Newbie Week: What to Expect When You’re Expecting (to Move to Kosovo)

I’m devoting this week’s posts to useful information for the next group of Kosovo volunteers, who are starting to get their acceptance letters for the Peace Corps. –April

The following is a timeline of my experience in 1) getting to Kosovo and 2) my first few months here. Your experience may differ from this, but it’ll still give you a clue as to what to expect.

Staging
“Staging” is the term Peace Corps uses to prepare you to go to your host country. My group (Kosovo 3, from this moment forward to be referred to as “K3”) was the first group to do everything totally in-country. This means we did not meet for a few days in the U.S. before flying to Kosovo. I first met my fellow volunteers at Dulles Airport, the day we departed all for Kosovo. It’s funny … I have very distinct memories of meeting select people, and no memories at all of meeting others. Now, of course, I know and love my whole group. (We’re very close. Hopefully your group will be close, too.)

The First Four Days
Oh, the first four days. I think back to everything that happened my first four days in Kosovo and I think, “How did all of that happen in only four days?” Here’s what you can expect:

  • Once you land in Pristina, the group will be greeted by staff, loaded into a van, and driven to a hotel about an hour away. (You can see my very first photo of Kosovo here.)
  • You will be assigned a roommate. You and your roommate will share a very tiny hotel room.
  • After hauling your luggage to your room, there will be a welcome speech/some kind of ice breaker activity. You will likely be tired/delirious/cranky. There will be a little free time, dinner, and then you can sleep. Zzzzz
  • All of your meals will be provided by the hotel. The food is not terrible. Expect a lot of meat and French fries.
  • You will spend the next three days in training all day.
  • There will be some language training, though likely not with your permanent LCF (that means “language and cultural facilitator,” in Peace Corps speak). You will get to meet your permanent LCF, though.

Moving to Your Pre-Service Training (PST) Site
On your fourth day in Kosovo, you and your group will re-pack all of your luggage, say goodbye to your tiny hotel room, and load back onto the van. You will now be moving to your training site. There are four adjacent villages that your group will be divided into.
This is the day you will meet your temporary host family. I have literally never been so terrified in my life. I remember getting into the car with my host father and thinking, “WHAT HAVE I DONE?” (Forever to be known as, “That Time I Went Home with a Strange Man … and Lived with Him for Three Months.”) Luckily, he turned out to be a lovely person, and obviously did not murder me. You can read all about my experiences meeting my PST family here.

Life During PST
You will have training 5 full days per week, plus ½ on Saturdays. Training will be a mix of language classes, mandatory Peace Corps training (safety, medical stuff, etc.), Kosovo-specific trainings, and TEFL/CD training. You can read about a day in the life of PST here.

The Peace Corps will give you money to then give to your host family. The amount for PST is pre-determined, so there is no haggling (there will be later, once you get to your permanent site). You can read more about the money situation here.

There are several bigger activities that happen during PST. They include:

  • A community project.
  • A visit to the Peace Corps office in Pristina.
  • A mid-PST language test.
  • Practicum. If you are a TEFL volunteer, you’ll teach a 6-day summer camp for kids. If you are a CD volunteer, you’ll do …something else. I don’t know. I’m not in that program. You can read about my experiences teaching here.
  • A cultural day trip within Kosovo.
  • An end-of-PST language test. It was very stressful. I cried before mine. A lot of people cried before/during their test. This isn’t baseball, it’s the Peace Corps, so crying is totally allowed.
  • A final project and a “thank you” party for the PST families.

Week Five
Week Five is stressful. There’s no getting around it. During week five, you will find out where your permanent host site will be. You will also meet your TEFL/CD counterpart for the first time. As another volunteer put it, it is a “blur of heat and misery.” You can read more about my experience here.

Swearing In
Once you complete PST, you will officially swear in as a member of the Peace Corps! And move in with your permanent host family. All on the same day.

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)

Map-Balkans

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.