Final Q & A

Hello, everyone! I COS next week so this will be my very last post on this blog. (COS = “close of service”). I cannot believe two years have gone by and I am SO excited to go HOME!

I reached out to some friends to ask me some questions for my final post. Here are their questions and my responses.

From Patrick:

1. What is the thing you missed most about not living in the U.S.?

Aside from the obvious stuff (people, food, my cat), the thing I missed most about not living in the U.S. was clean water. Early on, Peace Corps gave me a boiling water filter to use for my time in Kosovo. Here’s what the bottom of the filter looks like after cleaning my tap water:

water filter

Several women I know have had problems with their hair falling out. I’ve thankfully not had that problem, but my hair is breaking off, gunky to the touch, and discolored (I’ve been dyeing it with box dye, which I hate). I am looking forward to getting my hair back into healthy shape once I’m in the U.S.!

From Dana: 

2. What was the most challenging part of your service?

All of it was challenging. I’d say the most challenging was having less autonomy over my life than I am used to, and living with a host family.

3. What was surprisingly easier than you had anticipated?

 

Working with my counterparts was surprisingly easy. Other volunteers had varying experiences, of course, but my counterparts were very welcoming, supportive, and open to trying new ideas in the classroom. The situation had the potential to be extremely awkward — walking into someone else’s classroom and presenting new teaching ideas and ways of doing things. I always felt welcomed, though, not just by my counterparts, but by my school directors and the other teachers, too. It probably helped that I replaced another volunteer, so my community was already familiar with Peace Corps.

4. What was surprisingly more difficult than you had anticipated?

Kosovo is Peace Corps’ second-newest host country (the newest being Mynmar), and beforehand I hadn’t given much thought to what it would be like to serve in a program that is still being established. There were more administrative bumps than I expected. If I were to do Peace Corps again, the length of the program is something I would take into greater consideration.

5. Any food you’ll miss?

I’ll miss my four favorite restaurants in Pristina: Gresa and Ponte Vecchio (pasta), Babaganough (vegetarian), and Le Sandwich. I’ll also miss paying like 3 Euro for a really good meal.

6. What is the most unique thing about Kosovo?

Wow, good question. Hmm … I would say the most interesting thing is the mix of east and west, and old and new traditions. In the United States there are big variances in religion and traditions and education and values, but because it’s such a large and diverse country it is kind of expected. Kosovo is much smaller and so I think the differences between city and village life are more pronounced. For example, you see people wearing traditional clothing like plis (white, conical hats that men wear) and women in hijabs. But then you also see men and women dressed like they are starring in American music videos.

Buildings are surprisingly large and modern, because a lot were destroyed in the war and had to be re-built.

Kosovo is also very tolerant in terms of religion, much more so than the United States, in my opinion. I had the unique experience of living in a Catholic village in what is a predominately Islamic country. I had both Catholic and Muslim colleagues at my school.

But having said that, Kosovo is still very divided in terms of ethnicity. Tensions between Albanians and Serbians continue to this day. I also think people here identify much more strongly with their ethnicity (being Albanian or Serbian, for example) than with their nationality (being Kosovar).

From Matthew:

7. What food/drink surprised you the most; did you like the most, did you like the least?

I found all of the food surprising, because I had never encountered Balkan food in the United States. I was “meh” about the food because I did not like how it is prepared (LOTS of oil) and it tends to be unbalanced in terms of nutrition. Furthermore, meals rely heavily on peppers, cucumbers, and tomatoes. I always wished for spinach and broccoli!

I don’t like pork but I live with a Catholic family and we eat pork often. When I get home, I am really looking forward to not having to eat pork.

8. Is there anything you encountered that we should all be cooking at home?

If you are interested in cooking Balkan food, I would recommend starting with fasule, which is a bean stew. Fasule is my favorite local dish. It is bland but can be dressed up any way you like with spices and other vegetables. It can also be vegan if you don’t cook it with lard.

Here is a picture of fasule and a link to a recipe.
Fasule
Photo Credit: Albania Adventure

From Pauline:

9. What was the most rewarding / high point of your service? 

In terms of projects, the high point of my experience was probably the week I volunteered with the Anibar Animation Festival in Peja. I got to meet interesting people from all over the world, see good films, spend time with friends, and spend time in my favorite city in Kosovo.

As far as the most rewarding part of my service, I would say being submerged in another culture for so long. It is a unique experience and while there are things about Kosovar culture I definitely dislike, I appreciate knowing something about a country most Americans are totally unfamiliar with.

10. What was the worst / low point of your service? 

I had two low points. The first one was my first winter in Kosovo. It was a cold, snowy winter and I had a series of arguments with my host family about various things. I was really depressed from January until my spring break trip to Rome in April.

My second lowest point was that autumn (2017, my second school year). Mid-service is typically a low point for volunteers. I found the prospect of another school year and another year living in Kosovo to be daunting.

From Jocelyn:

11. What would you consider to be your most memorable moment with your students (the most impactful) and why?

My two favorite groups of student were my fourth grade class in my village and my students at the orphanage. Both groups were really enthusiastic and eager to learn. I don’t think there was any one project I thought was particularly impactful. However, I appreciated being able to work with at the orphanage because those students are among a minority (Ashkali) community that I don’t think typically get a lot of services.

(Ashkali are a group who share language and culture with the Albanians but whose origins are in the Middle East, not the Balkans.)

From Roman:

12. What currency do you get paid in?

Kosovo is on the Euro and my monthly living stipend is paid in Euro. I get paid 350 Euro per month, 180 of which goes to my host family. The remaining 170 Euro is mine to spend how I like.

I also accrue money for every month I am in Peace Corps, which will be given to me once I complete my service. That will be paid in U.S. dollars.

 

Thanks, everyone, for your questions! 

FYI, I visited 12 countries while I was serving in the Peace Corps (including Kosovo) and read 105 books. 🙂

 

Saying Goodbye to my PST Host Family

In Peace Corps, all volunteers go through a three-month, in-country pre-service training (known as “PST”). During this time, each volunteer lives with a temporary host family. I went to visit my PST host family this past Friday to say goodbye.

I’ve done a bad job of keeping in touch with them. They live on the other side of the country from where I am now. Kosovo is a small country and the distance wouldn’t matter so much if I had access to a car, but I don’t, and so it takes me 4 hours and 3 buses to get to my former home.

It was nice to sleep in my old room one last time and to see my host parents. Unfortunately, my host brothers weren’t there. They are all working in Pristina (Kosovo’s capital city).

balcony
View from the balcony

My host mother and I went on a little hike shortly after I arrived. I miss my old village because it is so much more beautiful than where I live now. My host mom told me she takes a walk up the hill every day because she loves nature.

host mom
Host mom and me
hill 3
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hill 7
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hill 2
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hill 4

I learned something sad during my trip. Remember the kitten, who I met on my birthday two years ago?

cheap-trick-t-shirt-tiger-kitten

I saw her last March and she had grown into a beautiful cat.

kitten-then-and-now

Unfortunately, she died. I texted my host brother about it and he said both cats got sick and only one survived. He doesn’t know what happened. 😦

The gray-and-white cat (who I think of as “Mace,” which is the Albanian word for “cat”) is thankfully still alive and well. She is a sweet cat. Still, I had a real soft spot for the tabby. Rest in peace, little one.

tabby-cat-blue-rug-grass
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naughty kitty
Mace being bad and trying to get on the table during my last visit …

There have been times when my Peace Corps service has felt like it dragged on, but while I was visiting my old house, I could not believe two years have passed since I lived there.

Read more about my experiences (and my friend’s experiences) during pre-service training (PST):

I am considering starting a monthly (?) newsletter once I complete my service to keep everyone updated on my first few months post-Peace Corps service. Due to anti-spam laws, I actually need you to opt in if you are interested. Please click here to sign up.

The Final Quarter is Here!

By my own method of counting, I have finished three quarters of my Peace Corps service! (Although my method is a bit off … the first three quarters were six months in length, while the final will be 8.5 months.)

Still … only 8.5 months left of service!

My third quarter was full of ups and downs, with a big DOWN at my mid-service mark (August). According to the Peace Corps “chart of emotions,” that’s when most volunteers feel the worst. It was very true for me. I was bored with Kosovo, tired of teaching and living with a host family, and just generally feeling angry.

But then October came … I love autumn, I love Halloween, and I took some fun trips (Sweden and Albania).

Since then, there has been a big shift in my thinking and feeling, one that I think will last. Another volunteer and I were talking and we had both independently come to this realization: we can either accept things the way they are, knowing they are unlikely to change, or we can be miserable the last few months of our service. I would rather choose the former.

In this June post, I listed some of my personal and professional goals for the summer/fall. Let’s check on the progress I’ve made so far …

  • Finish the grant for my school and (hopefully) be awarded funds  Done! Though I still have follow up paperwork to complete, I cleared the biggest hurdle and actually got sports equipment for my school!
  • Host workshops this summer (narrative writing and essay writing are the plans for right now) I only hosted one workshop this summer … (You can read about it here.)
  • Present to Peace Corps volunteers in Albania about starting a poetry competition there No, we didn’t get approval to do this. I don’t totally understand the reasoning, but it seems like Peace Corps doesn’t like cross-work between countries.
  • Help my friend organize the national poetry competition in Kosovo this fall Currently working on this!
  • Start volunteering at an orphanage in Pristina this fall — I found out last week that my application was approved! I am meeting with one of the orphanage directors this week. I’m hoping this new opportunity fills the social work hole in my life. I’ve been teaching once per week there. It is my favorite hour of teaching during the whole week.
  • Possibly do another secondary project for the fall (most likely, teach another English Club at my school) Currently doing some copy editing for KosovaLive and helping my students prepare for Po-e-Ze.
  • Continue teaching. This is kind of obvious, since teaching is my primary role here, but I suppose I should add it to the list. Yep …
  • Get my stuff together and help my friends with their “Faces of Kosovo” project No, I haven’t done this.
  • TRAVEL THIS SUMMER! There are so many places I want to go in Europe. It’s hard to narrow them down. But if I had to list everywhere I want to go, they would be: Tirana/southern Albania, Greece, Bratislava, Montenegro, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Prague, Vienna, Croatia, Bruge, England/Paris (again), Florence … SO MANY PLACES! Other than my trip to the U.S., I didn’t travel at all this summer. Money (dwindling) and heat (intense) were the two major factors. However, I just went to Sweden, which was awesome and cold. 🙂 (You can read about my trip here and here.)
  • Travel around Kosovo. There are still places in Kosovo I want to see, including Mitrovice (major city), Brezovice (skiing), Dragash/Opoje (conservative mountain villages), Skenderaj (Adem Jashari memorial), Rahovec (wine), Batilava Lake (sounds pretty), the Bear Sanctuary (uh, bears) … So far, I’ve been to Batilava Lake and Rahovec.
  • Get my face painted like a Kosovar bride … This is an experience I really wanted to have while living in Kosovo. I’ve checked into it, and the price would be 150 Euro. That’s a lot of money for me right now … almost all of my spending money for a month. I need to think about it some more … I think this is just too spendy for me at the moment, as much as I would love to do it. There are other things I’d rather spend 150 Euro on, like travel (or this rug).
  • Continue writing this blog regularly, and enter the Blog It Home contest this fall, assuming Peace Corps still hosts it Doesn’t appear PC is hosting the Blog It Home contest anymore, which is a big disappointment to me. Past winners got to fly to D.C. to attend a conference on media. I would obviously have loved to do that, assuming I won. (And I would have.) 🙂
  • Learn to speak better Shqip (This is not going to happen. It’s just not. I know I’m going to leave service wishing I could speak fluent Albanian, but I won’t.) My Shqip is terrible, and at this point, I don’t see a real reason to improve. I can clearly get by in my life here with the amount I do speak. However, as fate would have it, someone put me in touch with a new tutor and we will start lessons soon.
  • Continue to build/strengthen my friendships here. I have made an effort to have a breadth of friendships here, to try to be friendly with my entire cohort. However, I feel like I don’t have a depth of friendship yet. It would be nice to have a “best friend” in the Peace Corps. I don’t have one “best friend,” but I have been working to strengthen the friendships I do have.
  • Think about writing a second grant for my school NO! Never again. But I did set the wheels in motion to possibly receive a book donation for my school, so at least that’s something.
  • Continue to consider options when I finish Peace Corps. I’ll likely return to social work, but where/in what capacity remains to be seen Always in the back of my mind…

I have yet to come up with a list of goals for this coming winter and spring. Two of my major projects (Po-e-Ze and hopefully, the grant paperwork) will be done, so I could potentially take on other projects. What other projects? I don’t know yet …

My Thoughts About “the Posh Corps”

The newest cohort of Kosovo Peace Corps volunteers recently swore in. I’ve slowly been getting to know them. Over dinner, someone asked me what I think of the term “the posh corps.” It was a thought-provoking question.

“Posh corps” is a term that’s been used to describe what serving in the Peace Corps is like today. I have mixed feelings about the term.

Several members of my best friend’s family served in the Peace Corps back in the 1960s, when Peace Corps had just begun. The stories they’ve shared with me are pretty hardcore. My BFF’s aunt served in the Philippines, and was only able to call home on Christmas, because phone calls were expensive. My BFF’s uncle used to walk 25 miles to work every day. I compare those experiences with my service in the Peace Corps now — I live in a house with wifi, which allows me to post regular blog posts. Thanks to modern technology, I am able to call, email, and message my friends and family whenever I want to. Letters and postcards are novelties, rather than sole means of communication. And I don’t have to walk 25 miles to get anywhere.

I don’t know what service is like in every Peace Corps host country, but as technology continues to evolve, I would imagine life in all PC countries continues to evolve, too. As a result, I would imagine that today, even volunteers serving in locations more remote than Kosovo are having much different experiences than volunteers who served in those same places fifty years ago.

So yes, I will say, life in the Peace Corps is more posh now than it has ever been. Add to this that I chose to serve in Eastern Europe. I live in a house with wifi, running water, and central heating (though, central heating is a rare luxury in Kosovo).

But on the flip side of things, I think referring to the Peace Corps as “the posh corps” dismisses the service of volunteers. No matter how evolved technology becomes, serving in the Peace Corps will be difficult. Leaving behind a familiar life experience to move to a foreign country, learn a new language, and live in a new place is stressful. Constantly having to adapt behavior is tiresome. Being seen as an “other,” even if it is a positive other (Americans are typically highly regarded in Kosovo), can be anxiety provoking on a daily basis.

Unless technology advances to the point where Peace Corps volunteers can spend the day working in their host country and then “beam home” at night, it will never totally eradicate the psychological difficulties of service.

I had a good life back home, one I did not have to leave. I chose to leave it, because I thought it was the right thing to do. Joining the Peace Corps was not a decision I made lightly. Based on research, I chose the experience I thought I could best handle. I didn’t sign up to serve in an African country (hot weather = no) because I knew I would likely quit. I couldn’t see the point in setting myself up for failure.

For me, the purpose of my service really hits home whenever I walk into one of my schools. My classrooms are equipped with only chairs and tables and a chalkboard, nothing else. Some of those chairs and tables are badly broken, yet students still use them because there is nothing else to use. Half of my students didn’t have textbooks last year. (Forget about studying or doing homework … how could they, without a textbook?) Rooms are poorly heated in the winter, and teachers and students alike stay bundled in winter coats and boots all day. The school day is divided in half (mornings for older students, afternoons for younger students), because there isn’t enough money to expand schools or pay teachers for longer days. That means students in Kosovo receive half as much education as students in Western Europe or the United States. In fact, Kosovo has been assessed as having one of the world’s worst education systems.

Every time I walk into one of my schools, I know why I am in Kosovo. I may have more “creature comforts” than Peace Corps volunteers in the past, or Peace Corps volunteers serving in more remote locations. But that does not mean Peace Corps service is not needed in Kosovo.

If you think serving in the Peace Corps sounds easy, I would offer you a smile and say, “Try it.”

Peja Technology Camp

So, there is this thing in Peace Corps called “secondary projects.” A secondary project is anything you do for your host country outside of your primary job role. (Writing this blog counts as one of my secondary projects, because I am sharing information about my host country with my friends and family back home.) LOOK AT ME, SECONDARY PROJECTING AT YOU!

The Peace Corps (at least here in Kosovo) takes a pretty non-directive approach to secondary projects. Volunteers are expected to do secondary projects, but we have a lot of autonomy in the projects we choose. The basic attitude seems to be, “Go forth and … do stuff.”

One of my friends and another volunteer took on an ambitious project — hosting a 7-day technology camp for middle-school kids in Peja. I attended on the first day to show moral support. 1) My host brother did a presentation on graphic design and 2) One of my students attended, and I wanted to shepherd her and make sure she knew where she was going.

The day started with a series of ice-breakers, followed by my host brother’s presentation. After a lunch break, we took the kids over to Anibar, an NGO that primarily focuses on teaching kids about animation. Using old, broken, donated computers, Anibar hosted a “junkyard robots” workshop. Students got to tear apart computers to make their own “robots.”

technology camp peja 2
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technology camp peja 1
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technology camp peja 4
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If I learned anything that day, it’s that kids get very excited when they’re encouraged to break stuff.

technology camp peja 3
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As far as my own secondary projects go this summer, I am putting together some ideas for a few writing workshops I’d like to host. I’ll also likely help out with Anibar’s big film festival in August.

It’s been about a billion degrees here lately. I have to say — at this point, my desire to help Kosovo is about equal to my desire to lie around with no clothes on and read books. 😛 Let’s see if I can rally …

The Year of Living Dangerously

Today marks one year that I have lived in Kosovo! It is hard, in some ways, to believe that a year ago today, I moved to Kosovo. I met a bunch of strangers at Dulles Airport, boarded a plane with them, and have been with them ever since. Only now, I call them my friends.

Lately, I have noticed a big shift in how I feel about being here. While I still feel like a foreigner, Kosovo no longer feels foreign to me. Does that make sense?

I think having lived here through all four seasons has made Kosovo seem like less unfamiliar. In some ways, it feels like I just arrived here. But then, I remind myself I have sweated through a summer, hiked in the colors of fall, shivered through a snowy winter, and marveled at a long, luxurious spring.

I also feel less like some weird American living among strangers. Living with a host family, day-in and day-out, is less exhausting than it used to be. Boundaries are better set, roles are more clearly defined, and I have grown more used to being a part of life here.

In December, I wrote a post about how I have mentally divided my time here into quarters. By my own counting method, I have now completed two quarters.

My second quarter offered two, distinct parts. The first four months, I was miserable. The last two months were happy, and filled with travel, and friends.

I am thankful to have come out of the blues I dealt with this winter. I suspected my first winter would be tough, and it was. But then the weather changed, and I got to go to Rome an old friend, and my feelings shifted.

As much as I love the friends I have made during the Peace Corps, those relationships are new. It was nice to spend time with someone who has known me for nearly a decade. Thanks for your support, Nicole.

Nicole and April
Nicole and April at the Colosseum

I figure now would be a good time to check in with the Peace Corps “chart of emotions.” (I don’t know what it’s actually called.)

Processed with MOLDIV

So right now (months 11-14), I can expect to feel:

  • Impatience with self, program, system (Hmm, I think I actually felt more of this a few months ago.)
  • Place blame on the program (Again, I think I felt this a few months ago.)
  • Constant complaining (A few months ago … )
  • Lethargy (Yes. I definitely have less interest in everything … teaching, blog writing, crochet.)
  • Haughtiness with new trainees (HAHAHA. I haven’t met them yet, but I can see myself feeling this way. These new people, they don’t know what they’re in for!)

At times, the idea of living in Kosovo for another year seems daunting … when do I get to go back to a Western life? But when I think of it as 1/2 of my service being gone, I realize there is still so much more I want to do.

Here are some of my personal and professional goals for my coming service year:

  • Finish the grant for my school and (hopefully) be awarded funds
  • Host workshops this summer (narrative writing and essay writing are the plans for right now)
  • Present to Peace Corps volunteers in Albania about starting a poetry competition there
  • Help my friend organize the national poetry competition in Kosovo this fall
  • Start volunteering at an orphanage in Pristina this fall — I found out last week that my application was approved! I am meeting with one of the orphanage directors this week. I’m hoping this new opportunity fills the social work hole in my life.
  • Possibly do another secondary project for the fall (most likely, teach another English Club at my school)
  • Continue teaching. This is kind of obvious, since teaching is my primary role here, but I suppose I should add it to the list.
  • Get my stuff together and help my friends with their “Faces of Kosovo” project
  • TRAVEL THIS SUMMER! There are so many places I want to go in Europe. It’s hard to narrow them down. But if I had to list everywhere I want to go, they would be: Tirana/southern Albania, Greece, Bratislava, Montenegro, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Prague, Vienna, Croatia, Bruge, England/Paris (again), Florence … SO MANY PLACES!
  • Travel around Kosovo. There are still places in Kosovo I want to see, including Mitrovice (major city), Brezovice (skiing), Dragash/Opoje (conservative mountain villages), Skenderaj (Adem Jashari memorial), Rahovec (wine), Batilava Lake (sounds pretty), the Bear Sanctuary (uh, bears) …
  • Get my face painted like a Kosovar bride … This is an experience I really wanted to have while living in Kosovo. I’ve checked into it, and the price would be 150 Euro. That’s a lot of money for me right now … almost all of my spending money for a month. I need to think about it some more …
  • Continue writing this blog regularly, and enter the Blog It Home contest this fall, assuming Peace Corps still hosts it
  • Learn to speak better Shqip (This is not going to happen. It’s just not. I know I’m going to leave service wishing I could speak fluent Albanian, but I won’t.)
  • Continue to build/strengthen my friendships here. I have made an effort to have a breadth of friendships here, to try to be friendly with my entire cohort. However, I feel like I don’t have a depth of friendship yet. It would be nice to have a “best friend” in the Peace Corps.
  • Think about writing a second grant for my school
  • Continue to consider options when I finish Peace Corps. I’ll likely return to social work, but where/in what capacity remains to be seen …