Black Friday In A Muslim Country!Christmas In Pristina...Once again, it's that time of the year again when I send out my best of the BLT edition. It’s my favorite because it gives me a chance to reflect. I hope it's yours too. Remember, this edition is taken from my previous issues so if it looks familiar, it's supposed to be that way.

A Bluelou Selfie!I was pleasantly surprised with the Christmas spirit in Pristina. Compared to the US, the decorations went up at the last minute but they were impressive. I've heard estimates that Kosovo is up to ninety percent Muslim. I was talking to a few of our crew who impressed on me that they are Albanian first. Kosovo has deep Christian roots. Mother Teresa square is a popular hangout any time of the year. The square was flooded with folks on Christmas Eve and well afterward. If you follow the link at the right, keep clicking to the right, you might be as impressed as I was. Most of the pictures were taken on Christmas Eve. The obligatory selfie at the end was taken on Boxing Day (the day after Christmas).

While in Peja Kosovo, I saw a statue of Mother Teresa. In Pristina, there’s a Cathedral dedicated to her as well as a street and square. It took a while for me to understand the connection between a Catholic woman and country that's predominantly Muslim, let alone have a cathedral named after a Catholic. Mother Teresa was born in the bordering country of Macedonia. Mother Teresa is Albanian. Kosovars are Albanian first. In some brief research, I made the connection.

Our company had our official Christmas party at the same restaurant as our Thanksgiving party. I was tasked with music. At the end, the boss's wife wanted to bust a move so I did my best to accommodate. It was a tough thing to please all with the musical selections as we had folks my age down to toddlers. You can please some of the people some of the time... I did my best to please all while fighting a crappy connection to their sound system.

Lyla the daughter with Kira the dog...and Bluelou...the marginal uncle...I went to the Catholic Christmas Mass in the Albanian language instead of my normal English Mass which coincided with our potluck Christmas dinner. I have the Mass in a word document on my smart phone. Another couple of turkeys got deep fried and a ham got crocked. We had a white elephant gift give away that got very competitive and highly entertaining. I gave a stereo headset and got a bottle of Turkish raki. I had my share of raki when I was in Turkey years ago so it'll take a long time to drain that bottle. The bottle is pretty cool. It has a spigot at the base.

I was expecting Mass at the Cathedral but a last minute discussion rerouted me to my usual church. On the outside, there were military police and city police. Perhaps, their presence was to discourage any shenanigans though I don't know for sure. On the inside, the church was half-full of military folks in uniform and three television camera men and a few reporters. Hmmm...five percent of Kosovo is Christian yet Christians get full media attention. After communion, all three cameras were pointed at someone in the congregation. I'd sprint out those cameras were pointed at me.

I did add some interior pictures of my church. For most of the Masses I've been to since I arrived, the church has been without heat. They just connected the heat which makes the church comfortable but hearing over the roar of the fans is tough.

Lyla Blair was born on 29-May-16, two months premature by C-Section, so she stayed out her remaining gestation in the prenatal ward of the hospital. My Ma tells me the remark of the prenatal nurse who told Lyla that she hoped Lyla to be out of the hospital at home with her parents before the nurse returned from her annual vacation. Her hopes came true. Lyla got to go home on her mother's birthday. Her mother and I agree that you couldn't ask for a better birthday present than to bring home your newborn child home from the hospital. Bluelou, still the marginal uncle!

Our first encounter was at my nephew's wedding. I was holding her. My ma was right, she stole my heart. When I handed her back to her mother, her face that was pressed to my chest was covered in dried milk! OMG! My new suit! Not to fear...no smear here. All was well.

Reminiscent of my days in Alaska, we've had several issues with the weather and flying in Pristina. Pristina is in the valley surrounded by mountains. It's not very windy. The high level of humidity fogged in the airport. Flights couldn't get in or out. This went on for days. It's common in the winter time. The condition was exacerbated around the Christmas/New Year holiday with the high volume of travelers. We had issues with staff and consultants trying to get into Pristina.

It's a two-hour drive to the Skopje, Macedonia airport. I waited until the prices to fly out of Pristina to Omaha skyrocketed while the prices from Skopje remained cheap. I was waiting until the date got closer so I could project the weather. One of our engineers is from Pristina and he's hooked me up with a friend who drove me from my apartment to the Skopje airport and back for sixty euros one way. I'd much rather fly closer to Pristina but I could fly home two more times at this rate. I can afford the delay. Several weeks later, prices for flying home went down considerably but I'd already purchased my flights. With the taxi fare to Skopje, it cost about the same as flying from Pristina.

I made two trips home in 2016 in May and October. Both trips were slightly longer than a week. I call it the four "F's": food, family, friends, and fhysicians. That's what home is for me. They're so condensed, I feel like a pinball bouncing from bumper to bumper. The “fhysicians” part...all is well with Bluelou and the medical industry.

Bluelou Hangin’ In Skopje...I take time to drive Ma to see her family. Unfortunately, Ma has gotten in the habit of leaving her purse in the restroom when we travel. It's the second time she's done this in just over a year. She got it back.

When I first landed in Kosovo, my sister sent me some winter gear. The timing couldn't have been more perfect as the temps plummeted the day after I received the gear. A few days later, snow fell and stayed for a few days. Pristina is about the same latitude as Omaha so the weather seems to be the same as back home but a bit milder.

Snow removal in Pristina seems pretty decent though they don't seem to clean streets on Sunday. The drivers in Kosovo handle the snow pretty well but even on dry pavement, they lack the driving maturity / courtesy found elsewhere. They do stop for pedestrians at crosswalks. They can be fined quite heavily if they don't, especially if they hit the pedestrians. Police will ticket you if you get stuck in your car without chains.

Our supervisors are highly complimentary of the Kosovar labor force. Most of our crew has worked in Iran and Iraq. Some have even worked at the nearby Camp Bondsteel, my shopping post. Most speak at least some English. They've worked and trained in modern construction for very large international companies so making the transition to our project isn't too dramatic. We worked through the winter where most local projects shut down for the winter months. That means a steady pay check. They don't make as much money as they would if they were abroad but they're working at home and that makes them very happy.

Most of our workers come from outside the city. Many got together and chartered a bus that takes them to and from work. Many carpool to work.

The fortunate have permits that allow them to work abroad. The unfortunate, don't and their unemployment level is quite high even in Pristina where unemployment is much lower than the rural regions of the country.

I'm guessing that the car pools and bus rides are where they share their wage info. Everybody on our job seems to know what everyone else is earning. It's uncanny!

I don't remember when I've been on a project where I haven't seen workers wearing flip-flops instead of work boots or using hammers or chisels made from rebar instead of a simple factory made hammer or chisel. We furnish work boots, helmets, safety goggles, and tools including hammers and chisels but most workers provide resistance wanting what they're used to using and secretly sell these tools. On this project, the local workers use the construction equipment we use back home.

Folks were blasting New Year's fireworks starting around our Thanksgiving. I dozed off on the couch on New Year's Eve. Around eleven, I awoke to fireworks roaring all over the city. I had a great view from my balcony. I'm going out on a limb here but I'd guess that the fireworks in Kosovo could rival one night of fireworks in Beijing during Chinese New Year. The fireworks euphoria remains from their independence.

I was told the Kosovars have fireworks on American Independence Day. I neither saw nor heard any fireworks on the fourth of July or the beginning of Eid Al Fitr. I was disappointed. The following Sunday, I was chatting with a friend back home. I heard the explosion of fireworks. A look out the window confirmed fireworks. I got out the cameras and tripod and took some stills and video. It lasted about fifteen minutes. The fireworks were commercial grade and quite impressive. The video was too long/large to post.

Another Tank!I bought a bike. I carted my helmet and accessories from Jakarta where I never bought a bike...too wet and too much traffic to ride.

Like most places, I'll stick to riding in the wee hours of the morning. It's safer that way. The next morning after I assembled the Schwinn, I awoke at 0300 and elected to take the new bike out for a ride to weed out the kinks. Other than an occasional ride when I go home twice yearly, I haven't steadily ridden a bike since 2012. My first ride went about four miles. I have headlights and taillights to remain visible.

My Huskers impressed me beating UCLA in the Foster Farms Bowl even though the 2105 season was a losing season. I've seen most of the 2016 games. Winning the first seven games of the season didn’t impress me because I’ve been disappointed that way before. It wasn’t a question of if but when we’d lose a game. We’ve still done better than last season so I’m hoping for more wins.

I did watch the Super Bowl. I could have watched it live on my Slingbox but kickoff was midnight. I recorded the game and watched it the next day. Some of the guys watched live on the American Forces Network. My browser home page told me something was up with Denver and my RSS reader confirmed the winner. The boss is a charter Carolina ticket holder so I had to console. A lifetime Cornhusker fan, I can relate to being on the top and going down in the championship game. At least, I had no idea of the score. I went through the day without looking at a single sports page. I watched the game in non-sequential segments as sleep would allow. I fell asleep just before halftime and woke up just before the end of the game. I watched the part I missed.

Kosovo does have daylight savings time though clocks changed two weeks later than the US. Standard time started an hour before the US.

Another Facebook Selfie! Sitting in a meeting with the client. My job is to take notes. The boss is the MC. He brings up vacation schedule and sets my mind racing...vacation. The first place comes to mind is London. It's my mental margarita...a mental oasis if you will. Nothing else will do. I talked it over with the boss and got the verbal ok. When the vacation form was signed, I booked the trip the very next day.

I arrived in London on schedule taking the train and the tube from Gatwick to my normal hotel at Marble Arch. As is my norm since I first stayed there in 2001, the hotel was under renovation. It's my fifth visit to London since 1997. This will become relevant soon.

The hotel let me check in early and I barely had times to drop my bags before heading off to Mass and a late lunch at my old stomping grounds, the Hard Rock Café. It didn't take long to get connected with the hotel Wi-Fi and a temporary cell phone number. I was in business.

Across the street from my hotel, the businesses I patronized for all those years were closed or closing; movie theater, pub, restaurants, and grocery store. They were part of a hi-rise compound. I couldn't tell if the hi-rise was going away or just the ground floor structure.

Note to self...if you want to go see a musical on Sunday, you'd best have your ticket bought in advance. There aren't many musicals on Monday in London.

On my first full day in London, I completed what little shopping I needed, a coat and a souvenir for the person who got me to and from the Pristina airport.

As I left the national train system for the city train system, the tube, I saw a burrito shop in the terminal. This didn't cure the need for the burrito. I asked the hotel concierge about a local burrito restaurant. Hearing him pronounce the word "Chipotle" was futile so he wrote it out. I did my homework and found it wasn't far from my hotel. Chipotle barely beat out the HRC for second place in my most patronized restaurants. Number one was breakfasts at McDonalds. By far, except for breakfast, this was the busiest McDonalds I've ever seen. Their neighbors closing had no impact on this business.

My only touristy day was devoted to a trip to Salisbury for a visit to Stonehenge. I wasn't sure at the time of my visit but my sister confirmed that her deceased husband's ashes were scattered there.

Timing, it is said, is everything. I couldn't agree more. Mistake 1 - I took the tube during the morning rush hour. Mistake 2 - the line was under construction. The combination meant that where one would normally enter and exit the tube wasn't possible. The cars were stuffed. As few people exited the train, an equal number stuffed into the car. Normally, when you reach your destination, you scan your card into the turnstile. They were down and the stuffed terminal just passed through the gates unchecked.

Though it was cool and windy, it was the perfect day to be outside as the weather man said it was going to rain the following two days. It took over an hour via the national train system...wish we had trains back home like the Brits do. I boarded a bus and headed to Stonehenge. To me, it wasn't a subject of great interest but it was a Facebook post and another tic off the bucket list. As it was included in the standard package, I briefly visited a castle ruin site, Old Serum. It was another "been there...done that moment".

As the weather was cooling and I was tiring, I considered skipping the third part of the tour package. I'm glad I went. Final stop was the Salisbury Church. Originally a Catholic cathedral, it's now an Anglican church. It's an old Gothic church that I believe ranks up there with the Vatican architecture. I left my SLR in Pristina to travel light. I regretted that decision as my point and shoot couldn't do that place justice. The Salisbury Church also houses one of the four remaining original texts of the Magna Carta. Though I went into the room where the Magna Carta was kept, I skipped the wait for the direct viewing.

Returning by the same route produced none of the ill-effects I encountered on tube, even during the evening rush hour.

Musicals for this trip: "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory", "Guys and Dolls", and "Motown".

Movies...a mostly forgettable "A Hologram for the King". I should note that while the movie was devoid of any entertainment value, I didn't fall asleep at all.

I stopped by our London project but didn't go in. No business on this trip. I did hook up with a couple of friends who worked on the Guangzhou project.

I also hooked up with a friend I met on my Australian rain forest tour.

I did lots of walking along Oxford Street...shoppers' paradise. I had good shoes but still got blisters on my feet.

On two separate occasions, the fire alarm in my hotel had gone off. Both were false alarms. For the first one, I called the front desk and they said it was a false alarm. On the second, I was getting ready to head out the door so I finished my packing and headed down the fire exit. The alarm horns were designed so that deaf people can feel the alarm. It's like a high pitched whistle for dogs...painful for us hearing folks.

FYI, May 1 is Labor Day everywhere but in the US. I had an extended weekend. Word came late so travel via airplane was not practical. Everything required two flights and that didn't work. The boss has been encouraging me to play tourist. The weather forecast looked great on the first day but the rest came with rain. A colleague and I headed off to Prizren. Here's another link. It's just over an hour drive from Pristina and well worth the drive. Pristina seems to have demolished its' past in favor of development and a lot was taken down by the war but Prizren has embraced their past exploiting it as a tourist destination. A small river passing through had a couple of stone bridges and several historic shops and cottages. We didn't have enough time to head to the lookout at the top but it looked pretty cool from down below. I'm told from one who made the climb that there isn't much to see around the top. Your Prizren photo tour starts here.

Our next local Kosovo trip was to Peja. We weren’t fascinated by the city but the Rugova Gorge was pretty cool. Peja has a brewery with beer available nationwide. I drink it when I do have a beer.

At the time of our visit, the streets were deserted. Albania was playing Sweden in the European Cup (soccer) and all eyes were glued to any available TV.

Driving the roadways of Kosovo, you will often see license plates of US states. I’ve seen Texas, Tennessee, New York, Wisconsin, North Carolina, Georgia, and California. These plates are valid up to four years.

My nephew got married in October. In this case, I was able to schedule the medical appointments around his wedding. Besides the wedding of my nephew, I attended the wedding reception of a family friend. The actual location brought back memories. I used to work at this restaurant as a dishwasher/bus boy when I was a lad. The original restaurant got washed away in the flood of 2011. The water remained as they converted it into a harbor. I grew up here and learned to love classic rock and country from the music of the many bands that played in the bar.

Bluelou Buys A Suit...I needed a suit for the wedding. I thought it'd be cheap given that I'm in a country with a depressed economy. Boy was I wrong. I didn't know of a tailor so I asked one of our crew who was born here. He asked his father. This tailor made the suit for Bill Clinton while posing his statue. In a roundabout way, I believe I paid for Clinton's suit.

This wasn't one stop shopping. I got fitted and then went shopping at another store for the cloth. The material alone was $110 or 100 Euros. The tailor wanted 85 Euros or $93. The suit I had made in China was $135 with one stop shopping.

The tailor spoke a handful of English words which were considerably more words that I know in Albanian...which is zero. The father spoke no English either. So it was an international experience. As you can see, it worked.

Here's an interesting link regarding US-Kosovo relations, especially the Clintons.

My colleague was born and raised in Pristina. Now he and his wife, another colleague, are both Americans. They tell a compelling story of the war and how they both fled the country to Skopje, Macedonia not knowing if they’d be shot in the sniper's crossfire while leaving the country and how the former Yugoslavia was divided along ethnic lines into new countries. The Serbs simply told the Albanians to get out with nothing but the clothes on their back. That’s how the war began.

Biden to Kosovo...I gave up watching both the summer and winter Olympics years ago. There are too many professional athletes in them and that ruins it for me. For whatever reason, I wanted some white noise in the apartment so I turned them on. I didn’t pay too much attention to the festivities but I can say they were on while I was in my apartment. For you Olympic trivia buffs, Google the name Majlinda Kelmendi. She was the first Kosovar to medal in the Olympics (women's judo 115 pounds-summer 2016) since it became an independent nation.

Vice President Biden visited Pristina. Kelmendi was among the high level diplomats who met him at the airport. I'm told he spent more time speaking with her than the other diplomats.

Biden was here in the ongoing negotiations to get Kosovo and Serbia to normalize relations. Serbia believes Kosovo belongs to Serbia. Kosovo believes they're free from their former oppressors. As a condition to join the EU, they must normalize diplomatic relations. From what little I know, that'll take a long, long time.

I took the hour drive to Camp Bondsteel. The road to the camp was lined with American and Kosovo flags showing unity. The road just outside the camp was named after Biden's late son who was stationed in Kosovo while in the military.

For the first, (second, and third times) since I got here in November 2015, I hit the local movie theater. It's a one screen theater but they show different movies throughout the day. Normally, most movies I’ve seen overseas have assigned seating. With so few in attendance, it was general admission. There are Albanian subtitles. Both 2-D and 3-D movies were shown in the same theater. You could enjoy beer with your movie. For the more expensive movie, I paid five Euros ($5.50) and three for the cheaper one ($3.30). Their web site, at least the English part, isn't always current so I have to pass by to see the movies and times. I could call but that brings on a totally new dynamic. It's only a few blocks from the apartment. PS…I stayed awake for all of the movies…a rarity for me.

Bluelou Hangin’ In Skopje...I’d been dying to make a trip to Macedonia before it turned to winter or I get word from the company to head to another project...it's happened! My travel partner has bailed out on me so I was forced to travel by myself. I don't really care for travelling abroad by car. There are too many things that can go wrong and I'd be by myself. In a last minute thought, I asked some friends if they'd be my guide to Skopje. We left a bit late and my friends were more concerned about food than I...imagine that...so we burned a bit more of daylight than I'd intended to do on things other than being a tourist...but I made my first run to Skopje...beyond my first experience in February of flying in and out of the Skopje airport. My current company and my previous employer both did work here but I've only transited here until this visit.

If all goes right, it would take about an hour and a half to drive from Pristina to Skopje. The variables are the border and the weather. Kosovo is building a nationwide divided highway but that won’t be completed until 2018. This will reduce the duration considerably. South of the border, the road starts to wind so if the weather turns bad, travel can get treacherous.

If you leave early in the morning, you can beat the lines at the border. The later you leave, the more folks are waiting to cross. The border on the way down was like a traffic jam. It was a half-hour wait to pass. By coincidence, colleagues of my friends were waiting in line at the border directly in front of our car. I stayed in the car but everyone else got out for the reunion. The border on the return trip was a five-minute stop and go which is more my speed.

Bluelou Hangin’ In Skopje...First stop was Matka Canyon. It was a mountain lake surrounded by sharp cliffs. We walked around, stopped at the café to be seen, and watched the boats and kayakers go by.

Next stop was the city center. We parked our car at the nearby mall. First stop on our walking tour was the shrine to Mother Teresa. Mother Teresa, recently made a saint, was born in Skopje, Macedonia. We didn't go in but there will be another run soon. Off to the city center. I'm told that between 2009 and 2012, there was a mandate for statues in the city center and they went overboard on the statues.

It was a gorgeous day for travel. Skies around Pristina were threatening rain but the internet forecast was good for Pristina and Skopje. Mother Nature couldn't have been more cooperative. We ran out of daylight way too soon so if I can swing it, I may go back this fall or sometime in the spring. With the recent time change, at 1700 it was pitch black as we drove back to Kosovo.

Here's a retro-plug for an older post of the BLT where Flat Stanley went from visiting Bluelou in Beijing to Macedonia and Prague to visit a friend of Bluelou. No, I didn't have Flat Stanley with me for my trip but I’m willing to take him on tour if anyone has him. Perhaps, next time.

I’d been hoping to travel to Greece for some scuba diving. It’s about a four-hour drive from here. The summer weather was unseasonably cool. Cool weather is not good for diving. Precipitation has been higher in quantity yet lower in frequency compared to the thirty year average.

The company hosted Thanksgiving dinner at a nearby restaurant. Choices for dinner were salmon or steak...no turkey. Last year, the company bought turkey to accompany our Thanksgiving dinner at a local restaurant. The turkey was dry and two of our guys had to cut it. Still, nobody complained about the gesture...it was home! I had leftover turkey for Thanksgiving lunch so I had turkey on Thanksgiving. Yes, we worked some, but not all, of Thanksgiving Day. The family back home got together and I joined the event by phone. Like the last holiday season, turkeys were sold in the local grocery stores. I buy smoked turkey legs also found in the grocery stores.

I booked a trip to Vienna for Christmas; four days and three nights. One of our crew spent last Christmas there and was highly complimentary. I'm going to give it a shot. Flights are about an hour if you pay the premium for direct flights. I try not to burn up more vacation for anything but direct flights. As always, you will read about it here in the BLT!

Merry Christmas! Happy New Year! Happy Kwanza! Happy Chanukah!

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