A Taste of Strpce

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Non-Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
Accompanying her husband to Kosovo, the wife of a UN peace keeper describes life in this post-war, impoverished region, where ethnic cleansing and desperate poverty have cycled for 700 years.

Submitted: January 07, 2008

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Submitted: January 07, 2008



(From a series of letters, \"The Strpce Gazette\", written back to the US)

Sorry I have written so little, but it took me a while to get myself oriented to this 3rd world country, physically and mentally. We're all doing great: Jon, Oscar the dog, and I. We have settled into a loose routine. Jon works 7 days a week, but the station is just a 5 or 7 minute walk down narrow dirt streets. The apartment is very nice, for Kosovo. One of the first tasks I was able to accomplish was to hang a shower curtain. Jon said it could not be done, but standing in the tub with a hand-held nozzle, spraying down the whole bathroom was just not acceptable behavior. I had brought a shower curtain from the States, and it is now one of my most prized possessions. I found an old nylon rope in a drawer, tied one end to the over-the-tub water heater, the other end to one of the ceiling pipes, and presto, the bathroom now stays dry when we shower. It does not look too great, but what the hey, it works.

Nearly all these very narrow streets are dirt or gravel, but there is actually pavement down near the station, which is the \"new\" center of Strpce (pronounced Strep-see). Our apartment is on the 3rd floor of the only apartment building (actually condos, Kosovo style) on the old town square. The square consists of a trash littered playground with broken swings, a bent slide, and a relatively new basketball court. Encircling this are mostly 2 story buildings, with small mom-and-pop type stores on the first level, and dwellings above. There are 4 grocery-type stores, a couple of this-and-that shops, and a garment/yarn shop around the corner. These are all miniscule by our standards, maybe 8x10 feet up to about 15x15 feet, and each carries a little different line of wares. The doorways and front stoops of said shops are the meeting places of the villagers, and are always populated by a good representation of the locals. There are several elderly men who seem to spend their entire day sitting in front of one shop or the other. Generally this is a congenial passtime, but at least once a day or so a couple of these cane weilding characters have a difference of opinion on some unknown subject. When this occurs, there is much shouting, waving of canes, and sour faces. I have yet to see anyone actually strike another person, but there is lots of saber rattling. Usually, an elderly woman or two will pop out of the recesses of their homes to watch the fun, shaking their scarf-covered heads, then toddling about on bandy black-stockinged legs to discuss the situation with each other. In the afternoons, when the school children are free, they gather in the \"park\" portion of the square, the girls to swing and walk about arm in arm, the boys to play hotly contested games of marbles, or get up the ever popular game of soccer on the basketball court. For goals, they have set up 2 stout tree stumps at each end of the court, and have some pretty robust competitions. In the evenings, there is a regular promenade, with girls of all ages strolling arm in arm, young men watching the girls, mature women watching everyone, and lively singing coming from what Jon calls the men's clubs. These are small, mean, stone constructed huts furnished with a bare lightbulb hanging by a wire from the ceiling, several rickety tables, and an odd collection of miss-matched chairs. The men of all ages sit about in these huts, maybe 5 to 10 in each group, singing loudly and downing great quantities of Rokhia, which is similar in molecular structure to nuclear waste, and tastes just the way you would imagine. They seem to have a fine time, but I do have concerns about the state of their collective esophagus.

Meanwhile, there are any number of dogs roaming about. I don't know if they are owned by families, or what. They seem well fed, a few actually have collars on, and are all friendly. I have seen no dog fights, so there must be some accepted pecking order in place. I have named a couple of them: one I call Skippy, because as he trots along on some doggy mission, he skips every 10th step or so; another is Billy, since he chews on every tin can, plastic bag or bottle that he happens to come across. Hens and roosters of varied sizes and colors wander everywhere, doing whatever it is that chickens do. There are several cats, too, but these are pretty scrawny, and are very skittish. Oscar watches over them all from his window seat, overlooking the entire show.

The houses surrounding our little square are mortar-over-block construction with red tile roofs and multiple brick chimneys. They are at least a hundred years old, the tile roofs blacked with age and moss, the exterior walls painted in various shades of yellow, pink and beige, none painted within recent history. Each has a small yard in front or behind, many with delapitated stone buildings behind that serve as housing for whatever animals they own, and the source of the hay filled manure that is always being carted off to the farmland surrounding the town. Said carting is sometimes done by dilapidated tractor, often by oxen and a rickety low-sided wooden cart. The folks seem busy all the time, but doing just what I can't say, since nothing ever really looks like it is getting done.

Jon takes off about 7:45am, then returns for lunch between 11 and 12. If the power is on, we can have hot lunch, if not, then cold lunch works, too. We can always have our tea, though, since we have our handy-dandy propane burner for just this purpose. No day can be really good without afternoon tea, a habit that we got into when Jon was recovering from heart surgery in 2001. Then off he goes to the station after about an hour, then is off work at about 5pm, unless there is some sort of insurgency somewhere, then he works 12 hour days (8 to 8). The power is usually off again between 5pm and 6, so this is our mandatory wine hour. Whatever works, right?

Yesterday was Eastern Orthodox Palm Sunday, so Alexey (our Russian police officer friend), Jon and I went to the little Orthodox church just down the way. This church is made of stone, and is 700 years old! It is tiny, only 15 feet wide and maybe 60 feet long. The front 1/4,containing the altar, is screened off with a wooden panel and fabric screening. The priest says the mass behind this screen, so only his dim outline can be seen. The worshippers all stand, since there are no benches of any kind. On one wall is a 2-tiered metal shelf-like structure, each shelf actually a 3 inch deep tray, filled with a layer of black sand and covered with an inch or so of questionable-looking water. For a small donation, one takes a couple of long thin taper candles from a wooden box, lights them from the main candle, then sticks one in the sand on the upper shelf with a prayer for the living, and one on the lower shelf with a prayer for the dead. There are no lights in the church, only the weak daylight that can find it's way in through 3 deep-set windows cut into the wall opposite from the candle shelves. The light is just enough to illuminate the ancient painted wood panels that cover all the walls. These are still in excellent shape, despite their age, but are worn in places from countless generations of worshippers, who bow before each one, cross themselves, then kiss or lovingly touch each icon. As it was Palm Sunday, everyone was given a sprig of greenery from some locally abundant tree, since there are no palms of any kind here. Just standing in this ancient place was very moving, knowing how many other souls have stood there over the past 700 years, all the prayers and intentions that these walls have heard is unimaginable.

Jon is going to go back up the mountain tomorrow, to see what can be done for the poor families in the villages up there. I will accompany him, with my faithful dog, Oscar, and am looking forward to this adventure. There is so much that we can do here, and with the help of the generous donations from friends and family back home, hopefully there will be folks here who will soon have a little easier time of it, and may look at their world with renewed hope.

*The \"Strpce Gazette\" was a weekly account of one couple's outreach to people of a desperately poor area of the region formerly known as Yugoslavia.

© Copyright 2018 Rebecca Lydon. All rights reserved.

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