From Tirana with love. And a dash of Pristina.

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Memorial Wall dedicated to the Martrys of the 1999 war, Nene Tereze Boulevard, Pristina, Kosovo, 2008: “Don’t step on our blood. . . don’t let us disappear”

Earlier this week, we were delighted to introduce our new foreign correspondent, Dr. Bruce Howard Kay, Brighton High School ’81. The Brighton Globetrotter’s impeccable credentials bear repeating: “As a foreign service officer, holding a PhD in Political Science from the University of North Carolina, Bruce has worked on four continents in: Washington D.C, Peru, Albania and Iraq, along with lengthy posts in Tunisia, Colombia, Honduras, Guatemala, and the Republic of Georgia.”

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American flags streamed recently above the main street of Pristina, Kosovo’s capital. One of the world’s newest countries, Kosovo separated from Serbia, with the support of the United States [2012; Credit Akos Stiller]

on the path of the Shining Path

Bruce and myself, Cuzco, Peru, 1997 [Photo: Robert Kay]

In A 1997 trip to deep Peru retracing the Shining Path
we reminisced about a trip to the Andes — the story of jungle vigilantes and a French woman

On Bruce’s recent visit to Rochester, we also talked about another time we were both abroad. In Spring 2008 I was teaching American Literature at RIT’s satellite campus, the American University of Kosovo (Pristina); while Bruce was in neighboring Albania working for USAID.

Regrettably, circumstances did not allow us to meet, although Bruce patiently Skyped explanations when I found myself lost in the vagaries of Balkans politics.

(Following Bruce’s Albania travelogue see my D & C  Guest Essay on AUK.)

For Bruce, life oversees had been his for decades, but for me — an innocent abroad — it was a brief four month picaresque on the global road.

Eight of us lived in the University dorm; two from RIT, myself and Erin Green (photo below), and the other professors from elsewhere in the United States and Europe. During our free time, we took full advantage of our adventure abroad.

Zana Krasniqi, Miss Kosovo 2008, competes in a gown of her choice during the Evening Gown segment of the 2008 Miss Universe Presentation Show at the Crown Convention Center, in Nha Trang on July 8, 2008. She will compete in the 57th annual Miss Universe competition which will take place in Nha Trang, Vietnam at the Crown Convention Center on July 14, 2008 at 8 AM UCT (airing LIVE on NBC in the United States on July 13, 2008 at 9 PM (ET/delayed PT). HO/Miss Universe L.P., LLLP

Zana Krasniqi, Miss Kosovo 2008, competes in a gown of her choice during the Evening Gown segment

Arriving in Pristina about a month after Kosovo’s Independence Day, I missed a week long party not seen since the last days of Tito.

Happily, I was there for the inaugural Miss Kosovo Universe pageant, won by Zana Krasniqi. Not yet Talker, nonetheless I scored a private interview offstage with Miss Krasniqi. Alas, transcripts and photos from the interview — not unlike the disaster that befell T.E. Lawrence’s manuscript of Lawrence of Arabia — were lost on the voyage home.

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Camp Bonesteel, outside Pristina

In 2008 — and still today — Kosovars viewed Americans as heroes. With some brashness and a touch of the swashbuckler, we cut a friendly swatch through the cafés, bistros and bars of greater Pristina. (see map at end).

We also enjoyed down time with our American comrades-in-arms at Camp Bonesteel, where local bands — like the Balkans Invasion — entertained we not so lonely expatriates.

Many an evening was spent at the nearby Hotel Luxor where internationals and expats gathered to swap stories of election monitoring and memories of the 1999 war. We learned to heed their warning that when hiking in Germania Park tread carefully around signs reading, Unexploded Ordinance.

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Hotel Luxor (lit), next to the campus of the American University of Kosovo (not pictured)

On the diplomatic front, we were invited to an official celebration of the 60th anniversary of the founding of the nation of Israel.  As there was only one Jewish family (bakery owners) in Pristina, our overrepresented trio of Jewish faculty members attended — apparently to represent Israel– although I don’t think any of us had even been to Jerusalem.

And a few midnights on the roof (and below) of the American University of Kosovo under clear starry Albanian skies far far away from Rochester, New York.

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Tirana, Albania 2011

As Bruce and I talked, I again regretted not visiting him in Tirana.  What had I missed in that country which for so long had isolated itself from the rest of the world?

And, what was life really  like in the foreign service as I had only experienced a single vignette?

Bruce was able to crystallize his own experience in a searing, illuminating yet enigmatic anecdote:

Curb Walking in Tirana (1/3/16)  Rockville, Maryland

Tirana has two seasons: the Season of Dust and the Season of Mud. In the dog-days of the dusty season (spring/summer) of 2004, Albania’s capital underwent an all-at-once makeover of its decaying commie-era infrastructure.

Worn asphalt was stripped from major thoroughfares, cracked sidewalks were hacked up and removed, and new curbs were installed. These granite curb structures suggested a hopeful, new civic order, complete with new pavement and new cement, just around their perfectly squared corners. But then progress, inexplicably, came to a halt.

When I arrived, the Season of Mud (fall/winter) was in full swing. Daily rains had made pavementless Tirana a muddy moonscape. Only the curbs demarcating not-yet roads from soon-to-be sidewalks gave pedestrians respite from the mud spatter.

Tirana’s curb-walkers soon coalesced around a protocol to manage rights of way. Who got to stay on the curb and who descended into the mud was decided by customary, chivalric rules: Youth yielded to elderly, adults to kids, men to women, able bodied to the apparently disabled. But if two adult males aproached each other, it was all about the shoes.

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pencil holder in the form of a pillbox/bunker from the Hoxha era regime. Now a collector’s item. Given to me by Bruce circa 2000

Actually, Tirana was all about the shoes. The country had jettisoned its proletarian footwear, which eschewed bourgeois values like comfort and style, in favor of the pointy elfin-like leather shoes, described as “Italian” and the ludicrously boxy shoes labeled “British.”

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old bunker in Tirana

In the adult curb faceoff, shoes judged inferior or in worse condition were condemned to the mud in a swift, harsh, though not always mutual, judgment.

One night after work, I was curb-walking the boulevard to my apartment a half mile away. The city was in the grip of an acute power shortage, and nightly blackouts were the norm.  The headlamps of cars plowing through the slurry created the only light source. A man walked briskly towards me.  As he neared, I could see he was about the same age. Our gaze shifted downward. He sported a pair of white leprechaun-like “Italian” loafers with black tips — handsome but undeniably worn.  My new Johnson and Murphy brogues, sensible, mudless and dry, still boasted their original sheen.  I had won the shoe stakes.

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Old bunker on a back road between Shkoder and Tirana, 2015

Still, he stated his case: his shoes had cost a pretty penny; he couldn’t afford to ruin them. I responded in halting, pidgin Albanian. His eyes widened. “Amerikan!,” he exclaimed with a wide grin, and graciously volunteered to step down, amending the curbwalkers’ code (host yields to guest).  Touched by this display, I shook my head.  I did what any diplomat should do: I stepped onto the road, welcoming the mucky embrace.

But instead of landing on terra firma, I continued to fall until my fall was broken by the rock basin of a stagnant pond of raw sewage. I heard my counterpart turn tail and shout something.

After a while, he and a policeman returned. They hoisted me and my sprained foot onto the muddy surface and brought me home. After tossing my ruined shoes, I spent a day washing away sewage stench from my ankles.

When I returned to the site, flashing yellow lights flanked the curbside pothole, illuminating a triangular warning sign bearing the image of an upended man falling down. His red, white and blue necktie and shiny shoes trailed him into the abyss.

I had to smile at my likeness.  I would be a cautionary tale, at least until the sidewalks were fixed.

Needless to say, Bruce’s diplomatic sacrifice of his shoes to keep the peace trumps my indulgent and mercenary romp as an academic soldier of good fortune.

And why is this post called from Tirana with love? In Tirana, Bruce’s equanimity under water won the heart of a beautiful and brilliant Albania girl who had always dreamed of marrying a foreign correspondent. In the Balkans, dreams come true. They now live in Rockville, Maryland with their two children.

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Two Rochester Institute of Technology grads are helping to build the world’s youngest nation. Yet they
have never set foot on the Rochester campus.

Last May, Shpend Kursani and Shqipe Neziri were part of the first-ever graduating class of the
American University of Kosovo, one of RIT’s overseas satellite campuses.

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Shqipe Neziri and Shpend Kursani

Kursani and Neziri took the same classes, passed the same exams, and received the same diplomas
as their Rochester-area brethren. In this land that has adopted American culture at its best and worst,
they consumed the same movies, books and video games.

But there’s one big difference. Kursani and Neziri are dedicated and proud citizens of the new Republic
of Kosovo that declared its independence from Serbia on Feb. 17.

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Kosovo, 2008

Kosovo, a small, landlocked country situated in the mountains of the central Balkans, faces daunting
challenges. Kursani, who works for a telecommunications company, worries about the fragile economy
— Kosovo’s GDP is one-tenth of the European Union average — and its shaky administrative system.
Kosovo still lacks the infrastructure and human resources needed to manage its young, bustling and
commercially minded population.

Kursani is bothered that better-trained and educated internationals, rather than native Kosovars, fill
many top executive jobs. Now employed by a private consulting firm, Neziri worked for two years with
the U.S. Agency for International Development but was disappointed by the cumbersome governmental
bureaucracy.

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abandoned Orthodox Church, Pristina, 2008

Nonetheless, like most Kosovars, the two are buoyantly optimistic about their fledgling nation. Kursani
is quick to point out Kosovo’s multicultural diversity. Most are Albanian Muslims, but six ethnic groups
are represented as six stars on the new flag. Speaking of the Islamic faith, Kursani says, “Even though
90 percent of the population is Muslim by origin, the society itself is organized such that there are no
religious divisions. Actually, it is hard to distinguish who is a Muslim or a Christian. I, myself, have been
to churches as often as I have to mosques.”

When asked what he wants Kosovo to stand for, Kursani points to the just-implemented constitution
that he believes represents “the highest level of human rights and freedom.”

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University of Pristina, 2008

Neziri thinks her American-style education allows her “to serve as a model for Kosovo’s future.” In a
country whose educational system was severely disrupted during the turbulent post-Yugoslavia era,
Neziri views her RIT diploma as a symbol of what can be accomplished. To help promote the
American-style system, both are actively involved in RIT’s ever-globalizing Alumni Network.

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AUK graduation, June 2008

This quarter I am teaching English here at RIT’s American University of Kosovo. My first-year students
in Pristina are no less passionate than those in Rochester.

A colleague in the public policy department, professor Erin Green says of her students: “After
independence, it has been fascinating to witness them take ownership in tackling Kosovo’s many
critical policy issues. These include such basics as providing stable electric output, addressing severe
air and water pollution, and, of course, stimulating the economy.”

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my next door neighbor in the dorms, Erin Green (also from RIT) with stray puppy, Tito, she saved. Alas, Erin was not eligible for the Miss Kosovo Universe pageant.

Just a couple of months ago, Green heard her students ask, “What should they (the international
community) do to solve Kosovo’s problems?” Now they are asking, “What will we do?”

It is not easy founding a country. As we look at the eager young men and women in our classes, we
are seeing a little bit of history: the future leaders of the world’s youngest republic.

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Pristina, Kosovo, 2008

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UPDATE: During RIT’s 2016 Brickyard Weekend, I ran into Bob Finnerty, RIT’s Chief Communications Officer. Bob had been to AUK in 2012. We took pics of a mineral map of Kosovo given to him as gift by AUK, his 2012 AUK yearbook, and one of me in the 2007/08 AUK shirt holding my 2007/08 AUK identitiy card. And a picture of the Kosovo flag in RIT’s Student Alumni Union.

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Student Alumni Union, RIT, 10/15/16

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Bob Finnerty with 2012 AUK yearbook and mineral map of Kosovo 10/15/16

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with 2007-2008 AUK shirt and 07/08 AUK identity card 10/15/16

SEE ALSO

A 1997 trip to deep Peru retracing the Shining Path.