Monday, March 21, 2005

Linguistic misunderstandings

So last week I asked my students to write about cross cultural misunderstandings and embarassing situation they have found themselves in. I have a couple of those stories myself, and just so happened that I found myself in the situation the very day I made the assignment.

My electricity for my apartment works like a rechargable telephone card - you go to the electric company, pay for electricity, they give you a receipt with a code on it, you punch the code into your meter and that's how much electricity you have to use. That's all fine and good, since part of the problem with the power plants not working and the electricity going out all the time is because people don't pay their bills. This way, you have to pay before you get lights. It works. However, because my landlord usually handles this sort of thing for me, I didn't have a clue I was about to run out. And run out I did - on a Sunday morning, when it was snowing and bitterly cold. No lights, no hot water, no heat. YIKES!

I went on a desperate search to find somewhere other than the power company to purchase some electricity. A friend suggested I go to the main grocery store and I figured it was worth a shot. I asked the cashier if they sold electricity, and she looked at me as if I was nuts. So I tried another route - I asked if they sold "KEK" (stands for Kosovo Elelctric Commission). Then she nodded in understanding and told me no, but there was a store inside the mall that did. I headed off to find me some electricity and heat. When I got to the store she said to go to, I realized my mistake. The Albanian word "kek" means cake in English. She had sent me to a pastry shop. I didn't stop giggling for 20 minutes, and I had a fantastic piece of chocolate kek.

(I couldn't get any electricity until Monday, so I packed up and spent the night at a friend's. Such is life. I will keep a close eye on my meter from now on!)

On a completely different note, my Fellowship has been renewed, and I will return to Kosovo to teach for another year. I was a little shaky on this point for a week or so, as we've had a couple of bombings since the PM was indicted. The first was on a Friday night a little over a week ago. A 15 year old kid tossed two homemade handgrenades into the UN parking lot. What looked to be an isolated incident, turned out to be a diversionary tactic while 3 snipers were trying to take out the UN communications satellite. (Didn't find that part out until yesterday.) The following Monday I got the renewal notice. Tuesday morning I was awakened by another bombing, this time close enough to make my windows rattle, and promptly got me out of bed. This time the target was the President of Kosovo. A few days later a new Albanian Liberation Army (or something like that) claimed responsibility for it. Still not sure what that was all about. Anyway, everything else has been so calm and normal. People are upset, but they don't want any violence like last year. They don't see the point in it. We all kind of expected all hell to break loose sometime in the past couple of weeks for many reasons - 1, the prime minister was incredibly popular, 2, the 1 year anniversary of the riots was March 17, and 3, the weather has finally decided to warm up a bit, which means more people on the streets. Today they had peaceful protests at the University, and all things are business as usual. I'm pretty confident that things will remain calm, and if they don't.. well, then they'll pull us out of here. I really hope they don't. I want to come back and continue the things I've started this year. Plus the Trav and Phil are coming back too. That's just icing on the kek.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Adventures in a Spanish Library

This may seem completely irrelevant, considering all else that's going on in my world right now, but I woke up in the middle of the night the other night, and this is what came pouring out. Just thought I'd share...

I miss libraries. Really big University libraries in particular. This may seem like an odd thing to miss, but there is definitely something to be said about being able to wander among thousands and thousands of books, touching the spines, pulling something that catches your eye off the shelf, sitting down between the stacks and taking a peek to see if it’s something you really want.

There’s a peculiar smell about libraries – a little musty, dusty, forgotten and old. But it never ceases to make me feel like I’ve found some secret treasure – a little giddy just to be there. I can spend hours and hours and hours in big libraries. There’s so much to look at – a never ending supply of things to open your eyes and your mind. And it’s all free and accessible to anyone who wants to spend the time looking.

Finding a book is relatively easy in the States. You have computers with special programs to find a book by title, author, subject, keyword, publisher, you name it, you can search for it. And not only will it tell you where in the library to go find it, but if it’s been checked out, when it is due to be back in, and how many copies they have. It’s brilliant really. Which brings me to the point of all of this – the library experience at a European University.

Granted, my only experience with the European University library system was in Spain at a University that shall remain nameless. However, it was so horrible, that I have sworn off them since. Here in Kosovo, I'm just plain too chicken. They are still on a paper card catalog system - the shock and horror to discover that, PLUS, it's all in Albanian, which I don't speak at all, even after 6 months of living here. I can order coffee, but ordering a book is beyond my grasp of the tongue.

So back to Spain - When I first walked in I waited for that library smell to hit me – years of books that had gone undiscovered, just waiting for my wandering hands to draw a finger across their spines and ease them from the shelf. Instead, it smelled of antiseptic floor cleaner and furniture polish. I looked around me, but all I saw were rows and rows of study cubicles full of students diligently pouring over stacks of papers, and the occasional book. Where were the book stacks? Where were the volumes and volumes in great rows that needed step-ladders to get to the higher shelves? Dismayed, I walked to the information desk and in my broken Spanish asked innocently “Where are all the books?” The librarian looked at me as if I had three heads, and said “In the reserves of course. What book are you looking for?”

Now if that isn’t the greatest question of all time. Therein lies the problem with the European system. If I knew what I was looking for, I wouldn’t be doing research in the first place. I wanted to browse, see if anything caught my interest, find something new to pour over for the next week. Uh-uh. Not there.You had to have already done extensive research to find a title you were interested in, a specific journal, with article name, author and date of publication before you ever even considered speaking with a librarian.

Now, at this University, they did have sort of a catalog system, but the depth of the information was elementary. Say for example I was looking for a comparative grammar of English and Spanish – keywords English and Spanish grammar. Unless the book or article had those specific words in the TITLE, you would come up with a blank page asking you to broaden your search and try again. Poop. How does anyone do research like this??? If you got lucky and you actually came across something that may have a glimmer of something you’re interested in in it, you then had to fill out a tiny slip of paper with every ounce of personal information you have – birth date, professor, name of course the books are for, your bank account number and your mother’s mother’s maiden name. You then took this little slip of highly confidential information to the retrieval desk, where some 18-year-old smirky student studied it very carefully and finally granted you persmission to see the book. If you had expected to get this book anytime in the near future, you would have been sorely disappointed. She would then tell you (seriously smirking, of course) to come back in 20 minutes to 2 hours. Where was this book? Siberia?

Mind you, this is the procedure if you were even in the right library. You see, there wasn’t just one library, there were at least 10 – one for each faculty, and little to no crossover between the content of each. Many times I took my little slip of paper to the desk only to find out that the book actually was in the branch of the library in Siberia and that’s where I would have to go to request it. Then I could sit there and wait 20 minutes to 2 hours while they retrieved the book from South America. This is really fun, isn’t it?

So you wait and wait and wait. When the book finally arrives, you check the index quickly to see if your needed topic is covered, scan a few pages, decide it’s completely irrelevant and start the whole miserable process over again. You are also limited to viewing three books at a time. So if you do actually find something relevant, you have to give it back to look at more useless materials.

It gets better. The really fun part is requesting something that’s in a special collection. When Smirky Smirkerton takes your slip of paper, she will then cautiously peer at you over the top of her glasses with one eyebrow raised, and quietly whisper, “follow me”. She will then escort you through a maze of hallways and corridors to a room with shelves of books (yes, real books!) in locked glass cases (rats, you still can’t smell them). She will then whisper quietly to the attendant there who will again look you up and down, and when she has apparently deemed you worthy, puts on a pair of white cotton gloves, unlocks a case, and removes the book in question. She then will proceed to open the book and hold it out in front of you and ask you what you would like to see. Once, I made the sorry mistake of reaching out to flip through the index. The book was quickly yanked from my reach, and if she had been quicker, I’m sure she would have slapped my hand. I wasn’t quite sure what to do with all this. Let me get this right - so I could look at the book, but I couldn’t touch it? That was correct. I couldn’t even turn the page, she had to do it for me. For all of this precaution, you would think that I was looking at an original manuscript of the Bible. But honestly, it was just a book on linguistic theory. Who could possibly want to be so protective of linguistic theory?? I wasn’t sure what I was looking for, but I was sure that I wouldn’t find it with someone else holding the book. This system was obviously just not going to work with me. In utter exasperation I left the library and went home and read some trash novel in two hours instead. It was a book I could touch, dog-ear the pages, spill salsa on, and not get arrested for it. I sniffed at it just for fun, smelled like book. Good.

Peace and quiet

Well, we made it through the night... no protests, no violence, not a peep. Some are saying it's the calm before the storm. Personally, I think they're overreacting because of what happened last year. That's not saying that I won't be taking extra cautions today, you never know when a demonstration is going to pop up around here, but the level of anxiety that was present last night when I went to bed has dissapated. Besides, no panicked phone calls in the middle of the night, so all must be ok.

The Wicked Brit and I were talking last night about how sick it is that some people are going to be a little sad that there hasn't been any violence, for the sole reason that they want their little "story" to tell. I've heard people's stories from last year, and I can guarantee that's the last story I want in my repertoire.

And so it stands... peace, quiet and calm. It is only 8:00 am, so let's hope it stays that way.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Waiting for all hell to break loose

And so it has happened. The Prime Minister of Kosovo has officially been indicted by the Hague for war crimes and has resigned so that he can turn himself over to authorities tomorrow (click on the title of this entry if you want to read the CNN article about it). The consular office has issued a warning to Americans to be well aware of the situation and the possiblility of impending violence. As a result and on an unofficial recommendatoin, I have cancelled my classes for the rest of the day. There's an eerie sense of calm over the city right now. Sunny skies and freezing cold temperatures add to the surrealness of it all. If predictions are right, there could be serious riots, reminiscent of those in March of last year. My few Albanian friends are nervous - they don't want to see a repeat of last years insanity, others are angry. For the next few hours, I will keep a close eye on the climate (not just the weather), pack an emergency bag, and will probably go stay with a friend tonight, just to make sure I'm not somewhere by myself if the shit hits the fan. I don't want to freak anyone out (especially my parents), but this is a reality of living here. Although tensions don't surface as much as they once did, a significant event like this could trigger anger that has been bubbling just under the surface. I truly hope that people will remember that the events of last March undid about 4 years of work in two days, will remember the destruction and aftermath, and will avoid anything similar, but you never know. So if anything exciting happens, I'll let you know. Hopefully I just stocked up on Spaghetti-O's and ramen noodles for no reason, but better to be prepared.

Saturday, March 05, 2005


This week's blog assignment for my advanced class was to write about writing - how they felt aobut it, what they liked, disliked, why it was important (or unimportant) to them. I figured the least I could do was attempt to write something like that myself.

So why is writing important? Aside form the obvious communication gap with the outside world that develops if you can't express yourself on paper, there are a number of things that make writing important, at least to me. First, writing well gives you a new way of expressing yourself and talking about the world around you. When you are chatting about something with friends, you don't have to be terribly precise in your descriptions, for most of them are familiar with the place or the topic of discussion. When you write, every word carries with it a specific feeling or emotion, a color or smell, a sensation or realization, a sense of purpose. You choose carefully what you say so that it conveys exactly the right meaning, and invokes a carefully constructed mental image. Secondly, writing holds a sense of honesty and truth that isn't always present in speaking. People are naturally pleasers. They like to be liked and for this reason, tend to say things that people like to hear. When you write, there is a level of detachment, a buffer layer, between you and your audience. There's no need to fear immediate rebuttal or argument. You don't have to please anyone else with your thoughts. You can express yourself clearly and consicely, and explain thoroughly your point of view without some idiot interrupting you or some close-minded freak telling you your ideas are evil and you must be destroyed. Lastly, the written word has a lasting effect on people. When you speak, the moment is fleeting and the person you are talking to could easily forget what you started a sentence with by the time you finish it. When you write, the words linger. They are recorded for posterity to do with what they please. Review it, revise it, take it to heart, spit on it... whatever, it's still there. It hasn't disappeared in a breath or with a fickle mind that changes topics the minute something else catches it's attention. (oooh... look at the bees)

For all the reasons I think writing is important, they are also the reasons that I love writing. I write a lot. But I haven't always. I wrote a play in 5th grade that was performed in front of the whole school. I wrote a teen-romance novel that circulated chapter by chapter throughout the entire female population of the 7th grade (which I still have in a box in my father's attic - it's always good for a giggle when I go home). In high school I won a scholarship off a short story contest. I really wanted to be a writer. Then for many years, I wrote nothing. Not a word that wasn't assigned by a professor. I was forced into it, and it made me hate it (temporarily). It wasn't until I started travelling a lot, and living overseas that I reconnected with writing. I keep this blog, which is open to who ever chooses to read it. I keep a private journal for things I don't really want to ponder out in the open. (Usually things that are too stupid to talk about with anyone else, but it helps me work through them.) I love to write about people and things I care about and things that strike me as odd. I don't write poetry, I don't write short stories, at least I haven't in a very long time, and I don't write novels (even though some of these blog entries may qualify as novellas). I do like to reflect on my world, and tell silly stories about my friends, and record things that have happened to me, so that 10 years from now I can look back and get a good laugh at myself. Writing has given me a way to connect to my surroundings that nothing else could have. Trying to explain to someone on the other side of the world what an accumulator is, or an inverter, or how little lack of electricity really affects your life here gives me the opportunity to really think about things in a way that I wouldn't if I was just letting life happen to me.

Research papers and the like, I find difficult. It's not actually the writing I find difficult, but starting to write. It's the whole gathering information phase and narrowing the focus that drives me crazy. However, once I am engaged, have all my research done, and get moving, it comes easily. Once I am organized, and have my thoughts together, it's like I've already written this thing in my head and all I have to do is get it out! But putting that first sentence down - getting the thesis statement exactly right, writing the introduction... horror for me. I generally begin with freewriting and then edit like crazy. (This is why all of these exercises on narrowing and focusing your topics are important exercises, my dears! I could learn from them myself.)

Editing used to be something I hated to do. Who wants to admit they're not perfect the first time out of the gate? Not me! Certainly not me. Proofreading was a crime, rearranging ideas a sin, and surely I would never remove an idea from a paper because all of my ideas were brilliant!! I eventually got over myself, and now value editing more than any other step in the writing process. Something can always be better, more clear, funnier or supported more strongly. Granted, I don't always edit these blog entries so on occassion you are privvy to my off-the-top-of-my-head brilliance. But the beauty of word processing and computers is that you can edit as you go. Cutting and pasting, deleting entire paragraphs with the touch of a button... i love it! Some people can't write on a computer. For me, I can't write without one anymore. I love the instantaneousness of it all. Watching the words appear on screen almost as fast as I can think them (ok, I'm really not that good of a typist, but I'm pretty fast), rearranging them, rethinking them, all of it is terribly exciting to me. Yes, I'm a geek - I know.

So in conclusion, what I hope for my students, is that they find some connection between the written word and themselves. It isn't for everyone, and I don't expect everyone to fall in love with it. I do hope that they understand it, know how to do it, and can eke out a paper in whatever language necessary that is coherent and well-thought out. That's it. If somewhere along the line someone does fall in love with writing, well then that would be something special indeed.

Friday, March 04, 2005


Today I went grocery shopping. Today I found cheddar cheese. Today I am happy. It is the little things. :D

The virtues (and pitfalls) of sharing your Twinkies

I had Twinkies for breakfast the other day. Or more realistically, I had 1/4 of a Twinkie for breakfast the other day. I really wanted to just shove both of them in my mouth at the same time and revel in the utter chemical sweetness of it all, but I felt guilty. So I shared them with my class to give everyone a taste of some classic American junk food. They fell in love! I am now on a mission to get a case of Twinkies for the kiddies.

More and more I'm finding it's not just my Twinkies I'm sharing. It's my life. Every aspect, every angle, every minute is an open book to my students. They have my phone number, my chat, my blog address - everything. My goal right now is to convince the reluctant ones that I really do have an open door policy - they can call me any time day or night for any reason. Those that I had last semester know this already, and have used it when necessary, but have never abused the access. Mostly it has just kept an open line of communication, and has built a level of mutual respect and trust. At least I think it has. It truly saddens me to hear stories of professors whose goal seems to be keeping students in their "place". Forgive me for being the idealistic one here, but aren't your teachers supposed to help you find the way to success? Aren't we supposed to be guiding these young people to their talents and finding the areas in which they excel, not trying to prove that they're failures or that they've still got a lot to learn? Someone actually said that to me, "I just want to show them that they don't know everything." EVERYone still has a lot to learn, and 99% of the population is well aware of that. You don't have to prove it to them. For all the faults in the system, these students still manage to get an education, more on their own perseverance than on the effectiveness of teaching practices. It's a world reluctant to try new things - things have been the same for so long, and trying to convince someone there's a better way is challenging, to say the least. I won't change the world while I'm here, but I hope that maybe, just maybe, I can change one or two people's minds about educators and education.

Ok, it's way too early in the morning to be waxing philosophical on the merits of education. I'll leave you all now to have your coffee, and I'll go have mine. Toodles.