Albania & Kosovo, Aug 2010

Hi everyone,

It’s Friday the 13th, the first Friday of Ramadan here in Berat, Albania,
and the call to prayer is starting once again from the mosque across the
way, echoing eerily but beautifully across the valley and off the
surrounding mountains. I'm listening from my perch on the rooftop, where
the hotel’s wireless barely reaches. I like it here. I’d intended to go to
the Ionian Sea, but I hear it’s packed with Italian vacationers and ex-pat
Albanians returning to visit, so every day I ask the kind hotel owner if
our room is available for one more day. It’s too hot in the day to do much
of anything, but as soon as the sun sinks near the mountains I climb the
white cobblestone road up to the 600-year-old castle village on the
hilltop, where I marvel at the views of the valley and savor glimpses of
the castle villagers’ daily life as it starts back up after siesta.

Albania is not what I expected. I don’t know if my impressions came from
old ideas of the closed-to-the world oppression of Hoxha’s communist
decades, or the chaotic free-for-all of the early 90’s as a third of
Albania’s population dashed for the border when it finally opened after
Hoxha’s death, and the country struggled to find some sort of stasis in a
time so desperate that even hospitals and aid organizations were
ineffectual because their equipment and supplies were repeatedly stolen
for resale.

No, what I’ve seen so far of Albania reminds me of Italy, with little
cafes on every block serving top-notch espresso, vacationers and locals
alike taking evening strolls between loaded grapevines and old stone
houses as soon as the temperature permits, and tidy streets relatively
free of petty crime (with the exception of over-charging tourists for
anything possible, which seems to be the modus operandi). The power
outages, dilapidated Communist housing, and subpar infrastructure remind
me that I am not in Italy, but still, I feel like I’m on vacation, which
actually isn’t such a bad thing after Kosovo.

Kosovo was challenging, but beautiful too. I arrived on the day the
International Court declared that the region could legally go ahead with
the process of becoming an independent country. I actually thought it
already was, and was surprised to find that my Hungarian airline ticket
said I was flying into Pristina, Serbia, not Pristina, Kosovo, and that if
I entered Kosovo overland from Serbia I had to exit that way as well if I
ever wanted to return to Serbia, because otherwise Serbia wouldn’t
recognize that I’d left the country, since they insist Kosovo is part of
Serbia and thus the border there doesn’t exist. The minority Serb
population in Kosovo, which exists primarily in small KFOR-protected
enclaves, still uses Serbian currency in their daily interactions instead
of euros.

Roma, or Gypsies, tend to live at the edge of the Serb enclaves, often
next to the town dump. They’re openly discriminated against by both
Albanians and Serbs (although Roma/Serb friendships are not so uncommon),
and the informal apartheid is so complete that many Rom don’t feel safe
leaving their mahala (neighborhood), and few will venture into Albanian
areas. The threat of violence is real, and several people here have lost
family members to racial violence. The unemployment rate is 90%, and the
few who have found someplace that will hire them hold onto their jobs
tenaciously despite having to work harder for less pay. They struggle to
maintain their culture after centuries of oppression, marginalization,
racial hatred, and attempts at forced assimilation.

But they have not assimilated, and their culture remains their own,
distinct from those around them even as it changes to adapt to the times.
I had to buy new skirts in Skopje because Roma women do not generally show
their knees, so my shorts were inappropriate (although on my last day
there I did see one neighbor in a miniskirt). Cleanliness is of utmost
importance, and while some of the strictness of the traditional
cleanliness rituals and taboos have loosened, every house I entered was
still meticulously kept. Gender roles are strictly prescribed, and in my
first days in the mahala Marko had to repeatedly insist that people talk
directly to me, rather than talking to me through him while I was sitting
next to them. But Marko had already paved the path of breaking the norms
by taking part in the women’s cleaning work, so folks were quick to let go
of the formalities and soon were treating me as part of the family, as
they did him. Soon they were including me in their outings, inviting me
sit with them (many hours are spent each day sitting outside, chatting
with whoever is around, sipping Turkish coffee), and I even accompanied
them to a wedding, after which Sabina and Secreta had fun dressing me up
in their Roma wedding attire for photos (which I’ll post one day soon).

But it was the kids who were the first to make me feel like part of the
community. I started going every evening to help with the little kids’
English class. I’d sit at the table with them and help them draw pictures
and write their words in English, and I loved it. (I never outgrew sitting
around making simple drawings with colored pencils). I realized right away
that I had to be careful to be a help and not a hindrance, because the
little ones vied for my attention and raced for the chair next to me, then
imitated everything I did. I’d have to stop them from erasing their own
drawings when they saw me sketching something a bit differently. On the
way home they would hold my hands and walk with me back down the road,
reciting the alphabet or pointing things out in English with words they’d
learned in class. Their enthusiasm was contagious.

Despite my love for the kids and so many of the people, Kosovo was a
challenging place to be. Dusty, polluted, and torn apart by war, the area
offered little in the way of respite or beauty. It is a country in the
midst of growing pains, with cheap new construction sprouting up
everywhere, in sprawling haphazard fashion, next to the narrow,
poorly-designed roadways which are perpetually choked with traffic. Even
the capital’s downtown was devoid of charm (although I did visit one
beautiful old town called Prizren, about 2 hours outside Pristina in the

In the mahala, there is no trash pickup, so I had to be always on the
alert for when the neighbors burned their garbage (and occasionally the
dump was set on fire too), so I could race to shut windows when the wind
brought poison fumes our way.  At night farmers burned the nearby fields
for cheap fertilizer, so we slept with sealed windows despite the heat.
Power and water outages were a daily occurrence.

The dysfunction extended beyond just the country’s infrastructure. The
community suffered from bad communication, old family feuds, unhealthy
food, and lack of education in addition to insufficient resources and
everything else that was stacked against them. Getting anything done was
amazingly difficult. I think it is almost impossible to live in the midst
of such dysfunction without it seeping inside to some degree. Before long
I found myself, too, giving up on things more easily than usual,
communicating poorly, and being more inclined to just sit and drink
coffee. It made me really appreciate the people I met such as Hisen who
were working so tirelessly to improve their communities.

So it was with mixed feelings that I left the mahala last week. I packed a
sweet bag of spontaneous going-away presents: pink lipstick, a striped
shirt, a flowery hair clip, hoop earrings. I left them books and San
Francisco chocolates, even though it’s the one place I’ve been where
chocolate is not particularly well-liked. When it came time to say goodbye
to the kids, I cried. They asked me when I was coming back. I said I
didn’t know. I invited them to come visit me in San Francisco, but I might
as well have been asking them to visit me on the moon. I thought of the
little ones as my bus glided without delay over the border to Albania,
where the mountain air was clear and the tension of Kosovo began to
dissolve from my psyche and my shoulder muscles. I can leave. For the
foreseeable future at least, Kosovo is all they will know.

Photos are starting to go up on Click on the word
“photos” on the bottom of the page instead of the photos themselves so
they’ll come up organized in sets.

much love to you all,