Sorry about the delays in posting, we’ve had to take a major diversion in our travels due to a now resolved medical situation and are now playing catch up. All is well and we are both healthy, but stay tuned for posts on our time in Albania and medical tourism in Berlin, Germany.
We’ll explain later, but we decided to completely mix up our travel plans for the next month and are now in rural Eastern Anatolia in Turkey.
Entering Kosovo, Europe’s newest country, from Serbia was an interesting experience to say the least. You’ve all already heard about our bus station fiasco in Novi Pazar, so I won’t start there. Kosovo officially declared it’s independence from Serbia in 2008, however Serbia has refused to recognize it. As such, the border posts between the countries are “unofficial” and on the Kosovar side they’re manned by soldiers from NATO’s large peacekeeping operation, KFOR. It was incredibly strange to speak with an American soldier in an official capacity after a month and half outside the US. He was very nice and quite prescient when he said he couldn’t live in California because of the earthquakes.
Entering from the North you very quickly get a sense of the animus between the two major communities, ethnic Albanians and Serbs, squished together in this tiny country. The Serbian minority lives primarily in the North and one is quickly greeted with graffiti stating, “Fuck you NATO.” However, when crossing into the Albanian sections of Kosovo one is immediately greeted with American flags side by side with the flags of Kosovo and Albania. If you ever want to visit a country where Americans are not only liked, but revered, visit Kosovo. You can even find streets named after Bill Clinton, Madeleine Albright, George W. Bush and General Wesley Clark. We were told more than once that we could stroll down the main drag in Prishtina, the capital, completely naked and would have no problems once we said we were Americans. We would simply be sent on our merry way.
After settling into our apartment in Prishtina, we were treated to one of the most wonderful meals of our trip. We met Roxanne Suratgar, a board member of a project I’ll be volunteering with in Albania, at a nearby hotel and she took us to a small Italian restaurant just outside the city center. The restaurant is not normally open, but Roxanne is friends with the owner and we had a private dining experience full of great food and interesting conversation. We also got a great deal of insight into life in Kosovo and advice on what to see while we were visiting.
The next day we walked around Prishtina visiting some the major landmarks, including the Bill Clinton statue on Bill Clinton Boulevard. We also saw the very strange looking national library, the unfinished Mother Theresa Cathedral and got our first taste of Prishtina’s cafe culture. I can say pretty definitively that Prishtina has the best value-for-money espresso drinks in the world. The macchiato is essentially the national drink and they are prepared with expert care for around a $1 or less.
Through Roxanne, I was introduced to the head of Radio-Television Kosovo’s archives. We had a nice conversation about the history of the archive and how his experiences compared with those of US audiovisual archives and he gave me a short tour of the facility. One of the most interesting aspects of RTK’s archive is the large collection of materials produced before the 1999 war. The collection was produced by a no longer existent Yugoslavian entity, so RTK technically doesn’t own the copyright. The legal limbo has meant that the archive’s most valuable historical materials aren’t cared for in the same manner as the newer materials clearly owned by RTK. It’s truly an orphan collection and I hope it can eventually be properly cared for.
After touring Prishtina, we made two day trips to Kosovo’s other larger cities, Peje and Prizren. By the way, large is a loose term in a country of less than 2 million people. Our first trip to Peje was especially notable. Just outside the city center are two of the most important monasteries in Serbian Orthodoxy. The first one we visited was the Dečani Monastery located in a nearby town and is a UNESCO World Heritage site. At this point in our trip I had begun to get a little jaded about visiting Orthodox monasteries, but Dečani was simply stunning. The monastery grounds are immaculately cared for and it’s position in a rural valley makes it all the more special. Inside the monastery’s chapel are beautifully preserved and restored icons covering every surface, including the only image of Jesus holding a sword according to our volunteer guide. Several Serbian kings are also interred in the chapel in ornate sarcophagi. I should also note that NATO heavily guards the monastery and the monks that live there due to a serious threat from attacks by Albanian nationalists; this Serbian monastery is located in an Albanian community and its presence is deeply resented. We had to pass several very intense checkpoints and surrender our passports before entering. As such, the monks are fairly self sufficient and produce much of their own food, some of which is for sale. After walking around the grounds and taking endless photos, Skylar and I purchased some delicious cheese to snack on later.
After getting our passports back from the NATO soldiers, we began the walk back towards town. No sooner had we left than one of the monks pulled up in a pick up truck and offered us a ride to Peje’s other monastery. Orthodox monks can sometimes seem quite intimidating with their long black robes and large beards, especially when one observes the level of respect they are accorded by the most devout people. However, they’re people too (A cliché, I know) and the monk giving us a ride seemed very fun loving, which was reinforced when he slipped on a pair of aviator sunglasses and chatted away on his cellphone. He didn’t speak much English, but we enjoyed hearing a little bit about life in the monastery; he has been living there for 17 years. I should also note that picking us up also benefitted him because he would be less likely to be harassed while outside the monastery.
The Patriarchate of Peć, where the monk dropped us off, is the holiest site in all of Serbian Orthodoxy. It is very much the heart of the religion; somewhat akin to the Vatican in Catholicism. While the Serbian Patriarch (“Pope”) no longer lives there and the church is primarily administered in Belgrade, the chapels inside are still used for certain rituals and a group of nuns maintain the site. And by maintain the site, I mean that they make REALLY strong rakia. One of the nuns told us that it is aged 15 years, mostly because they don’t drink it. We didn’t buy any of the “holy water,” but we did pick up a nice bottle of wine, which is the other product made at the monastery. Like at Dečani, the chapel walls are covered in stunning icons, but the nuns are vigilant about keeping people from taking pictures.
Our second day trip to Prizren in Kosovo’s South was a nice diversion from the modern architecture of Prishtina. Prizren is the best preserved Ottoman town in Kosovo and while our visit was uneventful, it was nice to stroll the narrow streets. It also happened to be Dokufest, a major documentary film festival, and while we didn’t have time for a screening, there were some interesting installations around town.
We originally intended to spend more time in Kosovo before heading to Tirana, Albania where I will be engaged in a volunteer project at the National Film Archive. However, we decided that we wanted to see a bit of what Albania had to offer before spending a week in the capital. So, we left Prishtina very early in the morning for the Albanian village of Berat.
All in all, Kosovo is pretty funky. The political situation is complicated, to say the least, but we both had a pleasant visit. Especially Skylar, who made it her mission to taste every flavor of homemade ice cream available in Prishtina, only 75 cents a scoop!