The restaurant’s kitchen was organized chaos. No one truly had the lead role, but together we prepared and served Iftar, the meal breaking the fast during the month of Ramadan, to a group of 30 or so local villagers who were discussing topics ranging from women needing more representation in the village delegations to the new local resident in our village, or an angry mother bear looking for her missing cubs.
I’ve worked in restaurants since I was 17. My first restaurant job was as a waitress at the Tortugas Mexican restaurant located off IH-45 near The Woodlands. Within a month, I was let go. I went on to work in a Cuban fusion restaurant in Huntsville, a Russian restaurant in Austin, and at a Japanese food truck in the high desert of Far West Texas. The service industry was always a side gig, but a consistent side gig spanning 15 years now. I never really imagined, at 32, that my next unofficial part-time job would be helping out in a small village pizzeria in the lonely mountains of Kosovo.
Then again, when I was given Zlata’s Diary in the 3rd grade I probably thought then I would never see former Yugoslavia, or what a country looks like in the beginning stages of rebuilding and discovering its new identity.
It’s hard to pick up your life and move to a remote village where you know no one, and no one knows you, unless, of course, you join the Peace Corps. This is how I found myself in a small village called Pousko, whose population is just under 300, and perhaps even the number of village sheep rivals that of the human population.
But no, Peace Corps did not send me here to make pizza. Although, it probably would have been a meaningful secondary project, because for all of last year we had no pizza chef, therefore the pizzeria had no pizza. This irony was not lost on anyone. Even for the laid-back attitude of most Kosovars, a pizzeria without pizza is just–well, odd.
My primary project is co-teaching at the local school with my counterpart, where we teach English as a foreign language, alongside the other languages my students learn -- Albanian and German. The largest ethnic group in Kosovo is Albanian, and I live in a non-majority community of Bozniaks. The Bozniaks not only speak a language, (officially Serbian/Bosnian) only spoken by less than two percent of the country’s population, they specifically speak their own dialect called “Našinski” (which means “our language”). This language is not written or taught, but just learned by living amongst the Bozniak people of this region of Kosovo.
In the kitchen, we were dishing up the plates and, for me, there was a little extra pressure as I didn’t learn “kitchen Serbian” in my training, but still everyone in the kitchen was patient as we navigated how to work together with my language barrier. Then, in the midst of the rush, we paused to take a selfie. When in Kosovo, you learn the importance of taking selfies with your friends and family fairly quickly. Four of us were huddled around a card table set up next to the pizza oven, where in quick succession we plopped food down onto the plates for the waiting clientele.
The guests were served dates to break the fast, followed by supa, sallata, riža, meso, povrće and baskets of bread (“ hleb”). When my fellow co-workers for the evening (including my host sister) dawdled or got distracted or slowed down without any obvious reason, I would smile and jokingly say, “hajder!” which just means, “come on!”
Living with Bozniaks is one of the most culturally enriching but also at times one of the more isolating experiences I think one could have in Kosovo. In terms of numbers, Bozniaks only make up a small percentage of the nation’s population. Their language isolates them but they are also geographically isolated, living in the mountainous valley of the župa. Bozniaks are Muslims and they observe Ramadan and celebrate Bajram (Eid al-Adha, the feast marking the end of Ramadan when traditionally a sheep is slaughtered). The men pray in the village mosque, and in general families tend to be quite traditional. Gender roles, too, are traditional, with women being the main caretakers of the home: cooking, cleaning, and serving guests are reserved jobs only for women. A couple of times, I’ve asked my 12-year-old host brother to do something outside the norm, such as take his plate to the sink, or wash a dish. Each time, he has smiled at me with amusement, and to humor me will quickly do the requested task before running off quickly as if to forget the memory of experiencing a task only carried out by his mother, his aunties, his sisters, his American host sister…
Last year, when I first arrived in Kosovo, I lived with an Albanian family during my training period. This family is blessed with grandparents that embody every character trait anyone could wish for in a grandparent: humor, acceptance, loving-kindness, and warmth. One evening, my host grandmother came into my room and started asking me questions. Kosovo is a very family-oriented society, and I think the host families whom volunteers live with are very understanding of how much we must miss our families back home, wherever home may be. My host grandmother, Nona, began her questions that evening, sitting on my bed, asking me about my family, about my mother...even 15 years later, this subject can be very difficult for me, having lost my mother when I was 17. That night after she approached me with such openness and curiosity, and knowing I couldn’t explain to her in my rudimentary Albanian the truth of what had happened all those years ago, I began to cry.
My host grandmother quickly understood what was happening, when I finally was able to explain to her that I had no mother, that she died when I was a teenager Nona started to cry, and together we sat on my bed, with only the language of grief between us. That moment, although painful and raw, was one of the very few times in my life that felt like an affirmation—that someone understood what a loss it is, to lose a mother. In my interactions with people from Kosovo over this year, I see that people understand that here. You can see it on their faces, and it is a powerful experience, to be understood at your deepest levels of vulnerability.
With one year left in my service, this marker is a natural point of reflection. If I could endow anyone with “words of wisdom” that one inevitably learns during Peace Corps service, it is that it is truly hard to know a culture without living it. Reading and researching can’t substitute for experience. Living with people, living their experience, spending precious time with them and building relationships is an important part of finding common bonds. Also, it’s important to understand the cultural gaps and fissures, the things that are difficult to bridge. One Returned Peace Corps Volunteer aptly said, “Peace Corps is...more a training ground for cultural sensitivity”.
Indeed, seeing another culture from the inside-out, it is very difficult to walk away without a perspective shift. Perhaps the most concise way to put it is that it gives you pause when you encounter something different. Slowly, like a pebble on a beach, this experience molds and wears you down, for better or for worse, until you aren’t even sure where the change began or where it will end. One day, you wake up, and realize that somehow, you’ve become a local to a place that was seemingly chosen for you at random. And it’s hard to really know anymore how you were before, or how you may be again once you’ve left the lonely mountains, the smoky pizzeria, and the evening call to prayer that echoes through the valley calling out like a voice in a dream.