a good person). So I decided to flip-the-script and with the help of some great volunteers, both American and Kosovar, we started our Facebook page.

Faces of Kosovo

It wasn’t easy, and it took hours of planning, discussions, review, and debate, but ultimately I’m very proud of what we put together. This page seeks to connect people both here in Kosovo and back home in America with impactful and meaningful life stories of people living in this place. Their stories are told in their words (and translated closely into English, Albanian, or Serbian depending on the interview) so to be as truthful as possible. And yes, I know, Faces of Kosovo does sound a lot like Humans of New York. It’s not an original idea, but in this place at this time, it is a new and important one.

Shok V1

Kosovo is a place that is facing very real and very serious existential questions about its identity as a state. Will Kosovo be a Western state or are they Eastern? Will it be religious or secular? Will it be a state where diversity is accepted, imposed, or rejected? What does it mean to be a partially recognized state? The answers to these questions often may be contrasting and complex, so to flush out people’s real stories and experiences, as well as their hopes and dreams for their futures, Kosovars and Americans may better understand the peoples’ will for the future of their country.

Faces of Kosovo 2

All in all, building this page has taught me a lot about the importance of stories and of the personal growth and self-reflection that they demonstrate. Come check out the stories we’ve shared so far and stay tuned, as we have many more to come.

Follow us on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/FacesofKosovo/

Read posts by other guest bloggers:

Narrative Writing Workshop at KosovaLive

“The theme you choose may change or simply elude you, but being your own story means you can always choose the tone.” — Toni Morrison

My friend, Valeriana Dema, and I had the honor of leading a narrative writing workshop at a local NGO, KosovaLive.
Our workshop focused on how we tell our stories. How do we choose what we share? How do we frame our experiences in order to find meaning?

I asked our participants, “How many people here have ever been on a date? How many people have ever had a coffee with someone new?” I pointed out that storytelling is not some lofty, academic thing. It is something we all do, every day, in order to build relationships with other people. We share our stories and tell who we 

Val found this video of Toni Morrison giving a commencement speech at Wellesley College, titled “Be Your Own Story.” If you have time to watch the entire video, I recommend it. (For our presentation, we began the video at 18:34.)

Next, we passed out an abridged version of this article from The Atlantic, titled “Story of my Life: How Narrative Creates Personality.” We allowed participants time to read the article to themselves.

After reading the article, we posed a few discussion questions to the group. Our participants shared some experiences from their own lives.

We then moved on to a group activity called “Overcoming Obstacles.” Participants divided into groups. We gave each group a slip of paper with three obstacles. We asked group members to come up with ideas of how each obstacle could lead to a positive outcome. (An example: “You failed a university exam.” Possible outcomes: You study more the next time. Or, you realize you aren’t interested in that class, and switch to a topic you would rather study.) Afterward, groups were asked to share their answers with the other participants.

For our last exercise, we gave our participants the chance to write a narrative of their own, and share it with a partner. Val and I each shared a story from our own lives to begin. You can read my story here: For KosovaLive.

Also, here is a link to our PowerPoint presentation: Narrative Writing Workshop

We closed with a few brief remarks and thanked everyone for coming. Val and I had a great time leading our workshop, largely because our participants were so engaged and eager to share.

KosovaLive5
Photo courtesy of KosovaLive

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Photo courtesy of KosovaLive

KosovaLive
Photo courtesy of KosovaLive

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Photo courtesy of Valeriana Dema

KosovaLive
Photo courtesy of KosovaLive

Friday Gratitude: One Year as a Peace Corps Volunteer!

Sunday, August 20 marks one year that I have been a Peace Corps volunteer. (June 5 marked one year of my living in Kosovo, but August 20 is when I officially became a volunteer.)

Here are some previously unpublished (by me) photos of my swearing-in ceremony.

swearing in
Taking the oath (look for me on the far left)
April Gardner Peace Corps Kosovo
U.S. Ambassador to Kosovo Greg Delawie, Peace Corps Volunteer April Gardner, Kosovo Country Director Darlene Grant, Deputy Chief of Mission to Kosovo Colleen Hyland

While swearing in to the Peace Corps was one of my proudest moments, I want to acknowledge the difficulty that came along with it.

First, there was all of the (probably usual) Peace Corps training stress … moving to a new country (and all the culture shock brought on by that), long days of lectures, intense summer heat with little relief, managing new and weighty expectations, etc.

I also had the added stress of missing my only sibling’s wedding, a wedding that was not on the horizon when I first moved to Kosovo. And I completely understand that decision. When you are with the right person, why wait? Especially when neither person cares about having a big wedding. But, knowing I would miss the wedding was difficult to process.

So yes, I look at the photos from my swearing-in ceremony and feel proud. There am I, looking my best, and standing next to a U.S. Ambassador. I also look at these photos and feel a mix of many other emotions.

On a lighter note … on Sunday, the countdown until I finish my service will drop below the one-year mark. Wow … less than 12 months to go, after starting with 27!