Friday, September 20, 2013


I've had a six-week hiatus from posting about our trip to the Balkans while Life Happened (e.g., school started, I had a major publishing deadline, I had some church assignments, we took a trip to Colorado, etc. etc.) It's time to go back to Kosovo and finish up.  

As I discussed in my first post about Kosovo, we had a truly outstanding guide named Inan who spoke beautiful English and spent the day with us in Prizren. One of the many highlights of the day was a short hike he took us on to visit the medieval fortress that overlooks the city. 
On our way up, up, up!
Although it is now largely in ruins, a few sections of the fortress constructed much later than the original Byzantine walls are still intact.  

While we were there, a busload of school children arrived and raced up the trail to the top. When we saw the American flag printed on the shirt of one of the girls, we waved enthusiastically, and she waved back, equally exhuberant.  A little while later we ran into her and some of her school mates, and Inan, who among his many jobs once taught high school English, struck up a conversation with them, telling them we were from America. They were very excited, and he encouraged them to use some of their English on us. A few of the bolder students asked us our names and inquired which state we were from. We asked them their names in return and a few other questions. It was fun to see and hear their excitement to talk to "real Americans," the foreign country that seems to be most dear to the Kosovars.

Our standard "Cannon with Cannon" shot.
I wonder how many of these we have?

Depending on which direction we turned, we could see the modern section of Prizren:

. . . or the older area around the river and bridges:

The city itself is quite densely populated:

. . . but is surrounded by what looks to be rich farmland:

. . . and the impressive Shari Mountains:

On the road to the fortress, we noticed quite a few buildings that looked like they had been bombed.  When we asked Inan about it, he brushed our questions aside and merely said there had been some fighting there and rebuilding was slow.  After returning home and reading more about Prizren and the Kosovo War, we learned that this area had been the Serb neighborhood, and that during the war the Albanian Kosovars had destroyed many of the Serbian homes and churches here in retaliation for all the persecution and bloodshed they had endured at the hands of Serbia.

We realized that in general, Inan had not talked much about what had happened in Prizren during the war. For example, we do not know what role he or his family members played. Certainly he would have been old enough to fight. On one hand it was strange that he didn't tell us the full story about the ruined buildings and what happened during, and sometimes after, the war, especially since he seemed so forthright about everything else. On the other hand, it was obvious that he loved his country and was anxious to portray his lovely city as a place friendly to tourists and, even more, to foreign investment. Who can blame him for trying to "accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative"?

He did mention that Kosovo and the United States won the war against Serbia. He noted that Kosovo could never have done it without help. Everyone in the world seemed to be on Kosovo's side in the conflict, he said, but no one would step up to help except for the U.S. These days, he told us, although the country is divided up into five occupation zones--German(which contains Prizren), British, French, Italian, and American--only the Americans do anything to help rebuild the country.

In particular, USAID has been a tremendous help, and Kosovars are excited for a brand new branch of the Peace Corps starting up this year in their country .

As we continued to walk and talk, we learned a lot about this incredibly gifted man. For example, when we walked by the music school where he had taken violin lessons for six years as a boy, he popped in and took us upstairs to one of the classrooms where a young woman was practicing.  He asked to borrow her violin and demonstrated his significant talent:
He mentioned that he would like to open a chess school (he himself had at one time been one of top players in all of Kosovo), build a restaurant on the road up to the fortress (none currently exists), and develop a ski resort in nearby mountains.  He had dozens of ideas, he said. He is so ambitious and has so much drive, but neither he nor most of his fellow countrymen have any resources.

Both Inan and our driver told us that individuals in their country must be self-sufficient. Our driver told us that most jobs last only two or three years, and then they most look for another job. There are no government unemployment benefits, so if they don't work, there is no way to feed their families. There is also no government retirement plan; Inan's mother lives with him and his family, and his brother and sister live only a few blocks away.

Inan also told us that he believes everyone should grow their own food whenever possible. He owns land in the country and wants to build a home there so that he can have two large gardens he and his two sons can work. He wants to teach them to be self-sufficient. However, his wife likes the city and is fighting the move. He told us he has dreams that his oldest son, who is very smart, can someday go to college--something most Americans with even minimal resources can do but that very few Kosovars can do.

Last year Inan visited North Dakota in connection with his job with the Kosovo Department of Agriculture. (Imagine your only exposure to the United States being North Dakota.) He saw large farming operations for the first time, but noted that Kosovo is too mountainous, too carved up into small parcels for such techniques. Also, Inan said that 40% of the land is owned by the government for "national parks," but some of it is now being sold off. "There are so many great opportunities to buy land if you have the money," he said somewhat wistfully (and also a bit suggestively).

Inan gave us this beautiful, expensive-looking book as a gift to help us remember his country:

Written in English, it is full of beautiful photographs and descriptions of all the hiking trails in Kosovo:

We have never been anywhere so desirous of tourists. All the pieces are in place--now they just need people to come.
We would definitely recommend Kosovo as a destination to anyone with a sense of adventure!
Part of our conversation touched on Inan's experience working with Bob's brother Chris, and we were moved by what he had to say. He asked us what made Chris the way he was, and when we asked him what he meant by that, he said, "I worked with him for three months every day. I know him well. He is incredibly smart. The second time he taught at the school, he had completely rewritten the program that he used the first time to better fit our needs. He is completely honest. He never even glanced at another woman. He is more Muslim than I am--the most Muslim person I know. [I think this was the biggest compliment he could possibly pay to Chris.] However, he has one flaw. He works too hard, 12 to 15 hours a day. I think he would take his laptop to bed if he could."

What one man says about another is a good indicator of what he values, don't you think?

It is hard to adequately express how we felt about this well-mannered, intelligent, eager, ambitious man. In the United States, he would surely be a successful entrepreneur, a leader in business or politics. It is not likely that our paths will ever cross again, but it would be wonderful if they did. Perhaps Chris will return to Kosovo some day for his work, and if he does, we hope we will get an update.

As we drove out of the city, we saw an underpass painting of a giant American flag and the words "Thank you NATO."  I must confess, it made me proud to be an American!

Our return border crossing to Macedonia was probably the longest border crossing of the entire trip. Our driver told us that Kosovars have to have a visa to go anywhere in Western Europe, and that it is very, very hard to get a visa. He had to show his to cross the border to Macedonia. He said other governments are worried the Kosovars will come in and not go back home. I think the "Albanian problem" is pretty significant in Europe, somewhat like our problem with illegal immigration from Mexico.

What a day. What an amazing day.

As a postscript, if you ever travel to Kosovo, I have a book recommendation for you. A friend had loaned me The Hemingway Book Club of Kosovo by Paula Huntley before our trip, but I didn't read it until after we got home. I was glad I got around to it, and my own experience in Kosovo made the book all the more meaningful to me.

Paula Huntley's husband, an attorney, was asked to go to Kosovo to help set up the new government after the Kosovo War, and Paula went along to teach English. She found adult students who were intelligent and eager, but who had no opportunities or resources, much like Inan, I think. After visiting Kosovo and then reading this book, and as a college English teacher myself, I was sobered by what our U.S. students expect and take for granted when very deserving and capable young people in other places in the world have so little.

One of the things Huntley says in the introduction really captures my feelings about why we went to Kosovo and what we brought back from the experience:

It is . . . my hope that more of us Americans will become involved with the rest of the world. We need to learn about other people, learn what they think of us, try to understand, even if we don't agree with, their points of view. Everywhere in the world, I believe from our own backyards to the middle of the Balkans, there exist people whose needs, and whose generous, responsive hearts, offer even the most ordinary Americans--like me--an opportunity to serve, to connect, to expand our capacity for love.

Here are just a few more thoughts from the book:

"You are an American," he says. "You are the people who helped us. You saved our lives. So you can teach our students more than English. You can teach them how to live together, with others, in peace. You can teach them how to work, how to build a democracy, how to keep trying no matter what the odds. You in America know how to do these things, and you can teach us."

Yet this is what I see everywhere . . . . Optimism, energy, the belief that things will be better, that there is a future and that that future is bright, bountiful even. My students are smart, full of enthusiasm, fun-loving, hardworking. But behind each eager, smiling face lies a hidden memory of grief, terror, loss. Everyone here has been wounded. How is it they can appear so helpful, so happy?

Kosovo Albanians believe in America's sympathy for their cause. They see America as their natural ally, the country that, more than any other, understands their struggle for independence. Americans and Kosovars, they believe, have a special affinity for one another and share important values: courage, individual initiative, and love of freedom. But the sad truth is that while Kosovo Albanians think of America every day, Americans have almost forgotten Kosovo.

While I can't say we think of Kosovo every day, I don't think we will forget this country that is so scarred by war and still so full of possibility.


  1. A day well spent. A beautiful country. You realize how much circumstance plays in your life - born in Kosovo, or born in the USA. You learn how wonderful the Muslims can be, how kinds, generous and thoughtful. How horrible war is. How seemingly unnecessary. A day I'll always remember.

  2. Your comments and post remind me of this quote from David's facebook Wisdom of Stephen Jay Gould post:
    "I am, somehow, less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein's brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talents have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops."
    Beautiful country!

  3. Great post. I was wondering if you had forgotten about part 2, so glad you didn't. So, interesting and thought provoking. We are so lucky here and I never want to forget that (and more importantly I want my kids to know).

  4. I really enjoyed reading about your interactions with the schoolchildren, as well as your day with Inan. I have seen this type of desparation before, and in the face of such a grand inability to change their lives, I think we Americans "forget" the places where we cannot help, as you say. I have two in-laws who believe in changing the world one life at a time, and they are good examples for me.

    Such an interesting trip, such an interesting post.