Happy New Year!!!

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A little over a week into the new year and I’m still relatively excited about everything that’s going to happen…excited and a bit overwhelmed. There will be a lot going on this year: tests to be given, conferences to attend, as well as the the arrival of the Kosovo 2 cohort. I didn’t make any New Year’s resolutions for myself, and if I had I would have broken every last one already, seeming as I haven’t done anything in a constant fashion since the year started. Instead, I decided to be more mindful of things, things that I need, things that I have to accomplish, and also the needs of others around me, which is a really big one to consider as a Peace Corps Volunteer.

I don’t know what this blog’s purpose will be in 2015, if it’s to give advice, tell a story, or allow me to stream of consciously narrate anything and everything that’s happening to me (it’s probably not that one), but I know this to be true: six months, three seasons, and one new year later, joining Peace Corps and coming here to serve in Kosovo is still one of the best decision I’ve ever made in my life. It’s not easy. Life here is not easy, being a PCV is not easy, and I’d be lying through my teeth if I said it was. It’s worth it though. I hope I still feel that way come August 2016, but for now it’s true. Here look:

Have you ever seen a pretty sunrise?

Have you ever seen a prettier sunrise?

The experiences that I’ve been given here, the friends that I’ve made, even the trials that I face, all make serving here worth it. So in 2015, whether it’s finally deciding to apply for Peace Corps, doing that study abroad you’ve been dreaming about, asking that person out, or going on an adventure of a lifetime, whatever it is just try it. 2015 will be the best year of your life, not just because you believe it, but because it’s the one you’re living now. Go do something you think is worth it.

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A Little Slice of Home

apple pie kosovo style 369

I really like making things with my hands, seeing those creations come to life, and sharing them with others. That’s what cooking is to me – a process of creation. I won’t purport myself as an amazing cook, but give me a recipe and I can make something with it. That’s exactly what I did last Friday with the help of my counterpart (Peace Corps speak for co-teacher). The week before last I purchased this cute little cookbook from this cute little American style bakery in the city close to my village and immediately zeroed my focus in on a recipe for apple pie. I’d never tried to make anything so hard before, but since Thanksgiving is coming up soon I thought I’d give it a try. I told myself that I would try the recipe out first and if it worked out well, I’d make it again for my host family and for the other volunteers when we celebrate Thanksgiving in the mountains together this year.

The first thing I did was enlisted the help of my counterpart, who’s always interested in learning how to cook new American dishes. She lent me the use of her kitchen, some ingredients I didn’t have, and a helping hand then we set to work. Like I said, I’d never made anything so complicated before dessert wise, so everything could have gone wrong, but when nothing did I was pleasantly shocked. We had ingredients missing here and there, but the end result turned out to be this little beauty here:

As American as...^&^

                As American as…^&^

Lucky for us, it wasn’t just pretty looking, it also tasted really good. Trust me this isn’t self-promotion of my amazing cooking skills (ha <- see I’m laughing at myself). If anything it’s a mixture of belated shock and feelings and I’ll try to explain those feelings as best I can. Apple pie is not an invention of America by any means, but over the years it’s become a symbol of American culture and tradition (at least in America). Even though, it doesn’t solely belong to America, it’s not something I can find too easily here in Kosovo. There’s a bakery on nearly every corner here and while you’ll be able to grab yourself a croissant me molla (apple croissant) – though I’d recommend the croissant me çokollatë (croissant with chocolate filling) myself, yum – you’d be hard press to find yourself a bakery that sells pita me molla (apple pie, sort of), at least the way we make it.

So to be able to make something that’s associated with American tradition with my Kosovar Albanian counterpart and her family, to share that part of my culture and have the product turn out good, was an amazing and overwhelming feeling. I walked out of my counterpart’s house with a feeling of happiness and accomplishment (and a slice of pie to go), that overflowed into everything else I did for the rest of the day. And needless to say I’ll be making two more of those yummies for Thanksgiving, so I’m hoping that this one didn’t happen to be beginners luck. I’ve been amazingly fortunate to experience so many culture insights through helping my family cook: from picking up walnuts in the yard that went in the baklava served to guest during mini-Bajram to helping my host sister make ajvar for the coming winter months. With Thanksgiving quickly approaching I’m glad I now have the opportunity to share with them a little of my culture through food.

My First In-Site “Run” (and a little Tour de Culture)

It’s unbelievable, right? My first post in a month long absence and I end up talking about exercise. In my defense, this is my freshest experience at the moment seeing as it basically happened a few hours ago. I also must mention as a disclaimer that I am not a runner, hints why run in the title is in quotations. I would like to enjoy the sport, however, and my goal is to one day run a half-marathon, which might happen sooner than I think. Kosovo actually has an annual half-marathon that’s held every year in Prishtina to my dismay (read: elation). At the moment, I’m trying to get myself to the point of running five minutes straight without the desire to pass out, but that’s our secret. People here seem to think I’m a hardcore runner, cause I mention the sport so much.

Now that I’ve gone and done it, I do wonder what took me so long. I’ve been in my quaint little village in the Peja municipality for nearly two months. I suppose it was a mixture of nerves and novelty. I feel very safe in my village, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s safe for a foreign female to go on a jog by herself out in near nowhere. When I say that I don’t even mean from other people. I mean from the elements, nature, and bad luck. Today, however, I decided to go for it. After teaching in the morning and hanging around the house for a few hours I got a little restless. Usually after class I come back home to study Albanian, read (can’t even count how many words have passed these eyes over the last almost two months), or prepare for the next day’s lesson. That wasn’t cutting it today and after one of our usual random power outraged forced me off the internet and outside among civilization, I decided to go for it. I doned my running gear, grabbed my music, and headed for the next village over that I’d never seen before.

Needless to say I made it back in one piece. The few noteworthy things to mention were the dog that got territorial and started barking when it saw me jogging closer (wild dogs are one of those safety concerns) – which made me slow my pace when passing by it, having to vacate the road for passing cars, and passing my students on different parts of the road as I jogged by.  All and all it wasn’t bad and I might even add it into my regular schedule as a way to build my endurance and see different parts of my sight that remain unexplored as of yet.

Action Shot!! - See Peace Corps, I'm wearing my helmet.

Action Shot!! – See Peace Corps, I’m wearing my helmet.

That’s one of the things I like most about exercising in Kosovo, the nature. A few weeks ago, a couple of other volunteers and I went on the Tour de Culture, an annual non-competitive bike ride through different cities. This year, the bike ride was 49.5km from Vushtrri to Podjevo. Unfortunately, I didn’t make it all the way. I gave up around the 42km mark and had to take the bus the rest of the way, but it was an awesome experience that I’ll be participating in again next year. Hopefully next year there will be a lot more culturally stops. That’s one thing this tour didn’t have a lot of, because of the area in Kosovo we were biking through. I was banking on the cultural stops to get me through the long distance, but with only two rest stops during the entire tour before the end, it’s a miracle I made it as far as I did. Despite not making it all the way, it’s still one of the coolest things I’ve ever done.

My (Real) First Day of School

I feel like I finally have something to write about, apart from the day to day adventures of living and working in a foreign country, that is. School in Kosovo officially started September 1st, but unfortunately for me, my school’s currently being renovated. A new roof, new bathrooms, but until the bathrooms are complete the school can’t officially open up to the students. So last week from Monday to Thursday I got up, went to school, amended teachers’ meetings I couldn’t understand, received my books for class, and went back home. There’d be the occasional trip in to Peja for coffee, and the sporadic trip to Rugova where I ate the freshest fish I’d ever had it my life, but that was about it. I was told earlier last week that the bathrooms would be ready by Monday of this week and by the end of last week that statement was corrected and I was told that it’d be another week before they were complete.

Rugova Mountains

Rugova Mountains

I understand about the schedule changes. These things happen, but I was starting to wonder about what that meant for me as a volunteer. What would Peace Corps do if they found out that I wasn’t working in a classroom? What should I be doing instead, besides reviewing the books for the school year? I was considering contacting someone, maybe Peace Corps or the Ministry of Education and seeing if an open school would like a volunteer for a week, but today I learned about the solution that had been agreed upon. As it turns out when the school does finally open we’ll be having class from Monday to Saturday until all the missed days are made up for. My counterpart told me to keep reviewing and rest for this week, because starting next week or so, we’ll be having class six days a week, which I really don’t mind. I like this solution much better than going to visit a school in a community were I won’t be living and working in for the next two years. I’ll gladly work a few Saturdays if it means the students in my community get the attention they need from me when it comes to learning English.

Speaking of students, I had the chance to introduce myself to two of my classes today, while the students were in school being informed about the schedule changes. It was a perfect chance for me to gauge my students’ English ability to figure out what level of understanding most students where at in both classes. I’m really impressed at the level of English that both my classes speak. Because today wasn’t a real class day I tried to make the exchange communicative as opposed to focused on accuracy or grammar. There were nerves on both sides, but the more we talked the more they opened up and in the second class there were enough students to play a game.

After exhausting the standard, “What’s your name? “How was your summer? questions, I saw that I was losing their attention quickly. I asked if they wanted to play a game and this one student was very adamant in saying that she didn’t like playing games in the classroom. I almost went back to asking questions, but decided to at least try the game to see how it’d work. It’s a game I’d played myself before – while studying Albanian – called “Bang, Bang”, a game that another volunteer had introduced us to. It’s a game of speed. Usually how it goes is -when I played – someone would say a word in English and the people playing would have to be the first to say it in Albanian then yell “bang, bang” as they held their fingers like pretend guns. The person who said it first and correctly stayed in place while someone else replaced the loser. Minus, the whole having them fake kill each with pretend guns and shouts of “bang, bang”, I basically had two students stand in the front of the class facing each other as I called out a word in Albanian. It was the perfect opportunity to embarrass myself in Albanian, so that they knew it was okay to potentially embarrass themselves in English.

It was a great game for them, allowing them to review the English they’d learned, without the atmosphere being terribly competitive. By the time my counterpart said that it was time to go, all the students had taken at least two turns (including the girl who wasn’t interested in playing games in class) and they still expressed interest in continuing the game even though “class” was over. That kind of enthusiasm for school makes me really happy as a teacher. It’s going to be challenging at times for sure, but I’m confident that this is going to be a great school year for all of us.

 

 

“Teaching is more than imparting knowledge, it is inspiring change. Learning is more than absorbing facts, it is acquiring understanding.”  ~William Arthur Ward

It’s Official

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I am now a Peace Corps Volunteer. It’s a title that’s really interesting to use and that we’ve all been working toward for the last 11 weeks. The distinction was made very clear throughout Pre-Service Training (PST), that we were Trainees until we took the oath even though we were considered volunteers, for volunteering our time to travel halfway across the world to serve in another country. I understand the distinction now more than ever and I’ll continue to understand it in different ways the further I progress in my service.

I don’t really know how to explain yesterday’s swearing-in ceremony other than it was very emotional, more emotional than I’d prepared myself for. The ceremony itself was very straightforward, very nice. A lot of people gave very moving speeches about their hopes for Peace Corps in the coming years including the Ambassador to Kosovo, Tracey Jacobson and Kosovo’s President, Atifete Jahjaga. We had the honor of being sworn in by the Peace Corps Director, Carrie Hessler-Radelet and of being the first group she swore in as the new director (a lot of first in Kosovo). One of my favorite parts was when two of our very own gave amazing, very well practiced speeches in Albanian.

The hardest part came during the informal reception when I had to say good-bye to my PST host family. Kosovo’s a small country so it’s guaranteed that I will see them again, but even if that is the case, the dynamics won’t be the same. I don’t live there anymore and even though I was always kind of a visitor, I’ll be a visitor for real whenever I go back. Internalizing that was the hard part and the part that made the tears flow. It was amazingly ironic having my host sister wipe away my tears telling me not to cry in Albanian as tears fell from her eyes. I could tell my host brother and sister were happy for me. I was happy for myself and I wanted to express that happiest, but it was a hard thing to do knowing that I wasn’t returning to the comfort of the home I’d known for the past two months. Instead I’d be traveling to my permanent site in the Peja municipality to begin my Peace Corps service not even an hour after swearing in (well maybe an hour, I was too emotional to keep up with the time).

My awesome host sister and brother at my swearing-in ceremony.

My awesome host sister and brother at my swearing-in ceremony.

That’s where I am now, in the Peja region meeting my new host family members (I have a big family here in Peja), getting a feel for my site, and trying to mentality prepare myself for the toughest job I’ll ever love (Peace Corps should seriously consider bringing that slogan back). It’ll take awhile to get used to my new environment, but I’m up for the challenge. I’m also comforted by the fact that even though I’m the only volunteer in the Peja area, there are 24 other awesome volunteers walking this Peace Corps journey together with me in Kosovo. We came in as 25 and we swore in as 25, which is so reassuring. I’m positive that great things are going to happen in the next two years and I’m so proud to be a part of Kosovo 1.

So Far

I’ve been in Kosovo for three weeks now, so it’s about time I’ve written something about my experiences here. The problem is that so much has happened these last three weeks that if I were to give you a minute by minute post of everything, I’d have a novel length post. To generalize things a bit my opinions on Kosovo haven’t really changed all that much since writing my “Kosovo First Impressions” post. If anything they’ve gotten better. I still think that Kosovo is an absolutely beautiful country. Just when I think that I’ve finally gotten use to all of the natural beauty around me, I take a walk down an unfamiliar road or a hike up a hillside, and I’m blown away all over again by the beauty that’s before me. There’s probably a part of me that will never get over the fact that I walk out the door to the sight of rolling hills every morning .

The view from my house in Kosovo.

The view from my house in Kosovo.

People are so amazingly pleasant as well in Kosovo. My host family is amazing and they’re so patient with me as I completely destroy the Albanian language or struggle with explanations of cultural concepts. They’re quick to tell me that my Albanian is improving when I get a particular word or sentence structure right and are very delighted when I take interest in learning about their culture, like how to make Turkish coffee for example. I pretty much have that down so if I ever have guess in my house in the next two years I’ll probably offer them Turkish coffee or Turkish tea. I haven’t learned how to make Turkish tea yet, but I’m eager to learn. I’m very careful to watch my host mom and sister as they work in the kitchen. I’m really determined to learn how to make different Kosovar dishes, because I think it’s some of the best food I’ve had so far. It’s definitely not as easy as it looks though. Sometimes my host mom will start cooking at around 4:00 and the food won’t be ready until around 5:30 or 6:00 when we all sit down to eat. Other times they can have a meal prepared within the blink of an eye, which is nothing but skill to me.

My host sister and I the day we were introduced to our host families.

My host sister and I the day we were introduced to our host families.

Strangers are very pleasant as well and that has a lot to do with Kosovar and American relations, which is a entirely new topic of its own. The general consensus seems to be that people want us here, that they’re happy that we all like and are taking an interest in their country. I’m asked all the time how I like Kosovo and when I say that I like it here and that Kosovo is beautiful people’s moods seem to lighten. It’s like a point of pride for them to have a foreigner praise Kosovo, which is totally understandable. And the Kosovar people should definitely be proud of what they have here. No country is without its ability to improve, but at the point I’m in right now, I feel like there’s a lot more that I’m learning than I’m imparting on the community. That’s really what PST is all about though, integrating, language learning and technical preparation so that we can be effective volunteers once we swear in and enter service. I’m really looking forward to it, my two year service as well as my next eight weeks of PST. I want Kosovo to become my home, but I also want to think of each day I’m here as an adventure.

Kosovo First Impressions

The view as we're riding from Prishtina to Gjilan

The view as we’re riding from Prishtina to Gjilan

I think it’s important to reflect over the moments just after you’ve experienced something novel, especially so that you can look back over it sometime down the line to see how your opinions and perspectives have changed. I came into Kosovo having no expectations of what to expect – it was kind of hard trying to form any opinion – because we’d be the first volunteers to ever work in Kosovo. Not even 24 hours in country and I’ve already managed to discover so much beauty and hospitality in Kosovo. From the VIP welcome we received at the airport to the warm offer from Kosovo Albanians to pull up a chair and have a drink with them in celebration of the elections that just took place today, I’m just blown away over and over again.

The food is great, the scenery amazing, and the people just as nice as they can be. I’m really eager to see what the next 27 months is like living here. Even as I write this post there are still tons of people celebrating on the streets. Everything that happens in this country is history in the making and I have the great pleasure to be right in the middle of it all. It may not seem possible, but I’m already attached to this place. I can’t wait to start learning Albanian so that I can interact with people in a way that I know will show them that I respect their culture and that I’m as happy to be here as they are to have us. When US Ambassador to Kosovo came to meet us at the airport she put it best when she said we were the luckiest Peace Corps Volunteers in the entire world, because Kosovo is an amazing place with very nice people. Even after less than a day I think she was absolutely right!