Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Scenario #24: a nice boy

We were in a Serb village... an enclave... a ghetto if you must. The residents of this village are all Serbian but living in Kosovo - which means that, while they once lived rather cushy protected lives, during the past decade they have lived as a minority in fear. They still get some support from the Serbian government, including education and some health care. They could get some support from the Kosovo government, but they don't want to accept the existence of the Kosovo government, so they just steer clear of that.

They speak Serbian, but not the language currently spoken by 95% of Kosovars, which is Albanian. Sure many Kosovars speak Serbian, but nowadays, the national languages of Kosovo seem to English and Albanian. Serbian comes in as a distant third. The morality of this fact can be debated, but it's the way it is.

So I was, part of a hodgepodge mixture of people - Serb Kosovar, Albanian Kosovar, Bosnian and me - that was here because we wanted to get to know this community known for hating, fearing and avoiding the society that surrounds them.

Not speaking a word of Serbian, I took my place in the back of the room and observed the community members. Sitting around the table were 12 people, all friends of a friend of a friend of ours, gathered to share their thoughts. There were men, women, young and old. They looked rather miserable - like what one might expect of people in any ghetto. But they looked like they were friends with each other, supportive of each other, and willing to talk to us.

There were only 10 chairs in the room, though. My friends and I all stood, but two of the community members were going to need to stand as well.

When the 11th person entered the room, one boy quickly stood up. He was probably the youngest person in the room - 15 years old or so, dressed neatly in a bright yellow t-shirt and jeans. He had the darkest skin of any of the community members and he continually frowned as he searched his mind for just the right thing to do.

And he showed respect to the older man, a late arrival, by giving up his seat and, in fact, checking a few minutes later to make sure all the older men were comfortable. He checked in on the women as well, though they were rather cute girls around his age, so he might have been checking in on them for other reasons.

The boy held a notebook, and kept it open throughout the discussion. I'm not sure he ever actually took notes, but he kept his pen out at the ready. We were here to hear about his perspective, so why would he take notes? Nonetheless, he diligently held it in his hands as he leaned against a side wall.

I caught a closer look at the notebook. It was imprinted with a watermark on each page. I could barely make out the watermark: the Kosovo flag.

Why was this nice, thoughtful, conscientious, neatly dressed, respectful young man, from a community bitterly opposed to all things politically "Kosovo"... taking notes in a Kosovo notebook, in front of his neighbours and friends? Is he really that kind and tolerant... hmmm, or was there something else going on?

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Portrait #82: a toothless grin

She had two teeth and spoke about 9 words in English: my ... sister ... live ... America ... Phoenix ... Arizona ... where ... you ... from

She has six children. Her seven-year old daughter huddled up against her and stared at me with her big brown eyes. She doesn't go to school because her mother can't afford the expenses to send her to the local public school: clothing, books, are really not an option.

Dressed in a baggy skirt, an orange, brown and tan sweater, and a bright orange sweater vest thrown over it all... even on this warm sunny day, she explained to me that she lives in the village with her six children and does what she can to look out for them. They have a home but they don't have an income. She grinned as she explained this to me, and all was well until she asked me if I had money to give her.

If she has a sister in America, I asked, does she not get help from her? At least, perhaps, enough to get the kids going to primary school? She said that her sister does help - when something comes up. If there's a health emergency she can ask her sister for help.

I sat there and stared at her as I tried to converse in a language in which I have barely mastered the skill of food shopping. She didn't mind that I couldn't understand as her deep frustrations poured out of her quasi-toothless, smiling mouth.

What I really couldn't understand, though, wasn't the content of what she was saying. I got the point. What I couldn't understand was how a woman settled into life in Arizona, with enough cash flow to fly back and forth to visit Kosovo every year or so, could have a sister in this Kosovar village whose kids had never been to a dentist or set foot in a school?

Friday, April 24, 2009

some amusement about literature

I have mysteriously disappeared from my blog for the past 2 1/2 weeks! I plan on remedying that in the coming days.

But, first, passed on by way of one of the blogs I follow, from literary agent Rachelle Gardner, here is something that made me laugh out loud in the office this afternoon:

Selected Amazon.com reader-reviews of some classics of English literature:

The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis
“I bought these books to have something nice to read to my grandkids. I had to stop, however, because the books are nothing more than advertisements for “Turkish Delight,” a candy popular in the U.K. The whole point of buying books for my grandkids was to give them a break from advertising, and here (throughout) are ads for this “Turkish Delight”! How much money is this Mr. Lewis getting from the Cadbury’s chocolate company anyway? This man must be laughing to the bank.”

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
“While the story did have a great moral to go along with it, it was about dirt! Dirt and migrating. Dirt and migrating and more dirt.”

Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
“The only good thing to say about this 'literary' drivel is that the person responsible, Virginia Woolf, has been dead for quite some time now. Let us pray to God she stays that way.”

Monday, April 6, 2009

Portrait #81: Dignity... ish

I met her a month ago at a Women's Day celebration. She came in an hour late, to catch the refreshments and socialising part of the meeting. She walked straight up to the woman seated next to me and squeezed herself in between the two of us.

Immediately, I smelled stale cigarettes on her breath. Then as she greeted her friend, I made out the distinct voice of a lifelong chain smoker. Deep, raspy.

She chatted a bit with her friend, before her friend pointed her attention to me and introduced me. She greeted me warmly and spoke in Albanian. Once my three sentences in Albanian had exhausted themselves, she switched to English, which may not have been much, but which demonstrated much more linguistic skill than that professed by most of the other women in the room.

So this skinny, dark-haired woman, with a perennial cigarette between her fingers and the brightest bluest eyes I've ever seen, took me under her wing. She introduced me to all the other young women and teenage girls - apparently she's taken all them under her wing as well. She got all us chics doing some Albanian folk dancing, chatting, and snacking. It was lovely.

I didn't see her again after that 8 March celebration, not until yesterday. Yesterday, I was sitting in the church at the beginning of the sermon, catching all the Albanian and only 1 out of 10 words from the English translation being whispered at us three rows back. Then she walked in and sat right in front of me. I recognised her dark hair, her skinny figure, the stale cigarette smell.

But this time, I also noticed her clothes. On a warm spring morning, she was wearing a long-sleeved knit sweater under a fleece vest. Her skirt was black-turned-gray made of sweatshirt material, with a few rips. She was shod in old lace-up hiking style boots - under her skirt. Sitting right behind her, I could see that her hair was dyed and styled, but nonetheless dirty, uncombed, and of a rough texture. And she smelled homeless: like her clothes, body, hair, everything, hadn't seen soap for a very long time.

But I remembered her as the social queen of the young women! The one who was friendly and confident, and who spoke good English. Who greeted everyone with kisses and kind words and was not intimidated by girls half her age. How could this woman who looked like the poorest, most longsuffering woman in the room, be a leader? As I struggled to pay attention to the Albanian sermon, I wondered whether she was reasonably well-off and poorly educated, or if she was in fact struggling to feed herself on a daily basis. I marvelled at a church which allowed her to participate fully, doing the part of a social butterfly, even though visually and olifactorally she didn't make a great impression.

After the church meeting ended, she turned and greeted me, immediately recognising me from the month before. She asked why she hadn't seen me all month. Then after a bit more socialising with other people in the room, she invited me back to her house. Fitting the impression she'd given me at church, I wasn't surprised to see that it had a huge rubbish-littered yard with two big dogs. It was only half-built, with the top floor nothing but a shell of brick blocks. But her door was new and sturdy. She didn't invite me into her house, instead she suggested we enjoy the beautiful weather outside. We drank Turkish coffee and chatted.

She brought her 9-year old son to meet me. He played outside with the dogs and climbed the wall that divided their property with the next house over. When he wanted a biscuit, he asked his mother to feed it to him because his hands were dirty after playing with the dogs. To me, that somehow said it all.