Some things I’ve learned about my country of service and myself during my first year in Kosovo.
Things I’ve Learned About Kosovo
Kosovars love bread. So much so, that ‘bukë,’ the Albanian word for ‘bread,’ is often synonymously with ‘food.’ Bread is served with virtually every meal, sometimes even if that meal consists of a bread-based main dish (i.e. pita, pite, flija, etc).
My host family is not as well off as some other families in Kosovo, so I have more of an authentic village version of Kosovar food than volunteers in larger towns or cities. We grow our own pasule (beans), speca (peppers), and a variety of other vegetables. We get apples from neighbors with apple trees and my host siblings pick off all the kernels on a cob of corn so that they can pop popcorn.
This version of living has really helped me reflect on how readily available food was for me back in the states, and probably why I’ve lost nearly 40 pounds since coming to Kosovo. My time here has taught me that bread doesn’t inherently make you overweight (I’ve eaten more bread in these past 12 months than I have in my entire life), copious processed foods and overeating does.
Most things my host mom makes are made in a large, round pan, and then placed into the oven of the wood burning stove. No microwave, toaster oven, or ability to adjust temperature for the stovetop or oven. She uses a generous amount of cooking oil in most things, and occasionally makes chicken lung soup, to my dismay. It’s always a toss up of what’s for dinner (lunch is generally soup from a packet and eggs), but it is almost guaranteed to have bread.
It’s not uncommon for people in the states to say that family is everything, but here in Kosovo, especially in the village setting, family really is everything. Families live close together, generally in the same village. Retirement homes aren’t a thing.
One of my host sisters had a health scare in the middle of the night a few weeks ago, and ever since then my family all sleeps in the living room together. They all slept together in the living room during wintertime due to that being the only heated room in the house, but now it’s purely for safety and family.
We have extended family come over nearly every day, sometimes just for coffee, or sometimes to spend a night or two. From an American perspective, there’s no room for more people to stay over in a small house of 10 already, but from a Kosovar perspective, there’s always room.
I’m asked nearly daily if I’ve called my mom and how my family is doing back home. I’ll be asked by guests who aren’t as regular if I miss my family. I’ve also been told (multiple times) that it must be awful for my mother with me being so far away from home, especially since I’m the youngest.
My family back home is rather spread out, with my parents in Texas, sister in Washington, and my brother and his wife in Illinois. But since Kosovo is roughly the size of Connecticut and family values are so incredibly prevalent here, it’s nearly impossible to explain that although it’s hard being away from family, I’m not alone in my moving away endeavors (though the most extreme in my family’s context); it’s an American thing.
Things I’ve Learned About Myself
I’m Much More ‘Go-With-The-Flow’ Than I Was a Year Ago
I’ve expressed how I thought of myself as flexible and patient before Peace Corps, but my experience thus far has made my flexibility even more flexible and my patience even more patient.
The school system in Kosovo is very different than what I’m used to back in America, so I’ve had to adapt to that. A random program in the middle of the school day at the culture house next door where some students are watching the program while others are still in class and others just left to go home? Seems normal. Power outage when my lesson plan for English club relied on watching a video? No problem. Pants got caught on the chalk holder below the board and ripped during English club in front of all my students? No big deal; I’ll just tie my jacket around my waist.
That last example didn’t have to do with a different school system, but you get the idea. Anything can happen.
Additionally, and more relevant to my life here, I rarely know what’s going on in my house. Due to language and culture barriers, I’m often confused and taken off guard when company comes over or whatever else may happen. I constantly roll with the punches in my homestay experience. I’ve had my host sister knock on my door around 10 PM, after I’d gone to my room for the night, and offer me a plate of 3 boiled potatoes. Why? I don’t know. I’ve seen 6/7 of my host siblings contract chicken pox (my 17 year old sister had already had it); not something I thought I’d experience during my Peace Corps service.
One day I walked into the bathroom to find the toilet seat broken in half. We then proceeded to not have a toilet seat for a few months. The lock on the bathroom door was broken for a few months at the beginning so I made a habit of making a barricade out of the laundry hamper to block the door and give me enough time to get up and slam it shut when someone inevitably came to try and open it while I was in there. Another time, I walked into the bathroom to find several bushels of mint leaves by the toilet soaking in the mop water. I’m seeing a theme here with bathroom mishaps.
I just accept that I usually won’t know what’s going on and that anything can happen, and it makes things easier to cope with. A sense of humor goes a long way.
I’m Much Less “American” Than I Was a Year Ago
When I look back at how I used to shower daily and wash my clothes once a week, I’m in awe.
Showering is a chore here with my shower just being a corner of the bathroom and my needing to hold up the shower head to rinse off. The chore of showering was especially felt during Winter when I had to come back, wet, to my ice cold room and get dressed.
My host mom is essentially always doing laundry. In a house with 7 kids, it’s completely understandable. The washer doesn’t hold as many clothes as the ones I used back in the states, and also takes a few hours to complete a cycle. Additionally, houses in Kosovo don’t have dryers (and if they do have one, they are an outlier) so all clothes need to be hang-dried. Due to this, the process of washing / drying clothes takes a lot longer. And during Winter, clothes were constantly backed up due to freezing cold temperatures making drying more of a process than it already is. So, because of these circumstances, I don’t wash my clothes nearly as much as I did back in the states. I use smells and stains as a rule of thumb in deciding if certain clothes really need to be washed or if they can get a few more wears out of them.
My bed is a pull out couch with a thin foam pad on top, and my 2 pillows are very lumpy and small. Back in the states, I had a thick mattress and a plethora of fluffy, nice pillows for sleeping and some for decoration, too.
My host family doesn’t use toilet paper (not unheard of here in Kosovo), so I generally just use the built in bidet in the toilet. I fought it at first and awkwardly brought my own toilet paper into the bathroom and disposed of it in my room (you don’t flush toilet paper over here), but realized how ridiculous and lowkey gross that was, so I just embraced the bidet.
As I’ve mentioned multiple times in my blog, I don’t have WiFi at my house and have adjusted accordingly. It took a bit to fully adjust, but a year in, I’m completely used to it. Gone are the days of aimlessly watching YouTube videos (videos use a lot of data) or browsing Netflix to see what sounds good before clicking on a random title. I plan ahead when I need WiFi for work or to download things.
Long blog post short, I’ve learned a lot this past year and every day am learning more. This has been the most growth-filled year in my life thus far, has brought some really beautiful, supportive people into my life, and made me obsessed with mountains since I live near some pretty gorgeous ones. I’m excited to see what this next year of service brings. One year down, one(ish) to go!