It was quite possibly the perfect cup of tea. Flying somewhere over the UK, I began writing in my journal about the quality of tea served on our airplane. It was a fantastic beverage steeped to perfection, not too hot, certainly not the least bit cold, and rich rusty brown in color. It required no cream or sugar. Just gloriously plain tea hitting your lips with every sip.
I tried not to drink too quickly because I wanted this enjoyable tea-filled experience to last as long as possible. But all good things come to an end sooner or later. Or at least until the flight attendant brings the teapot around for refills.
We landed in London, and seven hours later were waiting to board our third and final airplane. We also awaited our first meal in twenty-two hours, regretting our decision of being too careful with our money to buy sushi at the London airport. Mostly because the British Pound was absolutely slamming the US dollar, but also because it was 7am, to us, and what good American can stomach seaweed and raw fish for breakfast, I ask you?
Ok, we actually did try the yogurt. My traveling companion, Michael, was the one who made the purchase, but he hated it because it was real yogurt. The sour kind. The kind that you might find in a foreign country. Oh wait.
I think the thing that really got to me about this particular yogurt, looking all exotic and foreign in it’s blue and silver plastic container, was the lump factor. I’d say it was about an eight on a scale of one to ten. Is that normal? I never want to know.
He sat there, with a half tired half confused face taking spoonfuls of this irregular looking pudding-esque substance and eating it.
I sat there and hypothesized that you could, in fact, use this yogurt to caulk a leaky window. You know, one of those tall windows in an old Victorian home that just wouldn’t quite shut all the way because it had been so used. Or better yet, the window of a car, or bus, or airplane! I fantasized the newspaper headlines in my minds eye. One might read, “American Saves Plane With Leftover Strawberry Yogurt”. The article would intricately describe the details of how this particular brand had just the right amount of lumpiness to save the entire airplane from a terrible catastrophe. I would be a hero.
Which brings me back to the actual airplane. We were taking off to our final destination when the male flight attendants (stewards?) began to prepare lunch. Dozing in and out of consciousness, I began to imagine the delicious, freshly grilled chicken and heaping piles of creamy potatoes that would soon be on my in-flight tray table, which was currently in it’s upright and locked position. Shuddering at the lingering smell of ‘sour’ in my nose, I decided that this meal was going to be worth the wait. And maybe they’d even have cake. Or those slightly warm, tiny dinner rolls with the gold packages of butter.
I was dreaming of dancing and frolicking in mountains made of dark chocolate when I suddenly came to, very awake. Very wide awake. Very aware of that smell.
I desperately looked to my traveling companions who were also beginning to come to. My heart was racing. Fear and panic set in.
”Holy Lord, what is that smell?” I asked out loud. No, it wasn’t a blaspheme. It was an actual prayer. I was confused. At first, we didn’t know what to think, but after consideration, my companion and I decided it smelled like sweaty feet. Big, nasty, feet that hadn’t seen shoes or a shower in at least twenty years, were taking over our entire Boeing 727. I was afraid to breathe. I could feel my lungs crying out to me for a taste of fresh air.
In a delirious, delusional state of mind, I turned to Michael, who was sitting to my right. I calmly and in all seriousness informed him that as the leader of this team, I had decided there were only two logical explanations for this stench. Either Bigfoot was on our plane and had just removed his moccasins or Eastern Europe smelled like the inside of a pig that had eaten sulfur for dinner. He looked worried and then as some sort of defense mechanism kicked in, we broke into a fit of uncontrollable laughter, masked by tiredness, but underneath lay the feelings of real concern. We still didn’t know what was causing this smell.
And there it was.
Our steward said something to us in Albanian and set a tray of food in front of each of us.
Now, let me interject with this, for a moment. I love my country. I cherish my freedom and am proud to be a US citizen. But there are two things that really annoy me: Americans and tourists. American AND a tourist? That is the formula for both embarrassment and humiliation. A vile combination. And, under absolutely no circumstance, did I want to appear as an American tourist…to the steward, our seatmate or anyone else on the entire plane. (Bigfoot included.) So suppressing my desire to yell out, I started humming to myself. The theme from Jaws.
Our meal was full of hypocrisy. I don’t know how else to say it. We were starving, and our food taunted us from it’s shiny black tray. It was as if the food could sense our physical need for nourishment, and knowingly and on purpose continued to mock us with it’s highly unpleasant odor.
Michael was convinced that the paint was chipping off of the walls and that the plastic overhead bins were beginning to melt from the fumes below. Soon our backpacks and other carry-on items stored above, would be in our laps, probably weeping with disgust and hating us for making them part of our journey.
It was time to face the music…err food. I took a deep breath and began to unwrap the contents of my plate. There was a piece of bread with something inside that I can only describe best as hot cream cheese and chives. It was odd, but didn’t taste half bad. There was a piece of meat in red sauce that has, to this day, not been determined. I was afraid of it and consequently avoided making any and all eye contact.
By the time lunch was over, we had adjusted to the smell. Worry set in, as I began to wonder what I had gotten us into. I had convinced a friend to travel thousands of miles away from home, to a country we had never even heard of, to teach English.
Although we had had some contact with a teacher who had been living there for several years, we had no idea what to expect. All we knew is that we had prepared to teach English classes, and packed American gifts of chocolate and Dr. Pepper to give to the people we hoped would become our new friends.
We had read guidebooks and pondered over language charts…we even attempted to make traditional Turkish coffe, as our guidebook suggested, which is basically like making coffee by stirring the grounds into hot water…sort of like instant hot cocoa mix.
(My coffee tasted like burnt tires. An acquired taste, no doubt.)
All this work, and so far, it had come down to was this: horrible, smelly food. What kind of place were we going to? Would we have to eat bread and water for the coming weeks to survive? What if we didn’t have a bed, but instead slept on a floor of dirt and bugs? What have we done? Wasn’t there a war going on? Would we be in danger?
I leaned back in my and breathed deeply. I knew that for good or bad, this was going to be a memorable experience to a land not many ventured. Before leaving, a friend reminded me that not everyone was called to go to Kosovo. For the moment, I hoped my teammate didn’t hate me, because I knew that no matter what happened, no amount of the sour yogurt could save us now.
We made our final decent into Pristina. This is my account of an experience like none other: Kosovo.