My Peace Corps assignment in Kosovo is to Teach English as a Foreign Language. As part of our practicum, we ran a free, 6-session English summer camp over the last two weeks. We were broken into groups of 3 to 4 trainees, and had to come up with lesson plans for each day. My group was assigned grades 3rd-5th.
I had no actual classroom experience prior to last week. I spent a semester in college volunteering at my university’s Literacy Center, and ended up tutoring a man from China. I also spent 6 months as an undergraduate tutoring a 4-year-old boy with autism. And, as a social worker, I’ve run therapy groups with adolescents. Finally, I bought a Groupon and completed an online TEFL certificate course prior to applying for the Peace Corps. All of this to say, I have related experience, but had never actually taught.
I had a lot more fun than I expected to. The kids were surprisingly well-behaved and eager to learn. My group taught lessons on animals, colors, shapes, numbers, time, days of the week, months of the year, and seasons.
I will move to my permanent site after swearing in August 19, and school starts the first of September. I am both nervous and excited to begin working with my counterpart in the classroom.
My middle host brother got married on Saturday. It was my first Kosovar wedding!
From Tuesday night-Friday night, our house was busy with music and relatives every night. There was a long table set up in the driveway, and our family served snacks and beverages. Loud music played until about 11 p.m., and people would circle dance. The bride-to-be was absent during these festivities. Perhaps she was celebrating with her own family … I’m not sure.
Saturday was the actual wedding day. At about 11 a.m., a traditional band showed up, along with all of the relatives. People danced and took pictures with my host brother and his family.
Then, the family left to go pick up the bride. (I didn’t go — not enough room in the car.) It is tradition for the bride to be driven by a long procession back to the groom’s family’s house. Relatives and neighbors on our end were waiting to receive her when she arrived.
There was more music and picture taking. Then, there was a lull of about 3 hours. Most of the relatives left, and we all kind of sat around and waited until it was time to go to the restaurant.
(One thing I found interesting about this wedding is that there was no actual ceremony. I asked one of my host brothers, and he said the bride and groom go to the cleric at the mosque to sign paperwork about a month in advance. The actual wedding day is just the party.)
We left at about 7:00 p.m. to go to the restaurant, about a mile or so up the main road. There was a lot of circle dancing! The woman all had beautiful dresses (and some changed into other beautiful dresses midway through the evening).
We had appetizers throughout the night. Dinner was served at 11:00 p.m. I ran into a local friend (who I didn’t know would be at the wedding). She and her boyfriend drove me home at 1:00 a.m. The party was still going strong — the cake cutting didn’t happen until 1:30, so I missed out.
(You’ll notice I didn’t include too many photos of my host family. I want to balance sharing my cultural experiences while respecting my host family’s privacy.)
“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!
In the distance, you can see a xhamia (pronounced juh-mia, with a soft “j”) (mosque).
[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.
“I was alone, I took a ride,
I didn’t know what I would find there.
Another road where maybe
I could see another kind of life there.” — The Beatles, Got to Get You Into My Life
The man is this photo is wearing a plis, a traditional cap worn by Albanian men.
“Woke up, fell out of bed, dragged a comb across my head … ” — The Beatles, A Day in the Life
Each day, I wake up at 7:15. I go downstairs to wash my face and brush my teeth in the bathroom. Then I come back up to my room to apply my makeup, style my hair (if I bother), and get dressed.
Next, I head downstairs for breakfast. I usually have yogurt and a cup of coffee.
I gather my things and walk to the taxi stand at the end of my road.
I carpool with my site mates and my language teacher to a larger, nearby village for training and language class. We all live in the same village (different houses, though, ha).
Sierra offered to take this selfie for me from the front seat. In the back (l-r) is our other site mate, Charlie; our language teacher, Kushtrim; and me. Doesn’t our taxi driver look thrilled to be included in our photo?
Okay, so here’s where we are going to split, in a “Sliding Doors” kind of way. Certain days of the week are “HUB days,” which is where the entire Peace Corps trainee group meets for presentations and lectures. Some trainings are specific to Kosovo, while others are mandated by the Peace Corps office in D.C. (meaning that trainees all over the world must receive the same trainings). Our trainings are held in the conference room of a hotel. Here is the patio where we sit for breaks and for lunch. (The hotel is at the very top of a big hill/mountain, meaning that there isn’t anywhere else to go.)
And here is the conference room itself. It is nice, but does not have air conditioning (or fans). On hot days, it probably nears 100 degrees in that room.
On days we have Albanian language classes, we split into smaller groups and meet with our respective teachers. My group meets in this school (the same school where we met our host families for the first time).
We like to spend our breaks at this nearby café. They play A LOT of Bob Marley.
We also try to time our bathroom breaks then. Our school has a squatty potty, while the café has a much nicer bathroom. Squattys were all over China, which I expected when I visited there in 2012, but I did not expect them in Kosovo. They do not seem as common as “Western style” toilets, though.
On days when we have language lessons in the morning, our afternoons are either spent doing team building exercises or cultural learning, or we have TEFL training (teaching English as a foreign language).
After that, I carpool home with Sierra and Charlie, and sometimes Kushtrim (if he’s still around), or another Peace Corps trainee.
Once I get home, I usually spend an hour or so in my room. I like to chill out, read email, blog, and surf the Internet.
Then, I usually take a book or language homework out to the garden. There I read and play with the kitten until it’s time for dinner.
My host mother and I often take a walk after dinner. We have such a pretty view!
I’ve been going to bed early lately. I shower and am in bed by 10:00. (And sometimes, it is earlier than that!)
On Thursday, we finally found out where our permanent sites will be. And my site is … well, I can’t tell you publicly. (pppeeewww … Imagine the sound of air rapidly leaving a balloon.)
It’s against Peace Corps policy for us to name our cities or villages on social media. (If you are a friend or family member, I can tell you via phone or email.)
Here’s the most surprising thing about my placement: My new village is Catholic, NOT Islamic. Catholic Albanians are in the minority in Kosovo. (But perhaps you’ve heard of Mother Theresa? 😛 She’s the world’s most famous Catholic Albanian.)
I had zero say in where I was placed. The Peace Corps staff claims the only factor for placement consideration was our resumes. (I don’t know what on my resume said, “Put her in a Catholic village!” Maybe the fact that I attended a Catholic university? But then, so did other people in my group.)
Anyway, I am getting WAY ahead of myself. Let me walk you through these last few days, because they have been emotionally exhausting. I am tired of having emotions. Could someone take them away from me, please?
Last Thursday morning, we were given the name of our permanent cites. Then we returned to the hotel where we first stayed upon our arrival in Kosovo. This is where we all met our “counterparts,” meaning, our professional points of contact for the next two years. Since I’ll be teaching English as a Second Language, I was paired with a teacher named Dardan who teaches in the village where I’ll be living.
Friday was an all-day teacher training with our counterparts. Then on Saturday morning, I met Dardan at the hotel, and we departed for my new village via bus. After meeting Dardan’s family and the director of my school, Dardan drove me to my new host family’s home.
My new host family is similar in structure to my current host family: two parents with grown sons. The new fam has a son in Switzerland, and a son who attends university in Pristina. (He was there, and his English is fair. My new parents don’t speak much English.)
Their house is huge and very modern. When I joined the Peace Corps, I did not imagine I would be living in such a nice place. I thought I would have to adapt to bathing in a wooden tub in the middle of the yard or something.
My new home has a large room off the garage that functions as a second kitchen/informal dining space/pantry. It feels very familiar to me. It reminds me of the Christmas party we have with my (real) dad’s cousins in Michigan every year, which is usually held in someone’s basement. All weekend, whenever I would enter that room, comfort and homesickness would roll through me.
So, Saturday was overwhelming. I was homesick for my current village and host family. I was homesick for my real family. The idea of moving again and bonding with a new family seemed daunting.
But then I got a good night’s sleep (not really the norm for me). I woke up Sunday morning feeling better. As I washed my breakfast dishes, I began to think about the kindness and hospitality I’ve experienced since moving to Kosovo. My new host family agreed to let a stranger live with them for two years. I can’t imagine doing something like that. I feel undeserving of such generosity.
[Here’s something funny: I got to experience a new interpretation of my name. (My current host family calls me, “Ah-preel.”) When my new host mom shouted through the front door, “Preela! Preela!” it took me a while to realize she was calling me. :)]
I returned to my current village yesterday. I thought, “Home,” stepping off the bus. As I walked up the driveway, I saw my host parents sitting in the garden. Mace and the kitten were both at their feet. It was a nice picture to come home to. I will be sad to say goodbye to all of them next month.
“The best things in life are free
But you can keep ’em for the birds and bees
Now give me money (that’s what I want)” — The Beatles, Money (That’s What I Want)
So … money in the Peace Corps. There isn’t any. The end.
No, just kidding. Oh, not about the no-money part. That’s true. I just meant I have a little more to say about it …
I mentioned I am in PST (pre-service training) for the Peace Corps. Here’s how the money situation works right now. The Peace Corps gives me:
- Rent money, which they give directly to me, and which I give to my host family. This is to cover the cost of my expenses (feeding me three times per day, water and electricity I use, etc.).
- Transportation money (I take a taxi to training every day, 1 Euro each way)
- And … 2 Euro per day as “walking around money,” which I receive as a monthly lump sum.
I know! 2 Euro per day doesn’t sound like much, does it? But let’s break down the cost of some common things I buy:
- Macchiato — 50 cents
- Chocolate croissant — 40 cents
- Piece of pizza — 40 cents
- Chicken sandwich from our favorite chicken sandwich place — $1.50 Euro
- Postage to the United States (per item) — about $2.50, depending on what it is
- Package of gum — 40 cents
- Pack of travel tissue — 9 cents (Seriously, when was the last time you bought anything for 9 cents? Never?)
Here is a receipt from lunch at a nice restaurant. The total cost was 7 Euro for 3 people. We all had a bottle of water. Charlie and I each got a hamburger and fries, while Sierra got a margarita pizza. (This sounds like the beginning of a textbook math problem, but I promise, no math is involved.)
For those of you who are all like, “I can’t visit you in Kosovo. It’s so expensive!” My response is: “Yes, it’s expensive to get over here, but once you’re here, you can live like a king!”
Think about it.