Monday, August 24, 2015

Anibar Internation Animation Festival

 Well, I didn't get the entire weekend off, but at least my job is lots of fun.

Sunday, I headed to Peje, a town in the mountains near the border with Montenegro.

We went with the Ambassador because the city hosts, and we help sponsor, the Anibar International Animation Festival.

We helped the festival bring Mike Reiss, one of the writers of The Simpsons, to speak and do workshops with the attendees.

Not a bad way to spend an afternoon, even if it was for work!

Plus, the mountains there are gorgeous!

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Visiting My Happy Place

So this weekend I got to take a road trip.

Not my first, because I am a PD officer, so we get out more than your average Service Officer.

But this one was for fun.

The CLO (Community Liaison Officer) organized a trip to the Gracanica Monastery and Ulpiana.

We started off at the monastery, a Serbian orthodox monastery established in 1321 on the ruins of a 6th century church.

Gracinica Monastery

The monastery is really beautiful and has some absolutely amazing frescoes inside. You aren't allowed to take pictures inside in order to protest the frescoes, but I did take some shots from outside.

After the monastery, we grabbed some lunch...
Ribs and creme with pitalka...yum!
And then headed to Ulpiana, a Roman city located about 30 minutes outside of Pristina that was established in 169 AD and reached its peak of development in the 3rd and 4th centuries AD.

We were given a tour by the head archaeologist, who also is an alum of one of our programs. They are doing amazing work there despite the challenges they face (like that the country can't afford to buy the land and so they lease it for 3 years at a time and have no security in being able to keep it. Plus the land is divided up into tons of parcels, most owned by Serbian farmers who distrust the Kosovo government, so they have been able to excavate only a tiny fraction of the site. Even so, they have uncovered a massive basilica, a smaller basilica with a baptisterium, a Roman bath, and several cemeteries.
Basilica 1

Basilica 2 with Baptisterium
Roman bath

Definitely need to go back. Archaeology is clearly my happy place!

Friday, August 21, 2015

Houston, we have an Ambassador....and I have my puppy!

Our new Ambassador, Greg Delawie, arrived Thursday. I am looking forward to working for him, because everything I hear about him is great.

Have you seen his video? If not, check it out:

I met him at the airport. That was pretty fun. But even cooler was getting to go to his credentialing at the President's office.

Amb Delawie handing his credentials to President Jahjaga
Photo courtesy of U.S. Embassy Pristina
The other exciting thing that happened this week was the arrival of my puppy. Okay, she is not a puppy (she is 14), but she is definitely my baby.

She wasn't able to fly with me because only one pet was allowed in the hold at a time and I had to bring my parrot. I wasn't choosing my parrot over my dog, but it seemed like it would be harder to get a parrot in by a shipper than a dog.

Turned out getting a dog here was hard too. It took two weeks. Two weeks where I tried to hide that I was secretly miserable.

But now she is here. And happy and healthy.

And I am happy too.

Sunday, August 16, 2015


I am determined to fully immerse myself into life here.

So this morning, I went to church. The service was entirely in Shqip (Albanian). I confess that the parts where they read from the Bible (in standard Shqip, or Tosk) were easier to understand than the parts in the Kosovar dialect (gheg). But I persevered.

After church, I spotted a friend of one of my teachers. I was able to pick him out from his Facebook picture because he had sent me a message there. We went at had coffee at a place right by the Newborn monument.

The monument is a well-known sculpture in downtown Pristina in front of the Palace of Youth and Sports. It was designed by Fisnik Ismaili and unveiled on 17 February 2008, the day that Kosovo declared independence from Serbia. It was painted bright yellow when it was first revealed and was later re-painted with the flags of the states that have recognized Kosovo. It is repainted every 17 February every year, and I look forward to seeing it then. In the meantime, it seems to be a sort of national canvas while still being recognized as a single word understood by non-English speakers as describing the birth of a new country.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Getting Back To Work

Okay, that title is misleading.

Language training is work, hard work, and fun (except when it isn't...I am still reminding myself to be thankful for that extra time in language because not only did I really solidify my skills but I also really solidified friendships with several of the teachers. That is something to be grateful for.), but it is nice to be back doing what I joined the Service to do.

I just finished my first full week on the job and am finally about over my jet lag. And is a week that has me really enthusiastic for the next two years.

First, and most important to me personally, it looks like my dog will arrive on Wednesday. If you are the praying/positive energy sending/finger and toe crossing sort, please do so for her. One of my awesome new colleagues is travelling to the states and is bringing Noostie back with him on Tuesday. Apparently there is a total embargo on bringing pets to Pristina as cargo but you can bring them as excess baggage. I tried to send her to Vienna and have a shipper drive her here, but even that proved too much. So this colleague is saving me a trip back to the states...I definitely owe him his favorite alcoholic beverage (or five) of choice!

Second, I have been able to do some actual Public Diplomacy work. Our section was a part of Dokufest, an annual 8-day International Documentary and Short Film Festival held in Prizren that draws artists and audiences from across the region and the world. We sponsored some American films there as well as an American Night reception in Prizren. The reception was well attended, and we arranged interviews between the press and some of the American directors. Plus, I was able to meet some of our folks from our American Corner there.

America Night reception
It was my first time to visit Prizren, but I will definitely be back. Because...castle!

Apparently we gave a pretty massive grant to Kosovo for the restoration of part of the castle, so you know, I HAVE to check on that!

Plus, I have to go back and see the churches there. I tried, unsuccessfully to visit this one.

Orthodox church in Prizren
This is an Orthodox Church in Prizren, right by where we held our reception. I tried to visit the church and photograph it, but was asked to leave the courtyard by a Serbian-speaking guard, possibly because I spoke to him in Albanian (Serbian-speaking colleagues have been allowed to go inside). Note to self: use English when trying to visit churches. Kosovo is an interesting place.

Orthodox churches aside, I am finding many opportunities to use my language here. For example, two of our Albanian teachers are in Kosovo, so twice this week we had dinners out that involved lots of speaking in Shqip (Albanian). One involved lots of Shqip and a Proper Pizza the size of our table and the other involved less Shqip but traditional Albanian food.

A proper pizza from Proper Pizza

Biftek në gurë

Tavë Shtëpie
I also had a meeting this week with someone seeking a grant who didn't speak English very well. So I said we should do the meeting in Shqip. And we did. I understood him completely except for a few words in gheg that I had my local staff member explain to me. And he seemed to understand me. My staff member also said to me that I speak freely and comfortably in Shqip. I am pretty proud of that.

In fact, I asked him to help me by speaking to me in Shqip and to teach me some gheg. But I told him that it helped me when he spoke more slowly.

So he said he would speak vvveeeeerrryyyyyyyy sssslllloooowwwwwlllly. Just like that. But in Shqip. :)

Monday, August 10, 2015


So the language we study at the Foreign Service Institute is not exactly what they use here.

In Kosovo, Gheg is the dialect of Albanian spoken. In fact, it is spoken by the majority of Albanian speakers, including the folks north of Tirane in Albania. But the standard dialect, Tosk, is taught at FSI. It is standard by virtue of having been the dialect spoken by Enver Hoxha, the former dictator of that country.

I already knew Gheg was different just in terms of the occassional times in class that the native gheg speakers would tell use different words used in Kosovo or show us videos of people speaking gheg. And at one lunch with two of my teachers and an EFM from Kosovo, all of whom I have become friends with, when the native Tosk speaker was late, the other two spoke very quickly and in gheg.

Holy mini-immersion Batman! Gheg is different!

So when I arrived at the airport on Wednesday, I was prepared to have a bit of difficulty understanding, but I sort of expected to be understood.

I went to the customs line because I needed a signature on my CITES permit for Cayenne showing she had arrived.

I told the officer in standard Albanian that I had nothing to declare but I needed someone to sign that the bird had entered the country.

What? he asked.

So I repeated myself.

"Where are you from?"

"The U.S."

"Speak to me in English."

I was simultaneously offended and wondering what I said wrong. So I repeated myself in English.

"What?" he asked.

"I need a signature on my form."


"To bring the bird into Kosovo."

"But she is here."

"Right, but I need a signature so I can take her back to the U.S. in two years."

"So take her."

Okay, at this point I have determined the issue was not my language skills. It was the issue. And once I got him to sign the form (yay for small victories), I chatted with him for a few minutes in Albanian just to reassure myself that I could actually speak the language.

I could.

I also succeeded last night in chatting with the guard at our house about unemployment in the country.

So maybe I speak this language after all.

Sunday, August 09, 2015

Përshëndetje nga Kosova

View of Pristina from our Balcony

I made it to Kosovo. I had expected to arrive tomorrow with Oskar, one of our cats, and Noostie, our dog. Instead, I arrived Thursday with Oskar and Cayenne, our bird.

Let me back up.

The whole language training fiasco threw a monkey wrench into all of our departure plans. So instead of leaving with my wife on July 22 as planned, I completed another four weeks of language training and retested on July 31.

Oh, and I got my waiver, on July 29. But I opted to test anyway, because I really believed I was at a 3/3 or better.

And I passed! Yay!

Looking on the bright side, I know that the extra time in one on one training really solidified my language. I actually felt pretty darn close to a 3+ on the day of the test. And brighter side, I made some lifelong friends among the teachers. So I am profoundly grateful for that.

Still, getting here was an ordeal (in fact, worst PCS ever), and it isn't over yet. My beloved dog is still in Virginia, and I will be worried sick until she gets here.

So my original plan (original as of the initial language test failure anyway) was to pack out our stuff for storage on Monday and Tuesday (August 3 and 4) and to depart on Wednesday, August 5 with the cat, dog and parrot. I did all the pet appointments on July 27th and overnighted the paperwork to the USDA for their health certificates that night. But mix ups regarding what exactly they needed from my vet ended up meaning that I had to pay a courier to drive the paperwork to me from Richmond on Tuesday.

Then I discovered that the airlines only allowed one pet in cargo (but four in cabin...I am not sure which planet that makes sense on). And Cayenne, my bird, was not cleared to transit Copenhagen, even though I had jumped through all of the hoops to get an EU health certificate (trust me, she does NOT have bird flu) and her CITES permit. So then I had to I send my bird to the pet shipper in hopes he can get her to me, or to my wife's cousin, who could keep her for two years? I am sure the movers were perplexed about why I was bawling on the front porch. I finally got through to a supervisor at Scandinavian who told me the decision to allow Cayenne to transit had to be made by a ministry in Denmark, which of course was closed. She offered to call me at 2 am when they opened with an update.

In the meantime, I had other reservations on a flight for Sunday. I would have my dog and cat with me on that one. And I assumed that was what I would be taking. So I relaxed a bit in my preparations, even planning for dinners with friends.

The call came at 2:30 am....still no approval for Cayenne on the flight. So I got up at about 8 and started cleaning a bit around the house.

And then the call came at 9:30...she is approved.

So now I am having to fast forward...I have to leave for the airport at 3 to be there by 3:55 for the 5:55 flight. That gave me five and a half hours to finish packing, mail a box of stuff that I had no room for in my suitcase, take Cayenne to the vet for her last checkup (seriously man, EU rules are strict!), and make arrangements for the dog to go to the boarding facility that will hopefully be able to ship her (if not, I will be flying back this weekend to bring her here as excess baggage).

It was seriously down to the wire, in fact, even more so than I thought. My taxi arrived a bit late because of traffic and we got to the airport a little later than I had hoped. The line for security was about five miles long, and they were letting some folks ahead because they needed to make their flights. But I had no worries, right? Plenty of time!

Except when I got to my gate, and was at the little store getting some water, I hear the LAST CALL for my flight. At like 4:40. So I saunter across to the gate and ask why they boarded so early. They said they got started early. So I board, find my seat. Everyone else is seated. And we pull away from the gate at 5:15. It was only then that I looked at my ticket again (I didn't have a printed copy, just a link on my phone) and saw that my flight was at 5:15, not 5:55! It was the Sunday flight that was at 5:55! In hindsight, I am glad I didn't know.

So we are here. Noostie should get her new health certificate Tuesday and be eligible to fly until the 19th. Please pray. if you are the praying sort, that she gets here safely sooner rather than later. There is a doggie-sized hole in my heart right now and I need her home and to have my family together.

I do think once Noostie is here, I will be really happy here. It is great to be back with my wife so we can explore together. Our apartment is ginormous and really nice and is about a block and a half from the embassy. Even with my bad knees, I can walk it easily. The embassy compound is nice and I seem to have an awesome staff. I am excited to work with them.

The city so far seems nice, with a great restaurant scene and some decent grocery stores. And of course we have the commissary at work and the PX at the KFOR Base for the must-have American goods, including diet Mt. Dew (which my amazing wife actually had waiting for me in the fridge when I got here!).

Also great, our UAB had already arrived and was even mostly unpacked! So we have stuff!

Life is good.