Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Kosovo: Chapter 7, Scene 2 Thank You, Mr. President

It started with a book. Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell. I read a chapter or two every day.  In the story, the islanders engage in a conflict with the Aleuts who come to the island to hunt. Through a series of events that follow, a young girl named Karana lives alone on the island. At one point, the Aleuts return to the island. They have a girl with them who tries to befriend Karana.

I stopped reading at this point and asked my students if Karana should accept this girl’s friendship.

“No!” At first, my fourth graders were certain Karana shouldn’t trust the young woman because she was an Aleut. They discussed the pros and cons.

“The Aleuts killed Karana’s father.”
“Yeah, but does that mean all Aleuts are bad?”
“And besides, she’s a girl. She isn’t a warrior.”
“Yeah, but she's with a bunch of warriors.”

I listened and a strange thing happened. My students began talking about the war in Kosovo. One of the boys in my class asserted that not all Serbians were bad people. “There are some Serbs in my neighborhood and they’re great kids,” he told the group.

The students asked me to read about the fight on the beach again…the one that took the life of Karana’s father. I obliged. As we read the text, it became clear that we didn’t know exactly who or what started the fight.

And so began our open discussions about the war in Kosovo. When we read Number the Stars by Lois Lowry, the students wanted to know more about World War II. I gave them a brief history and they took off researching details on their own.

Soon I was fielding questions about ethnic cleansing.

“Like us,” one of my students said.

On December 7th I shared with the students that in America we recognize the day as Pearl Harbor Day. I told them it was the day the United States officially entered World War II.

This new information led to a discussion about the Unites States’ role in the Kosovo War.

You don’t have to agree with his views or politics, but you cannot dispute the fact that as the sitting President of the United States, Bill Clinton took a controversial stand highlighting the situation in Kosovo while others buried their political heads in the sand.

The Kosovars are a grateful nation. My fourth graders understand that. They know there is a statue of Bill Clinton in Pristhina. They know he is viewed as a hero in this area. They expressed their gratitude to me, thanking me for being an American.

I asked them if they would like to write a thank you to the former president. The suggestion was met with a resounding, “Yes!”

I mailed the letters.

I knew it could take a month or two for our letters to arrive at the offices of Mr. Clinton. I‘ve written to presidents with classes before. After a few weeks, I’ve received a form letter “from the president” more than likely written by one of his assistants and “signed” with his signature stamp. I was okay with that. It would mean a lot to my students. And so we waited.

Actually, we pretty much moved on and forgot about it. I still thought that we would possibly get a postcard or something. Maybe by mid February when Kosovo was celebrating its ten-year anniversary as a country. That would be nice.

Uh…no…Okay, maybe by the end of February. No. I put it out of my mind.

Teacher Appreciation Day was March 7th. I didn’t know there was a teacher appreciation day so I was pleasantly surprised when my students walked into class bringing me flowers and candy. I even received “an apple for the teacher.” It was a wonderful day.

We were just beginning to read a chapter in our latest novel before going home, when two men from the school’s administrative office appeared at our classroom door. They were holding a large gray envelope.

You guessed it. It was addressed to me from the office of William J. Clinton. The children squealed with delight. They were clapping and cheering as I opened the envelope.

Inside, there was a letter specifically addressed to them. I read it out loud. It was signed Bill Clinton. Those students jumped up and down.  President Bill Clinton had read their words. He enjoyed their letters. He told them that Kosovo would always have a special place in his heart.

“I hope you will continue to always look for ways to advance peace and understanding for all of the people of Kosovo, “ he wrote.

I want my students to know that their voice matters. I want them to never shy away from sharing their views but I want them to always listen to others as well.

I could end the story there.

But there was something else in the envelope. It was a handwritten card to me.

Dear Ms. Waters,
         Thank you for sending me the letters. I enjoyed reading them and would like to visit the next time I’m in Kosovo.
         Even more, thank you for teaching them history in human terms, and creating the possibility of reconciliation.
         The world is suffering, once again from too much “US vs, THEM.” I hope it will pass quickly. I wish today’s adults had learned from teachers like you,
Bill Clinton

I did mention it was Teacher Appreciation Day, right?

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Join me in Kosova (the Albanian pronunciation for Kosovo) in Southeastern Europe. Each week I share my experiences. Leave your comments and questions below. I’ll try to address each as best I can. And if you don't want to miss a post, simply add your email address in the box on the right where it says "Follow by email." 

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Kosovo: Chapter 7, Scene 1 "Something About Kosova Gets Under Your Skin"

My friend, Ruth once said, “I don’t know what it is but there’s just something about Kosova that gets under your skin.”

Tom and I ventured to Kosovo in 2005 with five of my teacher education students in tow. The countryside still bore the scars of war.  Outside walls of apartment buildings in the city were destroyed, exposing vacated rooms to passersby. The country villages were also devastated. Barns had been burned and homes bombed. Armored tanks rolled down the village streets. Yet, even with all we witnessed visually, we fell in love with the people and the possibilities that lay ahead for this tiny country.  We vowed to return one day.

Tom was bent on helping the Roma people near Batlava. “When we come back,“ he said, “you can teach and I’ll help the gypsies build a septic system.”

Kosovo Declared Independence in 2008
In 2008 the Albanian Kosovars declared independence and the tiny nation was born. Tom and I still spoke of returning because what my friend Ruth said is true. There’s just something about Kosova that gets under your skin.

Now that I am living and teaching in this southeastern European country, I set out to find out how others define that mysterious “something.”  I asked several people I know what keeps them here. Some of the people I interviewed came for a year. Or two. At least that was the plan. Most of the ones I talked with have been here for several years now and do not foresee leaving. For them, Kosovo is their home. Below are their responses. The common thread is obvious.

Stefan, one of many I’ve met from Holland, tells me quite simply, “It’s the people. The people here are so generous. They’re helpful and caring. I love the people.”

My friend and coworker, Grace, tells me, “I’m inspired by the hope and resilience of the people here. Its origins [the country's] were costly and painful, but a new and vibrant community is being cultivated.”

My Daughter & I Fit In With Kosovar Culture:
It's About Family...and Coffee
“I’m attracted by the culture and the communal spirit of the people here,” Gordon tells me. After working in Washington, D.C as a lawyer, Gordon is now the principal of the high school. “It’s the notion of someone saying, ‘Let’s sit down and have a cup of coffee.’ In Washington, you’d be talking with a best friend but in five minutes he’d be looking at his watch.  The pressure to squeeze sixteen hours of work into a twelve-hour day was incredible. There was no time to simply talk. Plus, I love this school. I believe in what we’re doing here.”

“It’s the people,” my Scottish friend told me. “You have here a very hospitable culture. It’s very family centered.” This is why Paul and his wife, Angela, have chosen to raise their daughter in Kosovo.

Dustin came for one year and is now completing three. What does he think is the draw to living here?  “The people and the pace of life.” “Here you have to be present... in the moment. Life isn’t hard but it isn’t easy either. You walk to a market to get your fruits and vegetables. Then you walk to the meat store to buy your chicken and another store to get bread. Then you go home and make your dinner. And people talk to each other. They have all the cell phones and technology, but they value face-to-face interaction.”

I told a friend from church I was trying to identify what is so appealing to people about living here. Julia is from the UK. She works with Serbians in a local community. “Well, the easy answer of course is the people, the food, and the mountains. But the reality is that people care about one another and for me the church functions as a community here. That’s it, isn’t it? Here we have a real community.”
There is a Peacefulness in the Kosovar Pace of Life

I love the people as well. Albanian Kosovars are warm, engaging, and family oriented. They are generous and hard working. They value spending time with each other and reaching out to the internationals living here.

It took me twelve years to return, but I’m here. Living in the moment. Loving my new friends. And I’m teaching.  

As Ruth said, “There’s just something here.” Something very special.

P.S. I'm glad I got the teaching gig instead of building a septic system!

Join me in Kosova (the Albanian pronunciation for Kosovo) in Southeastern Europe. Each week I share my experiences. Leave your comments and questions below. I’ll try to address each as best I can. And if you don't want to miss a post, simply add your email address in the box on the right where it says "Follow by email." 

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Kosovo: Chapter 6, Scene 4 Attention Foodies

 One of the biggest fears people have when asked to move half way around the world centers around eating. “What if I don’t like the food?” I understand. When I visited Italy I knew I would like the food. When I visited India I knew I would eat Indian food. I knew it was spicy. I wasn’t as sure how I would handle it. But those were short trips so any fears I had were short lived.

When I moved to Kosovo, I brought a few packages of Ramen noodles and some dried soup mixes with me. Okay, that would last about a week. I was here for ten months minimum so I have no idea what I was thinking. I guess the dried mixes were a stopgap measure until I figured out where the market was located.

I’ve shared in earlier posts that my fears were unfounded. There is a market on every street corner filled with fresh fruits, vegetables, and eggs.  Fresh baked bread abounds. And my school cafeteria is above excellent with freshly cooked meals made from scratch.

This "casserole" is like a pot pie X4!
So today I decided it was time to let you in on the biggest and best kept secret of living in Prishtina. The restaurants.

Like most cosmopolitan areas, Prishtina has an abundance of coffee shops and specialty bakeries. But it is the restaurant scene that is amazing.

When my daughter visited me I took her to three of my favorite restaurants in the city. The first, Liburnia serves delicious traditional Albanian fare. The atmosphere is incredible and the service is wonderful. I’m starting to sound like a travel show host. Sorry. I can’t help it. This was my fourth time there. We started with a traditional dish of grilled peppers and cream. It is outstanding. We pulled apart pieces of the warm crusty bread we had just watch come out of the brick oven and dipped it in the cream sauce.  We ordered a meat and vegetable casserole for one and split it. We couldn’t eat it all.

"Old House" is a great place
if you want a sandwich...or steak!.
Another of my favorites in Prishtina is the “Old House.” The atmosphere again is wonderful and the food is great. One of the best steaks I’ve ever eaten was at Old House. They have really good sandwiches as well. This is the place my friend Kuma and I went to practice my Albanian language skills. I did the ordering so now you can also guess the servers are extremely patient and kind.

When I’m in the mood for Italian, my favorite place is called Restaurant Pinocchio. They serve the best Italian dishes with a little Albanian flair. I’ve been there three or four times and I’ve never been disappointed. I try something different every time and love it. Part of what I love about this restaurant, too, is its location. If you sit upstairs you have a spectacular view of the city. 
I love the food at Pinocchio's!

My daughter enjoyed all three. But there's more. 

The best Thai food I’ve ever eaten is at the Thai restaurant…no other name…on what we call restaurant row. The family that runs it knows what they’re doing. It is a favorite for many of the Prishtina High School teachers. On that same street is the Spanish restaurant and an international restaurant called Princessa Gresa.

I’ve enjoyed grilled fish at the Greek restaurant, meat and potatoes at a sweet place called Home restaurant, and I ate the best Indian food I’ve had in a long time at a tucked away place known as the Himalayan.

It’s not that I eat out that much, but when I want to enjoy something delicious, I don’t have to dream about it. It is a taxi ride or bus ride away from my apartment. Of course if I need an American “fix,” There’s always KFC.

Join me in Kosova (the Albanian pronunciation for Kosovo) in Southeastern Europe. Each week I share my experiences. Leave your comments and questions below. I’ll try to address each as best I can. And if you don't want to miss a post, simply add your email address in the box on the right where it says "Follow by email." 

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Kosovo: Chapter 6, Scene 3 Happy Birthday!


I teach fourth grade. Ten-year-olds are an interesting lot. They are full of hope and dreams and sure they can do it all! They’re industrious and anxious to learn everything they can about the way the world works. Of course they’re still learning how to get along with others around them, but they keep trying, working out the nuances of communicating with people they didn’t know until coming into this class. I love my students.
I was at a huge birthday party this past weekend with some friends. Actually, it was a huge bash with thousands in attendance. It was in celebration of Kosovo’s Independence Day. Ten years ago, after a war at the turn of the century and eight plus years of NATO peacekeeping forces on the ground, Kosovo officially became a nation.
February 17th was a day of celebration. As some of my teacher friends and I stood together for the big celebration and concert on Mother Teresa Boulevard, it occurred to me a nation goes through many of the same growing pains we do as people.

Kosovo, so young and full of energy is still learning how the world works and how they fit into the scheme of it all. These are a people full of hopes and dreams, not only for themselves but for their descendants, the future of Kosova.

Half of Kosovo’s population is under thirty years old. There was an excitement in the atmosphere that evening that was almost palatable. Families and friends enjoyed the night of music and festivities. Children were hoisted on their father’s shoulders to see Prishtina born singer Rita Ora and enjoy the fireworks.

I felt so blessed to be a part of it all. But then, I’m a mom. I know the joy of ten-year-olds. I only pray the nation is ready for the teen years.

Join me in Kosova (the Albanian pronunciation for Kosovo) in Southeastern Europe. Each week I share my experiences. Leave your comments and questions below. I’ll try to address each as best I can. And if you don't want to miss a post, simply add your email address in the box on the right where it says "Follow by email."