Lei wasn’t much enthused about going to Kosovo. With the Constantine Monument closed, Brent had lost interest in Niš (Serbia proper), so made an executive decision to travel through Kosovo into Montenegro to get to Belgrade. Due to the disputed nature of Kosovo as a country, Serbia considers entry into Kosovo through any border other than their own as illegal entry into Serbia, and thereby denies entry into Serbia proper. As a result, travelers who go first to Kosovo must leave Kosovo through Macedonia, Albania, or Montenegro, and then enter Serbia through a non-Kosovo border. Neither Brent nor Lei knew much about the region’s history (ancient or modern), so once again they were less interested in going. I did my best to recount what I knew, at least, to them throughout the trip. While Kosovo is mountainous, it can’t compare with the natural beauty my well traveled companions had previously experienced (say in Nepal or Patagonia), and the food was typically Balkan – not our thing.
We all appreciated the massive, building sized posters of Bill Clinton and Hilary Clinton adorning the side of a building along the main thoroughfare, Bill Klinton Boulevard, as we approached the intersection with Robert Doll St. (Bob Dole) and just before we took a left on George Bush St. to get to our hostel. The physical presence of these obvious adulations of America immediately piqued questions from my travel companions, and I was only too happy to divulge what I knew.
Pristina in particular made for a difficult sell. With most of the concrete jungle new, sprawling, and unrelieved by green spaces, there was certainly little natural appeal. The historical appeal similarly doesn’t exist in sights and museums but rather the people and simply being there. Two buildings in particular, side-by-side, illustrate the background knowledge necessary to appreciate the area. The National Library’s eclectic architecture speaks to the communist legacy, the hope of intellectuals, and the special status of Kosovo. The uncompleted Serbian Orthodox Church next door speaks to the ethnic and religious tensions that continue to this day.
We found a perfect representative of these troubles and hopes in the owner of our hostel. Abraham is middle aged former academic who helped start the American Corners in Kosovo and ran many of the exchange and scholarship programs, as well. I leapt at this information immediately, hoping to establish another contact in yet another part of the world for my students and for Oak Hall. But as our conversation progressed, I soured on the idea. Abraham, like so many we have encountered here and so many I have encountered with alarming frequency around the world, is extremely, blindingly nationalistic. He waxed lyrical about the Illyrian roots of Albanian. He continually intimated Albanian exceptionalism throughout the conversation. How English has owes much of its vocabulary and structure to a “certain unnamed ancient Balkan language” wink wink. In a later conversation, he trapped us into listening to his theories of humanity having come from outer space – because all religions look up for spirituality. That everything has been getting worse over time. That human beings were much more advanced – culturally and technologically – thousands of years ago. Lei asked him if he felt lonely for having these ideas, trying to be kind and compassionate. I removed myself quickly from this second conversation by drinking the proffered wine quickly and drawing him in my light inebriation. As an example of his extreme self-interest, Abraham felt the need to undercut my sketching by mentioning his own from the past. A sad, lonely, nationalist creature.
One interesting difference I noticed between Kosovo and Albania was the increased Muslim presence in Kosovo. Albania, as a result of being an officially atheist country, remains largely secular. Kosovo, however, seems to have reacted to its experience as part of the various iterations of Yugoslavia by celebrating that which made it different – Islam. As with my visit to Bosnia, this wasn’t borne out in the everyday affect of the people on the street – few head coverings, no obvious scurrying to prayer en masse, drinking still available and commonplace – but more in conversation, in writing, in signage, and in a more intellectual sense. I had expected Kosovo to feel like an extension of Albania, and was stupidly quite shocked to see that it was anything but. They have developed quite a distinct culture and feel – Albanians lived in a homogeneous hermit country while Kosovars were constantly defined by their relation to the overwhelmingly dominant Slavs of not just Yugoslavia, but entire allied region.
The winter market lining the main walking street of Prishtinë is testament to this difference. While it evinces many of the trappings of a Christian Christmas market, such as glühwein, little wooden stalls, and a general atmosphere of slow strolling, it was missing any explicit references to Christmas itself. No Christmas trees, no holly, no gigantic red bows, no Santa, no massive presents.
We spent much of new year’s eve on this thoroughfare, and much of new year’s day as well. Both days were quite heavily polluted, which did not make for a particularly enjoyable time. Most of our time in Prishtinë was spent in restaurants and cafés, as the museums and mosques were closed. The search for inoffensive establishments was quite an adventure, however. As in all the Balkans (except Albania – yet another difference), people smoke heavily indoors. While we did have some fabulous hot chocolates, the experience and taste were much diminished by the unwanted smoky additives. I filled Brent and Lei in on the history of the Kosovo war, the history of Yugoslavia, and the history of the International Communist movement while we huddled.
Even trying to find air to breathe in the hostel was nearly impossible. We learned from prior new year’s eves (finally) and retired early – well before midnight – to avoid the spike in noise, the fireworks, and general revelry that feels to us more like hell. Unfortunately, the common area in the hostel (the only area with proper seating) was closed off because a Jordanian man was smoking inside (beneath the various “smoking will incur a strict fine” signs). Mohammad was extremely friendly in that typical Levantine Arab way. Brent and I had already had those conversations many times, and weren’t particularly interested in him (I opened the door and then closed it), but Lei engaged. Unsurprisingly, Mohammad wanted to show us some YouTube videos of Arabic dubbed Kung Fu films, chatted about having multiple wives, about not drinking, spoke awkwardly and naively about women (he’d already divorced after a two week long marriage), and excitedly wanted to tell us about Islam.
Abraham and Mohammad were quite tense with other. On one night in the capital, Abraham offered us some wine and went on and on about his strange conspiracy theories. Brent and Lei engaged with him, trying (foolishly) to reason him out of opinions he did not reason himself into. Our unlikely savior was Mohammad, who interrupted and inadvertently insulted Abraham’s generosity by revealing the low price of our bottle. Abraham in turn questioned Mohammad about what made a woman Muslim, and we were able to escape.
We made a short stop in Pejë, in the Northwest corner of the country by Montenegro. I took us there in the hopes that we’d find mountains and food for my concrete oppressed friends. While the mountains were quite scenic, indeed, they were nowhere near sufficiently majestic for Lei and Brent, who’d climbed Mt. Kenya and Kilimanjaro together, and wandered around the highest mountains in the world in Nepal. The natural vistas were also quite hazy due to the omnipresent pollution. In Pejë, it got so high that even Lei felt ill. Walking around the town he noticed the tiles were identical to those in China. The fashions, the air quality, the shops, the layout of streets – it felt like Shanghai twenty years ago to him. We did enjoy some nice meals and a high vista despite it all, and enjoyed the small town feel of Pejë much more than the mess of Prishtinë.