Republic of Kosovo, at least that’s how this little place in the western Balkans is called by inhabitants of 76 countries of the world. People from the other countries call it “just a part of Serbia”.
During my travels through the Balkans I had heard quite a variation of stories about the Kosovars. According to some they are gypsies, poor as hell and stealing everything that is not too hot or too heavy. To others they are brave soldiers, prepared to die in protection of their lands and a couple of insiders told me that they are the nicest, friendliest people around.
I couldn’t wait to go and have a look.
Transport and accommodation
The place where the bus from Belgrade dropped me around 11 pm didn’t not look by far like a bus station, it was just a crossroad of two highways – later I would figure out that the real bus station was just down the street. The place was deserted, it started to get a bit chilly and I had no idea how to get to the address scribbled on a napkin in my back pocket.
When the other passengers started to walk each their own way, I realised that they would probably the only persons passing this place for many hours, so I stopped an elderly man to ask some advice. After extensive excuses for his bad English and listening to my worries, he grabbed his cell phone, rang a cab company, waited with me on the sidewalk until the cab arrived, put me in the cab, had a long conversation with the driver, wished me a pleasant stay in Kosovo, waved and left off. Next thing I know I was at the reception of my guesthouse after probably the cheapest taxi ride ever.
In Kosovo there are no hostels (yet), so if you want to sleep for a reasonable price, your only chance is the rare guesthouse. There is only one of those in Pristina. I had no idea what to expect from a guesthouse in these areas, but it turned out to be not so bad. My room looked like a trailer, but with a balcony. It was about 2m by 4m, just enough to put two 1-person beds in a row, a small closet and an even smaller TV. The mattresses were about three cm thick and the sheets looked like they had been white, long, long ago. Everything looked very old. But the place was clean and cheap and that was all I asked for.
I tried to locate the remote control to check out Kosovar TV, but after a couple of minutes I gave up, had a smoke and went for a nap.
The next morning I was ready to explore the city. But where to? My Lonely Planted (Western Balkans) counted exactly six pages about Kosovo, of which five and a half handled about places to sleep and bus schedules. I would have to do the discoveries myself, awesome!
Orientation in Pristina is not a big issue. Like a lot of cities it has a couple of main roads, a central pedestrian avenue, some small cobbled stoned streets, a mall, a soccer stadium, a university, an area with apartment buildings and a business area – business, in this place does not mean very much.
It’s not a huge city and very easy to get around. It’s like a big town with a lot of recognition points, hard to get lost. Around noon I threw my map away, also because it actually was a copy of a map and none of the street names were readable, so it wasn’t of any help anyway.
My first impression of Pristina was not what I’d expected to be. In my dreams I had seen bullet holes, destroyed buildings, holes in the ground from grenades, poverty and desperation, but instead I found modern buildings, totally built out of glass, I saw people in suits, I saw families smiling, shopping, wandering and going to the mosque. Everything looked very average, so to speak. Not that I wanted the people to be in pain, it was only what I expected. I watch too much TV. The only things that remind you that the war was really not that long ago are the roads – which are either still gravel or already broken, the wall with photos of missing persons and the very common occurrence of UN and EULEX vehicles – yes the big white pick-up trucks.
A walk around town
It doesn’t take long to get to know the center of Pristina. The best place to start is the main promenade, or main square if you wish, even though it’s certainly not a square. Anyway, the place with the Mother Theresa statue. This is the heart of Yugoslav Pristina, there are shops, restaurants, bars, street vendors, families, old people chatting on benches, pigeons, children playing, anything you expect from a main square. There even is a tourist info centre, but it’s not much more than a small tent with a couple of T-shirts, key rings and a very bored girl behind the counter.
As in every other city, if you’re looking for a bite or a drink, the side streets of the main avenue are the place to be. They are nice places with nice people serving nice food and decent – Peja – beers.
If you’ve started this tour at the Mother Theresa statue, you’ll find stairs at the other end of the promenade which take you down to the mall with in front the symbol of Kosovo’s independence: A huge, yellow, with graffiti tattooed statue saying “NEWBORN”. “Hell Yeah!”, I answered.
Walking further, you will pass the wall with missing people. Actually it’s a fence, but who gives a damn, it’s creepy to see the photos of all those young men and women who had one day just disappeared. I imagined that during the war lots of families hoped that their missing members were laying low somewhere in western Europe, but when they didn’t return after the war was over, people must have realised that their husband, wife, son or daughter is most probably buried in one of the mass graves. It’s a tragedy.
Behind the corner you can go either to the Ottoman part of the city, which consists of mosques, nice little shops and the bazaar. The bazaar is something between a market as we know it in the west and a souk as we know them from the Arab countries. It’s a very lively place where you can buy almost everything for almost no money. If you’re a smoker, here you’ll find the cheapest smokes of the whole Balkan.
If you decide not to go to the Ottoman part, just walk the other direction of the minarets, towards a park with one of the most ugliest buildings you’ve probably ever seen: the national library. Next to the library is Pristina’s Orthodox cathedral. It is not large, has no windows, has no doors, is full of graffiti, is surrounded by barb wire and if it wasn’t protected by the UN there was probably not much left of it. But for the church and cathedral seekers among you, here you have one. For the rest it’s just a park where you can spend your time sitting and eh… more sitting. Maybe you should buy some beer. It is a great place to watch the sunset though, with some beer.
By the evening I had the idea that I had more or less seen the place. Of course there were museums I could go to, parks I hadn’t seen, streets I hadn’t walked. I hadn’t even seen the infamous Bill Clinton statue with its way too large hand. But that was not a main reason for me to visit Kosovo. I wanted to get an idea of the place, I wanted to know how it is to live in a place like this. But therefor I needed to get in contact with the locals.
The Professor – the guy who runs the guest house was a professor in previous times, or maybe not – is a talkative guy but I could hardly understand a word of what he was saying. Either he was totally drunk or he learned English from someone who was totally drunk.
I tried my luck in the streets. I asked for directions, the time, an ATM or the nearest shop in the hope that someone would wonder who I was and what I’m doing in their city and start a conversation with me. It didn’t happen. The persons I spoke to were all very nice and helpful – although I suspect one little fucker from sending me in the wrong direction – but very reserved. No further questions. First one to the left, then second one to the left and then 500m straight ahead. You’re welcome. Bye.
Later I would learn that Caucasian people are not that uncommon in Kosovo as I thought they were. The USA and a couple of western European countries still have army bases in Kosovo and most persons working for the UN and EULEX come from similar countries.
It’s not that the Kosovars were not interested in me, they were taught not to ask too many questions. Of course that didn’t help me any further and I started to think that I’d probably not have such an interesting and amusing time as I thought I would have. I started to get disappointed. And that’s when I met Gani.
Somewhere in during the evening I decided that I needed to get drunk, and dinner, but mostly drunk, so I picked myself a restaurant and ordered pasta and a couple of beers. When my stomach was full with quite delicious pasta it was time to switch to rakija – the local brandy made from grapes, plums or whichever fruit the can lay their hands on. The waiter got curious and asked what I was doing on my own, in a bar in Kosovo, heavily drinking and watching the weather forecast over and over again. We got into a conversation, I moved my ass to the bar tried to talk a bit to the other waiters too for as much as the language barrier would permit.
When it looked like dinner time was over, the cook joined me at the bar. His name was Gani, he was about my age, when he was a young he had lived as an illegal refugee in many European countries but a couple of years before he got caught and sent back to Kosovo. Now he’s working in a restaurant until he sees an opportunity to run away again. He also has a minor alcohol addiction. To be short, my kind of guy.
The most important things I learned from him included that the Kosovars live from day to day – which explains their excessive gambling, most of the Kosovars look happier than they are, Kosovo wants to become part of Albania but the Albanians don’t want them, Kosovars don’t hate Serbs, Kosovo is the European centre of people trafficking and beer and rakija should not be mixed.
At closing time, Gani proposed to go on a search for some weed. As this would be a free guided city tour for me, I agreed to join him. It turned out to be more like a guided pub-crawl, which was also good. The procedure was easy: we entered a bar, ordered a beer, asked a bartender for weed, received a negative response, finished our beer, paid and went to the next bar. I’m quite sure that in the meanwhile we has some great conversations too, but unfortunately I cannot remember any of them.
After a lot of bars Gani figured that we were not going to find any weed, so he invited me back to his place for more beer. He lived in a two room apartment with a friend, each room had a bed, a closet and TV. To get to Gani’s room we had to go through the other guy’s room and the other guy had to come through Gani’s room to get to the bathroom. I must admit that I have been in more practical places.
The last thing I remember is watching a music video in Gani’s room. When I woke up I was in my room in the guesthouse suffering a very decent hangover and having no idea how I found my way back – later Gani would tell me that he didn’t trust me walking back to the guesthouse so he had put me in taxi. Thanks for that!
What have these encounters with the residents of Kosovo taught me? They are not gypsies nor thieves. Even though they did come from another country – over 90% of the Kosovars have Albanian roots – and even though they don’t have big saving accounts I haven’t feared a moment that my pockets would get picked. They carry their poorness with dignity, so to speak. You could call them soldiers, I think, maybe even warriors, but they don’t fight to protect their grounds. They try to protect their families and neighbours. They know that they are a community on lands that are not theirs, a bit like the Jews in Israel. But unlike the Jews, the Kosovars don’t care much about the location. I am sure that if you’d present them a piece of Albanian ground instead, they would take it with open arms.
The Kosovars may not be the nicest people on earth to me, but how should I know? I haven’t been everywhere. But sometimes I dream about big breasted, caramel colored women in straw skirts giving me flower necklaces and wishing me a pleasant stay in Honolulu, so as far as I’m concerned they are the nicest people existing.
But that doesn’t mean that the Kosovars are not nice, certainly not. They are a little reserved, yes, but I think that’s mostly out of politeness. They don’t want to bother you with questions or opinions, they don’t want to mind your business. But once you get into conversation, you recognize the Albanian hospitality. You are the guest, and you have to be treated like one.