Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Kosovo: Chapter 9, Scene 5 Four Pieces of Wood

This Little One has a Rich Heritage
Ever since I arrived in Kosovo, I’ve heard stories of Bajrush Ibishi. The first person to greet me in the country was Bajrush’s son, Valdet. Valdet takes care of every employee at Prishtina High School. 

He is a good man. 

So when I started hearing stories about his father—a man who had been an educator, an entrepreneur, a government official and mayor of the place where the director of Prishtina High School, John Chesnut made his home, I was anxious to meet him. My chance finally came.

Bajrush Ibishi is a well-educated, well-spoken, and interesting man. He graduated in 1979 with a Degree in Philosophy and History from the University of Prishtina. He subsequently taught for six years, was the principal of a local school for ten years and served as a high school professor in Podujeva following that. In 2001 he worked in Prishtina in the Ministry of Labor and Social work while also serving his community in Orllan as mayor.

He has many stories but there was one in particular I wanted to hear him tell. Although Bajrush understands and speaks English, this story, this one that has inspired many…this story that is close to his heart and has woven itself into the history of his family and community, he shared in Albanian. Valdet translated.

“We were under occupation from 1989-1999. We were suspended from every official duty in Yugoslavia. They took us out of schools, fired us from our jobs, and yet we would continue to teach kids in Albanian without salary for that period of time.”

“During that time I was arrested many, many times. Twelve times in front of the students, just because we were not accepting Serbia’s discriminating laws for Albanians.”

“They did not recognize Kosovo Albanians and the Albanian language.”

“Milosvic was in charge and he destroyed Yugoslavia. When Tito was in charge, until 1989, Kosova had its own constitution. Milosvic suspended it in 1990. This was Kosovo then, with our salary suspended and everything.”

“I’m explaining the circumstances of that time.”

I nodded my understanding while trying to capture everything on my computer. Bajrush waited a moment for me to catch up before continuing the story. Finally, as my fingers came to rest, Bajrush began talking again.

“In Podujeva, 99 % of the population was Albanian yet no Albanians worked in Podujeva. We weren’t allowed. Yet we had to pay taxes and all taxes went to Serbia. We had to pay. If we didn’t pay the taxes, the police and military would force us to pay.”

“We had to open a business elsewhere. My three brothers and I opened a lumberyard to do a business so we could survive. The day before opening our business, the police arrested me but they released me. The next morning my brother called and told me the police and inspectors were there again.”

“I went to the business. One of the inspectors said, ‘Would you please give me some wood I need for my house.’ I thought they had come to arrest me, but he wanted wood. And he wanted to pay me later. He needed four pieces for his house. It was close to winter. I told him ‘You get the wood and you don’t have pay anything.’” 

“After a couple of years, on my way to Nish in Serbia, I see him when I went to get tires for my truck. He was waiting for a bus.”

“I take him home. When I get close to his house, I don’t just drop him on the road, I drive him to his house. From the main road to his house was about 5 kilometers.”

“He said, ‘Drop me here and I can walk.’ But I drove him. Then he said, ‘You don’t need my help but if you need it I will give you my help.’”

“More than three years after that, the Serbian police arrested me. It was in April of 1999. I had come from the war to bring food to the refugee camp. I was bringing food to my family.”

At this point, my friend Valdet, Bajrush’s son, spoke up. “They took him away and we thought they would never release him. He left and we were all in tears. I was seven years old.”  
Valdet with his beautiful wife. "They took him away and we
thought they would never release him. He left and we
were all in tears. I was seven years old."

Bajrush took a deep breath before continuing with his story. “They took me to Podujeva to their base. Their station. It was around 11:00 in the morning. They beat me and tortured me. They made me stand straight up to the wall. Several different people beat me. ‘You are bombing us!’ they said. It was at that time NATO had started bombing.”

“At 10:00pm they took me to a different house.  A private house because the city of Podujeva was all empty. Everyone was leaving Kosova or they were in hiding.” 

“When I walked in that house, the inspector there, his name was Milan, saw me. He said, ‘Professor, why are you here?’ He calls me inside he gives me a cigarette and he brings me food. But I couldn’t eat. I didn’t eat the whole day and now I couldn’t eat.”

“And then the inspector tells me, ‘I owe you your life. They were going to kill you slowly. In the middle of the night, about midnight, I’m taking you out of this place.’” 

“I asked him to take me to the middle of the city. ‘I know more people there to get help,’ I told him.”

“He said, ‘No, it’s not safe for you there. I’ll take you to a different village. I’ll drop you at this village and please be careful. There are snipers all around the houses. If they shoot at you, fall down and crawl.’”

“I crawled for a couple of miles to this river and then I got up and walked to a house where I spent the night. The next morning I wanted to see my family at the refugee camp which was about 12 kilometers from where I spent the night.”

“That guy and God saved me because I would have been dead…that guy, Milan. The one I gave the wood to many years ago.”

“After the war, friends of mine that traveled from Germany and Switzerland went through Serbia. Milan met them and asked them about me and sent me greetings. But I cannot go and see him. I could get arrested because I was part of the KLA.” [Kosovo Liberation Army]

“Since then I’m a free man living in a free country.”

“After the war I decide I’m going to work more than I used to. I want to do everything I can do for my country. I wanted to dedicate myself to Orllan and the Podujeva area. And be thankful for my life and for living in a free country.”

“We came back home on June 15, 1999 and everything was burned to the ground. We started life from zero.”

“And one of the first to help us start our life was John Chesnut and his family. Their family and my family, we are like one family. Later, as a leader, the mayor of the area, I had a great relationship with KFOR and Swedish organizations. In the beginning we all had meetings everyday and then later every second day. And then we didn’t need to meet so often.”

Bajrush is ready to share
 the family history with his grandchildren.

“So bit by bit our life was getting back to normal.”

Relationships. Isn’t that what it is all about? Bajrush harbors no ill-will toward the Serbian population. He is a testament to the fact that there are good people even in the most difficult of circumstances. And he shares a lesson…a real life example of how being kind and doing what is right is the way we must live. Bajrush didn’t help his Serbian neighbor in hopes it would one day benefit him. He helped him because the Serbian was his neighbor. That’s all. 

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, May 23, 2018

Kosovo: Chapter 9, Scene 4 Staying Curious...In Spain

I’ve said it before. One of the perks to living in southeastern Europe is the ability to travel easily to other countries. Well, mostly easy. I did have one minor glitch on my recent trip to Spain. 

The World Wide Conference on Qualitative Research (QRCA & AQR) in Valencia offered more than great conference topics for me to explore. My youngest daughter was one of the presenters. The fact it was held in a beautiful Mediterranean city was merely a bonus. But for a moment I wondered if I would get there.

For the best rate, I flew from Prishtina to Frankfurt, Germany. I had an hour to make the connecting flight. You guessed it. I missed the connecting flight. So instead of arriving for lunch, I arrived in time for dinner. However, sitting across the table from my daughter made me forget my earlier airport ordeal. 

Beach Party After the Conference
The conference itself was engaging, starting with the rather well known author of Curious, Ian Leslie, and ending with the incredible Kendall Nash presenting The Apprentice Project: Tales of a Novice Unicycler.  (Okay, I’m a bit biased. After all, I’ve known Kendall all of her life.) Both presentations were inspiring as were many of the ones sandwiched between them. A QRCA conference is never a disappointment.

The Flower Bridge
The hotel was lovely, the food delicious. But the real treasure of Valencia is found in exploring the cobbled walks and streets of the town with your “little girl.” Kendall is adventurous and fun. We did some sightseeing in the evening hours but enjoyed the whole of Saturday exploring.

This particular weekend the entire city was celebrating the arts. Perfect timing for us. Beginning Friday night and lasting the full weekend, all of the museums were free and the streets were filled with crafters, dancers, and people in costumes representing a time gone by. 

On Friday, we crossed the reclaimed riverbed-turned-park via the flower bridge and joined up with a few of the other conference attendees to visit the Ceramic Museum located in the old palace. A music ensemble was preparing for their concert inside, so we stopped on the street to hear them practice. We entered through the ornate doorway to view the ceramics. The living quarters of the palace were the most interesting. We also saw three plates Picasso had made for the royal family. 

Kendall Painting at Museu de Belles Arts
After a lazy breakfast on Saturday, Kendall and I walked part of the riverbed park taking in a bicycle event and enjoying the flora and fauna. We then made our way to the Museu de Belles Arts de Valencia. Kendall and I both enjoyed touring through room after room of paintings, but the best treat was the opportunity to be part of a collaborative work recreating Tomas Yepe’s “Bodegon Con Ceramica.”  

In the words of the museum, the re-creation “turns the museum into a studio and the public into artists.” Every participant painted a square from the painting on a gigantic collective canvas. Museum artists loaded our palettes with the appropriate colors needed to paint the square we selected and we set about our work.

Leaving the museum, we crossed one of the many distinctive bridges to explore the district near the castle, indulge in some delicious gelato, and shop in an outdoor marketplace. We poked our head in several shops along the street and managed to find a few not-too-tacky souvenirs as a remembrance of this special trip.
Leia and Lace

We were heading back toward a restaurant for dinner when we encountered a parade of sorts. Women and girls of all ages were dressed in layers of brocade and lace, their almost Princess Leia-like hairstyles framing their smiling faces. Men and boys, also dressed in outfits reminiscent of the renaissance era escorted the women up the street past the cultural center toward a large almost castle-like building. 

The day was long, but didn’t seem so until we finally sat down for our dinner of tapas at an outdoor restaurant. The food did not disappoint us. It would have been easy to crash into bed that night, but a little exercise and time spent in the sauna made the evening complete.

Of course I’ve only shared the highlights. But I could have done that with one simple sentence: I spent the weekend with my daughter.
Selfie with My Daughter

More Pics:
Our Hotel

Ensemble at the Palace

Picasso Plate at the Palace
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, May 16, 2018

Kosovo: Chapter 9, Scene 3 Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? I See The Future Looking At Me

My Dear Friends, Matt and Julia
My British friends, Julia and Matt, live in a Serbian town near Prishtina. They are a sweet young couple I met at church and until recently we were all active in the same small group meeting every week. They invited me to visit them in their home one Saturday. I happily accepted. We set a date. Julia texted to say she and Matt “love to show off the gems of Gracanica,” I was pretty excited. I have always been curious about the Serbian enclaves in Kosovo. After all, there was a war. Many Serbians left the area. Yet, for the people in Gracanica, life goes on.

I took a taxi to the center of the town. Julia and I had agreed to meet in front of the monastery. We walked from there back to her house. I thought we might have lunch and she had mentioned seeing the monastery and perhaps the Bear Sanctuary, but I was in for so much more. 

Matt drove us out to the Roman ruins just a few minutes from their apartment. Ulpiana is one of the largest ancient sites in Kosovo. It began as a Dardanian settlement in the 1stcentury AD and reached its peak as a Roman town in the 3rdand 4thcenturies AD. Three sectors have been excavated and the work continues.

As we left Ulipiana, clouds were forming so we headed to Hotel Gracanica for lunch. Our food arrived just as the rain came pouring down. Lunch was a treat. Not only was the food delicious, the restaurant is decorated with colorful woven tapestries, rugs, and pillows handmade by the Roma people of Gracanica. Roma are what most of us would consider gypsies. I can attest to the fact Roma are both good cooks and talented artists. 

The Monastery in Gracanica
Our next stop was a trip to the monastery. This active monastery is extraordinary. The rain had passed and the grounds were a vibrant green dotted with roses and other flowering bushes. But the real beauty is inside the monastery chapel itself. The sweet smell of incense lingered. The four domed areas are dedicated to the four gospels, the frescos covering the walls telling of the story of God’s love manifested in Jesus. I have seen the Sistine Chapel in Rome. It is ornate and artistically done, but the paintings in this little chapel of the monastery in Gracanica were so true to the Word, its beauty surpassed all I saw in Rome. It was built in 1321 and is still an active church under the care of orthodox priests and nuns.

Brown Bear, Brown Bear
A drive out of town into the mountains took us to the Bear Sanctuary. The bear sanctuary is a national park dedicated to rescuing brown bears once held in captivity throughout the region. For many years, baby brown bear cubs were snatched by animal dealers and sold to restaurants to be caged in small cages. The restaurants used the bears to attract customers. The bears were not treated properly and often endured a diet not conducive to their health and well-being. In 2010 a law was passed making it illegal to hold the bears captive. In 2013, thirteen bears were rescued from around the area and brought to the rolling and forested hills outside Prishtina to a park created just for them. There they have room to roam, are cared for, and enjoy a life free of torture. They lack the skills to be fully released into the wild, but are thriving at the bear sanctuary.

Village in the Mountains
On our way back to Gracanica we drove into a Croatian village in the mountains. Roma children living there spotted Matt and Julia and swarmed our car, thrilled to see their teachers. We drove through narrow streets winding our way up the mountain to a school where Matt and Julia once worked. The view was spectacular.

Matt and Julia teach young children. They took me to their center. A bulletin board boasted the smiling faces of the children attending the center-Serbian, Roma, and Albanian children learning and playing together. 

The day wasn’t a geography lesson. It wasn’t a history lesson. It wasn’t simply a tour of interesting sites. It was more. Our day together was the story of life and community. 

It was about preserving the past but not living in it. 
It was about creating hope for the future.
It was about caring for people. All people.
And in the center of it all was the story of God’s love for all of us.

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, May 9, 2018

Kosovo: Chapter 9, Scene 2 Waking Up On This Side Of The Dirt

If you ask my mother how she is feeling she often answers, “Well, I woke up on this side of the dirt, so I guess I’m okay.” I guess I’ve heard it enough times, I took it to heart as I approached this milestone birthday. 

Actually, I’ve never been one to shy away from my birthday. I’ve always been afraid that if I didn’t acknowledge it or if I tried to pretend to be younger than I am I would live to regret it. As if I would suddenly wake up and see an old woman in the mirror.

But as I approached sixty-five, I found myself worrying a bit. Okay, worrying may not be the right term. It’s just that sixty-five sounded so old. Much older than I feel. 

Most days. 

Since I was born in early May, I’ve always claimed anything good or fun that happened in May as part of my birthday celebration. 

Beautiful weather? For my birthday.

The school Arts Fair? All for my birthday.

Ice cream on a sunny May day? For me. It is my birth month.

Of course the birth of my first grandson on the fifth of May was a perfect gift. 

And my two youngest granddaughters were both born in May. For me. One was even named after me. 

Kayleigh and I share a
her mom made us a cake!
Taking intentional delight in my birthday has helped me accept the reality of it and find the good in growing old-er.

Then I moved to Kosovo.Six thousand miles away from home. No school Arts Fair. No birthday dinners with my family or parties for the grandchildren. And worst of all was the email from Social Security. 

Yep, Sixty-Five Was Not Looking Promising. 

I had two choices. Ignore the day of my birth or embrace it. Ignoring would be easy. Oh sure, I would receive phone calls and messages from my family. Facebook would plaster it all over the place. But if I kept my mouth shut, I could slide past it with the people here in Kosovo if I wanted. 

Then I remembered my mama. I figured since God has seen fit to have me wake up on this side of the dirt for sixty-five years I should be grateful and embrace it. I decided I’m sixty-five…I may as well “Own It.” 

One thing about Kosovo is that older people are valued. Honored. The country has 1.8 million people and over 50% of them are under the age of twenty-eight. It is a young country with a young population. Still, it is a country that has taught the young to defer to the older and sometimes wiser, to give up a seat on the bus for an older passenger, and to look out and care for senior adults such as myself. 

Birthday dinner with my PHS family!
It is not just the citizenry of Kosovo. I am the oldest person at my school yet the community we have there is amazingly non-discriminatory. Friends took me out to eat on my actual birthday. A new friend took me out the next evening. Another friend took me out on Friday night and on Saturday twenty of my coworkers took me out to a fancy restaurant to celebrate!

It didn’t stop there. There was cake after church and an ice cream treat on Monday after school. I haven’t had to “find” fun things to claim for my birthday. 

As it turns out, sixty-five really is just a number. I don’t feel any different than I did at sixty-four. Except, there is that “full of joy” thing happening.

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, May 2, 2018

Kosovo: Chapter 9, Scene 1 Prishtina Dresses For Spring

I can’t say it was a bitter winter, but I can tell you it is a spectacular spring in Prishtina. The mountains are green. The fruit trees on the playground were white with blossoms only a couple of weeks ago. Now they are laden with   cherries. The lilacs are blooming. I was walking Sunday and noticed buds on the rose bushes. Of course best of all may well be the warm sunshine and spring breezes filling our days. 

A visitor at the school on Friday commented on the natural light streaming through the tall windows in my classroom. I have a balcony outside my class as well. It’s a great addition to the classroom.

Yes, I am loving spring. There are flowers everywhere. People put flowers in window boxes and planters on the porches of their homes. Every restaurant has rows of flowers welcoming their patrons. 

Prishtina knows how to dress for spring.

I wanted to enjoy this time of year fully, so this morning I took the bus to a local market selling plants. I bought fifteen petunia plants for my balcony. It was deeply satisfying to dig in the dirt and transplant the colorful flowers into larger containers. I scrubbed the table on the balcony of the winter grime that had collected on it and swept the balcony clean. 

I opened the windows to let the fresh air fill my apartment. I found myself singing as I cleaned my kitchen and washed a load of laundry. Spring can do that to you. It fills you with hope and music. 

I sometimes wonder if I run on solar power. It seems I always have more energy when the sun is shining.

Finally, I cleaned up and headed to my friends’ house for our small group gathering. 

“Did you get your flowers planted?” my friend Jill asked.

“Oh, yes and they look beautiful!”

“I’m impressed,” Jill said.

“Impressed?” I didn’t see anything particularly impressive about planting petunias. 
My Balcony "Garden"

“I mean I’m impressed that you planted flowers and you only have about six weeks left here in Kosovo.” 

“But the flowers make me happy,” I told her. “I’m not quite ready to check out yet.”

I sat on her sofa munching on a cookie, warm and fresh from her oven. 

Six weeks? Really? 

Jill counted them out for me. “Four weeks in May and two weeks in June, right?” 

Members of our small group started to arrive. I set my thoughts about leaving aside and enjoyed the moment.

As our time came to an end, I headed home (The same apartment building…a mere three floors above.) I turned the light on to my balcony and admired the planters filled with flowers. 

I poured a cup of juice and sat out under the stars, listening to the crickets chirping. 

And one more thing. I checked the calendar. Jill was a little off. It is seven weeks until I leave. Well worth the five Euros for my balcony garden.

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."