Living in Kosova has expanded my vocabulary. I know how to say “good day,” “good bye,” and “he’s sick in the head” in Albanian. It has also taught me that “winter” can be a verb. For example, I feel compelled to stay inside after dark, which in the bleak mid-winter of Kosova, is anytime after 4 pm. Many factors contribute to this, mainly, my safety, the below freezing temperatures and the need to stoke my fire to keep warm against the cold. As I cuddle in a blanket with a hot cup of tea, alone and loving it, my guilt alarm sounds. I came to Kosova to write about the people here, not about the books I am reading. But luckily the guilt is easily contained, and for the majority of my day, I hear a voice saying, “there is time.” I also hear a voice saying, "What the heck were you thinking, leaving Los Angeles for negative 12 degree weather?"
A long-time resident of Southern California, I am learning to winter. The season forces me to slow down, even when walking. If I try to gallop, I fall on the ice. So gingerly, I place one foot, bulky in two wool socks and a waterproof boot, in front of the other. It looks similar to a giant, blue marshmellow performing Buddhist walking meditation.
I do visit families, and even at my winter pace, the social pressures of Kosova are beginning to overwhelm the introvert within. Agron, a man who takes care of Maria’s house and of me as he comes and chops kindling for my fire, mentioned today that I should come to his home for tea or coffee. He said his wife told him today, “Rebecca has been here two weeks and has not come!” His imitation of his wife made her sound upset, and rather masculine. Though I thought about arguing that I have only been here ten days, and that hardly constitutes two weeks, I opted for social graces and an easier second language conversation, and asked when I should come. Agron laughed, and explained that he does not set the date, I decide when I will come, and just stop by.
The unexpected guest explains much about Kosova. The homes are always clean, warm, and inviting. There is always hot water ready for tea or coffee, and snacks ready to eat. This also explains why the woman of the house looks so tired. And why I am glad that the doorbell on Maria’s gate is broken.
It's early morning (1:30) - I waited once again for the power to come on. Apparently Maria's house is in the bad grid. As far I can understand, there's some kind of "power caste" system in place. And it only makes it worse if you pay your electricity bill - then the company assumes you have money, and hikes up your rate.
Today I went with Isaac and Luli to the cultural center - patrolled by the French troops. Once we passed the check point, we filmed Luli leading an advocacy meeting. Kids from rural villages bussed in for the meeting, to learn how to meet their own needs, that Luli asked them to identify. The two groups decided they would work to get 100 chairs needed for their schools, and to start a computer lab. Next, they work on defining the activities they need to complete to do so, and begin work on project proposals. The kids were packed into the narrow room, as you can see in the pictures. I provided the entertainment as I attempted to sneak out, wearing my giant puffy parka that either suffocated half the class, or smashed into the mini-blinds.
The other pictures are from around the city. The shots of the bridge are from the south (Albanian) side, where I am staying, showing the North side of the city. I'll write more about that later, but most of the city is on the North side, and many Albanians rent homes on the South side, while they're own homes are occupied by Serbs living rent-free. Still many issues like this that I thought would be resolved six years after the war.
I'm waiting for the power to come on - I've been showering at night when it comes on at about midnight, to guarantee I get to wash my hair with hot water. We went south to Ferazaj tonight to watch the footage Luli shot on Saturday, and when we came out of the studio it was snowing. Second time it has snowed since I've been here. It had just begun to stick, but by the time we were back in Mitro it was clear - we live at a lower elevation.
Did I mention that those in the know (which is everyone excluding me) say that it's supposed to be the coldest winter in 80 years? When I heard my friend Habib say "30 below" a defense mechanism kicked in and all I heard was a low buzzing.
Language learning is fun - I feel like a five year old. In the car on the way home from Ferazaj, Luli taught me how to count to five. He is determined to force me to learn Albanian. When we visited his family last night, I soon realized that he was mis-translating my English. I would say something quite bland, he would translate, and they would fall off the couch laughing. Later, I realized he had told them I was homeless, and his mother offered that I could stay on their couch. Thus, I must learn Albanian in self-defense.
Today a woman named Aferdita came to clean Maria's house. Naturally, the power went off before she had vacuumed, so I offered her a cup of coffee. If I am her only experience of an American woman, I apologize. I appeared quite incompetent as I first poured salt into our mugs, took a big gulp, and spit it into the freshly cleaned sink. Then I took another five minutes to find the word "salt" in my dictionary, and try to pronounce the word in Albanian. Later, she walked me into the bathroom so I could see where I had been burning a hole in a cabinet where I placed a candle, so I could see to put on my lipstick. The oddest part was having her sit and wait patiently for the power to come on, while I tried desperately to mime that I could vacuum the house. I think she misunderstood my charades to imply that I thought she should be working, so she mimed the electricity was out. Finally, after she sat for an hour watching me write (about the fact that she was watching me) she left with the guarantee that I would not burn down the house and finish cleaning. Communication is my life.
Luli asked if I can help him wrap some gifts for children up in the village of Trepca (where the mine is located that is the setting for his short film). We'll do that on Saturday, and go to pass them out on Sunday. I'll post some pictures from that.
After 30 hours on planes and extra-long layovers due to weather, I arrived at the Pristina airport, quickly passed through customs and was overjoyed to see that both my checked bags had arrived as well. I walked out into the dark and cold (I have no idea HOW cold - anything below 50 feels the same to me - freezing.) Maybe it was 30 below - 35 F. Watching others reunite with family and friends, I stood with a smile of expectation, which quickly froze in the cold and the thinning crowd. Soon there was just me, the police patrol, and the taxi drivers who looked ready to pounce upon my bags and take me somewhere, anywhere. Since I didn't know Maria's address, that was out of the question.
I stood in the dark, watching airport employees leaving, realizing no one was there to greet me, and I had no cell phone with which to contact them. I asked a policeman about a phone, and he found another who could speak a few words of English. The airport was closed, I was informed. I'm sure I was still smiling, mostly because I was too tired to move my facial muscles. I asked if I could pay to use someone's mobile phone, and the policeman offered his for free. Maria answered her phone, called Isaac, and then called me back to say Isaac was running late. This didn't surprise me, but it wasn't the welcome I had envisioned.
The remaining airport personnel (the cleaning ladies) allowed me to stand inside while I waited. Isaac arrived with a story of taking the wrong road and being stopped by police. I was too grateful for a familiar face to worry, and then too scared by European driving to care about anything else than safely arriving at Maria's.
Since the book is tentatively titled "Christmas in Kosovo" I thought I'd comment about the celebration of the holiday here. They do celebrate in Pristina (the capital) and there are plastic Christmas trees for sale, and I saw a plastic Santa mask at the market on Saturday. Almost as scary as a clown in a horror film. We were in Pristina yesterday to go to a couple of bookstores for Luli, the filmmaker who is the subject of Isaac's documentary and a good friend from our time here in 2003. Luli's in charge of buying a bunch of books for the NGO office he works at, to start a library. There were white lights lining the main street. I asked if that is because it is where the UN is - and there's such an international presence they now celebrate and decorate, but he said that they've always celebrated Christmas in Kosovo, by going to Pristina. When I asked why they do so as a Muslim nation, he said it was out of respect for their "neighbors," people who live there, Catholics and Orthodox, who do celebrate. We're going to go down for Christmas Eve.
It's fun to hang with Luli and Aferdita, who used to translate for Maria and now works for a magazine, and is an actress - does a candid camera show and others for local TV. We had a "housewarming' last night at Maria’s - the power had been out all day, so we sat in candlelight and watched some footage on Isaac's (battery powered) laptop. Then sat and talked - Luli shared more of what he wants to do, how I can help. They talked about me creating a curriculum for kids to learn about writing/journalism. Luli also wants to start a cultural magazine - a monthly b&w. I also need to work on my alphabet - it's hard to wrap my mouth around some of the sounds that we just don't have.
It's good to be here. This morning, the power was on, so I listened to a CD while I made breakfast and cleaned up a bit. Still having to stoke the wood stove to cook on - the power is too unpredictable to cook or heat by it. It's losing a little (okay, a lot) of the romanticism, when I can't get the fire going, I’m choking on the smoke that is filling the room and I just want to cook an egg. But in comparison to many, I am living in luxury in Maria's western-style home, so I'm trying to remind myself of that when it gets frustrating.
Car-free in L.A., I write about what I see and those I meet.
Fears: Clowns, unreasonably small dogs, unexpected mariachi music.
Motto: Regardless of Snavely family tradition, I will not be buried with my pets.
Email me: rebecca [dot] snavely [at] gmail.com