I Followed a “Hajde,” and I Don’t Know Why

Teaching has been fine, but lately, I’ve really been missing social work. I’ve settled for listening to The Social Work Podcast.

Tuesday was a beautiful day, so I decided to take a long walk and listen to a podcast episode. I headed south on the road leading out of my village. I was about halfway through listening to the show when I heard someone say my name.

I stopped walking and turned around, coming face-to-face with a young girl on a bicycle. I am not good at assessing people’s ages, but I’d say she was about 12. She said something to me in rapid-fire Shqip (Albanian). I didn’t understand any of it, except she mentioned my Shqip tutor’s name.

“Sorry, what?” I asked, pulling my headphones out of my ears.

More rapid-fire Albanian, along with my Shqip tutor’s name again.

Nuk kuptoj (I don’t understand),” I said.

The girl shook her head. “Hajde (come here),” she replied, and gestured for me to follow.

We went up, up, up a steep mountain road. Eventually, we stopped at a house that was nestled between several other houses. The girl went inside and came out with a woman who I correctly assumed was my tutor’s mother. (My tutor and I meet for lessons at a restaurant, so I had never before met her family or been to her house.)

Then, the girl abandoned me. I was left standing in the woman’s yard, trying to explain why I was there.

To make matters worse, I wasn’t exactly dressed in my finest. I was wearing sneakers, hiking pants, and a windbreaker. Beneath that I was wearing my ugly khaki Peace Corps t-shirt.

“Hello! I’m a poorly-dressed American who decided to invite herself to your home.”

I introduced myself and tried to explain, in my broken Shqip, what had happened. “I was walking … the girl told me hajde … we came here …”

The woman was my tutor’s mother, and she knew who I was, too. She called my tutor (who was in Pristina) and passed the phone to me. I explained what happened, this time in English. “I think the girl thought I was lost on my way to your house,” I said.

My tutor laughed. Then she told me her mother wanted me to stay for coffee.

Hospitality is a big part of Kosovar culture. I followed my tutor’s mother inside and was presented with a glass of Coke, a Turkish coffee, and a plate of cookies. A short time later, my tutor’s sister arrived. Though she claimed not to speak English well, we had a pleasant conversation (about 70% was in English, and 30% was in Shqip). Afterward, they insisted on driving me home.

I think this story perfectly illustrates what it’s like to serve in the Peace Corps. I leave my house thinking things will go a certain way, something totally different happens, the language barrier gets in the way, but in the end, everything turns out fine.

A Quick and Belated Post About Easter

I’ve mentioned before that I live in a minority, Catholic community in Kosovo (the majority of Kosovars are Muslim). I was interested to learn two things regarding Easter in Kosovo:

  1. They dye eggs here. (I was gifted pretty eggs by students and teachers alike.)
  2. They do not have the Easter Bunny. Most of my students had never heard of him (her?). When they asked me if he is real, I said he is as real as Santa Claus. 🙂

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Another fun fact: Dyed eggs may or may not be hard boiled. I found this out the hard way as I was hiding eggs for my 3rd graders. I dropped one and it splattered on the floor. Oops.

Ecological Museum, Peja, Kosovo

As part of my language training the last week, we took an afternoon field trip to the Ecological Museum in Peja.

Ecological Museum, Peja, Kosovo
Ecological Museum, Peja, Kosovo

First, we saw two exhibits showcasing how things looked in a traditional Albanian home. Here is a living room. Men would be served beverages here. The long-handled pot you see in the left corner of the picture was used for washing hands.

ecological museum peja living room

Next, we saw a kitchen. Families used to sit on the floor or low stools around a table on the ground, which is called a soffit. (Note: I am not sure if I spelled that correctly.)

ecological museum peja kitchen

The clothing exhibit was probably my favorite part of the museum. This wool dress is 100 years old, and was based on an Illyrian design. The Illyrians are considered to be the first group of people to inhabit Kosovo and other parts of the Balkans.

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The following is an example of what women used to wear in Kosovo. (I must have asked our tour guide three times, “They dressed like this EVERY DAY?” It seems an outfit this elaborate would get dirty … )

ecological museum peja female dress

Here is what men in Kosovo used to wear. I was interested to learn the white cloth around their heads are actually burial shrouds. Men would wear their burial shrouds every day, in case they were killed.

ecological museum peja male clothing

As someone who likes to crochet, I appreciated this display of old sewing/looming tools.

ecological museum peja sewing

The other part of the museum featured old coins and artifacts that had been discovered locally. I didn’t take pictures of those exhibits because it was dark in the room. (And honestly, I am just less interested in that stuff.)

Overall, my visit to the museum was enjoyable, and I learned a few tidbits about Kosovo that I did not know previously. Admission was only 1 Euro. If you ever find yourself in Peja, Kosovo, the Ecological Museum is worth checking out.

Guest Blogger: Andrew Bivins (Outdoor Sports and Ecotourism in Kosovo)

A while back, I asked my friends and family members to send me questions to answer on the blog. My Dad asked about sports and the outdoors in Kosovo. Since I’m not exactly Sporty Spice, I decided to outsource his questions to someone more knowledgeable than I. My friend Andrew has participated in a lot of outdoor fun since he moved to Kosovo. Without further adieu … –April

skiing kosovo
Andrew Bivins

Përshëndetje! I am excited and honored to be taking over April’s blog this week. Apparently I have gained a bit of a reputation for loving the outdoors, especially in Kosovo. In fact, the nature here is so beautiful that I started documenting it, which led me to discover another passion of mine, photography.

waterfall Kosovo
Photo courtesy of Andrew Bivins

Back in the U.S., I was just getting into hiking and kayaking before I moved to Kosovo for my service. I am from Atlanta, so it was quite common for my friends and I to flee the city for the weekend for some fresh air on the southern end of the Appalachian Trail. I wasn’t sure what to expect once I found out I was moving to Kosovo. I had read that Kosovo was mountainous and forested, so I knew there was potential, but I wasn’t sure how accessible outdoor activities would be.

rock climbing kosovo
Photo courtesy of Andrew Bivins

During my first year, I went on a lot of hikes with other volunteers and we usually found some great trails on our own through trial and error. The town I live in is pretty flat, so I usually relied on my friends who live in the more rugged areas to ask around and get an idea of where we should go. Unfortunately, unexploded landmines from the war are still a concern, especially in the mountainous border regions. It’s best not to get too adventurous, unless you really know where you are going and that the area has been confirmed to be free of mines. Luckily, there are many public and private organizations in Kosovo that are actively working to rid Kosovo of mines and other unexploded ordnance. There are also a lot of resources available, such as maps and local tour guides, that will allow you to safely enjoy the nature here.

mountain skiing Kosovo
Photo courtesy of Andrew Bivins

I was talking with a local friend the other day and we were discussing how we have both noticed the recent increase in opportunities to take part in organized outdoor events. It has been amazing to watch Kosovo develop in this way during my nearly two years of living here because I truly believe that Kosovo has an incredible potential for ecotourism. Seeing that potential slowly turn into reality is pretty cool. Every week you can see new tour companies popping up on your newsfeed, advertising organized group hikes, bike rides, rock climbing, cultural tours, etc. These offers are usually at a pretty low price and they include transportation, food, and an expert guide. I recently took advantage of one of these opportunities and I went snowshoeing for the first time. We started in a village called Restelica and walked 10+ km over a mountain to the village of Brod. This was in one of the most remote regions of Kosovo and I never would have felt comfortable to do this without a guide, especially in the snow when visibility is so low and avalanches are such a risk. It was certainly a challenge, my legs are still burning three days after the fact, but it was an amazing experience. The guides were incredibly knowledgeable and helpful and I was able to learn the basics. My only disappointment is that it is the end of winter and I only just now discovered that I love snowshoeing. Next winter I plan to snowshoe as often as possible. I am also hoping to pick up skiing. I went once when I was in high school, but I would hardly call myself an expert. Kosovo is definitely a great place to learn! Depending on where you are, you can find slopes for beginners, or more challenging ones if you already know what you’re doing. I’ve also seen a lot of snowmobiles during my visits to Brezovica (the main ski resort in Kosovo) and I think it would be awesome to learn how to do that as well. With that said, PCVs aren’t allowed to drive cars or motorcycles, so I assume there is some sort of rule about snowmobiles. If you are currently serving, it’s probably just best to wait until you close your service before you give that a shot.

snowy mountain kosovo
Photo courtesy of Andrew Bivins

I think a lot of Peace Corps Volunteers in Kosovo will tell you that winter is tough. My first winter was the most difficult part of my service. I didn’t know how to deal with it and I spent far too much time sitting inside and feeling sorry for myself. My second winter has been the exact opposite. Yes, it was still cold, but I got out as often as possible, enjoyed myself, and stayed busy. Winter was still there, it didn’t change, actually it was colder this winter, but my perspective changed and it made all the difference in the world. My family and friends back home have been shocked to see me enjoying the snow so much. I was never really a winter-type of guy, but I suppose you can count it among the MANY things I have learned to love during my almost two years in Kosovo.

April’s Note: If you enjoyed Andrew’s beautiful pictures, please follow him on Instagram: instagram.com/seekosovo

Read posts by other guest bloggers:

 

Goddess on the Throne

Living in Kosovo, I see renditions of a terra cotta figure everywhere.

goddess-on-the-throne-traffic-light-bill-klinton
Traffic light on Bill Klinton Blvd.
kosovo-postcard
Pristina postcard

Turns out, this figure is called Goddess on the Throne, and it dates back to 4,000 B.C. It was stolen and only recently returned.

goddess-on-the-throne-kosovo
Photo Credit: CTV News

Goddess on the Throne is now on display at The Ethnographic Museum (Muzeu Etnologjik). Unfortunately, taking photos is not allowed. 😦 I was surprised to find that she is small … only about 6 inches high!

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

stephanee-and-todd

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:

Newbie Week: What We Know Now That We Didn’t Know Then

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

I polled my fellow volunteers to ask: “What do you wish you’d known about Kosovo before you moved here?” I recorded their responses below. For privacy reasons, I decided not to include names, though I promise, this is actual advice from other actual volunteers. (And not just stuff I made up.) Based on the responses I received, I broke them into different categories.

Language

“I wish I’d appreciated the importance of learning Kosovo dialect sooner because Kosovar Albanian is significantly different from standard Albanian.”

Pre-Service Training

“The lack of independence for 3 months is real.”

“Be prepared for a lot of walking and lots of sweating.”

“Keep in mind PST (pre-service training) is nothing like your service, and remember to slow down.”

“In PST (pre-service training), though it’s important to be inquisitive and to ask questions, don’t burden yourself with more information than necessary. In other words, I don’t think it does you any good to get too far ahead of yourself. It’ll make your PST (slightly) less hectic.”

“Non-specific and overly general questions to staff, PCVs, and/or your LCFs will yield non-specific and overly general answers. If you paint with a broad brush, you will absolutely receive the responses: ‘It depends,’ ‘It’s different at every site,’ and/or ‘This is a single story.'”

Food

“Don’t tell your family you like something because you will get it all of the time. Be upfront about your likes and dislikes or be prepared to just put up with it for 3 months.”

“My advice is to be prepared for more bread than you imagine. Even though we were warned … ”

Host Families

“Alone time can be really hard to manage sometimes without offending your host family; figure it out early and avoid unrealistic expectations.”

“I hesitate to ask about it but, in my experience, I’ve seen that Kosovars don’t have too many qualms about bringing up their Kosovo War stories, sometimes unprompted. It’s important to only listen with an open mind and an open heart.”

“The families here are absolutely wonderful and so loving. Prepare to be taken into your family completely.”

“The respect you receive simply for being an American can sometimes be overwhelming and humbling. We are very lucky here. Appreciate it and try to live up to those expectations.”

Packing

“Pack clothes that are versatile, and to lean more conservatively because of the likelihood of being placed in village.”

“Bring warm pajamas for the winter.”

If you’re in CD, bring more professional clothes than you’d possibly ever believe you’d actually wear during your service in the Peace Corps. You’ll regret it otherwise.”

Most of my suitcase space was used for normal clothes and outdoor gear. Considering that Kosovo has all seasons and beautiful, mountainous scenery, I’m happy with this decision.”

“Bring long running shorts, index cards, and Ziplock bags.”

Life in Kosovo

“My feminist beliefs being challenged daily is exhausting and although expected, wasn’t prepared for this degree of difference in thought.”

“Bring a hobby that doesn’t require battery or power cause the power goes out all the time.”

“You will have Internet or probably be able to buy a package for a decent price.”

“You WILL be placed with a host family as a trainee and volunteer. As a trainee for the first three months you’re given the housing payment, €2/day walk around allowance, plus transportation if you’re in a village outside the training site. As a volunteer you will be making around €200/month after housing payment.”

“Smoking is widespread in Kosovo, even in restaurants and some other public places.”

“Dating, while more common in the city, is not the norm in most areas. My Pre-Service Training (PST) host parents were married after two months of knowing each other, and PST host sibling after six months.”

“If you own an unlocked smart phone, bring it. You can simply pop in a local SIM card to use it here. Peace Corps will help you set it up and pay for your first package. After that, I’ve been paying €2.50 every two weeks for two GB.”

“Most major libraries (like NYPL) have an option to digitally check out books, but you need to get a card beforehand (which is free). Something I should have thought of previously, since I keep running out of books … ”

“Once you get here, buy a pack of wet wipes or toilet paper and always carry some with you. It will be a hot, sweaty summer and you’re very likely to encounter restrooms with no paper.”

“I would say, “‘Don’t do any research at all.'”

April: My own piece of advice similar to the above: Try not to anticipate too much what this experience will be. For me, I read one book about Kosovo and started practicing my Albanian language with Pimsleur’s Speak and Read Essential Albanian CDs. I thought I would do a lot more prep, but I didn’t. I didn’t even reach out to my fellow volunteers on Facebook much. I wanted to wait and meet them in person before trying to create any sort of opinion about who they were.

Newbie Week: Packing List for 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

Uggghh. I’ve been resisting writing this post for so long. Probably because packing sucks, and who wants to think about it?

But here you go. Here is a packing list for Peace Corps Kosovo.

Clothes
Kosovo is not a nudist colony. They sell clothes here. If you forget something, you can likely buy it. Having said that, here is what I brought:

3 pairs of dress pants
1 pair of nice/thicker leggings
1 pair of Dockers
1 pair of hiking pants
2 pairs of blue jeans
2 formal dresses (for my swearing-in ceremony and for weddings) (Gentlemen, I’d bring at least one suit if I were you.)
1 maxi skirt
1 pair of capri pants
1 pair of fleece pajama pants
2 pairs of sweat pants
Tops (a mix of tanks, t-shirts, dress blouses, and sweaters)
1 bathing suit
2 winter hats
2 pairs of gloves
4 warm scarves
1 pair of long underwear
5 Coats (windbreaker, trench coat, rain coat, pea coat, and a down winter jacket)
Shoes (Hiking boots, snow boots, 2 pairs of dress flats, 1 pair of sandals, 1 pair of flip flops, 1 pair of rain booties, 1 pair of sneakers, 1 pair of high heels)
Underwear/Socks/Bras/Sports bras

Technology
1 surge protector that can support both American and European plugs
Laptop + charger
Kindle + charger
iPhone + charger
iPod shuffle + charger
1 European plug adapter
1 Jam portable speaker (a great tool to use at school!) + male-to-male plug
1 Powerbank (I didn’t pack one and ended up buying one in Kosovo. I highly recommend it. We lose power here frequently.)
1 point-and-shoot camera + charger
1 external hard drive
3 keychain flash drives

Toiletries
I brought everything I thought I’d need … though you can buy most anything here. If you have a specific brand of something you love, I’d bring that. Also note that cotton balls and conditioner are strangely hard to find in Kosovo … not impossible, but difficult. And the deodorant they sell here is not as good, so bring some.

Don’t bother bringing “medical” toiletries (band-aids, aspirin, etc.). Peace Corps supplies all of that.

Do bring a 3-month supply of any prescription medications.

Luggage
I packed 2 full-sized suitcases, 1 carry-on suitcase, and a backpack. I also packed 2 purses.

Office Supplies
Index Cards
Crayons/Markers
Stickers for your students
A few pens
A notebook

Odds and Ends
Gifts for your host families (I brought magnets from places I’ve lived, a U.S. puzzle, and some flag stickers … nothing big or expensive.)
A beloved toy
Sunglasses
Cards from your friends and family. I’d also recommend printing photos. I (stupidly) did not, and ended up printing some here.
A pair of barber scissors (great for trimming hair, cutting paper, etc.)
An address book updated with your friends and family’s addresses, so you can send postcards
If you have a hobby, bring stuff for that, because you might not be able to find it here. For example, I packed crochet hooks.
A small mirror (I ended up buying one here.)
A dog whistle for my keychain
A pouch with some jewelry
An umbrella
A stretch band for exercise (I bought a yoga mat here, after a good deal of searching)
2 flashlights, 1 candle, and a book of matches
1 filtered water bottle
Ziplock bags (you can never have too many — line your suitcase with them)

THINGS I AM ESPECIALLY GRATEFUL I BROUGHT FROM THE ABOVE LIST
The power surge
The dog whistle. Seriously, go to your nearest pet store and shell out $7 for one. There are a LOT of stray dogs here, and the dog whistle will help you maintain your sanity when they are barking outside your window at 3 a.m.

THINGS I STUPIDLY DID NOT BRING
Index cards! I was kicking myself over this one. I love to use them to study and they are near impossible to find in Kosovo. They would’ve been helpful during my language sessions. I have some now, and I use them to make flashcards for my students.

More summer clothes. I read that Kosovo rarely gets above 65 degrees Fahrenheit. HA. HA. HA. It gets HOT here, like upper 90s hot. And there’s no air conditioning. I somehow managed to get through a whole summer with just one maxi skirt and one pair of capri pants. I have no idea how.

A laundry bag. I ended up buying a hamper when I got to my permanent site, but for the first three months, I just piled my dirty laundry on my bedroom floor. Not ideal, and a laundry bag is something easy to pack.

THINGS I SHOULD HAVE JUST BOUGHT HERE
My hair dryer. I tried to use my U.S. one with a plug adapter and burned it out my first night here. You can buy one here for about $15 Euro.

DON’T BOTHER BRINGING
Towels or bedding. Your host family will supply that.

A NOTE ON CLOTHES
I’ve seen any number of outfits here … from women in full burkas (pretty rare) to women in dresses slit up to there. It really varies. That said, most schools/businesses tend to be professional, so I’d err on the side of being more professional/conservative than not.

Also, some people chose not to pack snow boots or a winter coat, and have them shipped later. I brought everything with me. I was afraid things would get lost, or that the temperature would plunge before I had my winter gear with me.

Hope this is helpful!

Teaching, So Far

I’ve been teaching in Kosovo for about two months now.

village-school-in-kosovo
One of my schools … I think it only has about 8 classrooms.

I was a social worker in Chicago prior to moving to Kosovo. For my last job in Chicago, I spent one day per week at a high school, providing counseling to students who had been caught using drugs. Chicago Public Schools are kind of famous for being terrible, but they’re luxurious compared to schools here. Even “poor” public schools in the United States have things like libraries, gymnasiums, computers/televisions/projectors, printers, counselors, and substitute teachers (here, if a teacher is absent, students just sit alone in their classrooms, from what I’ve seen).

I teach in two village schools. In both, there are students without textbooks. Sometimes, they aren’t enough chairs to go around, so students sit on a chair with their friend. The only classroom resources are chalk and a chalkboard.

One of the reasons I am thankful I only teach half-days is that I won’t use the bathrooms at the school. There isn’t soap or toilet paper. Oftentimes, schools have squatty-pottys.

It’s been a challenge, teaching here. Sometimes, I’ll play a song on my iPhone. I’ve brought my laptop in a few times to show video clips to my students. It’s difficult to think of interesting things to do with so few resources on hand (which is why I created this TEFL activity list. I’ll be posting another one soon, so stay tuned).

I’ve started working with a second counterpart, teaching grades 3, 4, and 5. With my regular counterpart, I teach grades 7 and 8. The difference between the younger students and the older ones is noticeable … the younger kids will sprint across the playground to hug me when they see me. They are quiet and engaged in the classroom. The older kids? …Not so much.

image1
Some of my younger students, playing a memory game using flashcards I made. Thanks to my counterpart for taking these photos.