Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Merry Christmas, Comrade Teacher!

In the old communist Yugoslavia there was no Christmas, only New Year but in Kosovo strings of light bulbs were twinkling round the balconies of the minarets in mid-December, for Ramazan. It was my first Christmas teaching there and the head of the English department apologized when Christmas day came around because he'd forgotten. Milovan told me to take the day off.

But it was more fun to be in the English department where every day was Christmassy, with its early morning trip to the buffet in the basement for Turkish coffee and brandy. And then there was 'elevenses' when we slid down the snowy slope across Marshal Tito street to The Three Hats opposite the Faculty of Philosphy for more coffee and brandy "to keep out the cold."

Pristina, capital of Kosovo, already looked like a Christmas card, the sky a brilliant blue with the sun shining on the snow. And sometimes it seemed the whole point of being there, ("A missionary!" as my Belgrade friends said,) was that the only sound on Marshall Tito Street, apart from the occasional truck or Party car, was the hissing of sledges gliding over snow and the jingle of harness and sleigh bells as the peasants drove through town.

It was not until after Christmas that the shops started to look festive. For the poorest province of Yugoslavia that meant the arrival of oranges, lemons and bananas and the placing of white cotton wool snow along the tops of the framed portraits of Tito and Lenin that had been moved down in front of the school books, the canned meats and bottles of brandy. Fir trees were dragged home from the market on toboggans, like the pigs, but the small black or pink ones were carried like chickens, by the legs, squealing as they twirled first one way then the other. It ws New Year and anyone with a pig was Serbian, or at least Christian. The raising of pigs was a tactic of survival under Moslem rule: an unclean pig would not be stolen.

There were Catholic Albanians in Kosovo as well as Moslem but Serbians were Orthodox which meant their Christmas would have been in January. With older Yugoslavs the first question was always: "What is your religion?" "Protestant" meant nothing so the second, puzzled question was: "When do you celebrate Christmas?" And then came the triumphant:"But that's the Catholic Christmas!" and I was classified with the Catholics.
It was a little complicated for Oral Exercises in English, even with the fourth year but all the students had fun that first Christmas morning with their greetings and variations on "Merry Christmas, Comrade Miss Mary!" "Merry Christmas, Comrade Teacher!"

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