25 June 2012

Beerfest in Kosovo

It sounds like the beginning of a fight or a bad joke.  What happens when you ply a thousand young Kosovars - mostly between 16 and 25 years old - with lots of cheap beer?  When you do this outside on a weekend night, in front of a huge screen showing an important soccer match?  When there are no police around, almost no security?
The answer: all those young Kosovars get mildly tipsy, have a pleasantly calm evening and eventually begin dancing.  This is the Kosovo Beerfest, but really this is Kosovo - safe, quiet, friendly and ready to have a good time.
With the blocky Pristina skyline behind us, we marveled at what we were experiencing.  The beer was so cheap (three bottles for one euro!) and so plentiful (twenty different kinds!) that it bordered on dangerous.  In America or Germany, people would have gotten drunk without thinking about it.  There would certainly be fights or vomiting.  Here, young men and women talked and laughed in groups, cheered on the soccer players and smiled at the foreigners in their midst.  It felt less combustable than convivial.
Kosovars are ninety-five percent muslim, which partly explains the restraint these youngsters were showing.  Even though it's a very secular society, drinking isn't a big part of public life.  Pristina is a cafe city, with hundreds of outdoor tables and a leisurely pace.  And while those tables are usually full of people, the drinks of choice are coffee and fruit juice.  While drinking's not frowned upon, being drunk is.  At last year's Beer Fest, there were over 18,000 tickets sold, but only 14,000 liters of beer consumed.  In some places, a liter of beer is the prelude to an evening, not its entirety.
It's not as though the beer companies weren't trying - they basically begged us to buy more.  No one was ID'ed (this is still Kosovo, only a few steps away from lawlessness).  There were lots of beer-pong tables set up, leggy waitresses tried to lure in more drinkers to the makeshift bar stands.  A hulking Peja sign loomed over the whole evening, advertising the Kosovo beer powerhouse.
The event was put on by "Kosovo - the Young Europeans," which is an offshoot of the "Kosovo Nation Branding Campaign."  The venue was the IRC Youth center, an UNESCO and UNICEF funded counseling, recreation and teaching center in downtown Pristina.   Beerfest was held on the low roof, up a long flight of stairs, with heating ducts and air conditioning units poking up into the space.  Flags hung above us on dozens of poles - France, Turkey, Switzerland, pride of place going to Albania and the United states, the Kosovar flag waving in proud blue.  The giant television lit up the night with images of Ukraine and Poland, the Euro Championship hosts.
When we walked among the groups of people, from one pool of light to another, there were lots of quizzical smiles and stares, but we never felt threatened or excluded.  Often, people wanted to pose for pictures.  Near the end of the match, a DJ began playing music and people stood up to stretch their legs and dance chastely.
This is only the second Kosovo Beer Fest, and the second in eight months.  Perhaps, because the country is so young, Kosovo is trying to catch up.  The young people here were happy for the most part.  They wanted no part of rowdiness or debauchery - being outside on a beautiful night was enough.  Freedom, to some extent, is a novelty.  Getting drunk wasn't the point.  Getting to hang out as a community was exactly what they needed.

1 comment:

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