Spring is here & I couldn’t be happier

I have a new respect for winter. And by respect I mean contempt kept in-check by fear of something incredibly powerful.

I thought I knew winter pretty well. I mean, I grew up in Minnesota, lived in Chicago, and then lived in one of the coldest parts of Alaska for two years. But winter without indoor heating is something else. Even though the temperature did not plummet to the depths I experienced in Alaska, the cold was inescapable.

But the good news is that spring has sprung in Kosovo!

It actually happened very suddenly. One day I was wearing my winter coat, and literally two days later I was wearing sandals and t-shirts.

To celebrate the first day of spring, my host family and I made the traditional Albanian dish flia. (And what I really mean is that my host mother did 98% of the work while I watched, tried to help, and then resigned myself to taking pictures.)

A couple weeks later we went to a giant park outside of Gjakova, where we had a picnic with some extended family. We packed a feast to eat on the picnic.

There’s only a couple months of school left and they are sure to fly by. In a couple weeks we will be celebrating St. George’s Day in a nearby village, which I’ve been told will involve hundreds of animal sacrifices and feasting.

School is also concluding soon, with the 12th graders finishing in early May and the 10th-11th graders going through the first week of June. We also have prom to look forward to in mid-May, which is a big deal for graduating students in Kosovo. It is very formal and includes the teachers, so I will need to figure out what to wear! Stay tuned for pictures!

In the meantime, here are some more pictures of me with my host sisters from our picnic:

To read more about what it’s been like living with a host family, check out this post.

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I’m gonna get fat in the Peace Corps

When I signed up for the Peace Corps, I figured that I’d lose weight over the 27 months from being more active and eating less processed food. Little did I know that Kosovars love feeding their guests as much as possible.

Not wanting to appear ungrateful or rude, I find myself attempting to eat most of what I am served. It adds up.

Allow me to present some observations about food in Kosovo, and then you might understand why I may actually get gain weight while serving in the Peace Corps:

loaf of bread
The loaf of bread I was given for lunch, in addition to a whole tomato, cheese, a peach, and two hard-boiled eggs.

1. Must Love Bread

I was not prepared for how much Kosovars love bread. I am eating more bread than ever before. Someone who is gluten-free would probably not survive in Kosovo.

All of the traditional dishes here seem to involve a derivative of bread (pita, flija, byrek, etc.) The people here are quite inventive when it comes to all that they can create out of flour and water.

For lunch for the first week my host mother would give me a bunch of food, plus an entire loaf of bread. Then at dinner she would hand me half of a loaf, along with the main course, salad, etc. By now I have convinced her to only give me half a loaf for lunch and a quarter loaf for dinner, but it is still far more bread than anyone should consume in a day.

dinner 2
A typical Kosovar meal. Notice the chucks of bread sitting nearby to use as napkins.

I have also learned that napkins and silverware are unnecessary as long as you have bread. When eating, if your hands get dirty, you simply grab a loaf of bread and wipe your hands on that. Need to scoop up your food but don’t have a spoon or fork? A handful of bread should do the trick!

You can tell that people here love their bread because the way they ask “Are you hungry?” is literally, “Do you want bread?” (This caused some confusion for me during the first few days.) My family tells me that it is time to eat dinner by saying, “Come eat bread!”

I don’t know how people here stay so thin with such a carb-heavy diet.

2. Three Spoonfuls of Sugar

snacks
My nightly chai with lots of sugar and a selection of snacks

There is way more sugar in the Kosovar diet than I would have anticipated. People love to offer guests Coke, sugary fruit juices, and of course coffee or tea. But each cup of coffee or tea is not complete without three spoonfuls of sugar.

If you say that you do not want sugar in your tea or coffee, people look at you like you are crazy. They ask, “Are you sure?!” If you insist that you do not want sugar they say, “Ok, fine” and then put a spoonful in while you are not looking.

My host family also keeps trying to give me chocolate in the morning. Most families do not really eat breakfast here. Instead they just have a cup of tea or Turkish coffee in the morning, sometimes with a little sugary snack. For my host family that means chocolate. Some days it is chocolate cookies. Other days it is a very small piece of chocolate cake. Sometimes it is just a couple squares of straight-up chocolate.

Traditional meal of flija, which is made of crepe-like layers of dough with oil and yogurt.
Traditional meal of flija, which is made of crepe-like layers of dough with oil and yogurt.

I don’t know if this is a common thing in Kosovo or if they just assume that the fatty Americans like eating chocolate first thing in the morning.

3. Endless Cucumbers and Peppers

Almost all of the families here have a small farm with fresh fruits and vegetables. But the two things that we have the most of are cucumbers and peppers. We eat them with every meal. For a snack my host mom tries to feed me an entire cucumber. If I refuse the cucumber, I’m usually offered a loaf of bread. So I’ve learned to love cucumbers.

Every day we collect eggs from the chickens, and sometimes one of them is unlucky enough to become our dinner.
Every day we collect eggs from the chickens, and sometimes one of them is unlucky enough to become our dinner.

4. “No thank you” is interpreted as “Ok, sure!” 

Warning: Do not clear your plate, because your host mother will immediately refill it. If you say “no thanks” to anything, your host mother will insist that you need more food. If you hold your ground she will become offended and say “Why do you always say no?!”

You also do not want to get too full from dinner, because immediately after dinner you will be offered tea, coffee, crackers, and a bunch of fruit. After this evening tea time with family and neighbors, your family will probably offer you something else, like ice cream. Every night my host parents ask if I want ice cream. Every night I say no. Repeatedly. Every night they still go to the nearest gas station and buy me ice cream. By that point I usually feel to guilty to refuse.

Side note: Just as I was writing this post (after the nightly ice cream ritual) my mom walked up to me three times to give me food. First a bowl of watermelon, then a bowl of pretzels, and then two hard-boiled eggs.

Picking buckets full of fresh cherries in a village outside Kamenice
Picking buckets full of fresh cherries in a village outside Kamenice

The upside to all of this is that the food is quite delicious. I am being spoiled with fresh fruits and vegetables, which is a nice change from Alaska. The strawberries, cherries, peaches, and nectarines are the best I’ve ever had. (But for some reason apples here are awful.)

I am also walking a lot, which may counteract some of the excessive eating. My host family lives just outside of town, so it takes between 40 minutes and an hour to walk to training sessions each morning.

Well, time to go to bread. Oops, I mean bed.