Winter Festivities

Winter is tough. We don’t have a cafe in town. Even if we did, only men go to the village cafes. So I can go into Prizren and meet an English speaking friend there, or I can stay in the village browsing the internet and feeling guilty for not being more social, scholarly, and industrious. It’s mostly been pretty cold and icy for the past month, but we had one gloriously sunny day last week, when everyone in Prizren walked about on the path by the river and basked in the sunlight at outdoor cafes.

Winter break was nice — I went to Kotor, Montenegro with some other volunteers, where we climbed up to a ruined fortress, walked along the sea, and explored the lovely little walled city. Montenegrins had nature on their side in building impregnable fortifications.

What I’ve been reading:

The Hemingway Book Club of Kosovo, by Paula Bowlin Huntly (2003), is adapted from the author’s journals while she taught a private English course in Prishtina shortly after the end of the war in 1999. It keeps the format of dated journal entries, and is fine for what it is. She captures a lovely relationship with and appreciation of her students, and their gladness to finally have a teacher with time and desire to invest in their education to the best of her ability. Her descriptions of bleak, trash filled, bombed-out, yet lively, post-war Prishtina, and the contrasts between her privileged upper middle class American life, and life in a country in the midst of being rebuilt are also observant and sometimes poignant. At the same time, Hemingway Book Club didn’t resonate with me. It’s not Mrs. Huntly’s fault that I tend to feel ashamed and jealous in the face of educational gushing, or that her students look down on my students. But it does make this book not very helpful to me.

In Why Kosovo Still Matters (2011), British politician Denis MacShane draws on his experience as Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs with responsibility for the Balkans from 2001 to 2005. He is a lively, opinionated writer, who helped shape the actions that he describes on the part of the United Kingdom and NATO. At the same time, he’s so opinionated as to come across as an unreliable reporter, which is not helped by his conviction of fraud in 2012 and had to resign from Parliament.

Sworn Virgin (Elvira Dones, 2007; translated 2014). follows the story of Hana, who chose to become a man socially after the death of her closest family members, because it was unsafe and socially unacceptable to act as head of her household as a woman, and she didn’t want to get married and be a housewife. Fourteen years later, she moves to America to live with her cousin, and reclaim her female identity. Hana came of age during Enver Hoxha’s disastrous regime, and was a bright, interested student at the university of Tirana, when her uncle’s illness forced her to return to their small mountain village in Northern Albania. Dones bases Hana’s story on an old Albanian custom dictating that a woman can choose to “become a man” in the eyes of the community, dressing, smoking, and drinking with the men, and taking on male roles and responsibilities. There isn’t a place for a strong, single woman in village society, so everyone agrees to pretend she isn’t a woman at all. Life is lonely and difficult for Hana, but she doesn’t regret her choice. She does, however, want to go back to life as a woman (slowly) when she emigrates to America, and her cousin is there to guide her through that.

It was an interesting read, and brings up a lot of themes that are promising, but never satisfactorily explored. Dones is a solid writer, but not fantastic, and I was left wishing she had spent more time on descriptions of the tough, violent, pragmatic villagers, and less time on Hana removing her underwear and gazing at her female body in a mirror, or her odd, charged relationship with a man she met on the plane and then didn’t call for most of a year. I appreciate the way it handles gender inequity without being too preachy, along with providing some insights into the roughness of rural Albanian life will into the modern era. It would be a good book club book.

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