Host Family Survival Guide

At the time of this writing, I have been out of Peace Corps for two months! TWO MONTHS, WOW! (Service actually DOES end! Although at times I felt like I’d be living in Kosovo forever … )

I thought I was done with this blog for good. However, since finishing my service I’ve been asked several times for advice on setting boundaries within the host family. I thought I’d compile my thoughts/suggestions into this list.

Living with a host family is difficult. I imagine this is true to some degree for all Peace Corps volunteers living in all host countries. My advice stems from my experience living with an Albanian family and working in Kosovo. However, I think a lot of what I have to say is universally applicable.

Before joining the Peace Corps, I worked as a drug and alcohol counselor in Chicago. I’m used to settling boundaries as part of my professional life, but even I find it difficult sometimes. I especially find it difficult when I have to establish the same boundaries over and over. Such is life with a host family.

Here are my tips for living with a host family:

1. Decide what household chores you are willing to do and only do those things. Aside from cleaning my bedroom and doing my own laundry, I dried the dishes and sometimes fed the dog. That’s it. (Sorry, but I’m not cleaning the toilet after a man with poor aim uses it!)

Kosovar/Albanian culture is patriarchal. Women are expected to serve men. I would STRONGLY suggest to female volunteers, especially the younger women, to establish that you are not in Kosovo to act as a nuse (the Albanian/Shqip word for “bride.”) Thank God I was never asked to serve tea, because that would have really bothered me. If your host family asks you to serve, I would suggest looking confused and then explaining that you are an American guest. Albanian culture dictates respect for guests so if your family tries to make you do something you don’t want to do, lean on the guest thing.

My host mom wanted me to can speca (pepper) my first year and I kept saying no. She would ask “pse?” (why) and I’d just kind of shrug as a reply. (People can argument against an explanation. They can’t argue against a shrug!) The second year she didn’t ask me to help, haha.

2. My real parents visited Kosovo during my second Christmas. I think it helped ease my host mother’s anxiety about me leaving (and helped ease her grip on me) because she saw that I belong to these other, very nice people.

To volunteers, I’d suggest doing a video chat (or chats) between your host and real family. Establish that you have a very nice family back home and that you are a guest in Kosovo. This is something I wish I had done earlier in my service.

3. I didn’t have this problem, but other volunteers have told me they struggled with host siblings trying to act as their “boss.” In this situation, I’d suggest using humor as a deflection. Turn their comments into a joke. “You’re the boss of me? I’m older than you! That makes me the boss, HAHA!” Give that youngster’s hair a lil’ ruffle! (If your host sibling is older than you are, again, lean on the guest culture.)

4. This may be different in other host countries, but in Kosovo, volunteers pay their living stipends directly to their host families. This is incredibly stressful. My host mother complained that it wasn’t enough money my first few months, even though I was giving the standard amount Peace Corps set. I stuck to my guns, though, and didn’t pay more than I had to.

I also quickly figured out to lie about how much I traveled. I didn’t want to give the impression that I had money. I was also mindful of the fact that travel can be difficult for Kosovars due to the expense and having to obtain visas for just about everywhere.

I traveled pretty frequently during my service but only told my host family about three of my trips (one of those I took with my real parents). The rest of the time, they thought I was in Pristina. They thought I had this mysterious female friend in Pristina who let me crash at her apartment all the time. Hahaha, I was either traveling or renting an Airbnb with other volunteers. 😉

5. My host family was always respectful of my personal belongings and my physical safety. However, I know of instances where other volunteers had host families that stole from them. I also know of instances where volunteers were being sexually harassed in their own homes. I heard mixed reviews on how quickly and effectively Peace Corps staff responded to these situations and again, I can’t speak to this from my own experience. However, I will say that no volunteer should ever be expected to stay at a site where their safety is threatened. If one of these things happens to you, report it immediately!

6. Kosovo gets very cold in the winter. My host family had central heat (and I’ve said this previously — central heat is a rare luxury in Kosovo). My family only turned the heat on for a few hours in the evening, though. So what did I do? I went to Pristina and spent 10 Euro on a space heater. It fit nicely into my backpack and I was able to sneak it into my bedroom. 🙂

I’d hear my friends complain about the cold and I’d just kind of roll my eyes to myself. Use common sense. If you’re cold, buy a heater. Your host family signed a housing contract that states they will provide you with a heated bedroom.

If your host family says the amount they pay for electricity has increased, ask them for a copy of the bill to show your program manager.

7. Best advice ever, for all life situations: Just do you, bo. Establish your boundaries, establish your routine, don’t ask permission and just be yourself. A criticism I have of Peace Corps (and I have several, haha) is that they really push the volunteer to integrate into the host culture without enough emphasis on the cultural exchange. Yes, the volunteer is a guest and should do their best to respect the host culture. However, too much of this pressure is placed solely on the volunteer. My feeling was always, “Hey, you guys wanted an American living in your village and teaching at your school, SO GET READY TO DEAL WITH AN AMERICAN.” (Yes, I do things differently. I am from a completely different culture and country!) Volunteers shouldn’t be expected to compromise on everything.

Last, don’t feel guilty if you don’t love living with a host family. Here’s a secret: most of us don’t (or didn’t)!

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).

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
hill 7
hill 2

hill 4

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


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


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.

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.

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.)

host family2.jpg
Apologies for the weird cropping … I was trying to cut out distracting stuff in the background


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.’ ”


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?

The Kitten then and now

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

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.

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:


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.

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.)


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.


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.


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

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.


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. 🙂


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.


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.

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

Speca (peppers) have consumed my life.


Here is me on my first day of school!

I began crocheting a lot.


I really love my fellow volunteers.


I got to visit Skopje, Macedonia:

Processed with MOLDIV

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


And, of course, I just visited Tirana!

April and Val, outside the National Art Gallery of Albania

Thanks for letting me share!