The 51st State

July 23, 2011

A legitimate response to “I’m American” in Kosovo is a genuine and enthusiastic “Cool!” It’s been a long time since I’ve seen and heard such respect for the US, especially in Europe. I’m not sure how I feel about it, especially since it’s in response to a series of events that were largely perpetrated against my people and the place I’m currently living, but I must admit it was a little nice not feeling like I have to hide the fact that I’m American. In most places in Europe I tend to keep my voice quiet when I’m speaking English so as not to look like an ignorant tourist all the time, but not in Kosovo.

I was planning on heading down on there Tuesday night to visit a friend of mine, Danielle, whom I recently met in Georgia (via Misha). I went to the bus station 30 or so minutes before scheduled departure only to discover that the bus was full! The ticket counter couldn’t sell me a ticket, but suggested I go out to the terminal and see if I could weasel my way on board. Most of the people on the bus, including the operating staff, were Albanian, but I spoke with the head guy (who also speaks Serbian) for a few minutes about availability on board. It was, in fact, full, and there was no way I could get all the way to Priština that night. I called Dani and we discussed options. We planned on rescheduling to a different weekend some time in August. I went home feeling defeated. Dani and I talked a bit more online, and some constraints came up that would have made visiting in August considerably more difficult, so I decided to head down to the bus station the next day and try to get on the noon one. I was able to, and I arrived in Priština late that afternoon. I was greeted by American flags hanging everywhere and streets named after American presidents. Dani and her friend Haris met me in town and took me to a few cafes and showed me around town a bit.

Early (much to my chagrin) the next day, Dani and I went to Kosovska Mitrovica, a weirdly-divided multi-ethnic city a bit north of Priština. The Ibar river goes right through town and divides the northern Serbian half from the southern Albanian half. Apparently it’s a big deal to cross from one side to the other, and doing so as one of the ethnic groups can get you killed. There is a fairly permanent military garrison posted at the bridge to keep things under control. After exploring some of the surrounding area we headed back to Priština for some traditional food. The food was fantastic, but our conversation at the restaurant took a turn for the not-so-restaurant-friendly, so we decided to take things elsewhere and bought a bottle of gin, vermouth, and a jar of olives: keeping things decidedly classy. Later, however, we realized the vermouth was sweet vermouth, i.e., our dreams of martinis were suddenly shattered. We resorted to drinking straight gin, which is surprisingly tolerable (when the gin is Bombay Sapphire, I suppose).

Suffering from hang overs and extreme pain from unknown causes of epic proportions, Haris and I headed to the center for some cafe action while Dani did something (I’m not quite sure, actually) at the office for a bit. Dani and I headed toward the main mosque to check out midday Friday prayer, we sat and enjoyed each others’ company, tea, and coffee at an uncannily Middle Eastern-looking cafe while listening to the Muezzin calling the faithful to prayer. We explored the bits of the city I hadn’t seen yet by foot and generally had a relaxing time going from cafe to cafe. After that, we met up with Haris and another American, Max, to head down to Gračanica (another Serbian village a bit south of Priština) to check out the monastery and get some legendary Roštilj (Serbian grilled meat, pretty standard fare). I hopped on the bus back to Belgrade that night for what may have been the most uncomfortable bus ride ever. Needless to say I didn’t sleep much and am looking forward to getting some much-needed slumber tonight.

It’s a little strange, getting used to things in Priština. Everything looks a lot like Albania, or Southern Serbia, but the styles are considerably different. The youth these days generally wear American clothes, a smattering of New Era caps (New York Yankees, of course… I’m pretty sure that’s the only team they know), Levi’s jeans, assorted name brand tees, etc. This is in stark contrast to the more traditional Albanian garb of the older generation: slacks, vests, sandals, and Qeleshe (traditional Albanian sheep skin hat), and even the considerably more European Serbian styles seen in the villages.

All in all, I had a fantastic few days down there. I wish I could have stayed longer, but alas. It was definitely good to check out what all the hype was about.

Stay tuned for my upcoming Helsinki trip!

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