How can it already be four years since I spent Christmas in Kosovo? In honor of all my memories, here's a blog-flashback from my "Merry Meltdown" post:
I find myself more American, more time-oriented than I ever seem to be when I’m in America. My tendency to stay on task and on time is out in full force here, since it isn’t a high priority in the surrounding culture. Just past winter solstice, it's already dark when I arrive at the NGO office at 5, ready to head up the mountain to spread Christmas cheer and sugary treats to the families living in the Trepca refugee apartments. But first we find a bag of Christmas decorations and begin decking the halls with garland and tinsel. Then Luli runs to the store to find a bag for his cousin Besim to carry as Santa Claus. I keep checking the clock, fighting the urge to strangle everyone with the string of twinkly lights when something in me snaps, in a good way. It’s time to give up my need for timeliness, and relax. Not surprisingly, staying in the present moment makes everything better.
Elza, Luli’s boss, arrives with her daughters, who are nine and eleven. The girls help Besim with his beard and belly, and decide he should wear spectacles like Father Christmas. After a quick search of the office, they find a pair of sunglasses, and ceremoniously place them on Besim’s face, making him a cross between Surfer Santa and The Terminator.
We pile in Luli’s small car: Elza, her girls and me in the backseat, Luli driving Santa in the front. As we drive out of the city, winding our way uphill, we sing "Jingle Bells." My friends only know the first two lines in English and ask me to teach them the rest. What the hell, I’m in for a whole stocking full of fun now. "Dashing through the snow," I sing, slightly off-key. They cringe and reassure me they know the words in Albanian. And with that, we’re off, squished into the car, jingling all the way. The little girls carry the tune in soft soprano, just what I need to find some joy in my dark little heart.
The refugee apartments are cold, dark and dank. The hallways are concrete floors, and swampy with stale puddles of muddy water. We knock on the door and the entire family crowds to see Santa, many times a couple with three or four kids, plus a grandma or grandpa. I can only assume the apartments are two or three small rooms.
A group of kids lead us through the buildings. One boy has a small blue flashlight that gives off an eerie glow in the dark stairwells. The kids ask Besim/Santa why he only sings the words jingle bells and not the rest of the song. Besim only speaks a bit of English, and happily ignores the kids, singing the first two words, over and over.
Our gift-giving done, we pile back into Santa’s sleigh with its rear-wheel drive and a CD player, with which we all sing along to Ben Harper’s “There Will Be A Light.” We have gifts left over, and as we drive back down the hill to town, Luli pulls over whenever he sees kids walking along the dark road. Most give chase, terrified as Besim jumps out of the car in a beard, sunglasses, and an ill-fitting red suit and runs after them with a black plastic trash bag.
It’s hard to process the juxtaposition of the disrepair and depression of the refugee apartments with the smiles of kids and the fun we had. But somewhere in the midst of all of it, without warning, I’m back in the giving spirit. We go to dinner at a restaurant called "No Name," and the girls, confident and funny, practice their English with me. On the way home, we dance in the back seat as we stalk people on the streets, Besim a little less scary now without his beard and sunglasses, tossing out Christmas cheer to all who stand still long enough to receive it.