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.

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Guest Blogger, Garrett Maltzan: Milestones and the Little Things

“It has long been an axiom of mine that the little things are infinitely the most important.” – Arthur Conan Doyle

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Garrett Maltzan

As I reach the milestone of being in Kosovo for 6 months, I’ve found myself learning to appreciate the little things.

I’ve always approached life, and now my service as a Peace Corps Volunteer, in segments. Some longer than others, some just brief moments in time. But, when looking back at how far I’ve come and the accomplishments (and failures) that are the building blocks to the larger narrative of my life, I find that the milestones are made meaningful by the small happenings of daily life.

In my service, I’ve found that breaking things down into manageable chunks is an amazingly effective way at approaching everything from projects to goals, hardships, relationships and everything in between.

These segments are both large and small. The largest being the 27-month clock relentlessly ticking down by the second, which serves as a constant reminder that, while I am here in Kosovo for more than 2 years that time is quickly slipping through my fingers. Sometimes those seconds can feel like an eternity, believe me. But when they converge into the spontaneous interactions, or events, or successful classes, what becomes clear is that it truly is the little things within the context of milestones that makes this Peace Corps experience completely worth it.

The little things in our day-to-day lives are the key to finding meaning in the chaos of it all.

For me, some of the highlights have been:

The time I took a small group of students to a English proficiency exam along with 500+ students from surrounding schools. While none of my students moved on to the next round (though their English levels truly are remarkable for their age), it was spending the day laughing and joking in English with them, grabbing coffee afterwards and seeing them be their true selves outside of class that I will always remember.

The times when I’m walking the 45+ minutes to the gym and a Kosovar pulls over to offer me a ride and insist on driving out of their way to get me to my destination. This happens for more often now that I’m known in my village and each time opens the door to a new connection, a new friendship, in my new home.

It’s the breakthroughs in my own language learning where all of a sudden something magically falls into place and I’m holding conversations long enough and well enough to get the ego-boosting response, “Hang on, you’re not Albanian?!”

It’s the friendships I’ve built from day one when we arrived at staging in Philadelphia and fostered through the turbulence of PST and seen blossom now that we’re all at our sites. There’s nothing quite like the bond one builds with those in their cohort and I think the KOS4 group is a truly special example of how diverse and close a cohort can become.

It’s the time spent over coffee with these newfound friends venting about life. Taking a brief moment to step back and express ourselves honestly and realize how lucky we are to be serving the people of this remarkably unique place.

It’s in the ongoing afterschool course I’ve started that I’ve used to reorganize students into learning levels that fit their skills and needs, thereby allowing them to improve exponentially. I feared students would only show up to socialize rather than actually seek improvement, but in fact have been blessed to experience the complete opposite. I am most proud of the successes that have arisen from this course than anything else thus far in my service.

All in all, it’s truly the little things. Yes, I’m approaching the major milestone of being in Kosovo for 6 months. Yes, there are still plenty of milestones to go before I can even think about the end of my service. Yes, looking back, the entirety of these 27 months will be just another chapter in the narrative of my life. But, at the end of the day it’s the little things that make up my day-to-day life here that makes it a truly meaningful and life changing experience. I don’t know what tomorrow will bring. I don’t know what my service will look like a year from now. But I’m remaining present, I’m letting myself live fully in the moment and am opening myself to those experiences that I will fondly look back on and say, “Yes, that was so completely and overwhelmingly worth it.”

April’s note: This will be the last guest blog post of 2017. Read posts by other guest bloggers:

Guest Blogger, Linnea Neuber: Expect Nothing and Appreciate Everything

Hey, guys! I am happy to share a post from guest blogger Linnea Neuber. Linnea is the first person from the Kosovo 4 cohort I have asked to write for this blog (all my other guest bloggers have been from my cohort, group 3, or the previous cohort, group 2). I like inviting guest bloggers to post because they offer a perspective different from my own. Since Linnea is new to Kosovo (well, newer than me. I’m still new, too!), I thought she might have some interesting things to share. 🙂  -April

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Linnea Neuber

When April contacted me to write a guest blog for her, I initially felt hesitant. I thought to myself, “Your ability to write is maybe 3rd grade level at best,” but the idea of contributing to such a rich and informative blog intrigued me. I’m new here (to Kosovo, not to the planet) and I really appreciate April’s interest in expanding the seasoned perspective of her blog. Being part of the “New Kid Crowd” means that I have a fresh, wide-eyed and slightly bushy tailed take on this experience. (Mostly because I have yet to experience a winter here in the Balkans, so please, everyone cross your fingers for me.)

The Peace Corps is an interesting concept. Americans are dropped down into host countries, given a bit of training and then let loose (much like Girl Scouts once they’ve been given the go ahead to sell cookies door-to-door.) We’ve left our entire lives behind (we’ve sold cars, quit jobs, left apartments and packed up everything we own into 2 or more suitcases) and now find ourselves in the shocking situation of integrating into a new culture while speaking a broken form of whatever language we are learning.

And let me tell ya, it’s hard out here.

Personally, I find myself regressing back into a state of childhood. I’ve now become more forgetful (though I always lost my phone before, I now lose it at least 25% more throughout the day. I’ve made a pie chart.) I also find that I can’t work simple machines, such as microwaves, or knives, properly anymore.  And my shoes never stay tied. The English language is much more difficult for me to navigate. I have trouble recalling words that have more than 3 syllables (honestly, just now, I couldn’t remember the word “syllable”).

I love this experience but everyday is a struggle just to live and sometimes I’m not sure if I’m going to make it. I have 22 months left of me trying to figure out how to work different shower heads and sometimes I just don’t know if I have the strength.

However, there are lights at the end of this seemingly never-ending, fun house tunnel. One of these lights is my cohort, the fourth Peace Corps Kosovo group, KOS 4. 150 days ago we boarded a plane to Kosovo after meeting just two days before, in Philadelphia, where we bonded like a chemical reaction over delicious food and cliché icebreakers. They are my anchors in this ever-changing tide.

Other lights include my host family, my counterpart, and my new found friends at site that praise me for speaking even a little Albanian and who help me navigate my new home. Any time I feel down, I think of all the children in my classes who clap for me when I walk in to teach, or who laugh when I make jokes in English even if they don’t understand them (like the true saints they are.)

The truth about the Peace Corps is that it’s difficult, mentally and emotionally exhausting work.  Any expectations that I had 5 months ago have been completely blown away. A tornado has whipped through my life and left me in a little house with red shoes under it. I’m an entirely different version of myself, complete with Technicolor. And increasingly everyday, I’m optimistic that this yellow brick road ahead of me will take me to great places, complete with knowledge of a thousand different shower heads.

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Guest Blogger, Chelsea Coombes: Loneliness

Hello, readers! You might remember my friend, Chelsea, who has written two other guest posts for this blog. Here is a third post from her. -April

I really value April’s blog. It’s a great glimpse inside a single story of a Peace Corps Kosovo TEFL volunteer. I also think her idea of guest bloggers gives it something extra so you, her readers, get different sides to the many stories here. When April and I talked about my guest blog post it was originally supposed to be on my many thoughts regarding the term “posh corps.” However, I have been feeling this overwhelming sense of loneliness lately and since I myself don’t have a blog, I thought I would selfishly use April’s blog to unload my thoughts and feelings on the matter.

Peace Corps is one of the scariest things I have ever done. I moved across the world, away from my family and friends and dove into another culture. Learned a new language and threw myself into a profession I had absolutely no idea about. All in the hopes that, I could potentially make an impact on a life, while yes, learning something about myself. I won’t lie, I am in this for self-growth just as much as I am to make a difference. I applied to the Peace Corps wide-eyed at the age of 23. I knew nothing about the world, let alone myself. But, let me tell you, learning about the world is easy. It’s learning about yourself that is the hard part. I live in a pretty remote area. A mountain town that is underdeveloped and has limited transportation to and from the area. It can feel very isolating, especially in the winter. My daily routine is to go to school, teach, maybe grab a coffee with my fellow teachers, struggle through conversations even though I am pretty good at the language, come home, struggle through more conversations, and then head to my room where I lesson plan and then it occurs to me … Chels … you are alone. No, really, for the first time in 25 years you are ALONE.

I know what you’re thinking. Twenty-five, girl you’re too young to be this self aware and existentially crazed. I thought so too. The first six months were incredible, I learned so much about myself! It truly was the first time that I only had to worry about myself, that I was able to look within and take the time to get to know myself. But, then month seven rolled around and I was like, enough already, I get it!

What I mean is, there is only so much self-growth you can do so fast and when you’re in Peace Corps it truly is the first time you are experiencing loneliness. You call home and even your conversations change. You find you are relating less and less with friends and family back home. And that’s OKAY, it’s just different. So much in my life has changed. I have changed. It’s not good and it’s not bad, it just IS.

The time difference between Kosovo and Home doesn’t help. When I do find time to make a quick call to my mom she is at work or asleep, or vice versa. We will spend time on the weekends playing catch up and it’s really hard not to feel frustrated when I hear big news through social media. Or miss family events, deaths, births, etc.

We are over a year into our service. If I look back on that year I think it’s safe to say I have learned more about the person I am in that short amount of time and I don’t think I could have ever learned so much about her, so intimately, had I not been so lonely. Had I not learned what lonely truly is.

I’m looking forward to learning more about her, and where she might fit in when she goes back home. But I guess I have time to grow into that and reflect on that this winter. Wish me luck!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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/

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Guest Blogger: Chelsea Coombes, Summer Camp

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Photo Courtesy of Chelsea Coombes

Hello again! My name is Chelsea. I am a currently serving Peace Corps volunteer and in the same cohort as April. I have guest blogged before and am so grateful to be back.

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Photo Courtesy of Chelsea Coombes

As you already know, Peace Corps assigns their volunteers to primary jobs. Like April, I am a TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) volunteer. The wonderful thing about Peace Corps is the opportunity to develop secondary projects.  These projects can be anything from building a library or computer lab to creating lesson plans that will help our counterparts after we leave.

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Photo Courtesy of Chelsea Coombes

Back in February our cohort attended a conference specifically designed to help us gain access to knowledge and resources about starting our projects. It was a three-day conference, but for one of those days we were encouraged to bring our counterparts. Unfortunately, both of my teaching counterparts were unable to attend. I asked a woman who works in our municipality if she would like to come as my counterpart, she agreed and we left for Pristina. I knew I wanted to work on a summer camp for one of my secondary projects but it was really helpful working with a local to develop a better understanding of what that meant.

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Photo Courtesy of Chelsea Coombes

We began to plan our camp over the next few months. We even collaborated with UNICEF and UNWomen to sort out a theme and work on material. Overall the camp was a huge success! It lasted six days and we worked primarily with my 8th grade class, as well as 8th graders from the village a few kilometers over, Brod. The students heard presentations from locals working in the fields of environmental awareness, child rights, gender equality and advocacy training. They were then asked to prepare advocacy campaigns to solve an issue they saw in their own community as it related to these topics. It was so rewarding to see my students working together and showing such passion for their community! My favorite moment was an activity we did in regards to gender equality, where we talked about the importance of respecting individual’s rights to like and participate in activities regardless of their gender.

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Photo Courtesy of Chelsea Coombes

On our third day of camp we took our students to Brod, a town very well known for its nature and beauty. Some of our campers were from this community and only spoke Bosnian. It was nice seeing all of the students use English as a neutral language to communicate. UNWomen even helped us hire a company to come out and teach our students some outdoor games!

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Photo Courtesy of Chelsea Coombes

It was challenging working on such a large project, but I am so grateful I had the hands of counterpart who even came out during his summer break to help, our local volunteers and our partners UNICEF and UNWoman. I couldn’t have asked for a better summer camp!

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Photo Courtesy of Chelsea Coombes

NOTE: If you would like to read Chelsea’s first guest blog post, click here.

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Guest Blogger, Garrett Wheeler: Agriculture in Kosovo

April’s Note: My friend Nicole asked me to write a post about gardening/agriculture in Kosovo. Since I don’t know much about the subject, I decided to outsource her question. Below is the account of one of my fellow volunteers, Garrett Wheeler.

With the advent of spring arises a slew of tasks pertinent to raising crops. After months of neglect, farmers begin restoring fields marred by frigid weather. Makeshift fences, comprised of wood and barbed wire, oft become loose or fall apart on account of the wind. A pair of pliers, hammer, digging bar (an instrument somewhat akin to the crowbar), and U-nails are needed to mend damage accrued. While pliers pull and twist wire until taut, U-nails are driven into wooden stakes. The digging bar, aside from punching holes in the ground, may act as a sledgehammer fastening poles that have wriggled free.

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Photo courtesy of Garrett Wheeler

Upon completion of maintenance, a far more grueling chore awaits; fertilization. As a tractor, equipped with a trailer, positions itself near the accumulated pile of manure, workers, with the aid of pitchforks, start the loading process. Though precautions, like gloves and rain boots, are taken to promote cleanliness, the job is inherently dirty. It is not uncommon, for example, to have dung flung your direction; especially when fatigue sets in. With the trailer overflowing, tractor and crew make their way to the field. While the tractor cruises at a leisurely pace, compost is scattered left and right. A sore back and tired arms are typically awarded to all participants.

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Photo courtesy of Garrett Wheeler

In preparation for sowing, a plow is hauled the entirety of a field leaving neat rows of finely ground soil in its wake. Utensils for digging are then used to create holes. As one punctures the earth, another trailing behind deposits seed. Corn and beans are planted simultaneously. While maize grows upright, the latter coils around adjacent stalks. A nearby stream supplies water when barred.

Gleaning of produce occurs in September. Hefty bags are carted and stuffed with brown pods. Those still green are unripe and need not be plucked. Though the weather may be warm, long sleeve shirts are worn to prevent cuts (maize leaves possess jagged edges which tear skin if brushed). Work is long and tedious requiring numerous days to complete. Corn, conversely, is harvested quickly. Buckets filled to the brim are dumped in a close by trailer towed by a tractor.

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Photo courtesy of Garrett Wheeler

Beans reaped must then be strewn across a tarp and left to bathe in the sun. After several days, or when the shells become hard and brittle, the heap is battered with the shaft of a rake. Empty husks are then brushed away revealing seed below. Once the product has been gathered in containers, it is transferred to empty sacks. Prior to dumping, however, it is necessary to remove remaining debris. As one individual focuses on slowly pouring beans, the other uses a leaf blower to flush out unwanted material.

Within the next couple of weeks, sorting ensues. Spilling small sums onto a flat surface, beans malformed or gnawed by insects are discarded. What remains is either stored for consumption of whisked away to the nearest city and sold. Corn, depending on its strain, has two locales. A small granary houses a variation more red in hue used as fodder for chickens. Yellow corn is sent to the second floor of a neighboring building. A machine adeptly removes kernels dispelling bare cobs.

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Photo courtesy of Garrett Wheeler

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