Sunday, January 29, 2006

Who's Got the Power? (Literally. If anyone knows...I need some electricity.)

A friend asked me what I do every day. Some days I ask myself the same question – the relativity of time has taken on a whole new meaning here. It is easy to lose hours in the daily tasks of living. Here are some of the ways I while away the days:

Skippy the dog wakes me at 5 am to go outside. I break more Albanian rules than I can count by letting her sleep inside, but if I can’t treat her to a doggy day spa, the least I can do is bring her in out of the cold for the night. Though since we’ve been without power most of the day and night, the part of the house in which she sleeps is only slightly warmer than the below-zero temperatures outside. I grab my phone which has a handy flashlight built in, drag myself out from under the down quilt that keeps everything but my nose and forehead quite toasty throughout the night, and brace myself as I open the door to let her out.

By 5am, the fire in the wood stove has long since died, so I bring in some wood and shine my flashlight at the stove, building a small teepee inside and burning my hand in a brand new place as I light it. Something is wrong with the stove, and though I’ve asked three different people to fix the problem, it continues to belch toxic smoke into the room whenever I start the fire. Thus, I must open the window to the street outside, letting in a fierce breeze.

I huddle under my blankets until about 7, when the fire threatens to die again if I don’t tend it. Skippy and I eat the same breakfast – eggs, veggies and chicken. I make some instant Nescafe coffee, which isn’t as bad as it sounds, and start my day of caffeine injections.
I wait for the power to come on. The last few days it has not, so I have to wait for water to heat on the stove to wash some dishes. The “Laura Ingalls” romanticism I felt when I first arrived has long since lost its appeal.

Depending on the day, I will either stay home and read one of my thick books about the Balkans, drain my computer battery by writing, or walk downtown to meet someone for coffee or tea and conversation. I have a regular meeting with two high-school kids, Luma and Safet, whom I tutor in English, as well as learn some Albanian words from them. My Finnish friend who works on the North side with the Serbian population invites me over, and so I cross the bridge to meet Serbians and hear both sides of the story (stories). (More on that later – I’m working on a section about “subjective” truth.)

By 5pm it is dark, and due to the cold and safety issues I’d rather be at home. Occasionally I will have friends over for dinner, but lately the entire neighborhood has been dark, so I close myself into my house, listening to the rattle and hum of generators powering a few homes. I read by candlelight for a couple of hours, feed myself and Skippy, then fall asleep, sometimes by 7 or 8 o’clock. I leave the light switch on, so that when the power does come on, the light will wake me up to do a few things that require electricity or heat. I quickly wash my hair and dry it, and vacuum if I have the time. (Albanians have a tradition that you should not step on a bread crumb, I think it is sacred somehow. I’ll have to ask about that.)

The electricity is obviously a major issue here. Six years after the war, people are still able to joke about how they get to be excited a few times a day when the power comes on. It does engender a sense of appreciation for the things I take for granted at home, but I’d still like the opportunity to plan my day, rather than having it controlled by the utility company. I picture the local version of Mr. Burns from “The Simpsons” standing before a large switch at the electric company, rubbing his hands and laughing maniacally before he throws the switch to “off.”

Some days I am gone for the whole day on a visit to another town. I am trying to see more of the country, as Mitrovica is well-known to be the most difficult and most divided city. It is emotionally and physically draining to be here – I long for the 16 hour days on production, which now seem like a piece of cake. Ummm. Cake. I think it’s time for dinner.

Mr. Burns Evil Electricity Twin

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

As I took this picture, the neighbors watched, muttering something about Californians. This is the tap outside before it fully froze. I have no idea what will happen when it, and I, begin to thaw. We might both burst.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Living in the Present

Saturday morning I walked to the cultural center to meet Luli and Besim for a seminar with youth regarding advocacy, and how to solve Mitrovica's myriad of problems. As I tend to dwell (obsess) on the past, or focus on plans for my amazing future, I fear I never live fully in the present. I was just resolving to appreciate the present moment, noting how cold my hands were inside my gloves, when I saw a man bending over a figure prostrate on the ground. I picked up my pace to help, and saw he was trying to lift an elderly woman to her feet. She had slipped on the ice and fallen face first into a puddle of icy water.

Another young man ran to help and took her arm from me. A few other men gathered, one was apparently trying to call the police to find help for the woman. She was moaning and crying. I held a tissue to her nose to stop the blood that covered most of her face. She held my hand and blew her nose, a mixture of mucus and blood. In between her crying she repeated “Falemenderit,” (thank you).

We were outside a small market, and lowered the woman down to sit on an overturned plastic box. I held her hand and continued to hold tissue to her nose. Her eyes above her bloodied nose were full of fear. I felt so helpless, not being able to reassure her in her own language. In a few minutes a car arrived and two of the men formed a human chair and picked her up. I watched as they squeezed her into the back seat. The driver looked at me and asked “Mater?” I shook my head and said “Jo.”

Unsure if I should ride with her, unable to communicate or ask any questions, I shut the door, leaving her with a handful of bloody tissues, her blood on my hands.

As I walked away, I realized how I was completely in the present moment the entire time I was with that woman. The immediacy of a crisis is not how I had planned to appreciate the present moment, but it worked. I feel for the poor woman who the universe used to offer me the gift of the present.

As I debate whether to cut my time from 5 months to 3, based on putting pressure on myself to interview and write more, as well as the lack of funds to stay the extra two months, I feel frustration, and fear depression and perfectionism will overwhelm me again. Looking through my pictures of my time here, I know when I get back to the States I will miss this place and the people, and forget all the hard times.
Again! Living in the past and the future. What is the gift of the present today? I met more Serbs on the north side and had interesting conversations, ate the best burger in the world back on the south side. The owner of the café remembered me as the girl who wants the burger “pa buk” (without bread). While I waited, I sat with a macchiato (on the house), by myself in a café writing in my journal. While this is a common if not daily event for me in the States, I stand out in a culture where the café is the main stage for socialization. After I walked home, my “to-go” burger warming my hands, I played with Skippy in the yard. Energized from play, I broke the ice off of the outdoor faucet. Coming inside, I cleaned up for my host Maria’s homecoming from a month in the states and prepared her room so she can fall into bed. It was – IS a good day.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Take This City

The other day I crossed the bridge and went for a walk through North Mitrovica, the Serbian side of the city. I talked to another international who lives there about the burned homes – the homes occupied by Serbs here, the homes occupied by Albanians throughout the rest of Kosova. My friend, who lives and works on the Serbian side with many Serbian refugees from the riots in March of 2004, worked with Albanians for two years in Peja, and is by no means biased toward one people group. We talked about finding the truth in variations of stories we hear. She stated the most complex thought simply – the truth is somewhere in the middle.

The middle, in this city, is identified by a bridge. A bridge I cross so easily, while friends on both sides are unable to cross, out of fear for their safety. At times it seems so easy to me, just one foot in front of the other. Would anyone really attack you in a café? But my usual gift of empathy is stunted here; I can’t comprehend the mentality, based on years of oppression, distrust and war.

Forgiveness is a word bantered about so easily, but is such a complex issue here, and confused with forgetting. How does one forgive years of oppression, being told that you are not worthy of education? Years of state-enforced unemployment and poverty? Watching your father humiliated? Watching your family chased from their homes, watching your home burned? Watching your family killed?

And then, after the war, Serbs name the same list of atrocities. Perhaps on a smaller scale, but the feelings of hostility and distrust run deep in recent history, without delving into the last one thousand years.

Truth. It is subjective here, and I get many different answers to the same question, dependent upon the person asked. I am frequently frustrated when I ask about a devastated home on either side, whether it was done during the war or after? Was it a Serb, Albanian, or Roma Gypsy home? I’ve yet to receive a clear answer, and many times there is debate about whether one side destroyed something of their own in order to blame the other.
How do you find the truth in the midst, in the middle?

Take this city,
A city should be shining on a hill
Take this city,
If it be your will

For no man can own,
No man can take,
Take this heart,
Take this heart,
Take this heart and make it break.

“Yahweh” – U2

Remains of a home in North Mitrovica

A Serbian tradition - ribbons on a North Mitrovica home announce a wedding.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Nigella Lawson look out! Another proud, Laura Ingalls moment - I made popcorn - ON the stovetop. (Of course, I'll forever want to brush that piece of hair out of my eye... we can't be domestic goddesses all at once.)

Monday, January 02, 2006

Rebecca's Merry Meltdown - Fixed by a bit of Christmas Cheer

All last week I felt a meltdown brewing. The introvert inside is tired of waking up and having to be "ready" in case someone drops by - I clean before the cleaning lady comes, though she does a far better job. With Christmas and New Year's celebrations, kids throw fireworks at each other and passing pedestrians that sound like bombs exploding. I have finally stopped jumping and screaming, but I feel like Ouiser’s dog in Steel Magnolias. I'm losing my hair and my sanity.

I declare Friday a writing day, and determine not to leave the comfort of home. As I’m finding my rhythm around 10:30 I hear a knock on the door. If you can’t see them, they can’t see you, right? I ignore the knocking, but it grows louder with each thumping. Agron, who takes care of the house, stands at the door with my happy runaway Skippy. Agron asks if the gate was open this morning. No, I say, I lock it as always to avoid unexpected guests. (My friends know how to get in with a key or jumping the gate.) Thankfully Agron’s English isn’t great, and he continues his story that he had been down at the market, looked down and saw Skippy, doing a little shopping. Skippy's collar was mysteriously gone, so he used his belt and brought him home.

So now I have to worry about dog-collar thieves as well? The self-induced cloud above my head grows darker. I call to ask Luli where I could buy a dog collar. There is no easy answer, no Petco to run to. We agree I should meet him at his office. I walk in, rosy-cheeked from the walk that didn’t manage to shake my mood off. Elza, Luli’s boss welcomes me with a big smile, I’m just in time for coffee. I take off my layers and gloves and make myself at home, perching on the electric heater. Though I want to say "no, I just want to buy a freakin' dog collar and go back to my cave," I make more pleasant conversation, listen to them speak in Albanian with my practiced look of confusion blended with an occasional knowing smile, and finish my sweet coffee.

Luli and I wind our way through crowds of youth who still stare at me, partly the norm and partly because I am especially tall here. After a brief visit in a shop that sold only gun paraphernalia and made me extremely uncomfortable and a little sweaty, we finally found a hardware shop that had a string of dog collars for sale. I breath easier once I;n home; I find I am easily over-stimulated by the briefest visits to the crowded downtown area.

Luli had been telling me about a visit he had planned to the mining town of Trepca. He has a special place in his heart for the kids and families living in the refugee apartments there, and delivers Christmas bags from his NGO, full of candies and cookies. At 4:30 he texted: we’re going at 5. At 4:31 I felt like crying, feeling out of control of my day, my emotions. I remembered, finally, to breathe deeply and pray for a smidge of sanity and rest.

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. I arrive back at the office at 5. We find a bag of Christmas decorations and began decking the halls with garland and tinsel. Luli runs to the store to find a bag for his cousin Besim to carry as Santa Claus. I’m looking at the clock and fighting back 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.


Santa in his sleigh

Santa hits the streets of Mitrovica