Guest post by Joe Madden
When I first stepped off the airplane at Prishtina International airport last September, my idea of Kosovo was more or less entirely based on what I had read on the Internet. I was stepping into an unknown, post-conflict country. I had formulated an image of a place that was desolate, destroyed, and full of suffering. I arrived at night and, under the guise of darkness, my imagination continued to run wild. I had no idea what to expect. I was there to work at a local university, but other than the English skills that were my birthright, I was distinctly unprepared.
The morning after my arrival, I woke up and headed into my first day in Prishtina – Kosovo’s capital city – seeing for the first time my new home. What I found was a city, rather ugly, that sprawled out before me. Multi-coloured apartment high rises, construction cranes, and a giant Kosovo flag unfolded gradually as I crested the hill on the southern end of the city. Interestingly, it showed few signs of the recent war. The Bill Clinton Statue (erected as a tribute to the United States’ role in ending the ethnic cleansing of Kosovar Albanians by Serbian forces) welcomes you in from the airport, but otherwise you are met with joint qebatore (prounced: chebabatore) and auto larje (car wash) stands every few buildings – so you can have your car washed while having some delicious qofte (sausage patties common throughout the region), and rip off DVD stores intermixed with “Nazi” (an Albanian nickname for Nazmi) Apple Stores to showcase classic pirated or ripped off electronics. There is so much construction, and are so many new buildings, that signs of the Kosovo War are relatively hard to find.
The Kosovo War was fought throughout the 1990s, culminating in the NATO-led bombing of Belgrade and Serbian positions in Serbia’s Albanian-dominated southern province in 1990. KFOR (NATO’s mission to Kosovo), UNMIK (UN’s mission in Kosovo), and EULEX (European Rule of Law Mission) have governed since, though over the years they have transferred more and more duties to the people of Kosovo. The “liberation” (to speak from the local perspective) has been a success in many ways, coming to fruition in 2008 with a unilateral declaration of independence. This declaration has been met with resistance, with only 22 of 27 EU member states and 98 of 193 UN member states recognizing the move. Serbia, as one might expect, was not among them.
Prishtina itself shows all the elements of its past occupations – mosques and Ottoman-style housing splashed with Communist-era apartment blocks and monuments to the former Yugoslavia. At first glance, the city looks like a Jackson Pollack painting– a mess of building styles splattered across the Field of Blackbirds landscape (a flat, browning plain ringed by mountains on three sides). Off to the north, one can see the billowing smoke from the city’s Yugoslav-era power plant in the nearby town of Oblic. At dusk, the birds for which the area is named gather in a swarm, rather Hitchcock-esque, which sends chills down my spine even now. If bleak is the first word that comes to mind, then I have been successful in my own painting. But thankfully it is not the landscape that retains your attention, it is the people who have historically inhabited this tiny, landlocked country. The two main ethnicities, Albanian and Serb, have at different times survived the Ottoman Empire’s occupation, coexisted in peace, and fought ethnically-based wars in this little backwater of the region.
The first weekend after I moved to Kosovo, I jumped on a bus bound for Rahovecs, a quaint little town between Prishtina and the historic, Turkish-dominated town of Prizren. It was their annual Wine and Grape Festival, something that I was definitely not going to miss out on. It was my first experience of the more traditional and rural areas of Kosovo, and one that I still rave about today. As with most of my adventures, I of course got off at the wrong stop – some three kilometers out of town. I wandered down the road, unbeknownst to me in the right direction, towards a gas station to ask for help. I found the one English speaker and we were able to get me set up with phenomenal directions. I also found out first-hand what “Besa” means. Besa is the ancient Albanian canon that defines the treatment of guests, and to a good portion of Kosovar Albanians this includes guests to their new country. I had probably headed some 500 meters down the road, when the nice fellow at the gas station pulled up in his car to drive me the rest of the way. He had been so worried about me getting lost (it was a two-turn direction set, so I likely could have handled it) that he drove to find me and take me the rest of the way into town.
The town of Rahovecs is tiny. It consists of only a few streets, with more horse-drawn wagons than cars. On that day, it was also full of grapes. Meters upon meters of the local Vranac vine stretched throughout the town, stringing across buildings, apartment blocks, and mosques. While I was left to my own wanderings, I was quickly picked up by members of a local youth centre who continued to display the kind of hospitality that I never would have expected to see outside of the Southern United States (from which I hail). There was a particularly memorable experience of purchasing Raki and wine from an uncle of one of my “tour guides.” The wine was decent, the Raki like fire (bottled in Coca Cola and Sprite containers respectively). To those unfamiliar with the intricacies of Raki (or Rakia), it is the local homebrew made primarily from grapes – though it can come from other fruits – that puts a fire in your belly, hair on your nether-regions, and is arguably the perfect complement to any and every meal served in the Balkans. Naively, I didn’t think I could possibly drink two litres of the stuff; looking back on it, I wish I had purchased two or three more.
Fast forward to November – I had moved from my original dorm room into a nice little flat in Suny Hill (where I met Zach and Kat). I never thought I would get used to the power outages, which with the changing weather were becoming more and more frequent. It’s a running joke that KEK, the owner of the Yugoslav-era power plant and state-run utility company, is only good at producing pollution – they certainly haven’t perfected the art of delivering electricity effectively and without black-outs. Even more bizarre is the policy of turning off the water at 23:00 and back on at 6:00. No one can explain why, but it’s been going on since before the War. I guess it’s just one of those things; one of those things that rears its ugly head when you return from a night out at the city’s various café/bars, which usually turns into a night at the clubs and only ends once you’ve stumbled into every late-night watering hole on your way home. At this time, you normally have but one of two desires: to cure that incurable cotton mouth, or purge yourself of the vicious toxins that are poisoning your body. Then it hits you: no water! I have simply learned to say (not without affection), “Oh, Kosovo”, and fall asleep where I land.
November 2012 was a special time in the Albanian world, as it marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of the nation of Albania. One might imagine that the celebration would be limited to Albania itself, but that one person would have imagined incorrectly. The streets of Prishtina were overflowing with Albanian flags, and the place smelled distinctly of Albanian nationalism. The region boasts an immeasurable amount of “national” pride, with each ethnicity trying to outdo the other, but it is still interesting to witness such a display for another country’s independence. I was even told that my Macedonian scarf from Ohrid might put me in danger if and when the nationalistic sentiment boiled over, since people could see the scarf as an affront to being Albanian. While I was never threatened, I made a point of purchasing a more “tasteful” red and black Albanian scarf shortly thereafter. Better safe than sorry, right? Given the mix of nationalism and ethnic fervour on display, the experience was largely a frightening one, but there was still something energizing about being a part of a celebration that called forth so much passion.
Writing this now, in January, I have since changed domiciles again (upgraded to central heat!). I now live across town, seeing the city from another angle – from the “international” district of town. While Dragodan (also known as Arberia) is predominately filled with foreign nationals and various embassies, it has afforded me the opportunity to explore the opposite side of town from where I was previously living and gain a new perspective. Seeing it, now as an outsider looking in, I have realized that Prishtina is ultimately a city of juxtaposition: old and new, domestic and foreign, beautiful and ugly, scary and inspiring – all coexisting. In this multidimensional new country, every day, I find something new…
Joe Madden is an International Officer at Universum College in Prishtina, Kosovo. He can be reached at email@example.com