Tuesday, August 11, 2015

A Belated Farewell to Kosovo

We left Kosovo three months ago. Because I was a bit overwhelmed with preparations and goodbyes, even more so than usual when we leave one of our temporary homes, I neglected to write my traditional goodbye post. I have to admit, too, as we wait in the Washington, DC, area for final approvals to leave for Greece, that I am at a loss as to what to say in farewell to Kosovo.

Of all the posts where we’ve lived, Kosovo felt the most like home. The climate felt familiar, with its four distinct seasons. The housing to which we were assigned felt like a spacious American townhome—bigger and in many ways nicer than what we’re likely to find in our price range in the Baltimore-Washington corridor, and with more stairs than your typical American home, but welcoming and comfortable. The people spoke a different language (or two), but most Kosovans oozed with a love for America that would have fit right in with my childhood community. Although my friends in Kosovo were from a variety of national backgrounds, our shared faith and our shared role of “mother” (I met most of them at a Christian Moms of Preschoolers group) gave us so many points of commonality that any cultural differences faded rather quickly into the background. I even recognized most of the items for sale at the supermarket, though usually not the brands. When asked about the differences between Kosovo and the United States, I often replied that I was sure they existed, but that after my time in Cambodia and Egypt, coming to Kosovo felt like coming home—there were so many more similarities than differences that I had to force myself to notice the differences.

Of course it wasn’t all easy. There were days when I felt foreign and tired of all the differences, when I just wanted to understand what the people and the signs were saying without having to consult Google. There were days when I missed the more strictly enforced building codes of the United States or the availability of a wider variety of fresher produce in American grocery stores. There were days when I simply thought that my life would be easier in America, forgetting that there are tradeoffs to every country and to every lifestyle.

As we left Kosovo, I found myself wondering if, after the sum total of three overseas assignments, I’d become jaded enough not to be so affected by saying goodbye. However, the reality is that I’d already said goodbye well before I left.

I’d said goodbye to friends who left before I did, for summer home assignments and fundraising trips, and who wouldn’t return until after my departure. I’d said goodbye to a friend who’d recently returned from home assignment with the announcement of an unexpected decision to settle affairs in Kosovo and then return home permanently. A full year prior, I’d said goodbye to most of my friends from the embassy, and then I’d said goodbye to the stragglers who were leaving a month before or after me.

My goodbyes in Kosovo were lots of small moments, spread out over time, rather than a lot of goodbyes occurring in a very short time like I’d experienced when I left Egypt and Cambodia. I said each goodbye individually, with time to feel it, to mourn each and every loss. It was a long, nagging sadness that still resonates but that largely resolved itself as it happened, rather than one big wound that left a gaping hole to be filled.

I’ve come to believe that that’s why I had such a hard time writing a goodbye post to Kosovo. It felt redundant. Now that I understand what happened and why I felt as I did, however, I’m better able to see—and to feel—that all those small goodbyes to the individuals who made Kosovo what it was for me do not equal a goodbye to the country of Kosovo.

The country of Kosovo is much more than the sum of its expats, as much as they shaped my experience there. The country of Kosovo is a country of contradictions: mountains and plains, summer heat and winter cold. Muslims who love America and Christians who (to put it mildly) don’t—as well as Muslims who don’t and Christians who do. Ancient mosques and modern libraries. Urban centers and rural villages. Warm and friendly people whose faces turn hard and cold at the thought of those who were on the other side of that disturbingly recent war.

I'm not certain that I ever really got to know Kosovo, to understand it beyond surface level. Whether I did or didn't, though, my time there is done. I have no more chances to unravel the contradictions, to work my way into its soul or to allow it to work its way into mine. I will remember my time in Kosovo with fondness, but now it's time—past time—to say goodbye.
Thank you, Kosovo, for welcoming me. Thank you, Kosovo, for nourishing me. And thank you, Kosovo, for releasing me.

Goodbye, Kosovo.

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