Category Archives: The Balkans

In The Black

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The past month I have met so many incredible strangers.  I’ve written about the  “kindness of strangers” many times and I have yet to meet someone while traveling who doesn’t bend over backwards for me.

My pedicab coworker from New Orleans, Mark Orfila, had arranged for me to stay with the Iberhysajs.  Imer Iberhysaj is Mark’s old landlord when he lived in Decan, Kosova.

Stop right there and imagine sending a friend to stay with your landlord’s family.  Not very common right?

As promised, I arrived at the bus stop to find Imer waiting to greet me.  We walked together across the street to his conveniently located shop and waited for his daughter, Qendresa, who spoke English.

Language barriers have never been an issue for me.  When I travel, there are numerous times where I have to pronounce something several times, usually names of places I’m going or words I memorize of something I need.

Ultimately, not speaking the same language is more fun in many ways.  You are forced out of your comfort zone to communicate.  You have to use your hands, facial expressions, and move your body.  When it is all over, or there is a break, it can feel like a mental and physical work out!  Difficult in action but the rewards are immense.

So, Imer and I waited in the shop and he showed me all the things he sold.  We said things to each other in English and Albanian knowing that the other didn’t understand the words but we understood the meanings.

A few minutes later, Qendresa walked in with her sister, Manjolla.  Qendresa’s English is great and it was quickly resolved that I would leave my bags at the shop and her brother would bring them to the house later.  The girls and I said goodbye to Imer and we began to walk home.

“Is there anything you’d like to do?  Are you hungry?  Thirsty?  Tired?”

“Well, I could always go for a coffee.”

The girls looked at each other to think of a place to stop in and once decided we walked only a few blocks where we reached a small café.

Once inside, what Manjolla and Qendresa had been speaking about in Albanian that I couldn’t understand, became obviously clear to me.  The minute we walked in, it felt as if we had hit a wall.  I looked around and realized there were only men, and they were all staring at us.

Now this is something that I have grown used to from the countries I have travelled in.  Since I am a foreigner, I usually am fearless because my tourist status allows me room for ignorance.  However, this time, the only thing that actually stood me apart was the fact that I spoke only English.  It was the first time I was assumed a local because my physique was common.  Whereas in Morocco, Italy, and the majority of countries I have lived in and/or visited there is no question as to my status as a foreigner.

“I remember now, this is why I do not like coming here.”

“Oh, we can leave if you want.”

“No, no.  We will get a drink.”

“It’s ok.  Since I’m a foreigner, I can be your excuse.”

We all laughed and sat down.  They did not serve coffee.  We laughed again.  We ordered juice and soda.

When I think back on it, this first awkward scenario was hilarious to the three of us.  And from this event, I knew I was with some good people. I mean we full heartedly laughed at the cultural faux pas we had made.

Qendresa explained that it was different in the Pristinha, the capital, where she attends the University with her other sister Fortessa.  Only the small towns still have a majority of men who “go out” and sit in the cafes.

When we were done we walked across the street to the house where I was greeted by their mother, Fatmire, at the door.

Fatmire stood there with an extended hand which I took to shake and I went in to greet her with kisses on the cheek.  I’d spent the past 2 months in Italy and Morocco, where this is the common greeting.  I wasn’t sure about Kosova but I was improvising.  Sadly, when I went in to put my cheek to hers there was no response.  I quickly retracted and looked to Qendresa for guidance.  Qendresa gave me nothing but a wide smile and again we began to laugh.

Later I learned that once Fatmire realized what I was doing, she leaned in but I had already back off and was looking at Qendresa and didn’t see her reciprocation.  Days later, Qendresa translated the story to Fatmire and we spent several moments laughing.

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What to say about the Iberhysajs?  I mean it was all really incredible.  I kept thinking about Karim and his family in Morocco.  How am I so lucky to be treated like an honored guest in these countries around the world?  Both scenarios held several similarities.  In Morocco, Karim was my only translator and in Kosova, Qendresa.  However, somehow I was able to create meaningful interactions with the entire family even without anyone who spoke English.

In the evening, the Iberhysajs would take a walk down a road and up a hill into the forest where there was an abandoned restaurant from before the war.  At the top of the hill, several other community and family members would meet.  Once we reached the top, everyone would sit and talk for a  while.

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I seriously do not know if I have ever met friendlier people.  Everyone knew that I was a friend of Mark’s and therefore that meant I was wonderful.  For those who knew Mark briefly, I was wonderful because I was from America.  With that information about me, nothing else was required for their unconditional love.

I felt grateful.  I felt grateful to Mark, for figuring all the details out for me to stay with these incredible people.  I felt grateful to the Iberhysajs for having me as their guest and for fully integrating me into their daily lives.

Once back at the house we would all sit in the living room, usually with a futbol game on and chat.  Qendresa did lots of translating and there was lots of laughing.  Qendresa, Manjolla, and their brother Dervish were absolutely hilarious.  Constantly making jokes, telling stories, and some how I fit right in.

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At night, Qendresa, Manjolla, and I shared a room.  Instantly I was reminded of middle school and of my girlfriends back home.  We would lay in our beds and talk about so many silly things.  We giggled and laughed loudly just like children.  Happily, with little convincing, I stayed an extra day.

I thought about how amazing it was, that within one day I had made some of the greatest friends in my life.  It was as if we had been children together and could be silly without any fear of ridicule or judgment.

When there is no common language, eye contact is extremely important.  Maybe this is why we all became so close so quickly.  We were forced out of our comfort zones to get to know each other.  We would look in each others eyes when we would talk.  Even when Imer or Fatmire and I were talking, and then usually Qendresa would translate.  Some times she wouldn’t even need to because we understood!  It was an incredible feeling.

I am forever grateful to the Iberhysajs.  I was especially grateful that I missed my bus and was able to spend another night with them.

When I left, Fatmire hugged me and gave me several kisses on the cheek.

So I have a challenge for you….

Do something for a stranger.  Do something out of the ordinary.  Do something you wouldn’t normally do.

The Iberhysajs showered me with love.  No one asked them to do that.  Mark had only reached out through a mass message to all the people he knew in Kosova.  Imer answered with an invitation for me to stay with him and his family.  I am so happy I did because the Iberhysajs became another family to me.  I will never forget their hospitality and will try my best to pay it forward.

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Sarajevo

Before I left Italy, I wrote this list.  I pretty much did what I always do when traveling to a new place; study a map of the country or countries I am visiting and write down names that sound interesting.IMG_2202

Besides Split and Sarajevo, everything else has changed.  The “Mark” in this note is Mark Orfila, my pedicab coworker and wonderful friend.  When I finally got into contact with him, he went on a full blown out quest to get me in touch with all of his connections from his 10+ years he lived in the Balkans.  From tomorrow and until I get to Corfu, I have been given an itinerary from Mark, who I KNOW has spent countless hours online and Skyping with his friends in Kosovo and Albania to arrange for me to be taken care of.

One assumption I am feeling confident to make (although you know I do not encourage making assumptions!) is that I will most CERTAINLY be taken care of.  Mark, thank you.

It has been a very long time since I have been able to write here.  There is a lot to catch up on and many other ‘thank yous’ to be made but right now I want to write about Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Again, the world has proved itself to be a majority of amazing, kind, and friendly people.  In Split I met Jeff.  A traveller from Denver, CO who decided to join me in going to Bosnia.

We took a bus to Mostar.  My process of deciding this place was the same.  I looked at the map and said to myself, “What’s on the way to Sarajevo?  Mostar?  Sounds good.”

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Mostar is a beautiful place with some of the most hospitable people.  The “recent war” as the locals call it, is an immortal story that can be told by anyone no matter their age.  Our amazing host, Deni, told us to visit the old and abandoned bank that was used at a sniper tower in the war.  The building is completely open to the public.  Even though it looks like it is being prepared for a demolition crew, there are no fences or security and can be explored at one’s free will.

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Jeff and I spent over an hour walking around each floor, discovering empty bullet shells, graffiti, broken bottles, and other debris.  It is twenty years later and the money to even tear down the building is nonexistent.  If Deni had not told us about this place, that we were allowed to go inside, I do not believe we ever would have gone anywhere near it.

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When we made it to the top of the building the sun was beginning to set.  The experience made us both reserved and somewhat anxious.  My best description is that the event made me feel human.  After all the desensitizing violence portrayed visually everyday, I stood on that roof and felt my blood turn cold.

I made a 360 and looked out at the beautiful town nestled between the hills.  It felt like we were in the only place in the world.  A fish bowl.  The call to prayer began and I closed my eyes and took the reminder as a moment to meditate.  Soon after, church bells began to ring.  I thought about the proximity of those religious homes and how at one time, everyone lived in peace.

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Of course I thought about People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks.  How amazing and grateful I am to have read that recently and have the chance to visit this country that has a large part in the story.

The train ride to Sarajevo was stunning.  We passed by rivers, lakes and cascading hills.  I kept seeing the girl from WWII in People of the Book who runs away into the hills outside Sarajevo.  I kept thinking how impossible it was to really hide anywhere.  And the invasion of the Nazis was not the only time one would want to escape that city.

I felt so ignorant in Sarajevo.  I remember when the Bosnian War ended and Ms. Sutton, my Middle School teacher, brought the film Welcome to Sarajevo to class.  It was a fairly intense movie to see at 12/13 years old.

Jeff and I took a free walking tour with the amazing Neno.  There is so much history here.  I was utterly grateful to have Neno who obviously loved sharing the history of Sarajevo with visitors.  He seriously knew EVERYTHING.  So much more, I’ll repeat it, SO MUCH MORE has happened in Sarajevo!  It truly was the Jerusalem of Europe.  SO MUCH HISTORY!

Neno was close to 7 when the Bosnian War started and remembers attending school in the basement, being hungry, and the admiration for his incredible mother.  Neno’s mother would walk across the besieged city everyday to go to work.  The heart wrenching stories kept coming.

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Neno took us to a memorial fountain that was built in the remembrance of the children killed in the war.  There was no physical information about what the fountain represented.  Without Neno, I never would have known what it stood for.

There are two formations in the center of the fountain.  One piece represents the child and the larger one the mother.  The way the statue is in place, makes you see how these pieces interact.  The mother figure is protecting and shielding the child.  There are no human features in these forms but looking at the memorial, one can feel it.

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I am not sure why this particular statue was so powerful to me.  Maybe it was from spending time with Karim’s young nieces in Morocco, maybe it was seeing the kids at Peacock Pavilions, maybe it was the horrific event a few months ago in Connecticut, I really don’t know.  But this fountain and the story behind it has hit me so hard.

The base beneath the structure is made from all the collected mortar shells from the tanks that FACT: hit Sarajevo on average 300 times per day for the duration of the war.  Imprinted on the brass base are children’s footprints.  This sent me over the edge and it took several deep breaths to get leveled again.  Processing it now by writing it here I still get shivers.

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So, I am overwhelmed.  I still barely have time to fully process this entire experience.  I won’t really be able to for the next week or so.  I am blown away from how much I learned in Sarajevo.  I am grateful for the people I met who were able to discuss similar feelings and hash out historical details.

I went back this morning to take pictures of the fountain.  It is still heavy on my mind.

There is so much to catch up on and so many people to thank and so many incredible pictures but I am going to let this sit.

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