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." 

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