Travel in the Balkans: Peja, Skopje, & Sofia

June 13-June 20, 2012

Over the last two weeks, fellow Fulbrighter Dave McTier and I have enjoyed traveling in the Balkans, a region as rich in scenery as in history.

On June 13, we made a day trip to Peja (Peć), about 90 minutes west of Pristina, just east of Montenegro.  As you’ll see in the photos, this area features the Rugova valley and some of the most spectacular mountains in Kosova.

**Click on the first picture below to scroll through the gallery images in a larger, “slideshow” format.**

Then on June 19, we took a bus to Skopje, Macedonia, where we followed winding stone streets to specialty shops, produce markets, and film festivals; we also sampled several of the hundreds of out-door coffee shops.  Macedonia’s capital also boasts a town center with huge new government buildings and countless statues celebrating the conquests of Philip and his son, Alexander the Great.

**Click on the first picture below to scroll through the gallery images in a larger, “slideshow” format.**

The next day, we boarded another bus for Sofia, Bulgaria’s capital.  En route, we marveled at Macedonia’s countryside, stunningly mountainous and green.  Once over the Bulgarian border, we saw more mountains but also frequent grim reminders of the Soviet era, small towns filled with dilapidated, boxy grey buildings, abandoned factories, squalid apartment buildings, and shacks.

The outskirts of Sophia reveal the same signs of poverty and displacement, but, as you will see in the photos, the inner city features grand government buildings, archeological museums, and innumerable mosques and Orthodox churches.  As do other houses of worship in Europe, these offer rich iconography celebrating the faith-narratives of the past, but these shrines attract active believers, not just tourists.

**Click on the first picture below to scroll through the gallery images in a larger, “slideshow” format.**

For more historical details, please visit Dave McTier’s blog posts for Peja & Rugova as well as Sofia.

Photo Tour 5: American University in Kosova

March 23, 2012

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Trip to Shkodra, Albania

February 8-10, 2012

On Wednesday, February 8, I boarded a minibus headed from Pristina to Tirana, Albania, where I met my dear friend Agim K., who accompanied me in another minibus to Shkodra, Albania, the site of my first Fulbright in 2003.   During the first six months of that year, I taught American lit and research strategies to sophomores at the University of Shkodra; while doing so, I lived in an upstairs apartment of Agim’s house.  He shared the lower floor with his wife Zushi and his then-18-year-old daughter Afrora.

Cover of Teaching American Literature at an East European University

Cover of Teaching American Literature at an East European University

I wrote a book about this experience in Shkodra.  Titled Teaching American Literature at an East European University: Explicating the Rhetoric of Liberty (Edwin Mellen Press, 2006), the book focuses primarily on the academic adventure of teaching American literature—its powerful narratives of liberty and slavery, of justice and oppression—to twenty-year olds who aspired to those liberties because they knew from their own and their families’ experiences what it meant to grow up under communist oppression and an educational system that privileged lecturing and scorned writing-to-learn.

But, as the preface explains, the real inspiration for the book came from my Albanian family.  Though relatively well-off now, the Ks endured tremendous hardships, as did most Albanians, during the communist years, 1944-1989, and during the hard economic times that followed.  In narrating his family’s struggles, Agim always asked, in tearful, despairing tones, “What is possible?” after describing the horrors of labor camps and suppressed faith.  In far more hearty tones, he asked the same question after outlining his hopes for the future, always keeping despair at bay with his mantra, “step-by-step,” his courageous Faulknerian conviction that he and his family will ‘not only endure but prevail.’

Naturally, thoughts of the Agim, Zushi, and Afrora filled my head and my heart as I rode with five other passengers for six hours through Kosova’s deep snow and then through Albania’s stunning northeastern mountains pictured, however inadequately, here.  After this (roughly) 250 mile trek, we found sun and no snow in Tirana, Albania’s capital (see photo).  After Agim and I met up, we took another van to Shkodra, about 70 miles to the north, almost to Montegro.

**Click on the first picture to scroll through the gallery in a larger format.

Though I had only two days to spend with them, we used the time well to reminisce about 2003 and to brag shamelessly about our families. They couldn’t hear enough about my wife Judy; our ‘kids,’ Heather, Anna, and Matt, our son-in-law Roy, our daughter-in-law Kristen; and our grandkids, Josh, Nate, Roy, and brand-new Ellie.  Returning the favor, Agim and Zushi told me at length about Afrora’s plans to marry Erjon, a young man in Vienna; they also described their up-coming trip to the United States to work and live near their son Andi, who will soon marry Ilma, the beautiful, dark-haired young woman pictured here, next to her lovely soon-to-be sister-in-law Afrora.  The other photo features Agim and Zushi, the smug parents.  Life is good.

**Click on the first picture to scroll through the gallery in a larger format.

“Sa Kushton”

January 27, 2012

OK, it’s 5:00 Friday morning, January 27, and I feel much better, even though I can’t brew any coffee in my room.  No water pressure, a daily Balkans phenomenon owing to complicated power-grid issues (even the basics root in politics here).  But let me interrupt my spoiled American whining long enough to say how happy I am to be here.  Why?  For starters, mountains.   Flying south of Munich (southern Germany) yesterday, I experienced again the ecstasy of flying over the Italian/Austrian Alps.   Forget snow caps.  These truly awesome peaks wore snowy cloaks that reached to the ground.  Then as the bus drive through Macedonia and into Kosova (as the Albanians spell it), the land featured lesser but still steep slopes that rose right from the edge of the road, transforming the highway into a Byronesque pass.

And the people.  I love them.  Perhaps because they endure every day the annoyances and deprivations that wring whining so readily from spoiled Americans, these Albanians in Kosova—just like the Albanians I met in Albania in 2003—invariably display patience, good humor, and self-sacrificial kindness.  For instance, as I fumed in indignation when asked, again, to produce my passport, the Kosovarans on the bus joked about the snow and the self-important posturing of the border guards.  And as I mumbled “what next” beneath my breath when the fender-bender brought us to another halt, the young men on my bus hopped off to help separate the tangled bumpers and to push vehicles out of knee-deep drifts on the road’s shoulder.

When the bus finally made it to Pristina, an eager young cabbie grabbed my 50-pound suitcase (lots of books) and my 45-pounder (more books), and then wove skillfully through the streets cluttered with people and slush.  As we reached my hotel, I asked “sa kushton”; he responded in English far better than my Albanian “five Euros, but for you good American, nothing.”  I gave him 10.

Snow, Collisions, and Border Patrol: Lo and Behold, I Made It!

January 26, 2012

I pulled into to Pristina at 3:30 pm today, not in a plane but in a bus.  My flight should have landed in Pristina at 10:30 am, but heavy snow and near-zero visibility forced the pilot to head south for Skopje, Macedonia, where landing seemed less dangerous.  Maybe.  But after skidding on the runway, we deplaned, cleared customs, and boarded a bus for the two-hour drive back to Pristina.

That two-hour drive took well over three hours, the result of heavy snow, which began just after we landed.  We also encountered officious guards at the Kosova border, who felt compelled to check all bus passengers’ passports—three times—even though the airport customs people had just cleared us; a traffic-jamming collision between two trucks and two cars also slowed us.  I imagined the headlines in the Starkville Daily News: “MSU English professor dies in Kosovaran snow drift.”

I have much more to report, but it will have to wait.  I haven’t really slept since January 24.

“Planes, Trains, and Automobiles” Revisited

January 26, 2012
From Judy Raymond

Rich left Houston early, only to sit on the tarmac for two hours because of the weather.  He had no problem in Newark and got over the Atlantic as expected. He even made the short connection to Adria Air in Munich.  There is too much snow in Pristina, however, so his plane landed in Skopje, Macedonia, and then he had a long bus ride to Pristina.  Unfortunately, he lost his US driver’s license at border customs.

Now for the good news:  he has all 150 lbs of luggage to haul in the snow, and so far he has been able to send those expensive international text messages to me.  However, his phone has lost its charge, so we won’t know if it works in Pristina until he can recharge it. He was still en route as of 6:14 am CST this morning.

He is certainly going to need a little nap once he makes it to the hotel today!