A Boring Adventure

I once heard Peace Corps described as “a boring adventure.” I can’t think of a more apt description. That’s exactly what it’s like.

When I was preparing to leave for the Peace Corps, I was thinking of how many tedious things have to happen before embarking on any adventure. If you’re an adult ensconced in a real, adult life, there is a lot that must be undone if you choose to leave that life.

I had to quit my twos jobs, pack and move my belongings, cancel my utilities, find someone to adopt my chinchillas, and move my cat into my parents’ house.

And there was the paperwork. So much paperwork. Medical and legal clearance and a slew of other stuff to prepare and track and submit.

Now that I am serving in the Peace Corps, I have to submit a quarterly report about my activities. It’s not like Peace Corps turned us loose in Kosovo and said: “Have fun in Kosovo! See you in two years!”

I have no idea what happens to this report once staff reads it … I don’t know if it gets filed away somewhere in D.C. I’ve had to submit so much paperwork at this point (like all of my medical records) that it is a little scary.

[When my group first arrived in Kosovo, we were given (surprise!) more paperwork to complete. One form was about our recent medical history. They actually asked the question, “How many sexual partners have you had in the last year?” I was temped to be a jerk and write, “SIX HUNDRED.” (Who in their right mind would answer that question?) But then I realized I probably didn’t want the U.S. government to be in possession of a document that says I slept with six hundred people in a year. (Not true, btw.) Instead I wrote, “Declined to answer.”]

So, yeah, the government has all kinds of info on me. And I don’t know who has access to it or what happens to it. This is all a very long-winded way of saying that I’ve decided to share some of my answers from my recent report on this blog. Because … it’s my report, and why not?

Below is a slightly edited version. As I’ve said, I try to be respectful of others’ privacy, so I have removed some of what I wrote about my home life and school.

How could cross-cultural and language training be improved to support effective cultural integration?

I do not think training needs to be improved. My issues with cultural integration center around being a woman in a small village, and having limited opportunities to interact with local people. Spending time in the few cafes in my village is not an option, since it is not culturally appropriate for women to visit cafes alone. I sometimes shop at the small market or the bakery, and interact with local people working there. However, my interactions there are limited as well: “Miredita.” “Sa kushton?” etc. Therefore, most of my interactions take place in my host family or at my school.

What challenges have you faced in your project or other areas of your Peace Corps experience?

Living with a host family has by far been the most challenging part of my service. I feel as though I walked into a situation where expectations of who I was and what our relationship would be were already set. I continually have to set boundaries with my host mother, who very much expected us to have a mother-daughter relationship. She was not prepared to live with an independent, now- 36-year-old American woman.

What lessons have you learned about yourself, your community, or your project?

I have learned that, “Wherever you go, there you are.” My living circumstances have changed, and yet I am still the same person I have always been, with the same interests and habits I had in the United States. Living in Kosovo has prompted me to consider my own unique skills and gifts, and think of how best to use them in this context. I am never going to be the Most Outgoing Volunteer, or the Best at Language. And yet, that does not mean I cannot use what I have to be of use to my community. I am good at listening, I am good at observing the needs of my students, and I am creative, just to give a few examples. I bring all of these skills with me when I enter my classroom.

Finish this sentence: One thing I wish Americans knew about my country of service is …

that appearances can be deceiving. Despite the fact that Pristina, for example, appears very modern and “Western” in many ways, life there is very different from life in a small village. Poverty rates are high where I live, and education and health care systems are poor.

How successful has your integration with your host family been?

I am unsure how to answer this question, to be honest. I would say I have a good relationship with my host family, in that we generally get along. I eat all of my meals with them, and will sometimes go with them to visit neighbors or other relatives. I am included in family events, like engagement parties, etc. However, as I mentioned previously, my relationship with my host mother is my biggest source of stress.

My relationships with my host father and host brother are much more easy going. Both of them are quiet people, as am I, and so we don’t actually spend a lot of time talking with one another. Meals are very quiet in my household. I also try to give my host father and brother a good deal of space. My host father is not old enough to be my real father (he is 51; I am 36), and I am aware of how inappropriate it would look if he and I were close. I feel the same way about my host brother (age 21). I want to state that I feel safe in my house. My decision to give the men in my household a wide berth has more to do with awareness of perception and cultural expectations than anything else.

What opportunities have you had to build relationships outside of your host family?

Regarding my actual community of [redacted], I have had very little opportunity to interact with locals. My village is small, and again, the culture dictates that I spend my non-working time at home. I have more professional contacts in the larger, nearby village of [redacted], thanks to my site mate and her counterpart. I have also met a good number of professional contacts who live in Pristina.

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So, there you have it — an honest look at my life in Kosovo so far.

Friday Gratitude: Food for Thought

On Tuesday evening, I attended a school dinner with teachers from my school, plus the surrounding villages. In typical Kosovo style, I found out about this event just a few hours beforehand. I was told it was free. When I asked who was paying for it, the answer I received was, “The president.” And I was like, “The president of what? Of Kosovo?”

Indeed, the president of Kosovo came and gave a speech! I would have taken his photo, but I didn’t expect him to leave so quickly. 😦

I haven’t ever posted a photo of my current host parents, as I try to respect their privacy. But since we all look so fancy, why not? (They both work at my school and attended the dinner, too.)

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Apologies for the weird cropping … I was trying to cut out distracting stuff in the background

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Media Consumption this week …

  • I caught up on Handmaid’s Tale
  • I watched the documentary There’s Something Wrong With Aunt Diane. The filmmakers interviewed the family of Diane Schuler, who, in 2009, drove the wrong way on a New York freeway and caused an accident that killed 8 people.
  • At the prodding of my friend, I watched the documentary Tickled. The filmmakers intended to make a documentary about tickling contests (yes, that exists), and found themselves being threatened with legal action. The resulting story is deeply bizarre.
  • I binge-watched The Keepers on Netflix. The documentary follows the unsolved 1969 murder case of a nun in Baltimore. Along the way, sexual abuse in the Catholic church and a massive cover-up are discovered.
  • I finished reading Far From the Tree. It centers on the ways children can turn out to be very different from their parents, due to reasons like disability, mental illness, genius, or life choices (like crime). This was a riveting book and yet, parts were very hard to read.

Here are some quotes from Far From the Tree that I found to be particularly thought-provoking (and there were many):

“Little is more gratifying than successful and devoted children, and few situations are worse than filial failure or rejection.”

“It is often ourselves we would like to see live forever, and not someone with a personality of his own.”

” ‘In America, every kid has to be well rounded. They have ten different activities, and they never excel at any of them. Americans want everyone to have the same life; it’s a cult of the average.’ ”

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The things I’ve been watching/reading lately have all been heavy. I could use a laugh! If you can recommend something funny, please do so. 🙂

Have a good weekend, and I’ll talk to you on Monday.

Feeling the Loss of Autonomy

I try to find the balance between keeping it real on this blog, while not complaining too much. But I’ve been feeling the blues on and off for the last two months. Things will start to look up and then something will happen to bring them back down again.

Friends and family often ask me, “What do you miss most?” And I think they expect the answer to be something like a person, or my cat, or some type of food. But the thing I miss most is getting to feel like an adult.

I don’t control what I eat or when I eat. I don’t control the temperature in my bedroom (currently, there’s no heat). I can’t decorate my bedroom in any real way. My means of transportation is limited. My monthly budget is tiny. I live in someone else’s house, meaning I have to do things based on someone else’s preferences.

I’m running out of ideas for this blog. I’ve got several half-finished crochet projects lying around. I’m losing focus in some ways. My bedtime has been getting earlier and earlier because after I accomplish what I want to for the day, I don’t see the point in finding more to do.

My poor mom has had to bear the brunt of my complaining. My end of our telephone conversations sound like, “UUUUGGGHHH.” (Thanks, Mom.)

I had coffee with another volunteer friend the other week. We were talking about time, and whether it has been passing quickly or slowly while we’re here. We couldn’t figure it out. He said, “The days are misery but then a month goes by.” I agree with that statement.

I suspected my first winter in Kosovo would be one of the hardest stretches of my Peace Corps service. And so far, it has been. I am trying to remind myself of the positive things that are coming.

I am going on vacation for spring break in 32 days. (Don’t you just hate me? All this complaining, and then I tell you I’m going on vacation soon.) I’m hoping this is what I need to pull me through this slump, to officially put an end to this winter chapter of my service.

Friday Gratitude: My PST Host Family

I spent last weekend visiting my pre-service training (PST) host family. I lived with them last June, July, and August. I hadn’t been back to visit them since.

My trip was exactly what I needed. I was in a familiar place, but a place that is no longer a part of my daily life. It gave me a break from the tedium I’ve been feeling lately. My previous village is also much prettier than where I am now. Kosovo is the first land-locked place I have ever lived. It didn’t bother me last summer, when I was surrounded by beautiful mountains. But my current village is located a valley, so it’s a flat/boring landscape with no water. It was so nice to be back in the mountains again!

I also hadn’t realized how much I miss my previous family. It’s funny — there are parallels between my two host families. Both sets of parents are ages 50-55, and both have grown sons/no daughters. But they live on opposite sides of Kosovo and have never met. Also, one family is Catholic and the other is Muslim.

Having been away from my PST host family for so long meant I had plenty to tell them. That’s one struggle I have in living with a host family — my day-to-day life is the same, so all I ever have to say is, “I went to school today. It was good.” I don’t have the language skills to talk about anything deeper or more meaningful, so I run out of topics to discuss. It was nice to be able to have a longer conversation in Shqip.

My trip there took 3 buses, 4 hours, and cost 5.50 Euro one-way (a lot, on a tiny Peace Corps budget). I was pulling my little wheelie suitcase up our dark country road I ran into my host parents, on their way to greet me. 🙂 Back at the house, I told them about life in my new village. I answered a million questions about my new host family, including “Do they make their bread or buy it?” (Yes, that was a real question.) When my host sister-in-law arrived, my host parents recounted everything I had just said to her. Then, when my host brother arrived, they recounted everything again. It was funny.

And, of course, I was excited to see the cats again! Especially “the Kitten.” I call her that because the cats don’t have names. Remember when I met her on my birthday last year?

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The Kitten then and now

I took a walk around the property with her cuddled in my arms. 🙂

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Media consumption …

I started and finished two books over the last weekend, and discovered a new author I really like!

  • The One I Left Behind by Jennifer McMahon. This is a story of a woman who believes her mother was the victim of a serial killer (only her hand was ever found). But, 25 years later, her mother shows up alive. I couldn’t put this one down! (Though the killer is someone you’d NEVER suspect, and I actually thought there were more plausible/compelling options.) I read this curled by the wood burning stove, as my host parents puttered around the kitchen and the rain fell outside. It was an ideal murder-mystery-reading situation. I don’t recommend reading this novel while you’re home alone.
  • I decided to read another of Jennifer McMahon’s novels, so I downloaded Don’t Breathe a Word. (Thanks, Chicago Public Library!) It was creepy and bizarre, a grown-up fairy tale that reminded me of the movie Pan’s Labyrinth.

Have a good weekend, everyone! I’ll talk to you on Monday.

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She looks like she’s smiling. 🙂

An American in Kosovo, Part 2

      • Taking leftover food home from restaurants doesn’t seem to be common here. However, my host family has two dogs, so I’ll ask for a to-go bag if I have meat left on my plate. I was at a restaurant with my host family for the first time a few weeks ago. When I asked for a to-go bag, my host mother told the waiter, “She’s American.” Haha. Always nice to embarrass the host family.
      • Even when I speak in Shqip, people have a hard time understanding me (even when I know I’m saying something correctly). (Perhaps people need to practice their sympathetic listening skills … just sayin’.) There have been a few instances where I’ll say something and my host mother is the only one who understands what I am trying to say. Awww. Living with a host family can be challenging at times, but at least my host mother makes an effort to talk to and understand me. 🙂
      • Kosovo has a very touchy-feely culture. The clasp broke on a necklace I was wearing, and I peered down my collar to see if the pendant had fallen under my shirt. Suddenly, I had two extra pairs of hands patting me down.
      • Our school is heated with wood stoves. I saw one of my fifth graders casually throw another log onto the fire as he headed out the door. I thought, “That would never happen in America. A child would never be allowed near an open flame.” They make ’em tough in Eastern Europe.
      • Three times now, cab drivers have mistaken me for being Italian. The following conversation took place in Shqip:
        Cab Driver: “I don’t speak Italian. I can speak German, but not Italian.”
        Me: “I’m not Italian. I’m American.”
        Cab Driver: “Are you Albanian-American or just American?”
        Me: “Just American.”
        Cab Driver: “Are you a tourist?”
        Me: “No, I live here.”
        (I can tell the Cab Driver’s mind is blown.)
        Me: “I’m a teacher. I live in (name of my village).”
        Cab Driver: “Are you married?”
        Me: “No. I live with a host family.”
        (Cab Driver appears bemused.)

You can read about my previous experiences as an American in Kosovo here.

My Favorite Photos from the First Quarter

“And time
goes by
And you’ve got a lot to learn, in your life.” — Future Islands, Tin Man

I mentioned in yesterday’s blog post that I have officially completed my first quarter in the Peace Corps! (Counting method is my own.) I thought I’d take some time and reflect on my favorite moments/photos from the last six months. Some of these photos I have previously posted, while others are new.

I spent over a year thinking about Kosovo before I actually moved here. These are: 1) my very first photo of Kosovo and 2) the first photo of me in Kosovo, taken on the balcony of my hotel room.

I took the following photo at the end of the most terrifying day of my life. Here is a picture of my pre-service training (PST) bedroom:

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I love this photo I took of my sitemates Charlie and Sierra. It is funny to think I didn’t know them well back then.

About to watch the soccer match with some fellow Peace Corps trainees. Go, Albania!

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I didn’t know what to expect from my first birthday spent in Kosovo, but I am happy to say, my 35th was a happy one. (I suspect my language teacher was responsible for the cake — such a sweet gesture.)

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PST is not without its abject misery and heat. It does have its bright moments, too. Here is a picture of me commuting with my sitemates and my language teacher. I really miss these three, and don’t get to see them as often as I’d like anymore.

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The summer did not pass without its hedonistic moments. Here are two of my favorite photos, illustrating that:

Here is a picture of my language group, on the day we (finally) got to explore Pristina for the first time.

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I got to attend my first Kosovoar wedding. Here I am with one of my PST host brothers:

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One of my host brothers (not the one who got married) and me

Teaching for the first time was an intimidating experience, but it turned out to be more fun than I expected. I really like this photo of my  co-teachers, Chelsea and Chester.

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Our last week of PST was emotionally draining and difficult. But I had fun at the cultural day party/thank you to PST families that Peace Corps hosted.

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On my last night with my PST host family, I asked to take a photo with my host parents. My host dad was lying on the couch with a headache, but he got up and put on a dress shirt and nicer pants for the occasion. 🙂

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The next day, I swore in as a member of the Peace Corps. I have never been so proud of anything I’ve ever done.

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This is the first photo taken of me at my permanent host site, later that same day. It will always remind me that what I had anticipated would be a hard day (I was missing my sister’s wedding back at home) ultimately turned out just fine.

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Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful and holding a puppy

Speca (peppers) have consumed my life.

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Here is me on my first day of school!

#Kosovo #howiseepc #firstdayofschool

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I began crocheting a lot.

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I really love my fellow volunteers.

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I got to visit Skopje, Macedonia:

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I’ve spent several fun afternoons exploring Peja, a beautiful, mountainous city in Kosovo. This shot was taken on a particularly fun day.

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And, of course, I just visited Tirana!

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April and Val, outside the National Art Gallery of Albania

Thanks for letting me share!

Settling In

This weekend, I made some changes to my bedroom layout.

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Before: Two wardrobes, seen immediately upon entering my room.
I swapped a wardrobe I was barely using (the one covered in white paper in the photo above — it was mostly filled with linens that aren’t mine) for a section of a couch my host family wasn’t using. I’d had the idea for some time, but I was nervous to approach my host family about the change. I didn’t want to come across as ungrateful or demanding. However, after several months of observation, I determined that they NEVER use the couch.

The first floor of our house has two rooms — mine, and an unfinished storage space. The couch (perfectly comfortable and attractive) sits in there, untouched and alone.

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After: Look at this cute little brown and cream love seat! Wouldn’t you like to sit on it? (Bedroom door is to the left of the seat.)
My deciding moment happened two weeks ago. The power was out for four hours in the evening. After sitting hunched in my desk chair in the cold and the dark, I decided a nice, cozy seat in my room would be a huge help in facing the winter. A few days later, I screwed up my courage and asked my host dad if we could make the swap. He said yes!

This Saturday, when my host brother was home from university, we moved the furniture. I am much happier with this arrangement. 🙂

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After: We moved the remaining wardrobe into the far corner of the room.
It’s funny … living with a host family is like a throwback to dorm living. My entire life is crammed into one room, I share a bathroom, and meals are provided for me. The top of my wardrobe serves as a pantry (thanks for sending all the American food, guys!), and my décor consists of pictures of my friends and family, and cards from the aforementioned friends and family.

I really like my room. It’s got nice floors and big windows. Major bonus: The bed ranks in the Top Three Most Comfortable Beds I Have Ever Slept In (the others being my bed at my parents’ house, and the bed I usually sleep in when I visit my best friend’s parents in Minnesota).

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A pile of socks sits on my bedside table. I have yet to determine where to put them. Jennifer the Unicorn keeps my bed warm while I am not in it. 🙂
[Side note: I keep debating whether to buy a bigger quilt for my bed, but I think the smaller one actually keeps me warmer.]

Assuming nothing dramatic happens, this will be my home for the next year and a half. I think it’s important for the space to feel like mine. I’m really happy with the changes!