Friday Gratitude: I Won a Poetry Contest

Happy Friday, everyone! I am so happy to announce that a poem I wrote, titled “Addiction,” won third place in a “reverse poetry contest” for The New Social Worker Magazine. You can read it here.

Media consumption this week …

The book’s author, Michael Booth, is an Englishman married to a Danish woman. After living in Denmark for several years, he decided to write a book about Scandinavia. As he noted: “A journalist writing in the British Sunday Times recently described this part of the world as ‘a collection of countries we can’t tell apart.'”

This book is laugh-out-loud funny in parts. “In Sweden, the concept of being ‘fashionably late’ is akin to being ‘fashionably flatulent.'” (I think Booth is a funnier writer than Bill Bryson.)

Haha. Here are some fun facts I learned while reading this book:

  • People in Denmark like hygge (pronounced “hooga”) which, according to this book, basically means you sit around with your friends and family and make endless hours of small talk while avoiding more interesting and potentially controversial topics of conversation.
  • Iceland underwent a major financial crisis in 2008 when all three major privately owned banks defaulted.
  • Norway used to be a land of fishermen and farmers until they struck oil in 1969, which means it now has: “the largest sovereign wealth fund in the world. And I don’t mean per capita — we are talking in absolutes.”
  • According to PISA, Finland has the best education system in the world. Why? It isn’t due to classroom sizes (average) or the length of the school day (only four hours). It is because all of their teachers have master’s degrees. “In Finland, teaching attracts the brightest students … teacher-training courses can be harder to get into than those of law or medicine.” I also learned that Finns are extremely taciturn but blunt when they do speak. I think these might be my people.
  • Swedish women have subsequently seen their position in society advance even more comprehensively thanks to a raft of policies concerning gender equality, childcare, and positive discrimination.” Can I move there?

This book contained many more interesting facts about Scandinavia. I wish I could include them all here. Maybe you should just read the book. 🙂

Happy St. Patrick’s Day tomorrow! I’m not sure if I have any plans to celebrate but I’ll be in Ireland in two weeks anyway. 😉


My 15 Minutes of Fame

“In the future, everyone will be world-famous for fifteen minutes.” — Andy Warhol

I don’t know about being “world famous,” but I did briefly appear on Kosovo television in December. I was one of the organizers of Kosovo’s national “Po-e-Zë” poetry recitation competition. I didn’t realize I was on television until Sierra texted me that night to say she had seen me!

In this video, the first-prize high school winner and the Peace Corps Volunteer from her school are interviewed. I thought this might be interesting to post in case any of you are curious to hear what Albanian sounds like. Or, if you’d like to skip ahead to my (very brief) appearance, I come in at about the 4:09 mark.

(I hope my Vimeo channel doesn’t get flagged for posting this, although there are no copyright laws in Kosovo [or if there are, they aren’t enforced]).

This was probably the biggest, or one of the biggest, secondary projects I’ve undertaken (after my grant proposal). The actual day turned out to be a lot of fun!

Photo Scavenger Hunt

When I asked my friends and family for ideas for this blog, my friend Whitney sent me a Pristina, Kosovo photo scavenger hunt challenge she found online. That was a year ago. Since I am going to see Whitney in a few weeks, I decided to finally do the scavenger hunt. Saturday was a nice day and I had nothing else to do. So, I hopped on the bus to Pristina to begin my challenge!

The clues:

  • If you’re passing by Mother Tereza pedestrian street, just have a look at this Albanian National Hero. [Answer: Zahir Pajaziti]
  • As an American, it’s kind of funny to see this statue. His name is spelled correctly while the street is not. [Answer: Bill Clinton]
  • If you’re tired of traffic and urban life, this is the ideal place to have a nice walk or take a dip in the gigantic pool without leaving the city. [Answer: Germia Park]
  • This kind or architecture will kill your eyes, but since it was listed among top 10 most ugly buildings in the world it is a must-see. [Answer: National Library]
  • This is the location where Slobodan Milosevic delivered his 1989 speech which ignited the flames of nationalism in the former Yugoslavia leading to a decade of war and ethnic cleansing. [Answer: Gazimestan]
  • Located in one of the few Ottoman style buildings in the city. It’s tucked off a side street but worth finding. [Answer: the Grand Hamam]

I had already seen three of the sites (Bill Clinton, the library, and Zahir Pajazitit’s statue, because it is located in front of a building that has two Airbnbs I’ve stayed at). But, in the spirit of the challenge, I visited all six places in one day.

I decided to start with the most far-flung of the six sites: Gazimestan. It is a monument that commemorates the 1939 Battle of Kosovo. To get there, I took a bus from Pristina’s central bus station toward Mitrovice, and asked to be let off at Gazimestan, which is just a short ways out of the city. I got off the bus and walked along a desolate, trash-strewn road in the middle of nowhere. As I approached the monument, two stray dogs ran up to me. Luckily, they were friendly, but they shook me up a bit. I got to the monument with my two new dog friends trailing behind me and handed my passport over to a very unhappy-looking guard. He kept my passport for safe keeping and I was allowed onto the grounds to take photos. I thought it would be disrespectful to take selfies at a war memorial, so no selfies for this clue.

Gazimestan monument Kosovo
Gazimestan 1

Apparently, this is a curse:

Gazimestan curse

After I finished visiting the monument, I collected my passport, walked back down the desolate road, crossed the highway, and took a kombi back into the city center. In retrospect, I should have sprung the money for a cab or taken someone else along with me. [Total round trip from Pristina: 1 Euro]

The kombi let me off right in front of the Bill Clinton statue, something I pass every time I come to Pristina. My next clue: DONE!

Bill Clinton statue
I felt like such a tourist taking this photo …

I decided to go to the next furthest-flung clue, which was Germia Park. Lots of volunteers I had talked to had been there before, but I never had. (Not much of a park enthusiast, I guess.) I had heard that the pool is absolutely enormous. It is! Although, it was empty and blocked off this time of year.

Big pool Germia Park Pristina Kosovo
Really, really big pool
Germia Park
Me with the pool

[Total round trip from Pristina: 80 cents]

The bus back into the city center dropped me off very close to my next clue, the Great Hamam. I had a vague idea of where it was. I even had a map I had gotten from my Peace Corps safety and security manager. I still couldn’t find it. I asked four different people on the street for directions. Finally, I asked an older gentleman sitting on a bench, and he pointed at an ugly building across the street.

It was a good thing this notice was posted to the door. Otherwise, I would have doubted I was in the right place.

Grand Hamam
Heritage site

I was really disappointed by this clue. I thought the Grand Hamam would be beautiful. But no, it’s an ugly, dirty, white cinderblock building. (There is a really beautiful mosque next door.)

Grand Hamam Pristia Kosovo
Me in front of the Grand Hamam

After stopping for a refreshment at Trosha, my new favorite bakery in Pristina, I headed off to finish my scavenger hunt. I already knew where my last two clues were.

This is Zahir Pajaziti, the first commander of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA).

Zahir Pajaziti

There was a boy around age 10 who was lingering near the statue. I gestured for him to move so I could take the above photo. Then the boy offered to take a photo of me with the statue. Aww. It was a reminder to me to be less of a jerk when I’m in public.

Zahir Pajaziti 2

My last destination was the National Library. I’ve defended this building on my blog before … I don’t think it’s ugly! It’s unusual and, as my parents pointed out when they visited Kosovo, in need of some repairs. But still, I like it! (Also, there are way uglier buildings in Pristina. See: any cinderblock apartment building)

National Library Pristina Kosovo
Me at the National Library

This turned out to be a fun day. I got to see new places in Kosovo (and I also realized I don’t have many pictures of myself at touristy places here). Thanks for the photo challenge, Whitney! (Sorry it took me a year to do it.)

Friday Gratitude: Feeling Appreciated

Love from Chicago? I’ll take all of that you’ve got!

Thanks, Dana! 🙂

March 7 is National Teacher Appreciation Day here in Kosovo. It is hard not to feel appreciated when you get messages like this:


Like last year, all the teachers at my school went out for a nice meal. Here are some pictures of me with my teaching counterparts:



Media consumption this week … I’m going pretty poorly in terms of my reading pace. I’m in the middle of a book about Scandinavia and I’ve starting re-watching Frasier (my favorite television series ever) from the beginning. That’s about it!

On Wednesday, I posted a guest blog post but then took it down so its author could add more to it. Sorry for the glitch. It’ll be back up in the future.

Thanks, as always, for reading. I will talk to you on Monday!

Where My Head Is

It’s hard to believe I am roughly 4.5 months away from finishing with Peace Corps! I attended a “tea talk” sponsored by our office last Saturday and as I looked around the table at my friends, I realized that in a few short months, everyone will be scattered across the globe. 😦

My anxiety has been riding pretty high lately, sometimes waking me up in the middle of the night. There are so many things to consider at this point:

Kosovo stuff:

  • Finishing my projects with the Peace Corps (teaching, working at the orphanage, working with KosovaLive, and blogging)
  • Finishing with creative projects, such as:
    • Putting the finishing touches on some crochet gifts
    • Finishing some other crochet projects for the etsy store I’m thinking of starting once I am back in the U.S.
    • Working on a children’s story I’d like to publish as an e-book
    • Finishing a longer novel I’m writing
  • Visiting a few spots around Kosovo I’ve yet to see
  • Making sure I have sent postcards to everyone in my address book
  • Slowly whittling down my closet (I’ve been making small, frequent trips to a donation center here)
  • Getting my resume in top shape
  • Thinking of how/when I will end this blog

Michigan stuff:

  • SPENDING TIME WITH MY FAMILY. Also, eating all the food everywhere
  • Finding freelance or part-time work while I hunt for my dream job
  • Doing lots of un-fun stuff: switching my car’s registration from Illinois to Michigan, getting a new U.S. phone number (and possibly a new phone, because mine is dying), figuring out what to do about health insurance, maybe switching my professional licenses from Illinois to Michigan, etc.
  • Doing some fun shopping, as in, I need new clothes
  • Seriously job hunting
    • Figuring out how I am going to job hunt, as my parents don’t have an Internet connection (no kidding)
  • Hopefully doing some U.S. travel to visit friends I haven’t seen in two years! (An autumn trip to New England is highest on my list!)
  • But also, saving as much money as possible

The Bigger Move:

So, I find my dream job and then I have to:

  • Find a place to live
  • Pack and move again
  • Switch all my bills, car stuff, and professional licenses to a new state
  • Start working
  • Make new friends

The Highest-Level Decisions

  • How do I want to live my life moving forward? What didn’t I like about my life before I joined the Peace Corps? What changes do I want to make and how will I make them?

I have some answers at this point, still working on others …

Maybe it seems premature to be thinking about this stuff, but really, 4.5 months is not a long time. I’ve got my trip to Ireland in April, my close-of-service Peace Corps conference in May, school ending in the middle of June, and then roughly a month more and I am DONE! Whoa.

Thank you for the recent postcard, Katie!

I have my postcard list and am still working my way through it. My goal is to send at least one postcard to every person in my address book before I leave Kosovo. If you haven’t received a postcard or if you’ve moved recently, please let me know.

And thanks to all of you for staying in touch! I keep all the cards you’ve sent me in a folder and rotate them around my room as decoration. 🙂

I’ve been reaching out to my professional network lately to inquire about possible freelance projects once I’m back in the States. If you know anyone who might be hiring, please let me know!

Albania’s Mountain Queen

“Extreme hospitality overwhelms me.” — Edith Durham, speaking about her time in Albania

My awesome friend Val bought me the book “Albania’s Mountain Queen” by Marcus Tanner because she knew I wanted to read it. I never read history books, except for the very occasional historical fiction novel. I am someone who prefers to experience history rather than read about it in books. I’d rather visit Gettysburg than read a book about Gettysburg, for example.

However, after living in the Balkans for nearly two years, I have grown very interested in the history here. Tanner writes about the life of Edith Durham, an Englishwoman who became a passionate crusader for Albanian rights. Durham was born to an upper-middle class English family. While her younger siblings went on to fantastic careers, Durham was something of a late bloomer. She was stuck in England caring for her ailing mother. She hated her life and decided to set out on an adventure, visiting the Balkans in the early 1900s. She went on to become a writer and reporter, urging British politicians to take notice of what was happening in the Balkans. (And so much was going on at the time … the Ottoman Empire was collapsing and different countries were trying to invade each other. I was having a hard time keeping it all straight).

As Winston Churchill once said: “The Balkans produce more history than they can consume.”

Tanner gives an unflinching look at Durham’s life and influence in the Balkans. At times, I get the feeling he didn’t like her much, though of course he never met her and was writing about her after her death.

Despite not liking history books in general and at times being overwhelmed by the amount of information, I greatly enjoyed this book and learned so much about the history here. It gave me a greater insight into much of my own observations of Kosovo and Albanian culture.

I highlighted a good deal of the book as I was reading. I’d like to share some quotes I found especially note-worthy. Please note that anything in quotes are the words of Marcus Tanner, the book’s author.

On the Albanian language:

“Language … also isolated Albanians from the outside world … the Albanians inhibited a linguistic island and spoke a language that had no close relationship to any Indo-European tongue. Albanian was also split into two very different, usually mutually unintelligible, dialects: Tosk in the south and Geg in the north. Very little was written in the language.”

On religion (April’s note: I found this particularly interesting because I live in a Catholic minority village):

“In 1468 … the Ottomans completed their conquest and most of the population [of Albania] converted to Islam. In the mountains of the north … the Catholic church retained a foothold. The clergy were a poor asset … some were beggars … most did not teach, or appear to know, elementary Christian dogmas.”

On women:

The poet Byron visited Albania and said of the people, “Their women are sometimes handsome also, but they are treated like slaves.” Byron’s companion, Hobhouse, further remarked that “Albanians … treated their women like animals.”

“None of the Albanians [Durham] had met had objected to the choice of wife that had been made for them because they considered all women the same — put on earth only to work and breed.”

On Kosovo:

“Of all the Ottoman vilayets [provinces] in Europe, Kosovo was reckoned the most lawless and dangerous. The Serbs regarded Kosovo with longing as their ancestral homeland, and the feeling of longing was increased by the fact that Kosovo was out of reach, under the thumb of the Ottomans. They wanted it back.”

“Crossing the lawless providence of Kosovo all the way to Peja and Decan in order to gain a more complete picture of Serbian life was a feat of a different order. Peja was one of the few places in the Balkans where Durham ever confessed to having felt afraid.”

(April’s note: I have visited the monastery in Peja.)

On Macedonia:

“[Durham’s landlady in Macedonia] got on Durham’s nerves, creating a fuss when she needed a wash and took a bowl of water up to her room. The Macedonians observed this with suspicion. They rarely washed, and when they did so, conducted the ritual outdoors and with solemn ceremony, one woman pouring a little trickle of water over the hands and face of the other. The women of Macedonia did not remove any of their heavy and elaborate garments for this infrequent event and were alarmed by reports of the action involving bowls of water that was said to be going on in Durham’s bedroom. An even bigger scandal followed when her landlady discovered she slept in a nightgown. Macedonian women slept in the same gear they had worn all day and that they had probably worn all year. The idea of lying in bed, semi-naked, in a flimsy shift, horrified them.”

“The Macedonians’ passive resistance to learning or trying almost anything new got on her nerves. When Durham decided to vaccinate as many of the refugees as possible against smallpox, the refugees wanted nothing to do with it. As she had found out earlier with the affair of the indoor washing bowl, Macedonian women considered it indecent to remove any of their cumbersome drapes, and would not even bare their arms for any inducement.”

Some things never change …

“[Durham] had to avoid the packs of wild dogs that roamed everywhere, attacked strangers and fought until 4 a.m. every night.”

On differences between Albania and Serbia

“Overwhelmingly illiterate, possessing only a handful of schools, without roads that anyone could use in winter, the Albanians were divided along almost every conceivable line.”

“The comparison between Albania and Serbia, which had liberated itself from the Ottomans in the 1830s, spoke for itself … Serbian towns now had electric lighting, decent roads and trams, and were linked by railways, while everywhere phalanxes of uniformed school children were to be seen marching off to school.”

On Enver Hoxha, the dictator who ruled Albania from 1944 to 1985

“Hoxha had a cosmopolitan background. Born in 1908 to a Muslim family of land-owners and cloth merchants … [he was educated in France, and traveled Europe surviving on family money]. He was also intellectually superior to most of his Eastern European comrades. His belief in his own superior knowledge fixed in him a determination to become the Soviet bloc’s ultimate pedagogue. This was a task he never laid down and in the pursuit of which he created the most paranoid and xenophobic regime in Eastern Europe.”

“Hoxha’s goal was … to extirpate religious belief and practice … Albania was proclaimed the world’s first atheist state. Not even China had gone that far.”

“In April 1985, Eastern Europe’s longest serving leader [Hoxha] died of diabetes.” The book notes the positives Hoxha’s leadership brought, including increasing the literacy rate, creating railroads, providing electricity even in remote villages, and a rise in overall life expectancy. But … “the population paid a high price …” There were labor camps, the death penalty could be handed down for 34 different offenses, and whole families were punished for the crime of one member.

In reference to Albania during the Cold War years: “The west … all but ignored the country. Occasional reports referred in a semi-jokey fashion to a ‘hermit kingdom,’ as if it were some kind of Shangri-La, not a boot camp. The Albanians of Kosovo and Macedonia were preoccupied by their own struggles inside Yugoslavia, and some romanticized the situation in Albania. When the Albanians of Yugoslavia were finally able to cross the border, many were shocked by what they found there.”

enver hoxha house tirana albania
Enver Hoxha’s former residence in Tirana, Albania, as it looks today

On Durham’s life and legacy

“Edith Durham never returned to Albania, or to anywhere else in the Balkans. She was only in her late fifties but her health had been damaged beyond repair by years spent in Albania in all weathers. Now lame and in constant pain from sciatica, she found travel difficult. Almost a quarter-century of life lay ahead of her, but for the rest of it she was often housebound.”

“Over the border in Kosovo, Durham’s name and likeness made an equally sudden reappearance. She was less associated with Kosovo than northern Albania. After all, she had been Queen of the Mountains, not Queen of the Kosovo plain.” (April’s note: Funny to hear Kosovo referred to as a “plain.” This Midwesterner thinks of Kosovo as being mountainous. But anyway … ) Her denunciations of Serbian atrocities in Kosovo in the 1920s ensured that she had a following there, too … as power finally passed into the hands of Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian majority.”

edith durham street pristina kosovo
Edith Durham street in Pristina, Kosovo. Photo courtesy of Chester Eng.

On the region today

“[Durham] had not wanted Albania to remain a fossil and she had not idealized the traditional Albanian way of life. She had always been appalled by the poverty, dirt and disease, and by the stupider superstitions. She had condemned the custom of taking child brides and perpetuating blood feuds, and she had deplored the lack of education. What she did not care for in the new Albania was … a tendency in certain traditional societies to lose their equilibrium and ape the cheapest aspects of western society.”

“Whether Durham would recognize much of today’s Albania, or Kosovo, is another question. Pristina [Kosovo’s capital] and Tirana [Albania’s capital] are alike in their embrace of flashy modernity and apparent indifference to history. ”

I disagree with Tanner’s statement here. While it is true that Pristina and Tirana are westernized cities, anyone traveling to one of Kosovo or Albania’s villages (or anyone living in a village, like me) will notice many customs and traditions that are stuck in the past. Even Tanner himself notes that: “Many men still expect to marry virgins, and there are still a few ‘sworn virgins‘ around. The code of blood vengeance lingers on in the form of honor killings.”

(I once had a Kosovar man tell me he wanted to marry a woman who hadn’t had a previous boyfriend, even if she was still a virgin. Good luck with that, buddy!)

A take-away

I have visited Tirana, Albania a number of times and I love the beauty of Albania and the richness of its capital city. It is shocking to remember that as little as thirty years ago, no one was able to cross its border, either going out or coming in. Albania has long been a remote part of the world, first because of its inaccessibility due to its mountains and poor roads, and later due to Enver Hoxha’s dictatorship. I feel lucky I have been able to visit there.

Friday Gratitude: March Forth

Someone once told me that she likes her birthday, March fourth, because it is a sentence: March forth!

After a mild winter with almost no snow in my village, on Monday I awoke to a large accumulation with snow still falling. It kept falling. We got Wednesday – Friday off school!

kosovo snow.JPG
End-of-February, so cruel

Want to know something funny? My most widely-read blog post, by far, is Jennifer the Unicorn. Sometimes I can see the Internet search terms that lead people to my site. I was curious to know what this resent Cyrillic search term meant, so I Google translated it and …

unicorn crochet

Hahaha! People love crocheted unicorns, I guess.

Media consumption this week …

  • I FINALLY finished reading the 800-page behemoth that had overtaken my life: The Revolution of Marina M. by Janet Fitch. I was determined to finish it because Fitch wrote my favorite novel of all time, White Oleander. “Marina” had none of the poetry of “Oleander.” I didn’t like the main character, found much of the history confusing (it is set during the Russian revolution), and the ending takes a bizarre turn. It also isn’t much of an ending, as Fitch is apparently working on a sequel. UGH. (Are you ever glad when a book is out of your life? That’s how I felt about this one.)
  • I watched a documentary titled The Search for General Tso, which goes into who the man was and how the famous chicken dish came to be named for him. Watching this was pure torture because the food looked delicious (and there is no Chinese food to be found in Kosovo). 😦 Still, this was a quick, informative film.

Speaking of food, I invented a salad. (Being a poor Peace Corps volunteer forces one to think creatively.) I bought a package of frozen broccoli, warmed it with water from my electric kettle, strained it, and added a can of tuna salad from a care package my parents sent me and crushed some crackers on top.

broccoli tuna salad crackers
Food porn alert!

Before I joined the Peace Corps, I looked at a few other people’s blogs and always wondered why their care package wishlists included food. Now I TOTALLY get it. I use my care package food to supplement my often poor diet. Also … it wasn’t until I joined the Peace Corps that I realized so many Americans are crazy about peanut butter. I’ve always had a take-it-or-leave-it attitude toward the stuff, but lately, I’ve been scarfing peanut butter like nobody’s business. My body is like EAT. MORE. PROTEIN.

This week, I bought plane tickets, much to the dismay of my battered and bruised bank account. A childhood friend is traveling from L.A. to meet me in Ireland for my spring break. I realized this will probably be the last time I will be on an airplane until I fly back to the United States for good. It is a strange feeling. I have become so accustomed to European travel being inexpensive and quick. But soon, European travel will once again become expensive and time consuming.

I am so grateful for all the travel I’ve been able to do recently. Traveling was always a goal of mine, but I didn’t take my first international trip until I was 31.

Another volunteer commented that I seem to take a lot of weekend trips and asked how I’ve budgeted my vacation time. I told her my longest trip was my first Christmas break (9? days in Paris). My only other longish trips were spring break last year and a week I spent in the U.S. last summer. Aside from that, I didn’t travel at all in the summer. I was afraid of blowing through all my money at once. It was hard at the time, sitting in my boiling-hot bedroom with a fan pointed at me while many of my friends were off traveling. But taking shorter, more frequent trips this fall and winter have done a lot for my mental health.

Since last summer, I have spent 2 nights in Sweden, 4 nights in London with my parents, took a bus trip to Serbia, and spent a long weekend in Amsterdam at my friend’s place.

Now that my time serving in the Peace Corps is starting to wind down, it is hard to think about all the places I didn’t get to see while I was in Europe. But, I don’t have unlimited time or money (who does?). I am happy with the places I’ve been able to go and to be able to spend time with my family and friends.

Let me know if you have any food/fun suggestions for my Ireland trip! Talk to you on Monday. I read an interesting book about the Balkans and will be sharing more about that. 🙂