Q & A About Serving in the Peace Corps in Kosovo

Hello! A potential new volunteer recently emailed me some questions about serving in Peace Corps Kosovo, so I thought I would use them to create a blog post. At the end, I also included a question that a friend recently asked me.

1) How safe do you feel in Kosovo? Fairly safe. Have you ever felt threatened or in danger? The two worst things that have happened to me are: 1) A student threw a rock at me as I was crossing the school yard, and it hit me on the back of my shoulder. Three students were suspended for a week as a result, and I no longer teach their classes. 2) I was taking a walk one morning, rounded a bend in the road, and came upon a large, angry stray dog. It approached me several times and barked at me, but it eventually moved on. I would say I find environmental concerns (stray dogs, lack of seat belts in cars, lack of adequate nutrition and exercise, and exposure to second-hand smoke and air pollution) more worrisome than my experiences with people here. I mostly feel safe around Kosovar people. Do you think a self defense class would be a good idea? I think taking a self defense class is always a good idea, and is something every woman should do.

2) How hot and cold does it really get there? I am from the Midwest, and weather in Kosovo is like the weather in the Midwest. It gets very hot in the summer and very cold in the winter. A major factor here is that central heat and central air conditioning are rare to nonexistent. Do I need to bring a long down jacket for winter? Yes, absolutely! Are the summers too hot for jeans and a T-shirt? I don’t wear jeans in the summer because it is too hot. I recommend wearing long skirts, linen pants, capri pants, etc. Some people wear shorts, but I would recommend dressing more conservatively here than you might in the United States.

3) Have you gotten placed next to any other Peace Corps volunteers? My first year here, I had two site mates. They didn’t live in my village but they were only a ten-minute drive away. They are both gone now. This year, I am alone at my site. The next-closest volunteer is probably an hour away from me by bus. However, I see other volunteers all the time in Pristina. Kosovo is small so I wanted to know if it is pretty standard to work at a school with other Peace Corps volunteers. Volunteers are never placed at the same school, even if they live in the same village.

4) Do you have daily access to fruits or vegetables? Mostly (kinda?) yes. My host family eats peppers almost daily. Sometimes, we also have cabbage or pickled vegetables. There is not much variety, however, in vegetables or in meals in general. If you are curious to know what I eat, you can read my 5-Day Food DiaryHow much of a say do you have in your diet? Almost none. If I say that I would prefer to eat less of something (like sugar or bread), will the family take extreme offense to that? No, not at all, at least in my experience. I think it is important to be honest with your host family about what you will or will not eat. For example, I hate onion and my host family knows this. If my host mother makes something with onion in it, she will make me a smaller, separate portion with no onion.  Can I just buy my own food and cook my own meals? You will negotiate the meal situation with your host family and yes, some volunteers do cook their own meals.

5) How often is it considered appropriate to shower in Kosovo before it becomes rude (as in your host family gets irritated with you for using up amenities)? I shower and wash my hair every day. As far as toiletries go, I buy my own soap, shampoo, toothpaste, etc. Having good hygiene has always been important to me — it’s just a part of who I am. I compromise on plenty of stuff as a volunteer, but I am not willing to compromise on maintaining good hygiene.

I think volunteers (especially in the beginning of service) are really nervous about being seen as “weird” or doing something offensive, but remember, you will be a foreigner in Kosovo. You are bound to do things that are “weird” because you come from a different country with a different culture. You are not going to perfectly blend in. As long as you aren’t being deliberately disrespectful or offensive, do what makes you happy. Is [showering] every other day excessive? I don’t think so.

6) What has been the hardest cultural aspect for you to adjust to in Kosovo? All of it has been a huge adjustment. As far as the hardest thing, I would say that because Kosovo is a patriarchal society, experiencing the way women are thought of and treated has really been hard. I also hate all the smoking!

7) My friend Dana (hi, Dana!) recently asked me how many Americans are on staff here in Kosovo. All Peace Corps posts (meaning, host countries) have to have three Americans on staff: the Country Director, the Director of Programming and Training, and the Director of Management and Operations. All other staff members (administrative assistants, medical staff, IT director, accounts payable/receivable, program managers, small grants manager, supply chain manager, and drivers) are from Kosovo.

As always, I hope my answers are helpful! Thank you for reading.

My 5-Day Food Diary

Last week, I decided to keep a 5-day food diary to give you an idea of what it is like to live and eat in Kosovo.

(Note: At times, I am posting old photos or photos from other sites. I didn’t want to weird out my host mother by taking pictures of the meals she cooked.)

Also, I didn’t include snacks. I eat chocolate. A lot of it.

Monday

Breakfast: banana + a cup of coffee

Lunch: 2 speca (peppers), two small tomatoes with salt, a big hunk of homemade cheese, several glasses of milk

Dinner: A bowl of pasule (traditional bean stew here in Kosovo) with white bread and one glass of milk

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Pasule (Photo Credit: Albania Adventure)

Tuesday

Breakfast: banana +  a cup of coffee

Lunch: Two pieces of reheated dough filled with egg (leftover from Sunday breakfast) and two glasses of milk

Dinner: Two fried eggs, a hunk of homemade cheese, and several glasses of milk

Kosovo food 2
Lunch: Reheated dough and egg

Wednesday

Breakfast: a cup of dry Cheerios + a cup of coffee

Lunch: one speca (pepper), one bowl of leftover pasule, 2 glasses of milk

Dinner: one bowl of leftover pasule, 1 glass of milk

Thursday

Breakfast: a cup of dry Cheerios +  a cup of coffee

Lunch: I was in Pristina to work, which means I got to have a treat! I had a falafel sandwich from one of my favorite restaurants, Babaganoush. HEAVEN.

Dinner: Flia (traditional Kosovo food that’s just layers of dough cooked over an open flame)

Babaganoush Pristina Kosovo
Lunch at Babaganough. YUM!

Friday

Breakfast: a cup of dry Cheerios +  a cup of coffee

Lunch: 1-1/2 (cold) fried eggs (ugh, couldn’t finish them), ½ of a tomato with salt, a piece of cheese, a piece of leftover flia, and a glass of milk

Dinner: penne pasta mixed with cheese and a glass of milk

Kosovo food 1
Lunch: Flia (left), cheese, tomato and egg, and milk (right)

The Easiest Secondary Project Ever

Today Kosovo goes back to school! Since this is the newest cohort’s first day teaching in Kosovo, I thought I would write about a very easy secondary project I have undertaken at my school. (My aunt called me out — she said she knows I am struggling for blog ideas when I post about teaching. Haha. That’s partly true.)

Anyway … another English teacher at my school approached me and asked if I would compile a binder of different games and activities that we could all use. (There are three English teachers at my school + me.) It was such a brilliant and simple idea, I’m embarrassed I didn’t think of it myself.

activities book

I bought a binder and some plastic sheets for under 5 Euro total. I bought them at the bookstore in Peja, but they’re probably widely available.

workbook
It is getting thick …

Whenever I bring in a worksheet or a game for my class, I make sure to bring an extra copy to throw in the book. We keep it on a shelf in the teacher’s lounge, so that everyone has access to it.

informational sheet
Informational sheet (found on Pinterest)
handmade worksheet
Handmade worksheet
wordfind
Wordfinds for different sets of vocabulary
coloring page
Coloring pages for younger students
fake money
Teaching materials (yay for fake, Dollar Store money)
madlibs
Copied from workbooks my mom sends me from the U.S.
party worksheet
Worksheet I “created” by combining two similar workbook activities

What I like about this book is that other teachers can contribute to it, and it is sustainable. My school can continue to add to and use it after I am gone.

Also, I was at one of my schools last week and snapped some pictures, so you can see the inside. 🙂

teachers lounge kosovo
Teachers’ Lounge
hallway 1 kosovo school
Hallway 1
hallway 2 kosovo school
Hallway 2

Happy First Day of School, everyone! 🙂

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: Budgeting at Your Permanent Site

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 wrote a previous post about money during pre-service training. Now that I am at permanent site, I have decided to keep an Excel spreadsheet to track my expenses.

Back when I was still living in Chicago, we had a conference call with the Kosovo Peace Corps staff to address any lingering questions. One of mine was: “How much is our living allowance?” for which I received a cagey response: “It’ll be enough to live on.” Hahahaha. So funny, Peace Corps.

Well, I am going to tell you exactly how much we get paid here in Peace Corps Kosovo: $353 Euro per month. (A full-time teacher here in Kosovo earns $500 Euro per month.)

Peace Corps directly deposits the money into the Kosovo bank accounts they set up for us. From that, we are responsible for paying our host families. The minimum amount we can pay them is $130 for rent, and then we negotiate the cost of food with them (some people, like me, eat the majority of meals with their families. Other people buy their own groceries and don’t eat with their families at all.) This past month, I gave my host family $50 Euro for groceries, which is the average amount most of us who eat with our families pay.

After paying $180 to my host family, that left me with $173 Euro to spend however I wanted. You can see my spreadsheet of expenses here: october-2016-peace-corps-budget-sheet (6)

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.

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!