29 June 2012

Pristina

Pristina is often bypassed for Prizren or western Kosovo, places that come better recommended or seem better prepared to welcome weary and wary travelers to this land.  Pristina is hot and messy.  Our first impression, at the bus station, was of dead weeds in dried up planters and taxi drivers lying down in the shade.  It is a place of ideas not yet realized and the late stages of reconstruction.  It was a city of bombed buildings not long ago.
But Pristina is actually a wonderful, friendly, safe, lively city with modern restaurants, lots of fun cafes and bars and smiling people.  Given a chance, it's endearing and deserves many more tourists than it gets.
The first impression made by the city is one of tangled wires and half-paved streets, of traffic snarls and sidewalks crowded by parked cars and cigarette sellers. We stayed near the bazaar, where the streets become especially convoluted.  People seem to get caught here, like leaves swept into an eddie in the stream.  They sit or crouch on the pavement, talking over empty coffee cups and bundles of spring onions.  This is the part of town where the call to prayer is loudest and there are the most minarets poking up through the uneven rooftops.  If this was the whole of Pristina, it would be an intriguing, bracing place - but there were lots more impressions to be made.  For a city of just two hundred thousand, it packs a real punch.
The funny thing about Pristina is that it isn't parceled into sections of more or less energy.  In many cities, there are pockets of bright lights and expanses of quiet and emptiness - or there is energy in the outskirts while the manufactured "center" feels desolate.
Pristina certainly has a more wealthy and showy center strip, where university students parade and wealthy women tap at iPhones.  It also has lots of makeshift barber shops and kebab shops, haphazard tenements and dormant construction sites.  But it all blends together with a universal energy and general contentment.
It's also a place where people have become accustomed to internationals - there is a large community of foreign workers here, people who aren't tourists but are still only settled temporarily.  The first wave of outsiders were peacekeeping forces and UN officials - they brought new cuisines and a thirst for foreign beer and raki.  Now, aid groups and NGOs employ a lot of Brits, Americans and Western Europeans; there has also been rampant privitization of the country's assets, which has brought in foreign businesspeople and curious opportunists.  A man arrived at breakfast in our hotel with heavily greased hair and a thick binder labeled "Investing in Kosovo."
The effect has been interesting - in some ways, Prisitina feels more outward looking than most Balkan cities, even more so than places like Belgrade or Sofia.  In those places, there is a national identity to be upheld and mulled over, an urban self-examination.  Pristina is more open to the gusts and currents of the outer world, shaped as it has been by the whims of other nations and the newness of its independence.  There are bookstores that sell magazines in English and restaurants that serve what might - in another place and time - have been called "new American cuisine."  There are English pubs with actual Englishmen inside and coffee shops with actual Italians sitting outside.  
Amid all the ruckus there are plans for two huge new squares, carved out of old communist blocks and bomb-damaged buildings.  The city says that these public places are to become the focal point of downtown Pristina, and work has already begun.  Unfortunately, there isn't enough funding and some are worried that the construction sites will remain torn-up for years.  Meanwhile, other parts of town need drastic work and rampant development has also threatened the city's charm - building codes are often ignored and real-estate deals tend to get awarded only to well connected people and, it is said, criminals.
A taxi driver told us - half in German, the foreign language older people tend to speak - about a new highway project to link Pristina with Albania and Tirana.  He talked about an American firm and some september deadline as we drove through the outskirts of town.  It's true that the roads in and out of Pristina are excellent and new.  It's easy to see the appeal of more construction projects, a shiny center, but it also seems a little unnecessary.  The heart of the city is already going at full pace, old streets and all.
Fueled not by vodka and redbull, but by macchiatos and cigarette smoke, the "bars" and cafes of the capital are surprisingly lively. There are few cities in the region that can match Pristina's nighttime energy, in fact.  Even on weekday nights, there are sections of town where it is difficult to find a free barstool or table after nine o'clock.
And, in a wonderful twist, this nightlife is propelled by real locals, not by loud tourists.  In places as busy and cheap as Pristina is, it's nice to find that the stag parties and club-enthusiasts haven't yet arrived.  In the warmth of late June, there are greetings shouted from table to table, kisses exchanged, a sense of community.  Mother Theresa boulevard, the main pedestrian street, is a loud, pleasant mix of old couples and excited toddlers, high heels and scuffed sneakers.  The strolling continues until late - later than we were prepared to stay up.
Pristina is a city with purpose.  Our guidebook, published only two years ago, speaks of bomb damage and the lasting effects of war.  Now, in 2012, those scars are hard to find and the city is, more than anything, moving forward.  It's not as if the cobweb electric lines and broken paving stones can be fixed overnight, but it won't take long.  In fact, within a few years, it's easy to think that this little capital could be a prime destination, something like Skopje is today - a place that people are no longer afraid of.  Already, the recent past seems very distant.

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