Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Kosovo: The Epilogue...Or Would This Be Called an "Epiblog?"

An Epilogue is a summary or a pulling together of all the events in a book. It is appropriate to finish this series of blog posts with a summary or at least a reflection on the past ten months of this story I call Kosovo.

While it might be simple (though lengthy) to merely go through each chapter and pick out the highlights of each month I lived in this tiny southeastern country, the researcher in me tends to sort the data I’ve collected and report to you what has been most meaningful to me.

Teaching in Europe is as easy as Flying a Kite!
My journey started with a message on Facebook. A former education student of mine contacted me asking if I would consider teaching fourth grade at Prishtina High School in Kosovo. She said it was a “big ask”, but they needed a teacher. That was a Friday night. By Sunday I had accepted.

I moved to Prishtina to teach. You might think this summary would be about teaching. It isn’t. It’s about learning. Learning to be independent. Learning new lessons about relationships. And it is about embracing new experiences.
Independence vs. Dependence: It’s All in the Attitude
When my husband died in 2014, I lived in a fog of sorts. Though I tried to never be a burden to my family, I relied on them heavily. I was used to talking things over with Tom. Making most decisions had become a joint effort. I was on the mend, I suppose, when I left for Kosovo. I had moved into a new house and was working with the team completing its remodel. When the call to serve in Kosovo came, I discussed it with my family, but ultimately made the decision on my own. 

The Mountains of Montenegro
From my balcony
Still, to move to a different country removed me from my safety net of family and friends. I found myself alone, but never lonely. Living in Kosovo stretched me to tackle everything I could completely on my own. I had American friends in Kosovo. Good friends. But they were also wrestling with settling into a new country. 

You may remember the first time I caught the bus to work. I wound up on the wrong bus with people who did not speak English. I eventually made it to my school. I also got to see much of Prishtina. I called on that experience often when something did not go as planned. I knew in the end, I would be okay and I would gain a new perspective. With each experience, I gained confidence and independence. 

Friendships Are Paramount

I’ve always been a “people person.” That only means I’m social. I have a lot of friends. Most of them were part of a couple. Tom was my best friend. We enjoyed each other’s company. We did everything together. Oh, sure, he had his golfing buddies and I had a few women in my life I enjoyed spending time with, but mostly, Tom was my very closest friend. 

When he died, I came to rely on my family and a few very close friends. I didn’t know where I fit. I was no longer considered married, but I didn’t consider myself single either. For being a “people person,” I had only a handful of people I let into my heart.

My Friend Edona Treated Me to a Birthday IceCream!
Now I was living alone in a foreign country. Yet I never felt lonely. And my circle of friends broadened. I had friends who were American but also Kosovar friends. I developed friendships with both genders. And the one that surprised me most were the friendships made with people of all ages. I guess on my part that sort of had to be since I was the oldest person at the school and church. 

Kosovo’s population itself is quite young (something like 70% of the whole population is under 35 years old).

Anna treated me like a granny...AndI loved it!
I developed friendships with teachers in my school building and at church of all ages. I always felt included. One of my young twenty-something friends put it this way, “Living in a different country gives you the opportunity to make friends outside your normal boundaries…boundaries like age or gender or anything else that defines you. We’re all in this together.”

Embrace New Experiences

Word of Advice: If you are going to live in a different country be prepared for new and unexpected experiences. Embrace them. Learn from them. Laugh through them. Use them to help you face challenges of day-to-day living when you return to your homeland. (I live by the motto, “If I did this …I can do anything.”)

Note: the words in blue are clickable links to take you to the original post.

The bus ride would have been terrifying…to be lost in a city where I don’t speak the language? But no, it was interesting and I trusted I would find my way to the school…eventually.

When I went to the beauty shop and wound up looking “very European,” I could have cried. But hair is hair and nothing lasts forever.

When I was invited to the Balla and had nothing to wear, the whole shopping experience would have been a nightmare for me in the States, but I embraced it in Kosovo as fun.

Exploring new restaurants? Exciting. Learning to cook Albanian food? Delicious! Even my trip to the Emergency Room I embraced as a blog post! 

And Now...

Kosovo's Ten Year Celebration!
Kosovo gained its independence in 2008. I gained mine in 2018. In Kosovo. And I did it in large part because of good friends and great experiences. 

Where will this blog go from here? I don’t know. As I step back into my life in Ohio, I am a changed person. What is my next adventure? I’m not sure. I do know this: God has me in the palm of his hand. Whatever direction I take, I trust him with it.

Stay tuned….. 

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Kosovo: Chapter 10, Scene 3 Coming Home

I’m back in Ohio now. My last week in Kosovo was filled with visits to friends houses. Several people invited me over for coffee. Of course coffee may include a light meal but always a hefty dessert. 

I cleaned my apartment, packing those memories to bring home and dividing the spoils of my pantry among my friends staying there. It was a bittersweet moment as I closed the door Saturday morning and made my way to the taxi. My taxi driver, Faton, has driven me many places. His wife is my friend. 

“You’ll come back,” he says. It isn’t a question. 

“You never know what God has in mind,” I tell him. “But right now, it’s not in the plan.”

“You must come back,” he tells me. 

I smile. I’ve heard this all week.

I was surprised and oh so happy to see my family!
My plane leaves for Vienna at seven in the morning as planned. I board another plane in Vienna to take me to New Jersey. It’s a long flight across the Atlantic. I measure it by the movies I watch and the routines of the flight. Three movies, one television show, a full meal, two snacks, and one nap later I’m in New Jersey. By seven o’clock in the evening I am in Cincinnati, making my way to baggage claim. 

I expect my mother and youngest daughter will be there to greet me. My oldest daughter and her family are in South Carolina…a trip they made reservations for long before I made this decision to teach in Kosovo. My middle daughter and her family live in Wisconsin. It’s a long drive for a short visit. And I think my youngest daughter’s husband will be at home with two of my granddaughters getting them ready for bed.

I’m wrong. Well, mostly. My oldest and her family are certainly on vacation but the rest of the crew is standing with signs and balloons, hugs, and kisses. It is a warm homecoming. 
There is s true sense of piece to be
on American  soil. A true place of rest.

My mother is the first to wrap her arms around me. Then again, she has always been the first to wrap her arms around me and bring me home, if you think about it. 

All I know for sure is there is a certain peace...a feeling of true rest to have my feet on American soil. It must be what my Albanian friends felt when they returned to Kosova after the war. It is a deep awareness of being in that place of comfort we call HOME.


Join me next week for my final Kosovo chapter…the Epilogue.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Kosovo: Chapter 10, Scene 2 Forever Changed

As I write this I am looking at the calendar. My class of fourth graders will be moving on to fifth grade next year. I suppose all teachers look over their class at the end of a school year with mixed emotions. A sense of relief that we all made it…a feeling of concern for that one child who still struggles with reading…and of course the pressure to finish everything, get grades in, and supplies put away for next year.

I’ve been through this transition nearly twenty times with elementary students and fifteen times I’ve watched my college students graduate. You’d think I’d be totally prepared to say my goodbyes. I’m not. 

This year is different. I’m not sure when I’ll see these students again. 
I’m not merely saying goodbye to fourteen students…I’m saying goodbye to Prishtina High School, to the friends I’ve made here. I’m saying goodbye to my church family at Drita e Bot√ęs. I’m saying goodbye to Prishtina, a city I’ve come to love. And I’m saying goodbye to Kosovo.

Not that I will ever leave it all behind. I’ll still be working for the school recruiting teachers in the US. Although we have a few teachers who have been here much longer, most of our American teachers make a two or three year commitment. As a result, we are always on the lookout for new teachers. I want the best teachers I can find. I made an investment in fourteen very special people. They deserve the best. 

My students have been reflective these last couple of weeks as well. They give me hugs and tell me they’ll miss me. They’ve been talking about what they did and what they learned this year. It has been an incredible year.

I pull Ardian aside. “You’ve learned so much this year,” I tell him. 
“I know, Miss! I can divide and multiply and I understand fractions,” he says enthusiastically. 

Celeste tells me she’s writing faster now. She is… and she is growing every day in what she knows.

Cedric is a smart cookie. His English and Albanian are both strong. He’s learning to navigate the tumultuous social waters of fourth and fifth grade. We have a good rapport. I tell him I only want the best for him. I do… and he knows it.  He flashes me that big smile and tells me he’ll miss fourth grade.

Naser has really made progress. We talk about it. His reading, writing, and speaking in English makes him one of my top students. He loves math. We’ve been doing a lot with fractions of late. “Miss, I thought changing fractions [to like denominators] and adding them and all that stuff would be too hard, but I remember when you promised you would never give us something to do that was impossible. And now I can do it!”

Zana , my one who is always thinking and asking questions for clarity tells me how much she loves school.

Fortesa asks me if I’ll come to her graduation. “I hope to,” I tell her. “And when you are President of Kosovo, I hope I am able to celebrate with you.” She offers that smile that I know will win her a million votes.

I give the students their weekend reports. Every Monday they come in and write about what they did over the weekend. Now I’m having them put them in order by date. It is a long process. They want to read everything.

“Look at my writing back when we started! I wrote like a little kid!”

“Miss! Look! Almost every weekend report says ‘I did gymnastics.’”

“Wow! Miss! This is so funny! Look how I used to spell cousins!”

“Sometimes I didn’t want to do a weekend report, but I’m glad we did!”

“Miss! Look! This is funny. I wrote down that I had bread for dinner. That’s all. I must’ve had something else, right?”

“Miss? When was the Winter Dance? I forgot to write the date on my weekend report.” [And no, the fourth graders didn’t have a winter dance, but Ardian’s older sister went to it.]

It wasn’t all about reading and writing and arithmetic. We engaged in science experiments. We made water filters and fossils among other projects.

And this year we studied history, geography, government, and economics through the lens of Kosovo. We made books to highlight what we learned. The students interviewed people who lived here before the war, during the war and after the war. It was a ten year window. They wanted to learn about the birth of their tiny nation but they also looked for the unexpected stories. Those similar to the one I posted about Bajrush Ibishi a couple of weeks ago. 

We made fold out books to highlight what we learned this year. My favorite part consisted of the stories they dictated to me in response to the question, “Who is your neighbor?”

Here are a few excerpts:

Florije: My neighbors are caring, loving, and have hospitality. People who help us when we’re in need and people we help when they’re in need.

Naser: My neighbors are the Balkans: Montenegro Albania, Serbia, Macedonia… the countries that help us whenever we are in danger or when they need help we help them. That’s how we can be better at everything.

Zana: My neighbors are caring people who are helpful. That have hospitality. They are people who are nice and friendly and they’ll help you and you’ll help them.

Ylber: My neighbors are Albania, Montenegro, Serbia. People who are around Kosovo who care for us and we care for them even though we don’t know them. The caring, loving and “kindful” people who saved this country are the ones that are the true people we care for. 

Rezarta: You’ll help them when they need help. Everyone in the world can be your neighbor if you help them and they help you.

Ardian: My neighbors are Albania, Montenegro, Serbia, and other people around the Balkans. The people who care for us even though we don’t know them. What’s inside is what matters. The ones who cared for us and respect us. Albanian Kosovars are true people… these are my neighbors.

Yes, this has been a wonderful year. A year to grow and change and explore and learn. But I’m not talking about my students now. I’m talking about me. 

I’m more independent. I feel far more capable of tackling the difficult without thinking it is impossible. My sense of who is my neighbor has stretched across an ocean and deep into a different continent. 

My life is forever changed by the hearts, the smiles, the love and trust and the hard work of fourteen fourth graders and the people of Kosovo.

Each week I share my experiences living and teaching in Kosova. 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." 

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Kosovo: Chapter 10, Scene 1 Pite Perfect

I love Albanian food. I do. I love all the fresh vegetables and fruits, the meat and potatoes. I love the stuffed peppers and the peppers in cream sauce, byrek (bur-rek) and tave.  But one of my favorites is pite (pea-tay).  Pite is a flaky pastry roll stuffed with cheese or meat or spinach. At least that’s the way I’ve eaten it. 


My friend and mentor, Zara

Through a crazy set of circumstances in the winter, I wound up spending one evening with my pastor’s family. He and his wife and children were going to Imir’s parent’s house for dinner and they invited me to tag along. 


Imir’s mother, Zara is a gracious hostess and genuinely likeable woman. His father has lived an interesting life. That night, along with other traditional foods, Zara served us warm…fresh from the oven…golden brown…flaky cheese pite. I was hooked. She said it was easy to make and told me, with Imir acting as our translator, that she would teach me sometime.


My sometime came this past Sunday. I went home from church with Imir and Janette and their children. A bit later, Zara arrived laden with her bowls, ingredients, and pans for my cooking lesson. She set everything up in the kitchen.


Brushing the Fila with water
then oil

The cheese is called “gjis.” Janette said the closest thing we have to it in America is cottage cheese. Zara popped the lid off the plastic bowl to show me the cheese mixture: gjis, egg, milk, and salt. The only actual measurement I caught was one egg and about five spoons of milk. That’s okay. I like to cook by feel and taste anyway.


Zara offered a shortcut for the pastry because it takes hours to make the flaky dough. She bought fila dough already prepared at the store. I’m in on that. Totally doable.


rolling the pite

Each pite roll requires two squares of the fila dough. We first put one square down, brushed it with mineral water, then brushed it with oil. We then put the second square down on top of the first and did the same. After that we dolloped some of the cheese mixture over the fila, rolled the dough carefully and placed it in the oiled pan. Once we had filled the pan with our cheese filled rolls, we brushed more mineral water on top of the entire pan of pite and brushed them again with oil.


We put the pan in a hot oven for about twenty minutes. Once the crust started to brown we turned the oven off and let the pite continue to cook in the hot oven for three to five minutes more. 


Into the pan

While the pite was baking the real fun started. Zara and I talked (through Janette, mostly). We talked about our husbands and our children. We talked about our grandchildren. I showed her pictures of mine. Hers were playing in the other room. Janette had to leave us for something but we barely noticed. We managed to share bits and pieces of our lives though Zara speaks no English and I speak very little Albanian.


And we connected. There is a special bond women have. Especially when they are of the same generation. We understand each other and though our lives have been very different in many ways, they are the same in so many others. If I were to live in Kosova much longer, I can see how Zara and I could be friends.


Warm fresh pite

We checked the oven. We both declared the pite “perfect.” Zara had also made stuffed peppers. We sat down as a family and ate. Zara’s peppers and my first attempt at pite. 


And it was good.

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."