Albania & Kosovo, Aug 2010

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 mountains).

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,