Guest Bloggers: Todd and Stephanee Smith (Serving as a Married Couple in the Peace Corps)

“Love does not consist of gazing at each other, but in looking outward together in the same direction.” — Antoine De Saint-Exupery

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Thanks to April for asking us to be guest bloggers on what it’s like to serve as a married couple in the Peace Corps. As one of two married couples in our cohort, we are probably having a different experience than our fellow volunteers.

Some background: We’ve been married over 20 years, no kids, and left behind steady, comfortable jobs. We were both ready for a life and career change. It was a decision that we took very seriously, and worked through the pros and cons together. We think that when you serve as a couple, you both need to be all in because if one person has reservations, it’s going to be a difficult experience for both of you.

Pre-service training (PST) was the biggest challenge of our service. Peace Corps required us to live separately (different home/different village) for our first 3 months of training. We knew this going into our service, so it didn’t come as a surprise. And while it did allow us to have our own, separate experiences while developing our own identities within our cohort, it was definitely a very challenging experience. PST has a lot of ups and downs and when you are used to sharing those types of life experiences with your partner, and he/she isn’t around, it can be difficult. While not being able to see your partner whenever you wanted was difficult, we will say that the PST set-up did allow for a lot of interaction. Our villages were only a few miles apart and there were plenty of hub days or sector training that, for the most part, we were able to see each other in person more often than not.

Once we finished PST, however, a sense of normalcy returned. We resumed living together, cooking for ourselves, having similar schedules and just a feeling of being a married couple once again. Some advantages of serving together is that you always have someone to hang out with, whether it’s at the café, at home, dinner, or simply riding the bus. We are in the same sector so we have that in common, and we even share tutoring lessons. We always have a travel partner. Loneliness isn’t as big of an issue as it may be with other volunteers. In the winter, the advantages are even better—never underestimate the power of body heat in an unheated bedroom.

However, there are some disadvantages as well. Our language learning isn’t progressing as quickly as we would like as we always have someone to talk to in English. As a married couple, our host family gives us plenty of privacy so we probably don’t have as much interaction as many other volunteers may have with their families which also hampers our language skills. We also sometimes feel that we probably haven’t formed as many close relationships with our cohort due to the fact we have a “built-in” friend. Of course, that could be because not only are we a married couple, but we’re also older than most everyone in our cohort!

Despite some disadvantages, being a married couple has only enhanced our experiences. Neither of us can imagine trying to go through this adventure alone. We rely on one another to get through our struggles and are able to enjoy small successes together. So far, our experience in the Peace Corps has been pretty much what we expected. Some ups, some downs; but all made easier by having someone to share it with.

April’s Note: Happy Valentine’s Day! If you’d like to read more from other guest bloggers, here are some links:

Guest Blogger: Hannah Polipnick (Dumb Things I Have Done in Kosovo)

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Hannah

Hey friends, family, and readers of April’s blog! My name’s Hannah and this week I’ll be taking over for our dear and beloved April. April and I were roommates during our first few days in Kosovo, and let me tell you she’s an absolute saint. I’m so grateful that we were paired together and that we have been able to develop a wonderful friendship. Anyway, I thought I’d keep things light for my blog post and talk about two MAJOR dumdum moves I’ve made since coming to Kosovo.

The first incident that stuck with me all through summer and something my PST host-familly will never let me forget occurred one sweaty sweltering afternoon. I walked up the hill to my house after a long day of training, and I was profusely sweating. My family took one look at me and said “Oj Han shumë zheg sod, kokë kall!” However, I failed to hear kokë kall (pronounced koh-kah kall) and instead I heard koka-kol. I was so excited, having thought that my family was saying, “Oh Han, it’s so hot outside and you’re gross and sweaty, how about a nice glass of coke.” I said I would love some coke thank you very much, to which everyone burst out laughing. Turns out, kokë kall means your head is literally on fire. Thank you host family, I’m aware my face gets red when it’s hot out. The rest of the summer every aunt, uncle, cousin, and neighbor I had asked me if I wanted a coke when it was particularly hot outside…

Another incident occurred during Bajram or what is called Eid in other communities. I went to the mosque with my host sister and cousin and met up with a fellow volunteer and her host cousin. I had asked my host sister to tell me how to congratulate my Muslim family members, neighbors, and friends on finishing their fasting. She told me you could say “urime Bajram” or “perhajr Bajrami”. As prayers were winding down I began reciting my congratulatory remarks in my head. I turned to my cousin, flashed her my biggest smile and said “perime Bajram”, which translates to “vegetables Bajram” in English. My family now says perime instead of congratulations for every occasion.

One thing I learned quickly from living in Kosovo is that I could choose to be embarrassed by mistakes, or I could join in in laughing. I promise, laughing at yourself is always the better solution.
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April’s note: You can read posts from other guest bloggers here:

Guest Blogger: Sam Green (A Single Story)

Hi, Everyone. I asked my friend Sam if he would write a guest post for my blog. Sam is not only the first man I’ve asked to post, he is also the first person to write about Peace Corps Kosovo’s Community Development program. Enjoy! –April

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A Single Story

In Peace Corps there are several phrases that are repeated so often during training that they become ingrained. The one that’s stuck with me is “single story”. During training they refer to single stories in a few different ways. Primarily in the context of the recent conflict in Kosovo, and that when you hear a story of what happened in the war whether from an Albanian or a Serb, it’s key to remember that you are only hearing one perspective. But they also use the same term when talking about how each member of our cohort will have a completely different experience from the others.

I have been realizing how very true this is, as we have started at our different sites and organizations. I will be getting a unique experience. I am the first volunteer to working with a Roma organization, and I am living with a Catholic host family in a predominantly Muslim and Turkish melting pot. The languages on the street range from Albanian and Romani to Turkish and German.

In addition to the English teachers we have in Kosovo, like the amazing April, we also have Community Development volunteers. The community development sector in Kosovo has many wide-ranging goals, but at its essence we are here to help build capacity within NGO’s and civil society organizations. I’m currently facing the challenges that will come with working and living within two different minority communities. I’m excited to see Kosovo from their perspective.

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Photo by Sam Green

The largest challenge I’ve faced thus far has been language barriers. No one within my organization speaks English and my Albanian skills are sub-par. I’ve been taking Albanian tutoring and this week am starting with a tutor to learn the Romani language. It has been very hard to express myself to my counterpart, when trying to speak about vision or strategic planning through my limited Albanian and Google Translate. In an effort to do something meaningful with the rest of my time, I’ve started an English club with some secondary school students. I am daunted by the challenges ahead of me, but I look forward to overcoming them and can’t wait to be able to tell my single story.

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Photo by Sam Green

Other guest bloggers’ posts:

Guest Blogger: Valeriana Dema

Hi, everyone! My friend Val graciously agreed to write today’s guest post, where she shares her unique experience as a Peace Corps Volunteer. –April

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April and Val at Novo Brdo

Thank you April for asking me to write a post which helped me reflect on my time in Kosovo. I’m very happy to contribute in a small way to April’s wonderful blog 🙂

The other day my host sister said to me in Albanian, “You are the border” — “Ti je kufi.” She was talking about the split in generations in my Albanian-American family, and how I was in between the two generations. For example, most of my older family members speak Albanian fluently, while many in the younger generation are losing the language. My language skills place me somewhere in between those two generations, and like a lot of children of immigrants, I’ve always felt in between two cultures, but not fully accepted by either. However, in many ways volunteering with Peace Corps Kosovo has helped alleviate that feeling for me.

The past couple months of having a group of Americans experiencing all the joys and maladies of Albanian culture along with me has been a wonderful experience. Being in between cultures can be alienating, so it felt very acknowledging that a bunch of my new friends, who had been immersed in Kosovar culture and living with Albanian host families, understood how both the warm love as well as the tight grip of a close-knit Albanian family feels. It also was really meaningful for me to make connections with Kosovar natives and hear their perspectives on issues and their stories and struggles. As an American, who in many ways has a comfortable life, I’ve had a hard time even imagining what my parents’ and my grandparents’ lives were like. So spending time in Kosovo and with Kosovars helps bridge that gap, helping me understand and making me feel closer to my own family.

Yet being an American volunteer in Kosovo also strengthens the feeling of being at the border. I’m in very close proximity to two different cultures, but I’ll never really know what’s it’s like to have grown up in this part of the world, and I’ll always have different experiences than an American whose family has been there for generations. Part of my experience in the Peace Corps has been accepting that I’ll probably always feel a little bit in between. In the Balkans, borders are constantly being disputed, controlled by foreign powers, cut, and renamed. Being at the border makes me vulnerable and self-conscious, always trying to define myself and defend attacks from both sides. But I’ve also realized the border is a blessing because I have a unique view of both sides.

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.