And just like that

Our tour is over and we’re leaving Kosovo.   It’s been a wonderful two years.  We have made great friends, explored new places, and even expanded our family.  I really had no idea what to expect when we started this adventure, but this was a good tour for us and although there have been challenges, we will miss Kosovo and we are very thankful for our time here.

Some of my favorite pictures and memories from the last two years.

first weekDinner at Tiffany’s our first week in Pristina

albania 1Berat, Albania with Amy

 

rugovaRugova Gorge

singingKaraoke at Pacific Rim.  Don’t stop Believiiinnnnnnn’!!!

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Santorini, Greece

paris vaux

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Paris, Vaux le Vicomte, and ringing in the New Year at the Sacre Coeur

first picWelcoming Abby to the world

lake ohridWine tasting at Lake Ohrid, Macedonia

shelbyI’m not sure I can call it a highlight, but I can’t skip over Shelby (and I have an update to share soon!)

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Our wonderful trip to Dubrovnik, Croatia with my parents

elephant Abby’s first Halloween

 

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Spending precious time with our families and Abby’s first Christmas

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And one last picture of our awesome road trip last month

Lamtumirë, Kosovo!

5 Pros and Cons on life in Kosovo

Some of the FS blogs I follow are doing the top 5 pros and cons of their current posts to help out future bidders who are researching where to go next.  So here are my top 5 about Kosovo.

PROS:

1. The people.   I’m not sure I’ve ever felt more welcomed anywhere in the world than here in Kosovo.   Almost everyone we encounter is kind and welcoming, and many of them express gratitude for everything that America has done to help Kosovo with its independence and economic progress.   In Pristina, there is a statute of Bill Clinton and a store named Hillary.   There are so many places in this world where our help is not appreciated, and where people might have reservations about being identified as Americans, but not here.   The 4th of July celebration was really incredible to see – surely it’s not the norm for other countries to celebrate our Independence Day, but they do here!

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2. It’s affordable.   I was talking to my mom the other day and telling her how we eat a lot of eggs, because they’re easy and cheap and Abby likes them.  She asked me how much a dozen eggs cost.   I realized I had absolutely no idea, I just assumed they were inexpensive because most things are here.  I usually spend about 30-45 euro ($33-50) a week at the grocery store.  I did check last week and a carton of eggs was .87 euro (I think, things are not always labeled clearly, and there is also that language barrier).  A loaf of delicious bread from the bakery is .30 euro.  At our favorite restaurant, we usually both order steak, have one or two glasses of wine, and spend around 35 euro.  You can save a lot of money living in Kosovo, but you have to watch out for…

3. Travel opportunities.  Kosovo is located within driving distance of some amazing places – Greece, Albania, Montenegro, Croatia, and Romania, just to name a few.   If you have the time, you can drive further to visit Slovenia, Hungary, or Austria, or take a ferry to Italy.   We could spend another two years here and still not see everything this region has to offer.

4. Embassy community.  This has changed considerably over the last several years.  At first, Kosovo was an unaccompanied tour, and then it changed to allow spouses to join, and then children under 5 could come as well. I think it’s only been in the last few years that they made it a full accompanied post, allowing school-aged children to live here as well.  Our Embassy is working hard to catch up with the changing family environment.  The CLO office is always scheduling a restaurant night out, day trips, and regional trips.  You make friends really quickly in this life, and this post was no exception.

5. Walking to work.  We think it’s awesome that we can walk to work in 5 minutes and walk downtown for dinner in 15 minutes.  We rarely drive our car except to get groceries at Viva Fresh (on the other side of town) or if we’re headed away for the weekend.   This also allows for couples commute, which is a real highlight for JR.  🙂

CONS

1.  Winter/Air pollution.  Winters can be long and tough in Kosovo. I’m from Ohio, so I’m no stranger to frigid temperatures and snow, but the winter can really wear you down here.  One of the biggest problems is that people burn coal in their homes for heat, which produces an awful smell and pollutes the air.  It soaks into your hair and clothes the minute you step outside and lingers with you all day.  It’s unpleasant to breathe, and we kept Abby inside for most of the winter to limit her exposure to it.

2.  Litter.  There is SO.MUCH.TRASH here.  Everywhere you look.  Areas that should be clean and beautiful, green spaces, rivers, all of it is often ruined by trash strewn all around.  It’s disheartening to see such a beautiful country plagued by this problem.

3.  Stray animals.  It’s a running joke (admittedly a sad one) that when people leave Kosovo they don’t take a traditional souvenir, they take a new pet.  Or 2 or 3.   There are an abundance of stray cats and dogs all over Pristina, and most of the country.  It is sad to see, and most people cannot resist and end up adopting at least one pet during their tour.   The few shelters that exist are overcrowded and lack funding, but there are so many other pressing issues for the country to resolve that I doubt this problem will be resolved anytime soon.

4. Lack of personal space.  I like a little elbow room when I’m checking out at the store, or waiting in line for something, but that’s hard to come by here.  People often get in your personal space and stand just a little bit too close.

space
I thought this was funny regardless of the grammatical error.

5. Groundhog’s Day.  It can feel like every day is the same here.  JR and I often pass the same people, at the exact same spot, walking to work each morning.  We almost always eat lunch at the small restaurant on the compound, and there’s a rotation of about 3-5 things we eat, while sitting with the same people (hi Lori!) every day.   I think the lack of variety and choices can wear on you – and this is coming from a person who would eat macaroni and cheese and peanut butter all day, every day and be happy as a clam.  I share some of the blame here since we’ve become set in our routine, especially since the baby came.  Small changes are happening though, like new restaurants are opening or Sabaja, the craft brewery that many folks enjoy.   So it’s a minor con, but it makes the list.

 

 

 

Parking Problems

Sometimes coming up with a title is harder than writing a blog post.

I haven’t been writing a lot since we got back for a few reasons. JR has been working a lot of overtime, and I didn’t feel well for a while after we returned (terrible allergies and jet lag), and we just haven’t been doing anything that exciting.

But we were relaying this story at dinner last night and I thought it was worth sharing on here, even if it happened several weeks ago. I like to think I’ve become a real natural at driving here. One with the people, you might say. So when our car needed the brakes checked and a headlight replaced, it made sense for me to take care of it during the day while JR was working. The biggest concern JR had is that I tend to believe every single thing the car repair people tell me. I just nod along and smile, assume they’re being honest, and hand over my credit card. The last time I got an oil change on my own (for my new car) it cost me $80 at a Jiffy Lube that advertised $30 oil changes. JR was not pleased, but I have no idea what went wrong.

It was pouring rain that day, and a drive that would normally take me 15 minutes was made significantly longer by the weather and this crazy construction they have going on that created a detour on a major road. The detour can get pretty backed up, so one of our friends showed us an alternate route that involves a bunch of one lane roads and praying you don’t get into an Albanian driving standoff with someone coming the other direction.

I was feeling feisty, so I decided to try that alternate route on my own. To turn off, you have to edge up past this GIGANTIC hole in the road.

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car 1.1

Note the complete lack of orange cones, or any type of warning that you maybe shouldn’t get too close. It’s especially fun at night!

I made it to the dealership, and they determined our brakes were fine, so after getting the headlight fixed (only 14 Euros!), I was back on my way home. Traffic had become much worse, and the rain continued to come down. In Kosovo, it’s acceptable to drive in whichever direction is most convenient to YOU, regardless of the flow of traffic or logic.

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I made it all the way home without incident. I was feeling really proud of myself. I pulled into our narrow garage, and realized I had driven too close to the side. I was halfway in when I felt the car hit something. I stopped and looked out the driver’s side window to see that the left side of the car was completely up against the garage. Crap. I didn’t know if it made more sense to pull forward or backwards – what would minimize the damage? I put the car in park, hoping to get out and investigate further. Well, given how tiny our garage is, I couldn’t get my door open. I was stuck.

car 1.5

I called JR at work. Our conversation went something like this.

Me: Oh hey, just wanted to let you know I’m home, but I’m kind of stuck in the garage.
JR: What do you mean you’re stuck in the garage?
Me: Well I scraped up the car on the side, and now I can’t get out of the door and I’m scared to move and cause more damage. So I’m stuck.
JR: I’m sorry but I’m at work – I’m not sure what I can about it right now?
Me: Oh nothing! I know you’re busy. I just wanted you to know that I was stuck, in case I’m sitting here when you get home. Just a heads up!

We got off the phone and I pondered my next move. I texted my upstairs neighbor, and luckily, she was home and able to come down stairs and direct me so I could drive the car out of the garage. Now I just park on the sidewalk outside of our building like everyone else.

City Bus Tour

This morning I took a break from this:

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To go on a city bus tour set up by the CLO. We were scheduled to meet at the Embassy where they had a van ready to drive us around to point out restaurants, shops, and other points of interest. Our first stop was the Green Market, which is a fairly large open air market where people sell everything from fruits and vegetables to clothes and extension cords.

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Next we wandered into what might be considered the bridal district of Pristina.

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We drove around some more and passed by the library, which has a rather unique look. I realize you can’t see the building all that well, but that’s because we were in a moving vehicle. And because I’m a terrible photographer. I’m working on it.

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And no tour would be complete without seeing Bill Clinton Boulevard, and the statute of Bill Clinton.

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Yeah, not my best photos. After the tour, our little group decided to stop at the new commissary that was just opened at the Embassy. They have a lot of frozen meat, cheese, and GARLIC BREAD (JR, stellar husband that he is, brought some home for me on Monday, and it was delicious.) Anyway, it’s a small store but it has a lot of great stuff and it will be really useful when we don’t want to make a trip out to Bondsteel.

Okay, back to unpacking!

International Women’s Club

The International Women’s Club of Kosovo was founded in 2004 to help expatriate women who are living in Pristina. The group holds regular weekly events and also organizes many special events and outings. Earlier this week, I went with two other US spouses to the coffee gathering, and I’m so glad I did!

The group meets at the same restaurant every Tuesday – so no matter what, you’ll find them there. They explained one reason for this is if a member leaves Kosovo for a while, or is out of the loop, they’ll always know how to reconnect with the group by this standing coffee date (Coke Zero for me. :)). I met other women from the US, and people from Austria, Ireland, Canada, and France. I signed up to be a member and I am looking forward to getting to know them more, and to having another great resource if I have questions while we’re living here. One male spouse from our Embassy has been a part of the group for almost a year now. They actually changed their rules to allow him to join, which I think is pretty cool.

The IWC also hosts a weekly French conversation hour. I so wish I had continued studying French (apologies, Madame Miller) throughout college and even after, but I decided to change course and learn Russian. Which I’ve also since forgotten. Oops.

There was a bit of culture shock for me while we sat outside at the cafe. I have seen young children walking around with signs and begging, but typically, if they come close to me it’s only for a moment and then they move on to someone else. But sitting outside, I was really surprised by how aggressive and persistent the children were. They will actually come up to your table, touch you, try to hug and hold you, all the while pleading for money. One little boy had tears in his eyes the whole time. The other women explained that unfortunately, any money you give the children goes straight to a an adult who is making them beg on the streets, and the children are forced to do this daily. One person advised that if you want to help a child, to buy them an ice cream cone or something they can have right there, because otherwise any money you provide will just go up the chain and continue the begging cycle. Still, it was hard to watch and not something I’m used to seeing.

Randoms

Coming up with titles for blog posts is hard if you don’t have something specific in mind. So…I’ve got nothing for this one.

Here’s what we’ve been up to the past few days.

On Saturday, I went with a small group to Camp Bondsteel, the military base in Kosovo. It was about an hour drive, but worth the trip. I’ve never been on a military base before. They have a large post-exchange, which I think is like a commissary but I’m not certain of the difference between the two. I stocked up on snacks, chicken, and a few other household items (like ziplock bags. I never realized how much I love ziplock bags.). I don’t have any pictures to share, because when I thought about taking them I also thought maybe that’s illegal since it’s the military. I also didn’t ask anyone to confirm that suspicion because it could have been a dumb question either way.

We had a lazy start to our Sunday and then decided to walk around downtown for lunch and groceries. We were trying to find a specific restaurant called Renaissance II, but it was impossible. The directions say it’s hard to find and there is no signage (why not? no one knows), so we walked behind buildings, in alleys, all over the place. No luck. We asked 3 different locals and they’d never heard of the place, despite the fact that it’s listed as the number one restaurant in Kosovo on TripAdvisor. We gave up and had lunch at a cafe on Mother Theresa Boulevard, which is a walking street with lots of cafes and stores lining the sides.

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We were surprised at how many people were out and about that afternoon. It seemed like all the tables at each restaurant were full. People love to sit and drink coffee here, and have a tendency to do it multiple times a day for long periods at a time. This could finally be the year I start drinking coffee!

We also stopped to see the Newborn Monument. The monument was unveiled on February 17, 2008, the day that Kosovo declared independence from Serbia. Initially, the letters were all in yellow, and everyone was invited to sign their names. It was repainted with the flags of the countries that have recognized Kosovo as an independent country.

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Yesterday, we got exciting news that we have been unofficially approved to stay in our temporary apartment! We hope to have official word within the next week or so. Although we would have been fine with moving into our originally assigned apartment, this place is a bit larger, and we are already settling in, so we’re happy that we won’t need to move again. Once we have the rest of our things, I’ll post some pictures of our home.