2 Turkish coffees + 3 macchiatos + 4 cups of tea = 1 day in Kosovo

Coffee quote democrat

Coffee 1Kosovo is a coffee culture. It is amazing. I did not know when I signed up for the Peace Corps that I would be moving to a coffee-lover’s paradise.

Fellow coffee-drinkers: Get ready to become thoroughly jealous and prepare your bank-account, because you just might be buying a plane ticket to Kosovo at the end of this post.

Not a coffee person? Well there’s hope for you. Kosovo is also big on tea, so let’s start there:

Russian Tea

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The most popular tea in Kosovo is a type of black tea known here as Russian tea or chai rusi. It was actually brought to the region during Ottoman rule and therefore it is more widely known as Turkish tea.

This tea is served with lots of sugar in small narrow-waisted glasses from a double-stacked kettle. It is typical to be offered tea in the evening after dinner or when you visit someone’s home. As a female volunteer, you may be expected to serve the tea for guests. I felt like a nervous Mulan the first time I had to serve tea in Kosovo!

How I feel about the amount of chai I drink on a daily basisEven though the glasses are small, be careful, because your glass will be continuously refilled. Before you know it you’ve had 6 or 7 glasses of black tea with tons of sugar. Good luck sleeping.

Although Russian tea is delicious, I try to drink mint or chamomile to cut down on the caffeine or sugar. I probably drink three cups of tea per day, which may be on the lower end of the scale compared to many volunteers.Coffee quote caffeine sleep

Now it’s time to take a little journey through the main types of coffee people drink in Kosovo:

Nescafe

Let’s start with the simplest one of the group, which is instant coffee or Nescafe. I remember being surprised by how popular instant coffee was when I traveled to Egypt, Turkey, and Jordan. Turns out it is pretty popular in the Balkans as well. Every cafe or restaurant has it on the menu and most people drink it in their homes.

I’ve never been a fan of instant coffee, but lately I’ve been craving American coffee, and this is about as close as it comes. I also miss filling a big thermos with coffee to bring to work.

One downside to coffee-culture in Kosovo is that to-go cups don’t exist. In America coffee is prepared in a hurry and guzzled on-the-go to provide an energy boost for our hectic lifestyles. In Kosovo coffee is primarily a social binder. Drinking coffee alone or on-the-go contradicts its purpose.

Kosovo is such a coffee culture that many people go out to a cafe daily, sitting and visiting with friends, family, or coworkers for hours. Visiting over coffee is seen as an essential part of daily life. It is a lifestyle I think many Americans could learn from.

Coffee quote strong as death

Turkish Coffeecoffee turk

People in Kosovo adore Turkish coffee and most drink it daily. The above proverb perfectly defines Turkish coffee. It is like coffee in the form of a shot. It is small, potent, and typically saturated with sugar.

Kosovars love their sugar when it comes to coffee and tea. Because it rare to drink coffee without sugar, I often get strange looks when I ask for my Turkish coffee that way. On more than one occasion the hostess serving the coffee has insisted on putting at least one spoonful of sugar in my cup because it’s just not natural to drink coffee without sugar!

Coffee quote another cup

My least favorite thing about Turkish coffee is that it is served in such tiny cups. I feel like I take two sips and my coffee experience is over! Fortunately my host family quickly learned how much I love coffee, so they’ve begun preparing an “American sized” Turkish coffee for me, which is served in a cup twice the size of theirs.

In terms of quantity, I probably drink about three Turkish coffees per day. One in the morning, one at school with all of the teachers, and one in the evening with my family. I think my coffee intake has been one of the primary things I’d attribute to my success as a Peace Corps Volunteer.

Coffee quote personality

Macchiatocoffee 3
The king of the coffees in Kosovo is hands-down the macchiato. This is not a frilly American knock-off like what you’d find in a Starbucks. This is a genuine European maacchiato: small, strong, and oh-so-delicious.  In fact, the Kosovar macchiato has been voted the best in the world.
Coffee quote truth
If the above quote is true, then people in Kosovo must be some of the most understanding people in the world. They are coffee experts, and this applies not only to taste but to the appearance. The artistic flair on the macchiatos definitely adds to the experience of drinking one. Here are a few of my recent macchiatos:

The best part? These beautiful cups of heaven only cost 50 cents. So if you come to visit Kosovo the coffee is on me!
I have to say I feel pretty European when I sit outside at a cafe reading at a book and sipping a petite macchiato. Life in Kosovo has its hardships, but when drinking the coffee here I feel pretty Posh Corps.
coffee potAlthough I love Kosovo’s coffee culture, I have to admit that I miss brewing a big-ole pot of American drip coffee in the morning. Turkish coffee is great, but take one gulp and its gone. I miss having a giant mug of strong coffee that I can sip and refill for hours. Part of me even misses those seasonal flavored creamers…
Alas, I’ll have to tough it out with my classy European macchiatos for another year.
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Things we do that Kosovars consider odd

As I adjust to life in Kosovo, it’s easy to come up with a list of things about the culture that strike me as odd. But that’s not entirely fair. The cultural perceptions go both ways.

What about how the American volunteers are perceived by the Kosovars?

I decided to start asking around my site to see what people considered odd about me and other Americans. These are some of the things they mentioned:

Cold greetings

You know that thing you may have seen in movies where people kiss someone on their cheeks three times when saying hello or goodbye? Yeah, that’s what we do in Kosovo. Typically you shake hands and then lean in, touching/kissing cheeks two or three times.

When arriving at school, the teachers go around and do the handshake/hug/kiss thing with nearly everyone in the teacher’s lounge, even though they see each other almost every day. My host mother and sisters do the hug/kiss thing every time I leave the house or come home. Americans, on the other hand, reserve hugs for close friends or family we haven’t seen in a while. An American teacher would arrive at work and say “hey” or “good morning,” sometimes with a halfhearted wave.

Because Americans are less physical in our greetings, I’ve been told that we come across as cold and distant. Sometimes when I’ve greeted people the “American way” by waving and smiling I’ve been told that I come across as rude. So I’ve been trying to imitate the Kosovar style of greeting, but I’ll admit that the hugging and cheek kissing makes me uncomfortable at times, causing me to feel a bit like Ron Swanson.

Dressing casually

When I asked people at my site what stands out to them about Americans, I repeatedly got this response: “You don’t care what people think of how you dress.”

odd judgment when I where sweatsOuch. 

But in comparison to people here it is definitely true. People in Kosovo take their appearance very seriously, especially the women. In America we tend to be a bit more casual, especially when we are not working. It’s not uncommon to see people, especially those in their twenties, wearing t-shirts, sweatpants, shorts, or no make-up.

In Kosovo that is a rare sight. I brought a lot of business casual clothes, but I still get comments from family or coworkers about my attire. So future Kosovo PCVs, heed my packing advice and bring nice clothes!

Running

Turns out going for a run is a very American thing to do. If you go outside for a run, you will face far more strange looks than normal. A lot of volunteers are avid runners and have funny stories about the reactions from locals. how people respond to pcvs runningSome people point and laugh, while others may stop you to ask, “Are you afraid?” or “Are you running from the stray dogs?”

When you tell them you just like to run, people will be very confused and may suggest joining a local gym.

Joining the gym

Speaking of joining the gym, this is another largely American phenomenon. One of the reasons is that Americans are a lot more sedentary, so we have to set aside a time and place to be active. In Kosovo people walk a lot. Many people don’t own cars, so they walk to and from work or school daily. It may not seem like much, but all of that walking adds up. Even simple things like going to the grocery store become a form of exercise.
groceries.gifKosovo has gyms in the larger towns and cities, but most of them are heavily male-dominated. If you are female and decide to join one, people will automatically assume that you are trying desperately to lose weight. I’ve had to explain repeatedly that I go to the gym to be healthy, not because I think I’m fat.

Working out was never a priority for me in the States, but here it has become my go-to stress reliever. (And it helps counteract the bread-dominated diet!) I hope it is a habit I’ll carry with me after my service ends.

Odd facial expressions & endless smilesawkward smile.gif

Maybe this relates to us being more laid-back about our appearance, but I’ve been told that Americans are extremely expressive, especially when it comes to making weird facial expressions.

I’d like to blame YouTube or Snapchat for this phenomenon. We’ve spent so much time watching strange YouTube stars or testing out Snapchat filters that we make strange faces by default.

On the positive side, Americans smile a lot, especially compared to Eastern Europeans. We therefore come across as very approachable and happy, at least until someone tries to hug us and we get weird.

 

Prom Kosovar Style!

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I never expected that my Peace Corps country-of-service would have prom. Not only do Kosovars have it, but it puts American prom to shame.

Because I taught 12th grade English for most of the year, I was invited to celebrate prom with the graduating class and the other teachers. All throughout the year I heard people referring to prom, so I quickly realized that it was a big deal.

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Me with my counterpart, who I co-teach with at the secondary school.

Turns out prom in Kosovo is not just teenagers grinding on each other like it often is in the States. It is primarily a graduation celebration for the 12th graders. There is no graduation ceremony, so prom night marks the end of their schooling. At the end of 9th grade students have a semi-prom, which marks their transition into high school and is also taken very seriously.

The first thing that stood out to me about Kosovar prom was how impeccably dressed everyone was. The students have style. Women here are also experts at doing hair and make-up.

Speech 3The evening began at 8:00 PM and took place at a luxurious venue on the outskirts of the city. The teachers entered first, followed by the students walking down the grand staircase in pairs and posing for pictures. We then had a traditional meal served in a fancy ballroom, with live Albanian music to accompany it. Then the school director, class president, and Minster of Education addressed the students. I was also asked last minute to address the hundreds of graduates. So I gave a short but sincere congratulations speech. (Side note to future volunteers: You never know when you’ll be asked to give a speech in Peace Corps, so get ready to improve those public speaking skills!)

Then the dancing began. Albanians LOVE dancing. I’ve always been pretty shy about dancing, so I was planning to sit it out most of the night. The students and teachers, however, had other plans. I was quickly pulled onto the floor to participate in valle, the traditional Albanian circle dance. We then transitioned in to the clubbing type of music I’d expect at a prom, but the dancing stayed classy. Even the teachers danced for most of the evening, which is a major difference from American prom.

A few key points about Albanian dancing:

  1. Lift up yours arms. Wrist movements are key. In American dancing it’s about the butt. In Kosovo it is about arms and elegance.
  2. Consider holding a handkerchief in one hand to emphasize wrist movements.
  3. Possibly place a glass of water on your head while dancing to showcase your poise. (Really, I’ve seen multiple people do this at each dancing event.)
  4. Men love dancing just as much as the women. Maybe more.
  5. If trying these things alone on the dance floor is intimidating, grab hands and join the circle dance! All you do is (to the right) step, step, step, touch/kick and then (to the left) step, touch/kick. Then repeat. It’s very simple!

If you are having a hard time picturing this, check out the video I made with clips from the evening at the bottom of this post.

The students also prepared a little comedy show where they impersonated some of the teachers. Even though I could only understand 70% of it, it was still pretty funny. After the comedy show we had a couple more hours of traditional dancing, with me trying to dance like an Albanian but probably still moving my hips too much and my arms too little. Oh well, I’ve still got a year to improve.

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With the school’s director

One of the reasons that prom is so serious relates to one of the differences in the school system. Students here are placed in a class of approximately 35 students when they enter secondary school. They have every subject with that group of 35 students until they graduate. They literally spend 6 classes, 5 days per week, with the same group of people for three years. This leads to very close bonds between classmates.

Prom included a lot of celebrating, but also tearful goodbyes at the end. It brought back memories of my high school graduation and saying goodbye to friends before we all parted ways and moved away for college. I was struck by how similar people are across cultures. Here was a group of Kosovar teens experiencing the same types of emotions that I was at 18.

The celebration lasted until nearly 3:00 in the morning. And 85% of it was dancing. Although I was exhausted by the end, it was a memorable experience. I look forward to another prom next year!

 

Waterfalls in Kosovo

As I’ve mentioned many times before, Kosovo possesses a lot of natural beauty. (Have I convinced you to come visit yet??)Kosovo mirusha white drin waterfalls

As the weather has gotten nicer my host family has taken me on a few memorable outings to see some of their favorite sites and to learn about the culture of Kosovo. This included celebrating St. George’s Day in a nearby village, where we witnessed hundreds of sheep being sacrificed and a giant regional feast. Fortunately we’ve also had some outings that are a little less… intense.

Two of my favorite family field trips this spring have been seeing Kosovo’s waterfalls.

In March we visited the White Drin Waterfall, which is located near the city of Peja.

The waterfall is 82 feet (25 m) high and is located at the mouth of the White Drin river. The area is surrounded with beautiful mountainous scenery, including a cave that can be explored in the summer months.

In the summer the waterfall is surrounded by lush green scenery, but when we visited the first signs of spring were just starting to show. In many ways that made the vibrant blue color of the waterfall even more striking. The water was incredibly clear.

It was also a great time to visit because there were not many visitors. In the warmer months the waterfall is a very popular destination. We spent the day hiking around the waterfall, taking pictures, and of course taking a break to make Turkish coffee in the park. It is not an outing in Kosovo without at least one coffee break.


Last weekend we visited Mirusha Waterfall in central Kosovo. This site is actually a series of seven major waterfalls located in a 6 mile-long canyon with 13 lakes separated by the waterfalls. Unfortunately we did not have time to see all of them because it takes a few hours to hike the length of the canyon, and it was a very hot day.

The canyon also includes several caves. Mirusha Park is one of the most popular sites in Kosovo, and because the weather was hot and sunny when we visited it was more crowded than the White Drin Waterfall. A lot of people also swim in the lake located below the largest waterfall, which is 72 feet (22 m) high. Although the water was very cold, several people were swimming and jumping from the waterfall while we had our picnic.

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Enjoying a picnic with a perfect view of the brave souls jumping from the waterfall.

Because it was such a hot day, I was extremely tempted to jump into the water. My host sisters and I finally decided to go for a swim with our clothes on, but host dad stopped us. This ended up being for the best, because I later read that the water in Mirusha has been known to cause infections. Visitors are advised to avoid contact with the water during the spring because the water often becomes contaminated after the snow melts.

Unlike the water of the White Drin, the Mirusha River’s water is more greenish-brown. But it is still a beautiful site, especially with the white and pinkish canyon walls surrounding the lakes. I’d still consider going for a swim if we visit later in the summer. Not so sure about jumping from the waterfall though…

My first time witnessing animal sacrifices

WARNING: Don’t read this post if you are sensitive to the sight of blood or if you are offended by the slaughtering of animals. Keep in mind that this is a culturally significant tradition dating back hundreds of years. 

On Friday, May 6th my host family told me they wanted to take me to a nearby village called Babaj Bokes for the day. They said there was an important festival taking place. In typical Peace Corps fashion, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect but said yes and brought my camera along just in case.

The festival is known as the Feast of Saint George (or Đurđevdan) and it is an interfaith holiday that has been celebrated for the past four hundred years. The holiday was traditionally Christian and is especially important in Eastern Orthodoxy, but it has been adopted and altered by several Muslim countries.

St. George’s Day is especially significant in Albania and Kosovo because it has been combined with two other traditional holidays, one which honors the end of winter and the official start of summer. It is one of the major holiday for the Roma community. It is also a celebration of the Albanian national hero Skanderbeg, whose birthday happens to fall on May 6th.

When we arrived at the village we climbed up to the temple or tyrbja on the hill overlooking Babaj Bokes. There we found pens with hundreds of sheep.

We entered the small mosque/temple, known as a Tyrbja, where we donated money, stepped through a large loop of prayer beads three times, and then prayed. Before leaving we were given pieces of blessed fabric to carry with us for luck.

The day involves ritual animal sacrifices and the distribution of the meat to the poor. I wasn’t sure how many animals would be sacrificed, but in my mind I thought maybe 50 sheep and a few dozen chickens.

Nope. One-thousand sheep were sacrificed. ONE THOUSAND. All in just one day in this tiny village.

I had never witnessed animal sacrifices before. And it was something I will not forget.

The sheep were killed in groups of 50 and then skinned and butchered immediately. The sheep are carried alive one-by-one to the temple, where their throats are slit and the blood is sprayed on the walls. Many locals also bring chickens from home to sacrifice at the tyrbja.

Although it was sad (and gruesome) to see the sheep slaughtered, it was also fascinating. So many people eat meat daily and yet have never seen an animal killed or butchered. Animal sacrifices are also an element of many religions and cultures, so it was interesting to see tradition come to life.

As I was taking pictures I was getting lots of stares, which is understandable given the fact that I was crouching down in pools of blood next to dying sheep. When I began taking pictures of the skinning/gutting process one of the butchers asked me if I wanted to help.

In typical Peace Corps fashion, I said why not!

I was surprised by how warm the body of the sheep was when I grabbed hold of it. With several butchers and locals looking on, I grabbed a knife and got to work. I tried recalling good skinning technique from my high school anatomy class, where we skinned and dissected a cat. The butchers were great teachers and encouraged me in Albanian while I worked. Definitely a Peace Corps experience I won’t be forgetting.

I saved the more grisly parts of the gutting process to the professionals.

As another 50 sheep were sacrificed, the butchers continued to work, skinning the sheep with expert speed and precision. One of my favorite moments was when the butchers were brought their lunch of, you guessed it, sheep. Some of them continued to work with a knife and carcass in one hand and a sheep sandwich in the other.

They also offered me some of the sheep meat, including a cooked sheep lung. Although I regretted not bringing any hand sanitizer, having just handled and skinned a sheep carcass, I decided to follow the men’s example and just go for it. So I stood in a puddle of blood, surrounded by dead sheep, and ate sheep lungs.DSCN2073 (2).JPG

After a few minutes I moved away from the butchering site to enjoy my lunch with my host mother.

After being skinned and gutted the meat is brought to a large feasting tent, where crowds of people gather to visit and eat. Typically all food preparation in Kosovo is done by women, but this day is the exception. Men do all of the cooking and serving of the food.

It was amazing to see large groups of men working together to serve hundreds of families from the region. The meat that is not cooked is distributed for free to people in the surrounding villages who need it.

I walked away from the Feast of St. George feeling privileged to have taken part in such a culturally rich tradition. Although animal sacrifices may sound shocking to many Americans, the feast is an amazing example of Albanian generosity and hospitality. The day was also a beautiful and rare display of unification in a Kosovar community, because it is celebrated by the Serbian, Albanian, and Roma communities.

It was a day I will not soon forget. I just hope I stop having nightmares about sheep sometime soon…

When its not culturally appropriate to have pets, so you begin talking to and befriending your dinner

Peace Corps Pets: Meet my new kitten!

A couple weeks ago, after visiting a religious festival with my host family, one of my host sisters told me that she saw kittens outside of a family friend’s home. My host family is well aware of my love for animals, so when I begged if we could go see them they said okay.

There were four kittens, all about a month old, and adorable as can be. The woman of the house saw how overjoyed I was playing with the kittens and began chatting in Albanian with my host parents. After talking in hushed tones to each other my host parents called my name and said, “Brita, you can take the kitten as a pet if you want it.”

I was shocked. I thought they were joking.

In Kosovo having a cat as an indoor pet is practically unheard of. In fact, most people either hate cats or are terrified of them, because they are all strays.

But it was not a joke and I am now the proud owner of a Peace Corps pet!

Many volunteers all over the world get a pet during their service. This happens for two main reasons:

1.There are stray animals everywhere and our sensitive American hearts can’t take it.

IMG_0336It is overwhelming how many stray dogs and cats there are in Kosovo, as there are in much of the world. I see dozens on a daily basis. You know those heartbreaking infomercials with malnourished and sad-looking animals that get you to donate to animal shelters? Sometimes I feel like I am watching those when I walk to work.

My site-mate once saw a stray puppy snuggling up to the stiff body of a dead cat trying to get warm.

Because having pets is not a thing here, people view cats and dogs primarily as pests, which results in them being treated poorly. It’s not uncommon to see people throwing rocks at the stray animals, although this is usually done out of fear. (And I’ve learned that stray dogs can be very frightening.) Even without being mistreated, most kittens die from lack of food, the cold, or are attacked by other strays.

So when I see a bunch of adorable kittens and know what their future holds, of course I want to take them home and protect them!

2. Being a PCV can be lonely and stressful and we need an Emotional Support Animal.

IMG_0417 (2)Pets have a healing and calming presence. And being a Peace Corps Volunteer is a mental/emotional roller-coaster ride. I can’t speak for everyone, but I know that my service has had its fair share of lonely or stressful moments.

Having a little kitten to welcome me home after work and to sit on my lap as I correct English tests is seriously the best. Some events in the past several months have made 2016 an extremely challenging year, so this kitten felt like a gift from heaven. The first night as she sat purring on my lap I cried tears of sheer joy. I don’t know if I’ve ever appreciated having a pet so much.


The Challenging Bits…

Unfortunately having a pet in the Peace Corps presents a few unique obstacles.

  1. Lack of suppliesMy first night with my kitten was spent trying to throw together a makeshift litter box and bed for her. Turns out it’s pretty difficult to find pet supplies in most towns in Kosovo. It took nearly a week to find a store (in another city) that sold cat litter.IMG_0478 (2)Kitten food was another challenge. I had to improvise with milk and scrambled eggs for a few days. We eventually found cat food, but the kitten became sick for several days, probably due to the sudden change in diet. Thankfully after a few days she recovered.What would I do if she stayed sick? What if she gets fleas? Is there a way to get her vaccinated? What about having her spayed? These questions began racing around in my mind as soon as I brought this adorable kitten home.
  2. Misconceptions about animals
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    The picture I sent my mom at 3:00 AM after dealing with the aftermath of the chocolate incident.

    Several people were warning my host family about how the kitten would give us all diseases. Most people here see cats as very mangy and unhygienic because they’ve only seen the strays that scavenge in garbage.

    One time when I was being protective of the kitten someone told me not to worry because cats have nine lives, so she won’t die. I immediately had to explain that this is just an expression, and that the kitten could in fact die very easily.

    Another night someone fed the kitten chocolate, which is toxic for cats. That night she got horribly sick, throwing up and getting explosive diarrhea. Not fun for either of us.

  3. Fear of how people will treat her

    This is a big one. Because no one has grown up with pets, people can be incredibly rough with the kitten. My Peace Corps service is about people, not pets, so I don’t want to resent anyone here because of how they treat animals.
    Luckily my host family has been absolutely wonderful so far and they are very open to my instructions about kitten-care. But a big part of me is terrified of what could happen if some younger relatives or neighbor kids come over. During PST I saw a kitten whose leg had been ripped off. It was horrific.Call me a crazy cat lady, but my mom instincts are kicking in and I am terrified of my kitten being hurt or traumatized.

4. When service ends…

The hardest question is what to do when my service ends. Do I take the cat back to America with me? I’m sure the process is not an easy (or cheap) one. Or do I leave her here in Kosovo with my host family? I’m just trying not to think about this question at the moment.



IMG_0294In the meantime having a pet is great. The past three weeks have gone surprisingly well and my host family is officially in-love with our kitten! She is completely trained to use the litter box and is quickly growing.

Having a pet has also been a valuable cultural exchange with my host family. They never understood how Americans could welcome an animal into their home or why I speak so lovingly of my childhood pets. Now they fight over who gets to hold or play with the kitten.

IMG_0484 (3).JPGThey told me how they suddenly think about animals differently. When they see strays on the street, instead of being afraid or annoyed and trying to scare it away, they feel concern. Seeing them go from fearful and skeptical to absolutely infatuated with the kitten has been amazing.

They also selected the name for our kitten by combining the first letters of our names to spell B.E.J.B. (pronounced like Babe or Baby). IMG_0406

2017 Update: After finishing my Peace Corps service I was torn about whether or not to bring Bejb to America with me. I looked into it, but the process was complicated and would have easily cost me $1,000. My family was also extremely attached to her and promised to care for her. So I left my beloved pet behind. My family took great care of her and sent me regular updates and pictures. Sadly she either disappeared or died a few months after I left, leaving my host family and I heartbroken.

Nothing can prepare you for life with a host family

As I approach the one-year mark of my service, and with the third group of Kosovo volunteers (K3) arriving soon, I’ve been reflecting on some of the greatest challenges and joys of my Peace Corps service. The first thing that came to mind in both of these categories was life with a host family.

On June 10th I arrived in Kamenice, Kosovo, where I lived for the 11 weeks of Pre-Service Training. Immediately upon our arrival at the local school, we saw local families standing outside waiting to bring us to their homes.

We all stood in a crowded classroom and were picked out one by one by the families, to whom we had been assigned in advance.

I stood with my heart pounding, watching my fellow PCVs meet their families for the first time. Then a small woman in her late 50s walked up to me, smiled, and announced that she would be my host mother. (Or I assume that’s what she said, seeing as I knew maybe 15 words in Albanian.) Before I knew what was happening she grabbed my arm and led me out of the school to her car.

Next thing I know I am driving away in a car with a Kosovar woman who speaks zero English. I quickly run through the three things I know how to say in Albanian. And then the awkward silence settles in. Welcome to life with a host family.


Living with a family from another country is a unique experience. It could be argued that it is the part of service that will make or break your time in the Peace Corps.

The host family element was definitely my biggest fear. In case you didn’t know, Peace Corps Volunteers live with a host family during training to help them learn the language and integrate into the culture. In Kosovo we live with a host family during PST and then with a different family at our permanent site for the duration of our service. In some countries PCVs have the option of getting apartments after 6 months or a year, depending on their site.

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My host family in Gjakova, which consists of two parents and their 12 & 15 year-old daughters.

Now that I have lived with two different host families over the past 11 months, I can say that my pre-departure fears were justified. It is strange and uncomfortable and easily the most challenging aspect of PC service. The good news is that each day becomes slightly less awkward and confusing. (I also lucked-out in Gjakova by being placed with the perfect host family, which makes things a lot easier.)

My first night with my PST host family involved a lot of smiling at each other in silence. Then I began pointing at things in the house and asking what they were. The next two hours were spent writing down vocab while my host mom pointed at things and named them in Albanian.

My host parents also Skyped with a number of their relatives and friends, excitedly talking about the random American girl living with them. Then they’d hold the phone in front of my face and tell me to speak in Albanian. I ran through the handful of things I knew how to say, and the relatives on the other side of the screen would laugh and say a bunch of things I couldn’t understand. I quickly realized that this would be a common occurrence for the next two years of my life.

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One of biggest challenges can be the lack of privacy. I lived in an apartment alone for the two years prior to Peace Corps service. I loved having my own space to recharge after a long day at work.

This is borderline impossible while living with a host family, especially in a culture that is much more community-focused. I’ve come to realize that Americans are hyper-individualistic compared to most of the world. In Kosovo almost everything is done in the company of others. Introvert-time is not a thing.

when PCVs go to sleep.gifI am very introverted, so for the first few months this was a shock to my system. Many volunteers would tell their family that they were tired and  would “go to sleep” at 9:00 pm, just to sit in their rooms alone, reading, writing, or just savoring the privacy.

Another challenge of life with a host family can be the sudden lack of independence. This was definitely noticeable for me. I always considered myself fairly self-sufficient, but when you arrive in-country as a PCV you find that you are very dependent. And the people you rely on most are your host family members.

I should also confess that I can be a tad controlling. But when applying to the Peace Corps one of the first things they tell you is that adaptability in a PCV is essential. So I am learning to give up control.

Your lack of control is especially pronounced living with a host family. Your schedule and what you eat is now largely controlled by someone other than you. During PST in particular it was not uncommon to arrive home exhausted and for my family to say, “Jump in the car. We’re going somewhere!” The Peace Corps has been a major lesson in going with the flow. And I’ve been pleasantly surprised by some of the memorable adventures that come from a more flexible approach to life.

Im an ADULT.gifAt first having people watch me, ask what I was doing, and ask where I was going every day reminded me of being in high school. This becomes especially apparent when your family gives you rules to follow or a curfew. At times I wanted to scream, “I am an adult! I can take care of myself!”

Although it can feel like your host family is being controlling or restrictive, they are really looking out for you. You are, after all, a foreigner living in an unfamiliar culture, and your family is there to help you integrate. Flija 1.JPGHaving a host family helps you learn the language, integrate into the community, and observe the culture on the ground-level. Although it has its challenges, I can’t imagine doing Peace Corps any other way.

It is also important to realize that you are becoming part of a real-life family. They have their own quirks and flaws, just like families in America. You will see them argue, you will see them cry, you may be with them when a baby is born or when a relative dies.

You will be vulnerable in front of them. My host family sees me when I just wake up and when I haven’t showered in days. They lived with me when I had never-ending diarrhea.  They have seen me cry multiple times.DSCN1084 (2)

You will also have incredibly touching moments. When you are sick, they are the ones who make you tea and nurse you back to health. When you receive bad news on the phone, they are the ones who hold you while you cry.

I have slumber parties with my host sisters and they share about their secret crushes. We sing off-key and dance in the living room. I can say with complete honesty that I love my host family in Gjakova. I call my host parents “mom” and “dad” without giving it a second thought.

Having a host family has gone from being the hardest thing in my service to the absolute best part. The past few months have been a bit rough at times, and when I have considered ET-ing my host family has been my number one reason for deciding to stay. I have no doubt that my relationship with my host family will be a lifelong one.

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Visiting the White Drin Waterfall in northern Kosovo with my host family.