An American in Kosovo, Part 5

Remember when you were a kid, and it was sooo annoying when an adult would guess your age or grade, and low ball you? And you were like, “Ugh, I’m TEN! How can they think I’m nine?”

Well, a while back, I was at a neighbor’s house and they mentioned their daughter’s birthday was coming up. I looked at her and asked, “How old are you going to be? Twelve?” And she said, “Sixteen.”

***

There is a teacher at my school who greets me by saying, “Miredita, Amerikan.” (Good day, American.)

***

This is an old story, but I haven’t shared it yet.

I attended my host brother’s wedding last July. I had only lived in Kosovo for six weeks then, and was still feeling conspicuous and awkward. The female guests were beautifully dressed, and they would change their outfits throughout the reception. (Imagine being at a wedding where Cher is also in attendance. Now multiple that by 100.)

Everyone began circle dancing. I was trying to work up the nerve to join in. Seated at my long, nearly empty table was a woman I came to call (in my mind) The Beautiful Blonde Mermaid. Excuse the title, but I never caught her name. She was 1) beautiful 2) blonde and 3) had wavy, cascading hair, like a mermaid. I got the sense that she, like me, is a bit reserved, and not sure if she wanted to dance. But then she rose from the table, took me by the hand, and led me out to the dance floor. It was like, “I don’t want to do this, and you don’t want to do this, so let’s do it together.” It was an act of kindness I will remember.

Other funny stories:

A Quick and Belated Post About Easter

I’ve mentioned before that I live in a minority, Catholic community in Kosovo (the majority of Kosovars are Muslim). I was interested to learn two things regarding Easter in Kosovo:

  1. They dye eggs here. (I was gifted pretty eggs by students and teachers alike.)
  2. They do not have the Easter Bunny. Most of my students had never heard of him (her?). When they asked me if he is real, I said he is as real as Santa Claus. 🙂

Processed with MOLDIV

Another fun fact: Dyed eggs may or may not be hard boiled. I found this out the hard way as I was hiding eggs for my 3rd graders. I dropped one and it splattered on the floor. Oops.

Friday Gratitude: Reflections on Travel

April Gardner Rome Italy
Contemplating Rome … (Thanks to Nicole for taking this photo.)

This week, I am especially grateful to have the opportunity to travel. I didn’t start traveling internationally until I reached my 30s. I’d always wanted to, but I didn’t have much money when I was younger. And, many of the jobs I had in my 20s were contract positions (meaning, time off = no pay).

Once, I had a boss who made the comment, “I’ve already done Europe.” At the time, I’d never been to Europe, and I thought, What a stupid (and privileged) thing to say. (How does one “do” Europe, exactly? Check it off the list with a plan to never return?)

I had a conversation with several friends last week, where we discussed travel and being able to appreciate it. (As we were climbing the Spanish Steps in Rome, Nicole heard a kid protest, “I’m tired of traveling!”) I didn’t grow up in a family that took fancy trips abroad. And if I had, how much of that would I really remember now?

I am grateful for travel even when it isn’t fun. Like that time when my brain was fuzzy from consuming half a bottle of wine and prosciutto with the texture of butter, and I stuck our key in the wrong door. (Insert whatever joke you want here.)

That time Nicole and I (well, I) got our Airbnb keys stuck in the neighbor's door. #rome #springbreak2017 #shumeproblem

A post shared by April Gardner (@hellofromkosovo) on

Oh, and that time Nicole and I tried to stop someone from slipping into our building without a key, and got screamed at in a colorful mix of English and Italian. (How considerate of you to use the F-word, lady, so that we could understand you!)

But overall, Rome was a dream of a vacation. Our airbnb had a private, enclosed garden, where Nicole and I would have our morning coffee and our evening wine (and write postcards). I have always fantasized about living in a city apartment with a private garden. 🙂 This place was perfect.

Postcards from Rome
Postcards from Rome

While Berlin wasn’t my jam, I am privileged to be able to have an opinion about which cities I like and which cities I don’t.

The ease with which I am able to move about the world is astounding. Twice, I stopped people on the street to ask for directions in Berlin, and they were able to speak English. One man was on his bike at a stoplight, and the other was walking down the street in the rain. And both took the time to kindly point me in the right direction. I am lucky to have the money, time, unrestricted passport, and language to be able to explore other parts of the world.

***

I read three books while I was on vacation:

  • Pretty Girls by Karen Slaughter. This was a terrible, violent book. Don’t read it.
  • The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbury. While I’m all for an existential crisis, this was a bit too much pontification for me. I did like the two main characters, though.
  • Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver. She’s one of my favorite authors, and this novel didn’t disappoint.

I also watched the series finale of Girls. Was anyone else disappointed by that slap-dash ending?

***

I am grateful to be back in Kosovo. And I am grateful for a host family that will come and pick me up on the side of a two-lane highway, where the bus dropped me off (because the bus directly to my village wasn’t running on Sunday.)

Finally, one last note (and a plug!). My friend Crystal wrote a novel and got it published (by a real New York publishing house)! I am so impressed that someone I know published a book (which has long been a dream of mine). Crystal’s novel will be released this Tuesday. You can pre-order it on Amazon here. (It’s an historical fiction story set in ancient Rome — how appropriate!)

Feast of Sorrow

Notes on Traveling Through Tirana

When doing research on flying to Rome, I discovered it was going to be much cheaper for me to leave from Tirana, Albania than Pristina.

At first, I considered renting an airbnb in Tirana the night before my flight. But then I would have to spend time/money getting back out to the Tirana airport (which is 18 kilometers outside the city center). Also, the bus from Pristina to Tirana stops at the airport on its way into downtown Tirana.

I had United Airline miles that were set to expire soon, so I decided to use them to book a room at the Hotel Airport Tirana. My cost for the room was only 16 Euro, after I used my miles.

***

As my bus crossed the border from Kosovo into Albania, I looked out the window and thought, “Albania is so beautiful.” A second later, someone coughed on me.

***

There isn’t much to do by the Tirana airport. I bought some snacks and spent the afternoon reading on my balcony (a fine way to begin a vacation, by the way). When I got hungry, I debated ordering room service. I’m not keen on eating in restaurants alone when I don’t have to, but room service is generally expensive. I’ve only ever taken one business trip (to Nashville, TN), and that was the last time I ordered room service. The fee was something like $16. Sixteen dollars is an obscene amount of money to order a mediocre cheeseburger, even if someone else is paying for it.

I called the front desk, and learned that the fee for room service at the Hotel Airport Tirana is 1.50 Euro.

WHAT?! SEND IT UP!

I ended up getting two room service meals during my stay, and the total cost for food + fees was 11 Euro. (Oh, Eastern Europe, how I love thee!) I got to eat dinner in my pajamas! In bed! 🙂

So, my total cost for traveling through Tirana, Albania was 10 Euro for the bus, 16 Euro for the hotel, 11 Euro for room service, and probably 3 or so Euro for snacks. (Free breakfast was included in the price of my room.) The 40 Euro I spent (plus my 70 Euro flight) was still significantly cheaper than flying to Rome from Pristina.

tirana airport
The airport view from my balcony

The Tirana airport is across the street from the hotel, which makes this the only time in my life I have ever walked to catch a flight. 🙂

Spring Break: There was a city called Berlin, in a country called Germany …

After planning to spend the first half of spring break in Rome, I debated what to do for the second half of the week. Before joining the Peace Corps, I hadn’t traveled around Europe much. Looking at the prices of flights from Rome left me feeling dizzy and giddy. I could go anywhere, for less than 100 Euro!

I thought about doing some city-hopping, but that just seemed overwhelming, given the little time I had. I finally settled on Berlin, because:

  • I had always wanted to go there.
  • I knew some other volunteer friends would be there, so I wouldn’t be totally alone.
  • There was a cheap flight directly back to Pristina (rather than having to fly to Skopje or Tirana).

Again, I like to travel with only a loose itinerary. Here’s what I ended up doing in Berlin:

  • Wednesday: Arrive in Berlin at night
  • Thursday: Free walking tour through SANDEMAN’S. Best thing I did in Berlin! We hit some big tourist spots: Brandenburg Gate, Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, and Checkpoint Charlie. Dinner with friends at a German restaurant (cannot recall name)
  • Friday: (only day with okay weather) Walk through Tiergarten Park (behind the Brandenburg Gate), and visit the Berlin Wall. Dinner with friends at an Indian restaurant.
  • Saturday: Visit Deutsches Historisches Museum. Dinner with friends at Leander.
  • Sunday: 6 a.m. flight back to Pristina!
Memorial to Murdered Jews
Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe
april and rachel
April and Rachel: At the end of our walking tour!
Rachel Tim April 2
Rachel, Tim, and April: Smiling despite the cold!

Trying beer in Germany, just to say I did it:

Brandenburg Gate at night
Brandenburg Gate at night
Brandenburg gate 3
Tim, Rachel, and April
berlin park
Visiting Tiergarten Park
rachel april tim park
Rachel, April, and Tim, at Tiergarten Park

At the Berlin Wall:

german history museum
Entrance to the Deutsches Historisches Museum
german history museum 2 inside
Inside the Deutsches Historisches Museum
german history museum american influence
Learning about the American influence on German culture

One interesting new thing I learned:

Hilter medals for women
Hitler’s medals for women
Hitler medal for women 2
Hitler’s medals for women

Sierra and Chelsea arrived on Saturday. It was nice to catch up with them and hear about their travel adventures.

April Chelsea Sierra
Last night in Germany! April, Sierra, and Chelsea

Tips and Observations about Berlin:

  • I’m going to be honest — Berlin is one of my least favorite places I have visited. To be fair, I had just come from a beautiful, Roman spring to cold, rainy Germany. Every day, I would put on as many layers as possible and go out into the wind. I tried to like the city, but I just couldn’t. I had pictured Berlin as this young, hip, vibrant, grungy city. But it is quiet and empty. I learned from our tour guide that Berlin is the only city in Western Europe that has declined in population, from 4 million residents to 3.5 million. Walking its wide streets and long blocks, I got an eerie feeling. Where were all the people?
  • I know Berlin has a reputation as a big party city. It’s the city of Cabaret! It’s the city of Hedwig and the Angry Inch! I cannot remember the last time I went to a club, so maybe if I had participated in the nightlife scene, I’d have a different opinion of Berlin.
  • Berlin is a very clean city. (As a friend pointed out, there are no people to mess it up.)
  • The subway system was extremely easy to navigate. I was able to get around with no problems.
  • My favorite part of my trip was the free walking tour. I’d definitely recommend it if you plan to visit.

Oh, well. I’m glad I was able to see Berlin, and check it off my list. I am also glad I visited while I am living in Europe. Had I paid a lot of money to fly over from the U.S., I probably would have been more disappointed.

(Thanks to Rachel for allowing me to post some of her photos here.)

The Food in Rome

I am usually against taking pictures of food. But, my friend Nicole and I had some truly awesome meals while we were in Rome. I wanted to share a few of our best experiences.

1. One night, Nicole wanted to check out Rome’s Trastevere neighborhood. I did a Google search for the best restaurants in Trastevere, and came across La Prosciutteria. I was all, “Look at the pictuuuuures! Please can we go thereeeeee?” And Nicole said yes. 🙂 So, we went.

food in rome
La Prosciutteria

It was a fun experience. The restaurant is small and busy. We managed to find a table in the basement. The food came quickly, because there isn’t anything to cook. Also, it was a reasonably priced meal. We each had a glass of wine, and we still paid less than 20 Euro per person.

2. Nicole and I got a million suggestions on places to eat/things to do in Rome. A friend of mine had suggested visiting Costanza, which is a restaurant in an old cave where the gladiators used to practice. We went for lunch, and I am so glad we did. The food was outstanding. And the ambiance was great — a quiet place, prompt and friendly service, and did I mention its a cave?

cave restaurant rome
Costanza Restaurant
cave restaurant rome 3
Costanza Restaurant
cave restaurant rome 2
Costanza Restaurant
April Nicole
April and Nicole at Costanza Restaurant, Rome
food cave restaurant
Gnocchi

3. On our last night in Rome, we were tired from so much walking. We decided to check out a restaurant in the neighborhood (Pigneto) where we were staying. Nicole found Qui Se Magna.

My family will tell you I am capable of eating my own weight in spaghetti. While Qui Se Magna was a small, neighborhood restaurant, the food was outstanding. I loved my spaghetti!

spaghetti in rome
Spaghetti dish at Qui Se Magna, Rome

If you are planning a trip to Rome, I would highly recommend these three restaurants.

Spring Break: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

April in Rome Favorite
My favorite photo from the whole trip!

Hi, Everyone! I am back in Kosovo and so happy to be blogging again! I missed writing while I was away. This week, I’m going to be sharing photos and experiences from my recent trip to Rome and Berlin.

I spent the first half of the week exploring Rome with Nicole, my friend from Boston. We had a loose idea of what we wanted to do while we were in Rome, but mostly, we played things by ear. Below is what we ended up doing.

Rome Itinerary

Saturday: Arrive, have appetizers at Necci, meet our airbnb host, and settle in. Eat dinner in our neighborhood.
Sunday: A walk around Rome, including all the major tourist spots — the Colosseum, Trevi Fountain, Spanish Steps, Pantheon, and the Roman Forum. Eat dinner on our patio.
Monday: the Vatican City and St. Peter’s Basilica. Eat dinner in the Trastevere neighborhood.
Tuesday: reading/snack at Piazza Navona, lunch at Costanza, a long walk through the Villa Borghese. Eat dinner in our neighborhood.
Wednesday: Quick brunch in our neighborhood and then, goodbye, Rome! 😦

Triumphal Arch
Triumphal Arch
Colosseum
Colosseum
IMG_1901
Because you can never have too many photos of yourself at the Colosseum …
Nicole and April
Nicole and April at the Colosseum
Trevi Fountain
Trevi Fountain
Trevi Fountain
April at Trevi Fountain
Spanish Steps 2
Spanish Steps
Looking down Spanish Steps Rome
Looking down from the Spanish Steps
pantheon
Pantheon
inside pantheon
Inside the Pantheon
inside roman forum
Inside the Roman Forum
roman forum
Inside the Roman Forum
Orange House Rome
Orange Glow
IMG_1935
Vatican City
vatican ceiling
Vatican Ceiling
st peter
St. Peter’s Basilica
april in rome
Piazza Navona

Tips and Observations about Rome

  • We downloaded the Rick Steves’ free walking tour app for the Colosseum and the Roman Forum. It provided a context for what we were seeing, and despite the cheese factor, both tours were informative.
  • We went to the Colosseum first thing in the morning, and planned to visit the Roman Forum right after that. But, the line was very long and didn’t appear to be moving. I suggested we hit all the other major tourist spots and return to the Forum in the evening. When we came back, there was no line at all, and we pretty much had the place to ourselves.
  • I learned taking photos of the Sistine Chapel is not allowed. 😦 But, I saw it! 🙂
  • Rome is dirty, compared to other major cities I have visited.
  • I had a hard time wrapping my mind around the fact that all of this was real, and not some American, Chuck-E-Cheese approximation of history. As Rick Steves pointed out in his tour of the Roman Forum, “You are walking on stones Julius Caesar walked on.” WOW.
  • I loved the trees in Rome as much as anything else, and learned (from Rick Steves) that they are called “umbrella pines.” They remind me of a child’s rendering of a tree — long, bare trunks with a mass of squiggles at the top.
April in Rome Umbrella Pines
Umbrella Pines

Stay tuned! I’ll be posting about food in Rome, Berlin, and thoughts/tips on travel this week!