Im here again at my home away from home, HIB PETROL, yup a petrol station on the main road E66 that goes from Skopje Macedonia to Pristina, Kosovo which I’ve dubbed “route 66”. Its new name has caught on amongst the men in Preoce who drive.. (I have yet to meet a Romani woman who drives).  I don’t think anyone has a cultural reference to “route 66, I don’t think I really do either, except that song about it… “get your kicks on route 66”.

Its very “Balkan style” to build a petrol station along a highway somewhere, with gas, a mini market and a café with outdoor seating. HIB PETROL is actually a café and a pizzeria. It’s the non-stop place to go if you have a car and live in the surrounding area. It’s a Kosovar Albanian petrol station, which is right on the border of the surrounding Roma/Serb enclave. Ive come to see it as an outpost for the Albanian majority, and I think they built it here for a reason. This Roma/Serb enclave is where I am currently teaching English. I bring my students here sometimes for English class field trips. None of them would dare come here alone.  Some of my students are scared of “Albanians”, but ive noticed that since we’ve been taking field trips into the Albanian community that they are starting to get curious and im happy for that… so far so good on the “reconciliation tip”….its a small thing I know, and my privilege allows me to come here … the healing here is going to take a long long time….

I’m here today to use the internet, drink Italian espresso and be amongst the Albanian majority for a while. Im probably the only one who walks here, it’s a 15 min. walk from Preoce through the wheat fields that are everywhere in Kosovo. The place is mostly full of Albanian men. Many of these men are unemployed and come to spend a euro on a couple coffees and sit with friends. There are also groups of Swedish, or Finnish KFOR soldiers (the NATO police force that has been here since the war in 1999), sweaty highway workers with big leathery arms who are always repairing the roads and seemingly will never run out of work, some family’s on their way towards Skopje or Pristina, mafia types who drive up in the fanciest cars and sit the whole time talking on cell phones, while their girlfriends sit and smoke cigarette after cigarette while saying nothing. (I know its a sterotype..sorry..). Im actually quite intimidated by these mafia types, they are so surly and serious with their sunglasses, tight black t shirts, cigarettes and 3 cell phones.  Its common to have 3 cell phones in Kosovo if your in bizness as they’re are different networks, Serb, Albanian, and Kosovar and calling outside your network is very expensive…. so its also common to see men with a cell phone on each ear.

Kosovo is seemingly growing..  well, Albanian Kosovo is growing, while Serb and Roma Kosovo is shrinking as people emigrate to other countries, fleeing ethnic violence or the violence of economic necessity. There is a countrywide unemployment rate of 40%, while in the Roma community, the unemployment rate is closer to 90%. Its strange that with such a high unemployment rate even amongst the Albanian community that everywhere you look there is construction going on…giant hyper markets, car dealerships, outlets for cosmetics, construction supplies, petrol stations, and hotels. Nobody I talk to knows who is going to patronize these businesses. Of course, when you talk about money and “business” in Kosovo, the mysterious and all powerful “Albanian mafia” is always mentioned… they are like an evil OZ. Nobody I know knows an Albanian in the mafia, yet everyone repeats crazy statistics about their criminal involvement in everything from sex trafficking, extortion, auto theft, smuggling, drugs, politics…and even chicken stealing!

And speaking of mafia….on my last visit to HIB petrol, 2 armored Carabinieri vehicles rolled up in the parking lot next to the café. The Carabinieri are loathed by me for their fascist history and for the very real fascists in the ranks.They are the national gendarmerie of Italy, formed in the 30’s under Mussolini and entrusted with eliminating any opposition. They are the force that to this day is responsible for eliminating any opposition in italy…and they have badly beaten quite a few of my friends in protests… and beaten some others to death. One of those killed by the Carabinieri was Carlo Giuliani at the 2001 g8 summit protests…he was 27 years old. They are one of many police forces in Kosovo working with KFOR and whenever I would see them on the streets of Kosovo it is my duty to give them the “vaffanculo!”….

…anyway they rolled up to have some coffee and like a bad action movie, one of them gets out with full body armor and machine gun to check the café and then signals to the rest of them that’s its ok for coffee break. They get out in formation and  occupy the two tables next to me.. they never take off their sunglasses, they order and drink their coffees and in reverse bad action movie get in their armored vehicles and drive away….

bella ciao chumbawamba   listen!


border crossing

There are a lot of borders to cross in Kosovo, and each day i spend living and working in the Roma mahala i am learning about them, espescially when traveling into the Albanian community with Roma friends.  It’s not just the Serbian border to the north and east, where Serbia doesnt have immigration or customs because that would mean recognizing Kosovo as an independent country…but the borders of ethnicity, race, gender, poverty…the borders that the  trauma of war has left behind….

…..  today, the heat, the constant smell of burning trash and burning fields, being trapped in an enclave protected by police, the hyper-patriarchy, the trauma that war and poverty have created… are wieghing on me. its one of those days where Kosovo feels like a prison of sorts. I don’t mean to cry you a river of crocodile tears… and I don’t want to sound culturally inappropriate….i know im the one with the privilege of leaving (to another country or just to another neighborhood), of skin color, of passport and nationality…….im just tired..perhaps a coffee is all i need..

…… and don’t get me wrong, im actually doing great, the classes are wonderful! I really love and care about the kids… we have a lot of fun and were learning together. Im learning a lot about humility and patience. Im learning about the kids, their lives… what works in class, what doesn’t…how to be a good teacher…

Yesterday I had a day off and I was at the education center by myself, cleaning up and making room on the walls for new lessons and more art that the younger students and I make together. The classroom is pretty small, and there is only one small white board for writing and explaining lessons. I use big sheets of white paper for new lessons and I tape them to the walls of the classroom… sometimes it looks like the room is made of paper…paper and drawings of cats, dogs, houses, flowers, robots….things I make and a lot of stuff that the students make.

Anyway, while cleaning up the center I heard 2 girls outside smoking a cigarette just in front of the door. They come here to smoke because its one of the few places outdoors in Preoce where no one can see you, as the road dead ends at the school. Its also the place where some of the teenagers come to make out…so im told. (somehow ive become the holder of quite a number of teenage secrets in the mahala).

These two girls are students in the beginner English class.  I heard them talking about the lesson we did together last Friday.. “it’s a red house, it’s a blue star, it’s a pink flower” etc. I invited them in and we talked as best we could in English and Romanese. These two girls are best friends, bad asses, trouble makers, smoking at 13 years old..  total pottie mouths… we have a lot of fun in class together.

One of the girl’s father was murdered in 2001 “after” the war. He was one of 4 Roma men looking for work in Pristina, when he was kidnapped and killed by some members of the KLA.  She now lives with her mom and extended family and is currently my neighbor.

It was nice to see them outside of the context of the classroom, and to see that we were friends, as well as having our teacher and student relationship. They acted totally different towards me, as if they let their tough girl guard down because there weren’t other students around. Anyway, I feel like this one encounter has changed our relationship in class for the better…and they are actually doing their homework now. And just as wonderful…. they invited me to their homes for coffee!

Everyday most of my time is spent with kids, from classtime to just being in the street making up games to play… I actually have to hide to get any time alone. And sometime hiding means going into an Albanian community…

…I can walk down the road anytime to “another world”, to the Albanian petrol station and have a coffee or a pizza… it’s a 15-minute walk and most of the Roma folks I know have never even been there.