Welcome!

Hello! My name is April Gardner. I am a writer and social worker who served in the United States Peace Corps from June 2016 – July 2018. Welcome to my blog.

I have lots of useful information here, whether you are joining Peace Corps Kosovo, traveling to Kosovo, or just want to learn more about the Balkans. Below are a list of suggested posts to help you get started.

(If you dig the way I write, please note that I also publish books, which you can check out here.)

About Kosovo

Facts About Kosovo

Traveling in Kosovo

Pre-Service Training (PST) for Peace Corps

Guest Bloggers

Challenges While Serving in Peace Corps Kosovo

Teaching Resources

Albanian Language (Shqip)

Traveling in the Balkans

I’ve written many other posts so be sure to check the blog archives or use the search function if you are looking for something specific!

Final Blog Post

Hello, everyone! I COS next week so this will be my very last post on this blog. (COS = “close of service”). I cannot believe two years have gone by and I am SO excited to go HOME!

I reached out to some friends to ask me some questions for my final post. Here are their questions and my responses.

From Patrick:

1. What is the thing you missed most about not living in the U.S.?

Aside from the obvious stuff (people, food, my cat), the thing I missed most about not living in the U.S. was clean water. Early on, Peace Corps gave me a boiling water filter to use for my time in Kosovo. Here’s what the bottom of the filter looks like after cleaning my tap water:

water filter

Several women I know have had problems with their hair falling out. I’ve thankfully not had that problem, but my hair is breaking off, gunky to the touch, and discolored (I’ve been dyeing it with box dye, which I hate). I am looking forward to getting my hair back into healthy shape once I’m in the U.S.!

From Dana: 

2. What was the most challenging part of your service?

All of it was challenging. I’d say the most challenging was having less autonomy over my life than I am used to, and living with a host family.

3. What was surprisingly easier than you had anticipated?

Working with my counterparts was surprisingly easy. Other volunteers had varying experiences, of course, but my counterparts were very welcoming, supportive, and open to trying new ideas in the classroom. The situation had the potential to be extremely awkward — walking into someone else’s classroom and presenting new teaching ideas and ways of doing things. I always felt welcomed, though, not just by my counterparts, but by my school directors and the other teachers, too. It probably helped that I replaced another volunteer, so my community was already familiar with Peace Corps.

4. What was surprisingly more difficult than you had anticipated?

Kosovo is Peace Corps’ second-newest host country (the newest being Mynmar), and beforehand I hadn’t given much thought to what it would be like to serve in a program that is still being established. There were more administrative bumps than I expected. If I were to do Peace Corps again, the length of the program is something I would take into greater consideration.

5. Any food you’ll miss?

I’ll miss my four favorite restaurants in Pristina: Gresa and Ponte Vecchio (pasta), Babaganough (vegetarian), and Le Sandwich. I’ll also miss paying like 3 Euro for a really good meal.

6. What is the most unique thing about Kosovo?

Wow, good question. Hmm … I would say the most interesting thing is the mix of east and west, and old and new traditions. In the United States there are big variances in religion and traditions and education and values, but because it’s such a large and diverse country it is kind of expected. Kosovo is much smaller and so I think the differences between city and village life are more pronounced. For example, you see people wearing traditional clothing like plis (white, conical hats that men wear) and women in hijabs. But then you also see men and women dressed like they are starring in American music videos.

Buildings are surprisingly large and modern, because a lot were destroyed in the war and had to be re-built.

Kosovo is also very tolerant in terms of religion, much more so than the United States, in my opinion. I had the unique experience of living in a Catholic village in what is a predominately Islamic country. I had both Catholic and Muslim colleagues at my school.

But having said that, Kosovo is still very divided in terms of ethnicity. Tensions between Albanians and Serbians continue to this day. I also think people here identify much more strongly with their ethnicity (being Albanian or Serbian, for example) than with their nationality (being Kosovar).

From Matthew:

7. What food/drink surprised you the most; did you like the most, did you like the least?

I found all of the food surprising, because I had never encountered Balkan food in the United States. I was “meh” about the food because I did not like how it is prepared (LOTS of oil) and it tends to be unbalanced in terms of nutrition. Furthermore, meals rely heavily on peppers, cucumbers, and tomatoes. I always wished for spinach and broccoli!

I don’t like pork but I live with a Catholic family and we eat pork often. When I get home, I am really looking forward to not having to eat pork.

8. Is there anything you encountered that we should all be cooking at home?

If you are interested in cooking Balkan food, I would recommend starting with fasule, which is a bean stew. Fasule is my favorite local dish. It is bland but can be dressed up any way you like with spices and other vegetables. It can also be vegan if you don’t cook it with lard.

Here is a picture of fasule and a link to a recipe.
Fasule
Photo Credit: Albania Adventure

From Pauline:

9. What was the most rewarding / high point of your service? 

In terms of projects, the high point of my experience was probably the week I volunteered with the Anibar Animation Festival in Peja. I got to meet interesting people from all over the world, see good films, spend time with friends, and spend time in my favorite city in Kosovo.

As far as the most rewarding part of my service, I would say being submerged in another culture for so long. It is a unique experience and while there are things about Kosovar culture I definitely dislike, I appreciate knowing something about a country most Americans are totally unfamiliar with.

10. What was the worst / low point of your service? 

I had two low points. The first one was my first winter in Kosovo. It was a cold, snowy winter and I had a series of arguments with my host family about various things. I was really depressed from January until my spring break trip to Rome in April.

My second lowest point was that autumn (2017, my second school year). Mid-service is typically a low point for volunteers. I found the prospect of another school year and another year living in Kosovo to be daunting.

From Jocelyn:

11. What would you consider to be your most memorable moment with your students (the most impactful) and why?

My two favorite groups of student were my fourth grade class in my village and my students at the orphanage. Both groups were really enthusiastic and eager to learn. I don’t think there was any one project I thought was particularly impactful. However, I appreciated being able to work with at the orphanage because those students are among a minority (Ashkali) community that I don’t think typically get a lot of services.

(Ashkali are a group who share language and culture with the Albanians but whose origins are in the Middle East, not the Balkans.)

From Roman:

12. What currency do you get paid in?

Kosovo is on the Euro and my monthly living stipend is paid in Euro. I get paid 350 Euro per month, 180 of which goes to my host family. The remaining 170 Euro is mine to spend how I like.

I also accrue money for every month I am in Peace Corps, which will be given to me once I complete my service. That will be paid in U.S. dollars.

 

Thanks, everyone, for your questions! 

FYI, I visited 12 countries while I was serving in the Peace Corps (including Kosovo) and read 105 books. 🙂

 

What I’ve Been Up To (May-June 2018)

In May, I attended my Peace Corps Close-of-Service conference. The U.S. Ambassador to Kosovo, Greg Delawie, attended on our last day. I had met him twice before. At lunch I sat at his table and was able to speak with him for longer than I had before. It was an honor.

Ambassador COS photo
The ambassador is seated in the front row, wearing a blue tie.

Since I decided to stop blogging regularly around the time of the conference, I didn’t take many photos. It was an emotional week and I wanted to sit back and process my feelings. However, I did take this photo and it is one of my favorites:

Processed with MOLDIV
Sierra and Chester

As I mentioned in this post, my friend Ingrid visited from Amsterdam at the end of May/beginning of June.

rugova 1
Stephanee, Todd, April, Ingrid
rugova 2
Visiting Rugova
Ingrid visit
Group dinner with Ingrid
Prizren Sierra Ingrid Chelsea April
Visiting Prizren

My friend Val and I presented another writing workshop at KosovaLive.

April KosovaLive 2
Photo courtesy of KosovaLive

Sierra came to my site for a sleepover. I made her watch my favorite bad movie, Boxing Helena.

april sierra ztown
April and Sierra

Chester came to my site the next day and the three of us had lunch.

chester sierra april astro
Famous chicken restaurant!

I attended a Faces of Kosovo exhibit at the National Library.

faces of kosovo
Faces of Kosovo exhibit
national library
April at the National Library

I visited Mitrovice for the first time. Mitrovice is one of Kosovo’s largest cities, but I had never been there. Mitrovice is divided, Albanians in the south and Serbians in the north. The bridge behind us in this photo famously links the two halves of the city:

Mitrovice TedSylvie
Mitrovice bridge

I made a few “goodbye” gifts:

I attended my director’s retirement dinner, said goodbye to my students, and took my counterparts out for a “thank you” lunch.

director dinner
April, director, counterpart
school goodbye
Grades 1-5. Yep, it’s a tiny school!
A and D
Saying goodbye to students
chicken dinner
Lunch with my counterparts

In other news, I turned 37. Spending another milestone far away from home was rough. I really miss all of you at home and can’t wait to see you! xoxo

Guest Blogger, Christian: I Choose to Stay

April’s note: The following guest blog post was written by my friend Christian, who is choosing to extend his Peace Corps service.

This week is our close-of-service conference, a reflecting period on our two years here and marking the final sprint of our 27-month service. In 60 days, most of my peers will pack up and begin returning home to new careers, new lives, and wish lists of missed foods. However, I elected to continue my service for a third year. I choose to stay.

Not everyone understands my reasons for staying, I think. After living and working in Kosovo for two years, I finally think that I am beginning to hit my stride. I’ve realized that this time has been a relatively short period to adjust and integrate into a new culture and where my weeks are still marked new discoveries. Extending my service will allow me to continue with my work which I feel is making an impact. Formally switching into the “Community Development” portfolio allowing me to work with several non-governmental organizations and Kosovo’s vibrant youth culture. There are dozens of organizations filled with young, progressive Kosovars that I would have the privilege and excitement to work with as they shape the future of their communities and their newborn country.

During my service, I’ve struggled with the strict gender roles that exist within my community. Being the only male volunteer placed within a village from our cohort, which I’ve had difficultly reconciling my struggles with these gender roles since I am cultural permitted so much more than female volunteers, but exist within the same paradigm. The village’s traditional gender roles which promotes anachronistic masculinity; manual labor, football, and objectification of women exists as the basis or preface of most conversations admist lingering cigarette smoke. This has always left me in a strained position because this is not me. I don’t typically do manual labor (though I’ve chopped wood with a teacher once before, much to my community’s delight), I’m bad at football, and cigarette smoke leaves me nauseated. This has left me feeling alienated when I don’t align with the male sphere and a more sensitive sphere is not an option. Though spared the strict cultural boundaries of a woman, inclusion in the permitting café culture promotes a natural separation. Familiarity always ends at the family home.

IMG-1804
Christian’s village (Photo is courtesy of Christian)

I’ve tried addressing these challenges by working on learning the history of my village. My village was occupied by Serbian forces and sustained American bombing to dislodge them. Every summer, Halo Trust searches the various nondescript fields that comprise the village for the unwanted remnants of the war. Amenities such as water and electricity, everyday utilities that Americans and other developed world citizens take for granted, are relatively new to the village. Both of which were installed by USAID in an effort to rebuild the village and Kosovo in the post-war period. I have found my own solace with my difficulties by remembering theirs and their small, but significant gestures of showing me that I’m welcomed in their community, an honor that many wouldn’t receive.

Extending my service will require me to leave my quiet, farming village into the city of Peja. I adore Peja. I like the frequent rains and sipping makiatos by the soaked windows and walking between the scintillating trees and their ladel like leaves. Watching the fog banks roll down the mountains every morning and the blueish gray tones of the overcast skies melding with the light of Rugova Canyon. How the city exists almost in tandem with the nature around. The street dogs resting in sun lite patches through the parks’ canopy while the gyjshit nap on the benches, both in their usual spots. The gyjsha at the hole-in-the-wall pasta shop and how she slips between speaking Albanian and Dutch effortlessly, a skill she learned from husband who she met while studying cooking in Sardinia. Staying would let me become part of this dynamic rather than an observer.

One of my motivations for joining Peace Corps two short years ago was to experience something different. Initially I was offered or interviewed for several posts; Jordan, Armenia, Ukraine, before fate aligned with Kosovo. During our COS conference, I’ll reflect on my village and the conclusion of my tenure here. The surprisingly vivacious topic of whether I am a “Berisha” or a “Gashi” (both are local family names). The innate skill of knowing which cows belong to which family. Knowing where the spring puppies will be hiding, nestling into the wild grass for its generous reprieve from the heat (This is behind the mosque and next to the barbershop if you must know). The villagers giving me assorted squashes and gourds from the back of their tractors from their autumn harvests. And of my creative, selfie-eager students preparing for their final year exams, trips, and prom. I was motivated to experience something different and being a member of this community for the past two years was surely that.

Read posts by other guest bloggers:

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.

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).

balcony
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
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hill 7
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hill 2
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hill 4

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

cheap-trick-t-shirt-tiger-kitten

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

kitten-then-and-now

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.

tabby-cat-blue-rug-grass
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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.

Serving in the Peace Corps as an LGBTQ+ Volunteer

Note: This post is part of a series I am hosting on this blog to discuss challenges Peace Corps volunteers face while serving in Kosovo. The following post was written by an LGBTQ+ volunteer. — April

I am a volunteer of many identities – one of which being somewhere on the spectrum of LGBTQ+ – living in the EMA [Europe, Mediterranean, Asia] region of Peace Corps. Before I came to service, I was preparing my old home, back in “The Closet,” for a 2 year stay. I figured, “I’ve had to live there before. I can do it again, right?” Throughout the process (from applying to serving), I wasn’t sure who I would come out to or EVEN IF I would come out to anyone. I thought, maybe it would be best to not tell my interviewers or any staff that I was LGBTQ+, out of a slight worry that it would make me a less desirable candidate. Although, during my phone interview, I felt comfortable enough to be honest about how I identify. In hindsight, I am so glad that I did this, because it allowed me and the HQ/Post staff to be better prepared for my stay. I was able to openly ask questions about how my identity may create challenges for me, so that I could prepare myself – both in what information I would share with people and how I would share it. Post staff, knowing that at least one LGBTQ+ identifying member would be serving, took initiative to properly train their American and host country staff in Safe Zone practices.

Personally, almost as soon as I met my fellow cohort members at staging, I decided to come out to them. I felt good vibes from everyone I guess, or maybe I had just grown so comfortable in my rainbow skin to hide myself in a group of Americans. I would say that I was fortunate though that everyone was really cool about it. I also felt comfortable enough with the post staff to be open about my identity early on. I have not had any issues there either, so yay! Despite my run of luck, it could have very well bit me in the ass quickly. To my pleasant surprise, we had a Safe Zone session very early on at in-country training, addressing the serious effects that outing someone can have while living in a country where many people do not support the LGBTQ+ community. All that being said, I would just advise to use discretion. If you want to roll in like me and come in with your rainbow flag casually visible to your new Peace Corps fam (fellow volunteers and American/local staff), then you also need to be aware of the potential consequences. Oh, let me make note that I don’t actually have a rainbow flag here. I DEFINITELY left that back home. Ultimately, it is your choice of how “out” you will be and with who. Remember, although many people may accept you for all of your identities, many others may have negative reactions that may lead to ostracization, hate-speech, violence… and if things do threaten your safety, there is a high likelihood of a shorter service than you expected.

As I said before, I am out to my Peace Corps fam. Additionally, I am out to a few other expats, both from America and other countries; and a select few locals. Keep in mind, that other expats do not go through the same extensive cultural training as we do… so, again, DISCRETION.

I AM NOT out to my host families or anyone in my village, which is probably one of my biggest challenges through service. There are moments when I wish I could share that part of myself honestly with them, and moments when I almost feel I can. I often put off the urges to come out to locals, which has been a good tactic; because I later realize that maybe it would not have been a positive experience or would have done more harm than good. Still, I hope that someday I can come out to those I have grown closest to and maybe I can open their minds in this aspect; especially with my host family, particularly my host siblings, because one day I hope they will be able to visit me in America. By that time, I will likely (well HOPEFULLY) be in a serious relationship and living with my partner, and I would not want to hide that from them.

In the meanwhile, I have had to find ways to cope with the repeated suggestion that I find a nice local partner of the opposite gender. In the beginning, I would just uncomfortably laugh and say “maybe.” Then, it progressively became funnier as I thought to myself, “ohhhh man, you guys don’t even know how much of a non-possibility this is.” Then, it began to bother me… and I had to figure out a way to be okay with it. Sure, I could’ve made up a fake partner, but that would have been a heavy, elaborate lie to keep up for two years. So what did I do? I decided to look at it from a different perspective. I couldn’t look at it as though they were trying to push their heteronormative agenda onto me, but rather that they liked me so much that they want me to find a reason to stay longer or come back more often.

I cannot honor my LGBTQ+ part of my identity all the time, but I have found safe places where I can – places where I can let down my hetero-mask. My safe places have included literal physical spaces where I am isolated or in a controlled environment, virtual spaces where I can talk to people I am out to, and amongst allies or fellow LGBTQ+ people (American and local). I have also learned to appreciate other parts of my identity.

Coming into staging and orientation, I was required to make an identity web, which helps volunteers reflect on the ways that the world sees them and the ways that they see themselves. These identities can include everything from nationalities, ethnicity, and orientations to passions, hobbies, and other personality traits. This was helpful to look back on when I started to feel like I wasn’t being true to myself. I was able to reflect on the things that I had written down and remember that the LGBTQ+ part of me didn’t define who I am. I think this ended up being a challenge for me, because it was a major part of my identity for the few years prior. I had learned to embrace that part of myself and took a large role in LGBTQ+ leadership in my community.

Overall, I have found peace in this experience. Even though it’s been personally conflictual, I am grateful that it encouraged me to reflect and nurture other parts of my identity. Service has challenged me in ways that I never imagined. I tried not to come with any expectations, which is good in ways but also not; so if you are going to have an expectation, let it be the expectation of challenges ahead. Then, when you face those challenges, don’t forget to be patient with yourself and be prepared to explore methods to develop your resiliency. Patience and resiliency are both things you have to continually work on through service (and life), but they can help you have an amazing experience and grow exponentially.

Some Advice

• Social Media. Locals will try to friend you on social media. Make sure your privacy settings are appropriate. You may consider making secondary social media accounts that you only use abroad (be careful not to get caught). If you choose not to do this, be prepared to say why you don’t accept people’s friend requests. Try Googling yourself to see what shows up.
• Adjust the truth. Sometimes you can make small changes to old stories, like changing a pronoun, which allows you to still share memories with locals without outing yourself. Be careful of big, elaborate lies though.
• Code words. You never know who knows English around you, and in some places the LGBTQ+ terms are the same as in English. For example, “zebras,” referring to a person who identifies in the LGBTQ+ spectrum.
• Safe spaces and safe faces. Spaces can be physical, virtual, or mental. Faces, whether or not they are right in front of you or through a screen, can be comforting. Make sure that others understand the importance of not outing; and if you have a secondary social media account, be sure that they know which one to tag.
• Reflect on cultural context. As I mentioned in my personal experience, I had to explore where the locals were coming from when they were suggesting I marry someone from the country. This may help ease frustrations.

Specific to Kosovo

• The Kosovar constitution is very in favor of diverse identities, but it often does not translate into practice.
• Currently there are 2 NGOs that support the LGBTQ+ community in Kosovo.
• Kosovo had its 1st recognized Pride in October 2017.
• LGBTQ+ events do exist, but they are often under the radar.
• All Peace Corps Kosovo staff go through Safe Zone training.
• Peace Corps Kosovo has an LGBTQ+ & Ally volunteers support group. There is also a Peer Support & Diversity Network that promotes safe spaces within the Peace Corps Community.

Read about other challenges Peace Corps volunteers face:

An Open Love Letter to My Family and Friends

“The way I feel is the way I write.” — Jose Gonzalez, Stay Alive

Happy Valentine’s Day to my family and friends. I wrote an open love letter to you all to thank you for seeing me through my Peace Corps service so far. (Sorry that the video’s volume is so soft. I suggest plugging in your headphones if you need to!)

If you’d like to skip ahead and only watch your part of the video, here are the time markers:

Mom (0:12)
Dad (0:25)
Kris (0:50)
Grandpa (1:10)
Aunt Nancy and Uncle Dave, Matt, Aunt Pat, and Aunt Tina (1:30)
Lisa (1:45)
Whitney (2:20)
Nicole (2:42)
Katie from Oakland (3:08)
Pauline (3:21)
Dana (3:40)
Katie from Chicago (4:00)
Jocelyn, Erica, Nina and Kristin (4:11)
Patrick, Lily, and Josh (4:29)
Heather (4:40)
Miriam (4:51)
Anna, Peg, Mary, Renee, and Paul (5:01)
Cheryl, Jodie, Shelby, Denise, Jennifer and Vandana (5:10)
Kushtrim (5:25)
Sierra (5:48)
Chelsea (6:06)
Chester (6:30)
Christian (6:56)
Val (7:11)
Charlie (7:29)
Todd (7:42)
Stephanee (7:54)
SJ (8:10)
Ingrid and Emily (8:17)
My entire cohort (8:29)
Blog readers (8:40)

Happy Valentine’s Day! 🙂