Guest Blogger: Chelsea Coombes

Hi, everyone! My friend and fellow Peace Corps trainee, Chelsea Coombes, graciously agreed to write a guest post for my blog. (I figured you all might appreciate hearing a perspective other than mine!) Her post is below. — April

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April and Chelsea

 

I am extremely grateful to April for including me in her blog as a guest. I find myself constantly reading her posts. We all acknowledge that we have our single stories, however it is great to be going through this experience with such an inspiring new friend.

I had a very hard time choosing what I wanted to write about. I myself have not started a blog. I have been thinking how I would like to document my time here in Kosovo and I am not much of a blogger, but this is a good chance to try it out! While I was pondering what I wanted to write about I asked myself “what do you love most about Kosovo?” the answer, my host family.

I am a 24-year-old grad student who has only been out of her mother’s home for one year. I lived in Florida most of my life. Last year I moved to New Hampshire for school and at the time I thought that was the biggest decision of my life. That is of course until I moved thousands of miles away to Kosovo for Peace Corps. These last few months have been incredibly challenging, but extremely rewarding.

With that being said, I have never felt more included. The beginning of pre-service training (PST) is a blur, but I do remember meeting my PST family. Standing at the school with fear radiating through my entire body I was paired with the family who would take me in for the next three months. I have a host brother around age 20, two host sisters one who is the same age as me and one around 27, and a host mother. We awkwardly stared at each other and made small gestures while they helped me with my bags to their car and drove me to the house. Once at home we all sat around the table outside and the first thing they asked me, that I had to later translate was “do you feel at home?” I look back at this moment often. Here I am, miles away from my home and everything I know with a family whom I couldn’t communicate with in Albanian or English, and all I can think about is how generous they are. How they went out of their way to make me feel at home, even from day one.

Every day they make sure I am included in their family plans. I was invited to my host sister’s wedding the second day I arrived in country.

Their kindness and closeness has been overwhelmingly gracious. But it was a few weeks ago that really solidified my place in this family. It was storming and our power was out. I opened my door to find them settling down in the hall, the door was open and they had a flashlight. My host mom pulled up a cushion and encouraged me to sit. We ate chocolate, laughed about the rain and huddled up to each other. I felt like such an important member of a family, I felt loved.

PST is coming to a close and I know that the hardest part is going to be leaving them. My permanent site is about a 6-hour bus ride, and though I know I will visit it still feels like goodbye. I have seen my host mom sick, my sister leave for school to Germany, my host brother in goofy moments and my older sister become a wife. Being with a family through big transitions and being a part of them really makes you feel connected.

To the family that put up with my strange eating habits, laughed at my poor language skills and constantly let me know I was not a guest but part of this family, thank you.

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Teaching for the First Time

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My fellow teacher trainees

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.

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In related news, my drawing ability has marginally improved.

My First Kosovar Wedding

My middle host brother got married on Saturday. It was my first Kosovar wedding!

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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.

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Albanian Musicians

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.

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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).

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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.)

 

Talk Shqip to Me

“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!

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Making charts to practice and learn

Kosovo Facts

[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.]

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“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)

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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.