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Pristina and Prizren, Kosovo

Before I start, a note — Kosovo (Albanian: Kosova) is recognised by roughly half of the world’s countries as an independent country, Canada included. Others do not support or outright reject the claim, continuing to recognise it as an autonomous province of Serbia under UN administration, as Serbia itself continues to assert.

Kosovo was never on my radar for this trip, but with three extra days lying around before I needed to head back to Istanbul, it seemed like a good opportunity to see what was there, especially since the only things I’ve ever heard about Kosovo are unfortunately news stories about war and tension. Kosovo is also Europe’s newest country, having declared independence unilaterally in 2008. Around both cities I went to, I found pro-independence and anti-Serbia graffiti. Yet oddly for an independent country, three flags are flown commonly – Kosovo’s, yes, but also Albania and USA. During Kosovo’s pre-independence days, Albania’s flag was flown for its primarily Albanian population wishing to assert itself from Serbia. America’s flag is flown due to George Bush Sr. and especially Bill Clinton’s support of the country during its more tumultuous days; both presidents have large streets named after them in Pristina, and there’s even a statue of Bill Clinton…with a shop named “Hilary” next to it!

Pristina (Albanian: Prishtina) is the capital city, and it’s pretty run down. The main pedestrian area, Mother Teresa Boulevard (again named due to Teresa’s ethnic Albanian heritage), is under heavy construction, with the road all torn up on both ends. The town is a sprawl of Yugoslavian-era buildings. Ugly, but beautifully ugly! The university library is one of the most fascinatingly ugly yet awesome buildings I’ve ever seen. I don’t think I’ve ever outright laughed out loud upon my first glimpse of a building before: it looks like a cluster of grey sci-fi spaceships covered in chainmail.

The city is full of mosques, although there were a few churches. Ethnic Albanians are mostly Muslims, and it’s no different in Kosovo. Seeing hordes of white people practice Ramadan and heeding calls to prayer was admittedly a little jarring at first. (Take that, America.) But there’s evidence of the past tension here as well; the churches are mostly Serbian Orthodox, and some of the ones I walked past in Pristina and Prizren were destroyed and in ruins.

Much of the city is dominated by the UN: the UNMIK complex, foreign workers, UN and EU-marked trucks driving around the city, etc. It wasn’t possible to enter these complexes. As for the local sentiment towards the international governance? Well, I saw more than a few graffiti tags of “EULEX: Made in Serbia”. Guess they don’t like it.

At night, like in Macedonian cities, the main pedestrian area came alive. All these young people appear out of nowhere, dressed to the nines, walking up and down the street with their friends. Where are they going?! The cafes were all filled, but it didn’t look like people were walking to any of them. I tried following some people just for kicks – yes, a bit creepy, I know, but I was genuinely curious – and found that they were just…walking… No destination in particular, it seems.

The next day, I headed to the more historic city of Prizren, an hour and a half away from Pristina on a bus playing cheap-looking music “videos” (really just consisting of either 90s desktop wallpapers or fancy text face). Prizren is also a bit rundown and there’s a tad too much litter in their river, but upon arrival, it was instantly charming. I set out to do some exploring…

Or so I thought.

My first destination was Kaljaja, the Roman-era fortress at the highest point of the city. (I didn’t realise at the time, but I walked through the destroyed Serbian quarter of Prizren to get up there. Ethnic Serbs fled during the upturn in violence last decade, and very few remain.) The steep climb was worth it: there was a great view of the city, with its small historic quarter front and center.

While taking pictures, I was approached by two guys who were a bit taken aback by the presence of a foreigner, but asked me to take a photo for them. Next thing you know, I’m in their pictures as well. Then I get hugged as if I was their best buddy, with them beckoning me to come along with them for awhile. At first I hesitated, but it was obvious that they were being friendly, so I obliged.

They introduced themselves as Fation (from a town in Albania, but working in Prizren) and Omer (from Prizren) – but it took a lot of effort for us to even communicate this far, as their English was quite limited. Another Kosovar family passing by noticed me hanging out with them and seemed a bit bewildered. They had better English; we started talking around in circles with them occasionally translating into Shqip (Albanian) for Fation and Omer. As such, I was at least able to explain away the typical stereotypes: not Japanese, not Jackie Chan, from Canada, no kung fu.

Fation, Omer, and I walked around the fort as we…tried to chat. Omer had better English, but it wasn’t enough. Fation knew some Italian, and could understand a bit of my Spanish. We tried our best with hand signals and charades. We found Kosovar passersby who knew other languages. One guy knew German, a common second- or third-language around here, but that didn’t help. We met another who knew French, and I dug up my rusty, Spanish-addled French while he translated into Shqip and back into French for me: Fation and Omer were inviting me for some coffee in town. We said goodbye and thanks to our impromptu translator and headed off.

Well, I learned that Fation’s 26 (or 22? I think we got our numbers mixed up), married, and has a baby girl (I was a bit shocked when he said what sounded like “goat”). Omer’s 17 (he asked me to count up with my hands from 1 until he motioned for me to stop), and they both are friends who work as singers at a motel a few kilometres out of town. With no prompting, they also told me how Albania was dangerous (“bang bang”) and Kosovo was safe to walk around. Huh. As for me, I told them the basics: my age, what I’m doing in Kosovo, my profession, my family. Now imagine how we had to communicate all that information to each other!

We headed into Shadervan, the main square area of town with hundreds of extremely busy cafes (on a weekday afternoon!). Over coffee, Fation was hilariously trying to get me to ogle every girl walking down the street – he sure was, despite being married. (I tried to chide him, and he got the point: he pointed to his ring, grinned, and pretended to take it off.) They tried to teach me a few words in Shqip. However, when I asked for the Shqip equivalents for some words in English, they couldn’t understand – we pulled the waiter over, who at least knew a little bit of English. Still, he couldn’t attend to us the whole time, so there’s a few giant gaping holes in my knowledge…

We sat there for awhile, just people watching. A cigarette seller carrying cartons walked up to us, and Fation bought a pack. They got into a long conversation in Shqip, and explained my presence (“Canada!”) to the seller. He faced me, smiled deeply, and said “Respect!” before walking away to sell some more. Interesting English word to know.

A Roma child also showed up, asking for money. None of us gave any, but again, Fation and Omer engaged her in a long conversation. I sat there a bit clueless, but smiled haplessly the whole time, taking in the atmosphere as I tuned out. Everyone seems so relaxed, so laid-back. I still can’t believe that the streets can be that packed on a workday, the cafes so full.

They then invited me to their show that night, starting at 10 pm. (Cue Fation motioning the fact that there were hot girls there.) I was a bit taken aback and didn’t want to be rude…but it seemed a little seedy! You know, going to a motel in a city you don’t know, let alone outside of the city in a cab ride, not knowing how to return, not being able to speak the language in a decidedly not English-speaking area. I tried to explain that I’d try to go, but not to take offense if I couldn’t make it.

Well, the charades didn’t work there. And even though the French guy showed up, I wasn’t able to communicate what I wanted to say to him to translate. My Spanish only incurred a confused look on Fation’s face once I started speaking full-on sentences. And the waiter…well, he understood English up to the point of “macchiato” and “water with gas”. Nonetheless, Omer and Fation were insistent, and wrote down the name “Motel Paradis” and motioned for me to show it to a taxi driver. Fation would pay for my cab fare, they spoke-motioned to me. Fation also paid for my coffee, which was a pleasant surprise. I felt a bit guilty though: coffee for the three of us amounted to only €2, but I know this is a low-income country. Nonetheless, I was extremely grateful for the gesture and for the opportunity to spend the afternoon with some locals. We split up as I headed off to explore the city some more, while they told me they’d see me again at 10 pm. I mustered up a non-committal “I’ll try!”, but they interpreted it more as “OK!” despite my best efforts…

Over the next few hours, I wandered around, saw some more destroyed churches, some beautiful mosques from the outside, and went into the ethnographic museum. I got a few friendly hellos from random people.

prizren

The staff at my hostel had no idea where this “Motel Paradis” was. But after dinner, feeling like I couldn’t just abandon Fation and Omer like that especially after they treated me to coffee, I swallowed my anxiety, found a cab, and just went for it.

It turned out to be quite far out of town! But the moment I walked through the door, there was Fation, all dressed up, genuinely happy that I came, and my anxiety melted away. He took me into the motel’s bar, passing by all these locals who were clearly puzzled as to what a young Asian guy was doing in their hangout, got me a beer, and told me to wait as it was his turn to sing.

I looked around. I was dressed all sloppy, in a t-shirt and shorts. The men were in button-up shirts and trousers. The women were in dresses…though their makeup and hair were a bit overdone. Heh. Some of them were dancing to the music: strange to my ears, but the melodies seemed Islamic influenced, even if the keyboard-horns and electronic drum beats were not. As for the dancing? It really consisted of holding hands in a circle and walking around a table.

As he took to the mic and keyboards (he’s quite a singer, and gave me a shoutout in Shqip, causing everyone in the motel to turn and look at me…), someone else saw me and sat beside me. He introduced himself as Besfort, a friend of both Omer and Fation. He had somewhat better English than the two of them, but conversation was difficult as the music was loud and our shared vocabulary limited. This is where my most valuable travel tool comes in handy: the pen!

Later on, a woman took over the mic and Omer and Fation joined Besfort and me at the table. (Fation told her to give me a shoutout on the mic. She came over and said “Respect!” Didn’t realise that was a widely known word.) Omer and Besfort were a little bit wary of my consumption of beer: turns out they’re Muslim and Fation is Catholic. Oops! But in their case, they weren’t allowed to consume alcohol during all of Ramadan, yet Besfort was smoking, and Omer had a coffee with me that afternoon during daylight hours. Huh what? Guess they have a different tradition. When I tried to ask them about it, they didn’t understand me.

With Besfort’s better English, a pen and paper, and the fact that we were getting used to all the charades, we were finally able to communicate a bit better, and had a nice night. I left at midnight, and they were kind enough to call me a taxi, “threatened” the driver to use the meter instead of charging me for a ripoff rate, and motioned for me to protect my belongings. Awww. We said our goodbyes with hugs.

Looking back…I certainly wouldn’t have imagined that day at all. And though that whole motel deal seemed sketchy, I’m glad I went – it wasn’t sketchy at all, and I had a night to remember of new friends and genuine friendliness.

I still barely know much about Kosovo, and a trip in the future would probably include Peja (Pec), Mitrovica, and some scenery. From what I’ve seen, the country is still a little lacking in infrastructure and development, lagging behind even other eastern European countries, and their political situation is a mess. But if the people here have the capability to be this nice, there’s got to be a way for them to overcome their differences with the Serbs, right? It wasn’t just Fation, Omer, and Besfort – everyone on the streets, in stores, restaurants, bus stations, hostels… I got nothing but smiles and helpfulness. That’s what I’ll remember most about Kosovo.

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