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.


PST August: Training Ends, Service Begins!

For an overview of Pre-Service Training, visit this page.

PST August3

The month of August included the final three weeks of training and our first week at our permanent sites all over the country. This made the month a busy one, but I will try to summarize the major events.

1.Language Group Day-Trips
         All summer our group of 36 has been divided into seven languages groups. Gjakova 2We had class in these groups almost every day, so you really get to know each other. Gjakova 1Each group was assigned a city in Kosovo to visit for a day-trip, where we were told to explore and make cultural observations. My group lucked out by being assigned Gjakova, which is my permanent site! Unfortunately this meant taking a four-hour bus to the opposite corner of the country (costing less than 7 Euros!) and then back in the evening. We spent five hours taking in the sites of this beautiful city, visiting the oldest mosque in Kosovo and a cultural museum.
Each group then put together a 30-minute presentation on the city they visited to present to the other trainees and Peace Corps staff. We focused on the effects of the war on Gjakova, because it is the city that suffered the most intense violence against civilians.

2.  The dreaded Language Proficiency Interview (LPI)

Ten weeks of language learning culminates in a recorded 20-minute Albanian (or Serbian) interview that measures our knowledge of the language. It is like our PST Final Exam. The Peace Corps’ goal for trainees is that they reach Intermediate-Low by the end of training. If you do not reach this mark you are not kicked out, but you are required to find a language tutor and to retake the LPI in three months.LPI Chart

Most volunteers score Intermediate-Low or Intermediate-Mid on their LPIs. Out of the 25 volunteers from last year, a few did not pass, receiving Novice-High, and only two scored Intermediate-High. We were given our scores the day before PST ended, and I was pleasantly surprised by mine! I don’t know the precise breakdown of my group’s scores, but I know that between 3 and 5 scored Intermediate-High and a handful did not pass (out of 36 of us). For more stories about the challenges of learning Albanian check out my post Scaling the Language Barrier.

Host parents at Swearing In
My PST host parents at the Swearing-In Ceremony.

3. Packing and Goodbyes
The final week was an emotional one in my host home. My host mom cried several times, especially in the final 24 hours. Even my host dad cried twice. At one point my host mom grabbed my shoulders and said in Albanian, “Please do not forget me, my daughter!”

Oftentimes volunteers move to their sites and fail to stay in-touch with their PST families. In a culture where families are everything, volunteers can really hurt the feelings of their host families by moving-on and cutting ties. I am going to try to stay in-touch with my PST family and visit them every couple months.

4. Surprise Speech!
During our second to last week of training we were informed that two of us would be selected to speak at the Swearing-In Ceremony. We were told to nominate one male and one female volunteer from the group of 36, and to my surprise, I was selected to be the female speaker! 

I was honestly a bit terrified. Giving a speech in front of important government officials, TV cameras, and the President of Kosovo?! That would be nerve-racking enough, but here’s the kicker: We were asked to give the speech in Albanian. 

I considered asking them to select someone else, but then I realized what a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity this would be. Sure I’d be nervous, but how could I turn down the chance to give a speech to the President of another country? Speakers at ceremony

The male speaker selected was Brett, who also happened to be in my Albanian group. (Our language teacher was so proud!) We decided that instead of giving two separate speeches and feeling like competitors, we would write it together and deliver the speech as a team, taking turns speaking. I could not have asked for a better partner for such a daunting task.

5. Swearing-In Ceremony
PST is like our version of basic training, and the ceremony is pretty formal. We dress in our finest and are addressed by our Country Director, the new U.S. Ambassador to Kosovo, a couple government officials, and President Atifete Jahjaga. We then take an oath of service. To read more about the swearing-in ceremony, check out this post about it.

After the ceremony we all said our goodbyes to our PST host families and were dropped off at the Prishtina bus station. We then made our way on our own (with 150 pounds of luggage) to our permanent sites.

It was an surreal afternoon. Suddenly you arrive at your permanent site, all alone, and you realize that this will be the next two years of your life.

6. First week at your site

In Kosovo all schools start on September 1st, so after Swearing-In we had one week to adjust to our sites and host families before beginning teaching. This week reminded me a lot of the beginning of PST. You are on this stressful sort of high, trying to figure everything out with your family and school.

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On a picnic with my Gjakova host family

I visited the high school where I will be teaching each morning for meetings with the director and other teachers. I also met with my counterpart to discuss curriculum and classroom structure. This week also included talking to my host family about financial matters (rent is provided by the Peace Corps) and dietary needs.

Overall the week was an overwhelming one. It was a lot of meeting relatives and neighbors and teachers (and trying to remember complicated names). But things will calm down as I get adjusted, and in the meantime I will keep exploring my new home of Gjakova!

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The view from a cafe overlooking the city of Gjakova on a beautiful August day.

Site Envy: Finding out our permanent sites in Kosovo

The most anticipated day of Pre-Service Training is the day our permanent sites are announced.

For most Peace Corps Trainees, this day takes place during Week 8. My group, however, was able to find out our sites at the start of Week 5. (Check out my Guide to PST page for the PST schedule!) The Peace Corps staff warns us to remain flexible and not have any expectations, but that is easier said than done. After spending over a month in Kosovo and talking to the K1 volunteers, we can’t help but hope for a certain type of placement.

In case you didn’t know, the Peace Corps decides where to place volunteers within the country. Some Peace Corps countries interview trainees during PST to ask about their preferences. Not so in Kosovo. We do not get a say in the matter. Typically each volunteer is placed in a separate site, so you are on your own. In countries with more volunteers people may share their site with another PCV. Kosovo is so small that I’m sure some of us with gain site-mates next year. K1 has 23 volunteers, K2 (my group) has 36, and next year’s group will have 40 people.

The sites vary drastically. Some are remote villages up in the mountains, others are major cities with restaurants and shopping centers. The host families are another important factor. Some PCVs live in nice homes with wi-fi and hot showers. Others live in mountain shacks with squatty potties and get chased by wild dogs. Some PCVs live with large families and others are placed with a single adult. The schools we work at also vary: some are rundown with broken chalkboards, others are newly renovated with plentiful supplies. Some of us teach 6 year-olds, some teach classes at every grade level, and a few teach in secondary schools.

Even though I was trying to keep an open mind and remain flexible, I had a few specific hopes for my site:

1. A City
After living in an isolated Alaskan village for two years, I am ready to be back in a city. Living in Kamenice for the summer also made me realize how restrictive the gender roles can be in villages. Women typically are not supposed to visit cafes, so they spend almost all of their time in the home. Being in a city would give me much more freedom as a female. Unfortunately, I was warned by Peace Corps staff that 90% of us would be placed in villages.

2. Teaching High School
          Even though I was technically hired by Peace Corps as a Secondary Education Volunteer, we were told upon arrival that only a handful of us would be placed in high schools. (Check out the graphic below.) I was really hoping for an upper secondary assignment, because I prefer working with older students and most of my experience has been with teenagers.

Schools in Kosovo

3. A family without small children:
I don’t hate children, but living with a host family of adults is already exhausting. The thought of having a bunch of wild children running around my host home is enough to make me want to cry. As a woman it also is assumed that I must love taking care of children. I just don’t want to deal with that.
However, no one in my current host family speaks English because they are all over 50. My ideal future host family would have one or two kids between age 12 and 20, because a little bit of English support would go a long way.

Finally the day of Site Announcements arrived. I could hardly sleep the night before. You are, after all, finding out where you will spend two years of your life.

The staff gathered us all together and drew a rough map of Kosovo in the dirt with major cities marked by rocks. One by one they called out our names and announced our site. By the end we were all standing on the map in the approximate location of our village.

My site…  GJAKOVA.Kosovo map label

It is one of Kosovo’s major cities located near the western mountains. And guess what else? I was placed in a technical school, where I will teach 12th grade. I was so happy, I wanted to do cartwheels around the school! (Sadly I am incapable of doing a cartwheel.)

After our sites were announced we traveled to Gjilan to meet our teaching counterparts, followed by a two day teaching conference. From there we traveled on our own to our permanent sites for a three-night visit. It was both nerve-racking and incredibly exciting. (Read more about site visits here: PST in July)

My host family consists of a mom and dad in their 40s, along with their 12 and 15 year-old daughters. (And they speak some English!!) Their home is located in the city of Gjakova, just a ten minute walk from the city center and my school. (To read more about life with a host family, check out this post.)

We all returned from our site visits on Friday night, each of us with many stories to tell about our soon-to-be homes… thus producing Site Envy.

As you can imagine, it is difficult to avoid comparing our sites. And that comparison inevitable produces some jealousy. My counterpart is a confident woman in her mid-forties who speaks perfect English. Some volunteers were not so fortunate. One of the counterparts told his volunteer, “We will teach my way and we will not change the curriculum.” Yikes. A handful of people do not even have host families yet, so their site visits were spent trying to advertise themselves to the villagers in hopes of finding a home.

Kosovo PCV Map2As we stood on the map of Kosovo in the dirt, we could also look around and see which PCVs will be near us. Maybe you have a solid group of friends you’ve bonded with during PST, but now they are on the opposite side of the country. To make matters worse, the volunteer closest to you is your sworn enemy who you find unbearably annoying. (No worries, this is just hypothetical. I’m happy with the people in my region.)

Another problem is unmet expectations. Some of the volunteers who desperately wanted to teach teens have been placed with 1st-3rd graders. A couple of people who wanted tiny picturesque villages were given polluted cities. Some female volunteers were placed in ultra-conservative homes and were told that they must stay inside when they are not teaching.

The million-dollar question we were all asking after our visits was this: How did the staff decide where to place us? Some of the volunteers joked that they just throw darts at a map. I asked a few of the staff about the process and they told me that the first concern is finding a host family and matching their preferences. Most families prefer a female, hence why several guys were without sites until PST ended. Then they look at the school in the area and our experience level.

The site visits really brought home the fact that every volunteer’s service is different. Even within the tiny country of Kosovo, our experiences will vary greatly.

My advice to future volunteers is this: Imagine what your service will look like. Now take that picture and crumple it up, throw it in the trash, and then put it through the shredder just to be safe. Get excited for your service, but don’t have your heart set on any particulars. Realize you are not in control, and just make the most of whatever hand you are dealt.

In two weeks I’ll be discovering what Gjakova has in store!

PST July: Sweating in Kosovo

For an overview of Pre-Service Training, visit this page. To read about the first month of PST, check out June’s post. 

PST July

Hot in Kosovo2Living in Alaska for two years was not the best preparation for a summer in Kosovo.

June was manageable, but it did not last. July is here.

My 40+ minute walk to school each day in this heat can be a bit much.

One time I returned home, having walked for an hour in the hot sunshine carrying my backpack, and there were several beautiful women sitting on the porch with perfect hair and make-up. I was sweaty, tired, and likely a little smelly. As we greeted each other they noticed the sweat soaking through the back of my t-shirt. They pointed to it, said something in Albanian, and began laughing at me. Thanks guys. As if I didn’t feel gross enough already.

In case you haven’t figured it out already, there is no air-conditioning. It’s even rare to find a fan.

I’ve heard that daydreaming about cold places can actually lower your body temperature, so my thoughts have been saturated with Alaskan winters for the past month. Not sure if it’s working… it might just be making me cranky.

Anyways, let me tell you about the past month of training.

Me and Ambassador
Picture with Ambassador Jacobson at the Fourth of July party.

On July 2nd all of the Kosovo PCVs were invited to the Ambassador’s Fourth of July party in Prishtina. There were a lot of important people there, including the President of Kosovo. We mainly enjoyed a couple free drinks and looking fancy.

On Saturday, after language classes, a bunch of us went to the village of Hodonoc and hiked out to enjoy a beautiful picnic.

On the first Sunday of the month my host family drove us into the mountains to visit my host dad’s childhood home. We spent the day hiking around and cherry-picking. We filled several buckets with the most delicious cherries I have ever eaten.

Cherry picking combined

The rest of the month was packed with these major events. I’ll just summarize them here because I have other posts that go into more detail:

1. Site Announcements: The Peace Corps staff told us where we will spend the next two years of our lives. It was a much anticipated day. Check out my post on Site Envy to learn more about my permanent site. Spoiler alert: I’ll be in Gjakova!

2. Counterpart Conference: After our sites were announced we traveled to Gjilan to meet our teaching counterparts. They are the local teachers who we will be co-teaching with at the Kosovar schools. Kosovo map labelWe did lesson planning and learned about the differences between our education systems. I mainly remember all of us being really sweaty.

3. Site Visits: After the two-day conference in Gjilan, we all traveled to our permanent sites for a three-day visit. We got to see the schools we will work at and we met the families we will live with for two years. Some volunteers had less-than-pleasant experiences, but I’m happy to report that my visit went wonderfully! I could not be happier with my site and future family.

4. Trip to Prizren: After returning to our normal PST schedule for a couple days, we all traveled to the picturesque city of Prizren in southern Kosovo. We went on a long hike to reach a medieval fortress above the city, which was once the capital of the Serbian Empire. Afterwards we visited a mosque and walked through the cobblestone streets exploring the city.


5. Bajram: The month of fasting for Ramadam concludes with three days of feasting and visiting family. This major Muslim holiday is known as Eid al-Fitr or Bajram. If you’ve read my post on food in Kosovo, you’ll remember that my family feeds me a lot. Those experiences pale in comparison to Bajram. It is a day of endless baklava, traditional dishes, and more baklava. One volunteer was given a plate of baklava along with a bowl full of honey and was expected to eat it all.

Along with eating all day long, families travel from house to house to wish everyone a Happy Bajram. At each house you drink tea or coffee and eat a plate of baklava. My dentist would weep if he knew how much sugar I consumed.

6. Practicum: The final two weeks of the month were spent teaching English classes to local children.It was extremely hot in the school and classes started at 9:00 AM, so I was not expecting many students to show up, but I was surprised by the eagerness of the kids to learn English. Practicum2We had students ranging from 3 years-old to 16. Some spoke great English while others spoke none, so it was challenging planning lessons that would apply to such a wide range of ages and abilities. Despite this challenge, practicum went really well and it made me anxious to begin teaching in September!