Friday Gratitude: One Year as a Peace Corps Volunteer!

Sunday, August 20 marks one year that I have been a Peace Corps volunteer. (June 5 marked one year of my living in Kosovo, but August 20 is when I officially became a volunteer.)

Here are some previously unpublished (by me) photos of my swearing-in ceremony.

swearing in
Taking the oath (look for me on the far left)
April Gardner Peace Corps Kosovo
U.S. Ambassador to Kosovo Greg Delawie, Peace Corps Volunteer April Gardner, Kosovo Country Director Darlene Grant, Deputy Chief of Mission to Kosovo Colleen Hyland

While swearing in to the Peace Corps was one of my proudest moments, I want to acknowledge the difficulty that came along with it.

First, there was all of the (probably usual) Peace Corps training stress … moving to a new country (and all the culture shock brought on by that), long days of lectures, intense summer heat with little relief, managing new and weighty expectations, etc.

I also had the added stress of missing my only sibling’s wedding, a wedding that was not on the horizon when I first moved to Kosovo. And I completely understand that decision. When you are with the right person, why wait? Especially when neither person cares about having a big wedding. But, knowing I would miss the wedding was difficult to process.

So yes, I look at the photos from my swearing-in ceremony and feel proud. There am I, looking my best, and standing next to a U.S. Ambassador. I also look at these photos and feel a mix of many other emotions.

On a lighter note … on Sunday, the countdown until I finish my service will drop below the one-year mark. Wow … less than 12 months to go, after starting with 27!

A Light-Hearted Comparison of China vs. Kosovo

I was talking with my mom about my trip to China in 2012. She suggested I write a blog post, comparing and contrasting my experiences in China with those in Kosovo.

Please note that this meant to be a fun, light-hearted comparison of the two countries, rather than a deep cultural analysis. Also, I only got to spend 10 days in China, whereas I’ve lived in Kosovo for a year. I am more familiar with Kosovar culture than Chinese culture.

Having said that, here are a few fun observations about both countries.

***

In both places, I’ve felt like this:

Going through customs.jpg

China and Kosovo are both mountainous countries.

Great Wall
The Great Wall of China
Novo Brdo, Kosovo
Novo Brdo, Kosovo

In both countries, I’ve used “squatty potties”:

We called these -squatty potties.-
Toilet in China
squatty potty
Toilet in Kosovo

There are scorpions in both countries!

Before I went to China, I was like, “I am totally going to eat a scorpion.” I imagined showing my friends and family a photo of me eating a scorpion, and all of them being suitably impressed by my bravery. Well, then I got to China and visited a night market. When I saw all the scorpions wriggling on sticks (they’re still ALIVE!), I lost my nerve. I have come to accept that while I am not a picky eater, that doesn’t mean I am an adventurous eater.

Yummy. Live scorpions on a stick.
Mmmm

For the record, I have never seen a scorpion in Kosovo. I’ve shown the following picture to locals here, and they claim never to have seen one, either. But! A volunteer living up in the mountains took this photo. I’m convinced.

Scorpion in a toilet
Don’t sit down!

American fast food. Yes, it exists.

The only American fast food chain that exists in Kosovo (as of right now) is KFC, although they offer a limited menu. What’s the point of going to KFC if you can’t order gluey macaroni and cafeteria-style mashed potatoes?!

I don’t remember what all I saw in China, aside from McDonalds. (No, I didn’t eat there.)

McDonalds!
McDonalds in China

I engaged with local superstitions in both countries.

In China, I hugged this tree to gain an extra year of life.

Tree hugging for an extra year of life.jpg

In Kosovo, I flipped over a tile on this roof to ensure I will get married.

IMG_2754

So, there you have it. A fun comparison of my experiences in China vs. Kosovo. I realize this post features a lot of toilet pictures. You’re welcome.

 

Batlava Lake, Kosovo

Living in Kosovo is the first time I have ever been landlocked. The town where I grew up shares a border river with Canada. When I lived in Boston for two years, I would sometimes spend my lunch break at the harbor. And my last apartment in Chicago (which I rented for 4.5 years) had a view of Lake Michigan from every window.

When I was home last month, my family and I went to a local arts and crafts fair along the water. As we watched a giant freighter float down the river, my Dad asked, “Are there boats like that in Kosovo?” And I said, “We don’t have water in Kosovo. It’s all mountains.”

Well, that’s not entirely true. Kosovo is mountainous and shares land borders with four other countries (Serbia, Macedonia, Albania, and Montenegro). However, it does have a few lakes. On Friday, my friend Chester and I visited Batlava Lake, a man-made lake.

When we arrived, we walked halfway around the lake, and decided to rent a paddleboat. (Cost: 5 Euro for one hour.)

When we were done paddling, we walked halfway back around the lake and had lunch at a restaurant on the water.

Batlava Lake was clean and quiet. I was surprised more people weren’t there. It was a nice little summer day trip. 🙂

Batlava Lake sign
Walking to the lake
Batlava Lake
Ridiculously beautiful view
Batlava Lake
The beach
B Lake
Representing America
Batlava Lake 6
Boat rental … We opted for a paddle boat.
Batlava Lake 9
On the water
Batlava Lake 7
Tall trees
Kosovo
Moo

If you plan to visit Batlava Lake, here is something to note: You don’t catch the bus at the main bus station in Pristina. Instead, you catch the bus at a stop near here:

take the bus to lake batlava kosovo

The cost is 1.70 Euro each way (it is about a 45-minute trip from Pristina to the lake).

Batlava Lake
So pretty

Traditional Clothing and Handmade Rugs

I was in Pristina over the weekend and had a chance to wander through this street fair. I previously posted about the Pristina Bazaar, which is like an expanded farmer’s market. In comparison, clothing and rugs were sold at this fair.

Pristina fair 2
OSCE Trade Fair
Pristina fair
Pristina fair
Albanian rugs
Handmade rugs
buy Albanian clothing
Traditional Kosovar clothing
Traditional Albanian dress
Traditional clothing, Kosovo
Kosovo Albanian childrens clothing
Children’s traditional clothing, Kosovo
handmade goods kosovo
Handmade goods

I LOVED this handmade, wool rug. It was 120 Euro, which I think is very reasonable. While I have bought or been given a few little trinkets I’ll keep to remember my time in Kosovo, I’d really like a larger conversation piece for my home someday. (A “pièce de résistance,” as the French would say.)

Albanian handmade wool rug
GORGEOUS!

“Oh,” I’ll tell visitors to my home, with my eyes getting misty, “I bought that in Kosovo when I was serving in the Peace Corps.”

I think I could bring a rolled-up rug with me on an airplane. The problem is, I’ll already have about 100 lbs. of luggage to wrangle when I leave Kosovo.

I walked by the tent several times to gaze longingly at *my* rug … 🙂

A day later, I saw the following music video on tv. I thought it was cool because the singers and dancers are wearing traditional clothing. The video is an interesting blend of old and new (and appears to have been filmed somewhere in the Balkans).

I didn’t know the name of the video (it’s Hatixhe, a woman’s name) so I texted my teaching counterpart for help in finding it online. She’s really good at that. I’ll be like, “What’s the video with blahty-blah?” and she’ll know exactly what I am talking about.

If you’d like to see some other music videos, here are links to other posts I’ve written:

Kosovar Superstitions

When I visited the village of Gračanica this spring, my friend provided me with two tourists guides put out by the municipality. These glossy booklets are filled with all kinds of interesting information — history, notes on culture and religion, recipes, etc. They are accompanied by color photos, too.

Gracanice Kosovo tourism boolkets

I pulled the following list of superstitions from one of these booklets. This list is slightly abridged; I included my “favorite” superstitions, or the ones I found most interesting.

  • When the left palm itches, you’ll receive money. If the right palm itches, you’ll spend money. (Don’t we have some version of this in the U.S.?)
  • If a rabbit crosses a road to a traveler, it means an accident will happen. (Sounds like the old “black cat crossing your path” superstition. I hate that superstition. I love black cats.)
  • On Sundays and Wednesdays, you shouldn’t cut your nails. It brings trouble. (Duly noted.)
  • When a cat warms its back near the fire, winter will be cold. (This one just seems like common sense to me. “Oh, kitty is cold? I bet that means winter will be cold!” [Also, when is winter ever not cold, at least comparatively?])
  • When a rooster crows on the sunrise, weather will be bad. (If this were true, the weather would be bad every day in Kosovo … at least according to my host family’s rooster.)
  • When a donkey rolls in mud, it will rain. (If there’s mud, doesn’t that mean it already rained?)
  • If you drop a bite while bringing it to your mouth, that means the devil took it. (Yikes.)
  • You shouldn’t hold a child by the neck, because it will not grow. (You shouldn’t hold a child by the neck because it’s a mean thing to do.)
  • You shouldn’t burn a broom; you’ll get a toothache. (Why would I want to burn my broom?)
  • You shouldn’t jump over a coffin, because the dead will rise. (I can’t help but wonder if “coffin jumping” was ever a real problem … )

Size, Travel, Home

I have struggled in writing this post. It was in my drafts folder for a while. I even struggled with what to title this post.

If I sound snobby in this writing, I apologize. (“Oh, Kosovo is so tiny, compared to my huge, superpower country!”) It is not my intention to come off that way. What I want to do is share some thoughts about Kosovo, travel, and “home.”

Another volunteer is from Texas. She recently showed me this photo, which kind of blew my mind:

Texas to Kosovo ratio

Before school ended, I talked about the United States with my fourth grade class. No one knew how many states the U.S. has. I told them 50, and I said, “Imagine 50 Kosovos.” But even that isn’t accurate. Kosovo is the size of one of our smaller states. The city where I used to live has a larger population than all of Kosovo, and Chicago isn’t even the U.S.’s biggest city.

Being in Kosovo has made me consider not only how big the United States is, but also how unreachable it can be. The average salary in Kosovo is equivalent to $9,600 per year. Kosovars also have the most restricted travel visas of anyone in Europe (the article I reference is from December 2015, but is still true today). When you consider these factors, buying a plane ticket to visit the U.S. seems near impossible.

I have talked to people here who have told me visiting the U.S. would be a dream for them. And I will admit, I sometimes struggle to relate. To me, the U.S. is just “home.” Having lived in Kosovo for a year now, it is strange to think many people I know have never been there.

Another volunteer friend of mine is from Arizona, a state I have never visited. She went home recently. She told me that while she was there, it was really important to her to visit the Grand Canyon. It is a big part of “home” for her. It is also strange to think that while she and I are both from the U.S., I have never seen the Grand Canyon, nor is it a place that signifies “home” to me.

Anyway, this is just a hodgepodge collection of some things I have been considering lately. Thanks for reading, as always.

Guest Blogger, Garrett Wheeler: Agriculture in Kosovo

April’s Note: My friend Nicole asked me to write a post about gardening/agriculture in Kosovo. Since I don’t know much about the subject, I decided to outsource her question. Below is the account of one of my fellow volunteers, Garrett Wheeler.

With the advent of spring arises a slew of tasks pertinent to raising crops. After months of neglect, farmers begin restoring fields marred by frigid weather. Makeshift fences, comprised of wood and barbed wire, oft become loose or fall apart on account of the wind. A pair of pliers, hammer, digging bar (an instrument somewhat akin to the crowbar), and U-nails are needed to mend damage accrued. While pliers pull and twist wire until taut, U-nails are driven into wooden stakes. The digging bar, aside from punching holes in the ground, may act as a sledgehammer fastening poles that have wriggled free.

agriculture kosovo 3
Photo courtesy of Garrett Wheeler

Upon completion of maintenance, a far more grueling chore awaits; fertilization. As a tractor, equipped with a trailer, positions itself near the accumulated pile of manure, workers, with the aid of pitchforks, start the loading process. Though precautions, like gloves and rain boots, are taken to promote cleanliness, the job is inherently dirty. It is not uncommon, for example, to have dung flung your direction; especially when fatigue sets in. With the trailer overflowing, tractor and crew make their way to the field. While the tractor cruises at a leisurely pace, compost is scattered left and right. A sore back and tired arms are typically awarded to all participants.

agriculture kosovo 4
Photo courtesy of Garrett Wheeler

In preparation for sowing, a plow is hauled the entirety of a field leaving neat rows of finely ground soil in its wake. Utensils for digging are then used to create holes. As one punctures the earth, another trailing behind deposits seed. Corn and beans are planted simultaneously. While maize grows upright, the latter coils around adjacent stalks. A nearby stream supplies water when barred.

Gleaning of produce occurs in September. Hefty bags are carted and stuffed with brown pods. Those still green are unripe and need not be plucked. Though the weather may be warm, long sleeve shirts are worn to prevent cuts (maize leaves possess jagged edges which tear skin if brushed). Work is long and tedious requiring numerous days to complete. Corn, conversely, is harvested quickly. Buckets filled to the brim are dumped in a close by trailer towed by a tractor.

agriculture kosovo 1
Photo courtesy of Garrett Wheeler

Beans reaped must then be strewn across a tarp and left to bathe in the sun. After several days, or when the shells become hard and brittle, the heap is battered with the shaft of a rake. Empty husks are then brushed away revealing seed below. Once the product has been gathered in containers, it is transferred to empty sacks. Prior to dumping, however, it is necessary to remove remaining debris. As one individual focuses on slowly pouring beans, the other uses a leaf blower to flush out unwanted material.

Within the next couple of weeks, sorting ensues. Spilling small sums onto a flat surface, beans malformed or gnawed by insects are discarded. What remains is either stored for consumption of whisked away to the nearest city and sold. Corn, depending on its strain, has two locales. A small granary houses a variation more red in hue used as fodder for chickens. Yellow corn is sent to the second floor of a neighboring building. A machine adeptly removes kernels dispelling bare cobs.

agriculture kosovo 2
Photo courtesy of Garrett Wheeler

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