Tuesday, March 16, 2010

March 16

Well, I have been really busy! Last week Kat was sent to the hospital and it looked like our little grandson was ready to come. Thankfully he decided to wait awhile and she is back home on complete bed rest. After that scare I decided to come on home and am now back in Council Bluffs. I'm happy to report that Kat is doing well but complete bed rest is really hard.

I left Mitorvica on Friday and got into Council Bluffs on Saturday afternoon after a stop-over with Aaron, Jennifer and Charlie in Chicago. We got the news about Kat in the hospital on Tuesday, had an earthquake on Wednesday, and I left on Friday so it was quite a week. Oh the earthquake...it was my first and hopefully last earthquake experience. Evidently they are not uncommon in the area and are of two kinds: the swaying, shaky kind and the boom kind. We had the boom kind and it was boomy enough to scare me to death and to cause enough damage to the courthouse to close it until repairs can be made. Charlie and the staff are working out of a building in south Mitrovica for the time being.

I was able to take some photos of our neighborhood in Mitorvica before I left and will post them when I get time.

Charlie is very busy so he will definitely be kept occupied while I'm gone. All the EULEX judges met in Peja last week. Peja is a small city west and a little south of Mitrovica. Charlie drove to the meeting and said the area around Peja is just beautiful. Unfortunately there was alot of fighting there during the war and some scars remain. But there are also lots of beautiful fishing streams so he is getting his flies tied. Aside from his usual criminal trials he is serving on a couple of committees so his time is filled. He is also finding an important position as the only judge who speaks English as a native (he is now known as "The Native Speaker") so he is very helpful in composing anything that needs to be written.

I am planning on being here until a few weeks after the baby comes. As I said I would like to post the pictures of our neighborhood but after that I will be taking a respite until I am back in Kosovo. The adventure continues...

Monday, March 8, 2010

March 8 additional

I forgot to mention that if you click on the pictures I posted (under March 1) they will enlarge.

Also, I forgot to include a really funny incident. Yesterday Charlie and I went to the Pharmacy to get some medicine for his cold. The pharmacist didn't have the correct change (about 5 cents) so he gave us a pain pill instead! We are fighting over who gets to take it.....

March 8

Well, I now know how to post pictures and have posted the blog about our trip to Skopja. I hope it worked like it is supposed to.

This weekend was beautiful with sunshine for two whole days! Unfortunately Charlie was down with a bad cold so we spent the weekend inside. He is feeling a bit better and did go to work this morning. I had a pretty typical day. This city is very European in the sense that you have to go shopping alot. Fortunately for me my trips to Dublin prepared me for this. In general refrigerators over here are very small and they don't use preservatives like we do so you do have to go out quite a bit to keep stocked up. So this morning after I dropped the garbage off at the local dumpster, I went to my favorite store - it's like a bodega in New York or a small 7-Eleven in the US - to pick up a few things. One of the young men at the store speaks English very well and is very friendly and willing to help me. Then I went to the little store in our neighborhood that sells only coffee and got some coffee for espresso. I usually also go to the bakery for bread but didn't today.

We have a great location. Thank goodness we live in the heart of Mitrovica. There are lots of little stores everywhere. We can find just about everything we need within a few blocks. My favorite neighborhood store is just around the corner and sells birds. The owner puts the birds in the window every morning and outside in large cages if the weather is warm. I think they are some kind of small parrot. They are the prettiest birds with brilliant colors. They brighten everything up.

Last Friday we went to Pristina to meet and have dinner with an American woman from the UN. She was very interesting and after living here for 10 years had much great information to share with us. Like a typical newbie I commented about all the garbage and she did offer some enlightenment on that subject. She said that because these people have never really had their own country they may not as yet have developed a sense of ownership and pride. It's also possible that over the years dumping garbage was a way to get back at their oppressors. I was glad she made this observation. It taught me not to view things through my own lens only. There is usually more to anything than meets the eye. It's so easy to be judgemental.

I actually made chicken and dumplings for dinner on Saturday. Somehow accomplishing that made me seem not quite so far from home. It was really good and such a good comfort food for ailing Charlie.

We tried the local kebabs at our favorite restaurant this week. They are pretty bad. They are like a bland meatball only formed like a little sausage. They are served with a spicy sauce - too spicy for me - and accompanied with potatoes.

We are hoping to go to Thessoloniki, Greece this weekend with a group from the United Nations Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK). We just learned about the trip and are late in registering so I hope they let us join them. Thessoloniki is supposed to be very beautiful and is on the Aegean coast. Hopefully it will be lots warmer than it is here. It's been snowing all day and is really cold.

Our landlord stopped by yesterday to tell us he will be cleaning up the yard as soon as the weather warms up. There is a perfect spot for a herb garden so Charlie is getting anxious to get some things planted. It will be fun to come back after Kat's baby and have it be late spring or early summer with grass and flowers instead of mud. I'm looking forward to it.

Friday, March 5, 2010

March 5

I have written the nicest blog about our trip to Skopja, Macedonia last weekend but am having difficulty with the photos so will post it as soon as I get that figured out.

I've decided to come back to Iowa at the end of the month to help Kat out and wait for the baby's birth. I hope he doesn't come early but if he does we'll be ready!

We've had alot going on this week. On Tuesday we went to Pristina and had dinner with a judge from Minnesota and a woman from Texas who are here working. It was very interesting to get their prospective since they both have been here off and on for several years.

It is interesting that so many international resources have been spent on this tiny country over the last 10 years and they still don't have decent roads or dependable electricity or water. I wonder what the international priorities are. Seems like they should have gotten the basics taken care of first. (Kosovo is about the size of Charlie's Fourth Judicial District which could have been entirely paved in electrified concrete in 10 years.)

I also hired a woman to help with the housework. She is a local who was formerly employed by UNHCR (United Nations High Commission on Refugees). It seems like alot of the internationals are cutting back staff. She no longer works for them and is trying to get a cleaning business started. It was such a pleasure to meet Aferdita. She went to Germany during the war and speaks pretty good English. She is married and has three children but is the only one in her extended family with a job. She seems to be a very hard worker and I'm glad I found her. She will take good care of things while I am gone.

Tonight we are going to Pristina again for dinner with another American. We found the chocolate shop in Pristina on Tuesday and it exceeded my expectations! Can't wait to make a return trip today.

I want to get involved and volunteer here. Mitrovica doesn't have as many opportunities to do this as Pristina but there are two organizations I am interested in. One is the UNHCR (there are still alot of displaced people here) and the other is Community Building Mitrovica. CBM works to improve issues in the city both north and south. If I can't get this off the ground before I go, I will look forward to following up when I get back.

Hopefully I will be able to get the photos of Skopja figured out this weekend. It is cold and snowing here so this may be a good weekend to stay home and work on that.

Monday, March 1, 2010

March 1

I promised pictures from our trip to Macedonia and here they are. I finally figured out how to upload them. This is a shot on the road. The area is mountainous and there was snow on the peaks. The road wasn't too bad, either. This was taken while we were waiting to cross the border from Kosovo into Macedonia on our way to Skopja.

Skopja is a very ancient city which has been a trading center for centuries. It sits on the Vardar River which flows south through Greece and empties into the Aegean Sea. It's remarkable to think that this area has been inhabited since 4000BC. The Romans began their rule here in 148BC. Then in 395 AD the area fell under the Byzantine Empire. In 1393 the Ottoman Turks began their 520 year reign. The Ottomans were ousted in 1912 in the first Balkan War. Sadly, in March 1943 the entire Jewish population of Skopja was deported to Treblinka. In 1941 Macedonia joined Yugoslavia and became independent with the collapse of that country in the late 1990's.
I think as an America it is hard to really imagine what it is like to have such an ancient history. It seems in our country we think anything 200 years old is ancient. When you think of the prejudices and injustices done in our short history and the results thereof in our society and then think of the centuries of hatreds and injustices in these old countries it gives you some perspective on how deep-seated they are and how difficult it is to overcome them. I think about this especially here in Mitrovica where so many awful things happened to people we know during the latest war. And it's just a repetition of what has happened to or was done by their ancestors for ages. But they are capable of putting this all aside and moving forward no matter how slow and difficult.
But I digress...Now back to the travel log....
In 1962 an earthquake destroyed 80% of Skopja so many of the old, charming buildings are gone. Today the city is undergoing a massive restoration and renovation. The city does have its charm. The old bazaar survived the earthquake and was a fun place to visit.
We had to cross this Stone Bridge (Kameni Most) to get to the bazaar. The bridge spans the Vardar River and was constructed in the 15th century . It figures in a great deal of Skopja's history. It joins a large and pretty plaza on one side of the river to the old town and the bazaar on the other side. From it you can see the riverfront restoration the city is undertaking.

The bazaar was true to its name: sights, sounds, smells - everything you would imagine a bazaar to be. We stopped for lunch at this little cafe and the owner was kind enough to prepare us a meal of typical dishes. I'm not sure what is was but it was really good.
We also went to the Daud Pasha baths which were constructed by Sultan Mehmed II in the mid-15th century and currently house an art gallery. This is a shot of one of the domes. They had plastered some of the ceiling to show what the original looked like. It was interesting to see that the stony walls we see were once all plastered and sometimes even colored. The baths are an important example of Turkish architecture of that time.
There is still lots more to see of Skopja - we didn't get to any of the mosques - so we are planning on a return trip.
At the Macedonia/Kosovo border we saw this sign posted. We wondered how many people have smuggling and corruption to declare at customs. That sure makes it easy for the customs people!
So our first outing went well and we enjoyed the day.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

February 28

For those of you readers who don't know...our younger daughter, Kat, is expecting a baby in late May. This past week she experienced some complications which had me quite concerned and ready to jump on a plane home. Fortunately she is better now but will be on complete bed rest for awhile. Anyway...that's why I have been lax in posting blogs...just a little preoccupied.

And now to catch up a bit - Charlie and I met his co-workers for dinner on Wednesday night and we had a great time. They are such a good group of people. There were three judges (one each from Hungary, Germany, and Bulgaria), and ten others (legal officers, language assistants, etc). All but one live in Mitrovice or Vushtrii (a nearby town). It is so nice to be able to put a face with names when Charlie talks about work.

For dinner I ordered a typical Kosovo dish which consisted of veal served in a kind of puff-like thing made with yogurt and egg. It was very good. Typical Kosovo dishes are cooked/baked in "baking dishes" which look like heavy pottery bowls. They use a variety of ingredients. Salads here consist of chopped ingredients like cucumber, tomatoes and onion with a type a vinaigrette. I have yet to see lettuce in a salad. It seems like every restaurant serves pizza, too. Pizza - the international food! BTW - the local wine and beer is quite good. There are vineyards all around but primarily in Montenegro.

Everyone here smokes - and I mean everyone. It's been a long time since I had dinner with people smoking before, during, and after a meal!

We did get a replacement for the armoured car. It's a brand new Nissan Patrol (SUV) and is much easier to handle than the tank and all the windows work. We broke it in by driving to Skopja (pronounced "scopia"), Macedonia on Saturday. It is about an 80 mile (130 km) drive. The road actually wasn't too bad but the trip was time consuming because of the delays at the Kosovo and Macedonia borders. That added well over an hour to the trip. This area is quite mountainous which surprised me. It was a pretty drive, though, with snow topped peaks.

I'll tell you about Skopja tomorrow. It is an ancient city with lots to talk about. I even have photos if I can get them downloaded.

We went through Pristina on the way to Skopja and I spotted a Belgium chocolate shop so things are looking up! Unfortunately the shop was closed but we are going to Pristina on Tuesday so I will definitely check it out then.

Now for a few disjointed observations.....

You see alot of houses around here seemingly left in various stages of completion with people living in them. When we asked about that we were told that it is not only prestigious to have a big house but also a necessity since extended families live together. So people just begin a big house and complete what they can afford then take a break to earn enough money to do more. They move into whatever part is livable for the duration.

You also see TONS of garbage everywhere. They definitely need Lady Bird Johnson here for an anti-litter campaign. I thought it might have something to do with the broken post-war infrastructure but they have it in Skopja, too, so I do think it is a culture thing. Whatever...it is really a problem. Also, they don't pick garbage up at your house. You have to take your garbage to one of the dumpsters located around town. That could be part of the problem. But on the plus side they have had a concerted effort to clean up junked cars here. Now you see nice organized piles of junkers here and there instead of broken down cars everywhere. If they can do it for junkers, I know they can and will do it for garbage.

So enough for now. More on Skopja tomorrow.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

February 23

Charlie is in Pristina all day today working and hopefully getting us a car.

The car is an interesting issue. When he picked me up at the airport in Pristina, Charlie had a loaner car from CPI (his employer). We walked from the terminal (I use that term loosely) to the parking lot for the car. It was a huge black SUV. As I climbed in Charlie informed me that the car was fully armooured - a grenade could go off under us and not even dent it. (We were better armoured that the first troops into Bagdad!) Unfortunately, he had rolled the passenger-side window down to ask directions and it had stuck. So I entered a fully armoured vehicle with the bullet-proof window stuck halfway down on my side. I'm sure there is a metaphor here...maybe more than one.

So we are trying to get a little lighter vehicle for our stay here. Hopefully, Charlie will have something when he gets home tonight.

Tomorrow night we are going out with Charlie's co-workers. I am looking forward to meeting them.

Monday, February 22, 2010

February 22

One week ago today I was standing in our living room with four suitcases absolutely stuffed to the max (What do you take with you for a year's stay when you can take only four suitcases? You prioritize quickly.) Standing there I think it finally hit me ... I really am going to Kosovo for a year. What am I doing? How did this happen?

Well, it all started almost five years ago when a friend of Charlie's asked him if he would be interested in going to Kosovo to work for the UN as a judge. He was definitely interested but the timing just wasn't right. But the seed had been planted. Eventually the UN began decreasing its presence in the region with the European Union assuming more responsibility. So...Charlie was contacted last fall to see if he would be interested in working in Kosovo with the European Union Rule of Law Mission (EULEX). Since he had been considering retiring, the time was right. He retired from his position as an Iowa District Court Judge and accept the position as a judge with EULEX.

Believe me, things happened fast after that! Charlie retired on January 15 and flew out on January 25 and has been here since.

This is a very interesting and challenging assignment. This part of the world has been in conflict for literally ages. There is much, much history in this region and most of it is pretty sad. Most recently, after the fall of Tito and the disintegration of Yugoslavia, war raged in this area. You have all hear of the troubles here where the term "ethnic cleansing" was coined. Well, it hit especially hard here in Mitrovica. The saddest part is that before the war this was a well integrated city where Serbs and Albanians lived together and successfully. Now the city is divided by the Ibar River with the Serbs living north of the river and the Albanians living south of the River. It is a very segregated society with Albanians unwelcome in the north and Serbs unwelcome in the South.

We live in south Mitrovica, the Albanian side. (Albanians are Muslim hence the mosque across the street.) Charlie works in north of Mitrovica where the Courthouse is located. This poses some unique challenges for him but all is working out and he is finding the work interesting and enjoyable.

That's a bit of background for now. I'll talk about my first impressions of Mitrovica and the area at my next post. I've also taken some photos which I will try to share.

Friday, February 19, 2010

February 19, 2010

The call to prayer is broadcasting from the minaret a block away. I must be in Kosovo. I find this call to prayer oddly comforting after a long journey. I arrived in Mitrovica on Wednesday a little over 28 hours after leaving Council Bluffs. I am very jet-lagged.

I chose a very auspicious day to arrive in Kosovo - the second anniversary of their declaration as a nation. Everybody was celebrating so the drive from the airport in Prishtina to our place in Mitrovica was crowded with revelers. Charlie had been warned about the "happy shooting" - shooting your gun into the air to celebrate - that would be taking place and since the "happy shooting" bullets do come down randomly we were strongly advised not to go outside on Wednesday night. We did indeed hear shooting, shouting, honking horns, fireworks and other sounds of celebration into the night. It was a good night to arrive.

Our place is very large, nice, clean, bright and cheerful. The inside walls are painted a beautiful color of orange ... I never would have thought...but it is a great color.

I would like to talk about Kosovo, how we got here and why, first impressions of Pristina and Mitrovica but am too tired today. I'll save it for tomorrow.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

The Beginning

On Tuesday, February 16, 2010, I leave our home in Council Bluffs, Iowa to meet Charlie in Mitrovice, Kosovo. He's been there almost three weeks and I am anxious to see him and our home for the next year. I hope we all - Charlie, me and you readers - enjoy this adventure!