25 June 2012

Welcome to Kosovo

Merlin shook me awake to point at the speed limit sign ahead of us. Out our bus window, I made out the numbers and shapes, which gave the following guidelines. Trucks: 50. Tanks: 30. Welcome to Kosovo. This was our second first impression of the small country. We passed through briefly during our time in Albania on a bus that used a quick jump over the border to get us back to Tirana. At the time, we were scared that a stamp in our passport would prohibit us from visiting Serbia. That very well may have been the case, but they (generously) did not stamp us in or out, in transit as we were. In that quick foray, we got our first glimpses of a country that had been a big question mark in our imaginations. One of those question marks that are sandwiched between two exclamation points. You could say that we were a little scared. But crossing over for that half an hour or so had eased our worry. It looked absolutely... normal. Maybe even a little nicer than the area of Albania we'd just come from. If that first impression calmed our nerves, this second speed sign one reminded us how those nerves had been founded.
My earliest awareness of 'Kosovo' was as the name of a conflict, a war, a 'zone.' Not a country. The word went along with graphic images in TIME folded into our mailbox and on the evening news playing over dinner. 1999 was just 13 years ago and photos of missing persons still hang on a fence in Pristina's center. Some pictures have been whitewashed by the bright sun over time, almost completely erased. Passing by them in this vibrant, lively city, one gets the sense that the youth hope the memories of that year will fade in the same way, nearly vanish from the brightness of their future. As one young man put it, "It's not like that here anymore." It felt almost strange that he felt the need to say it. Walking around, it is obvious that this is a not a bandaged and bruised city - far from a hemorrhaging wound. But it's a hard reputation to shake and a complicated legacy to emerge from. That bloody year was Kosovo's big debut on the national stage.
Kosovo was basically placed under the protection and governance of the United Nations for 9 years after '99. 9 years, a sort of pregnancy during which it could prepare to really enter the world. In 2008, it declared its independence and this bright, yellow NEWBORN was erected outside the youth center. It is much more fitting than 'reborn' would have been - a statement of their emergence as an individual still in need of nurturing and guidance. Celebratory graffiti has steadily covered these yellow letters since, taking a little luster off of it, putting a few wrinkles in. Kosovo is self-governing, but UN and NATO programs and forces still have a hand in civil and foreign affairs. You see signs of them everywhere. To ignore UNMIK, EULEX and KFOR's presence would be like paying no attention to that man behind the curtain. Kosovo is no longer a newborn, but it is still the youngest European country. Well, if you ask one of the 91 UN member states that recognize it as such.
There are still a large number of countries that do not recognize Kosovo as an independent state, including 14 countries we've visited on this trip. The chances of them ever being admitted into the United Nations is slim to none, as Russia, one of the 5 countries with veto power, firmly believes that the Kosovar declaration of independence from Serbia is not only not worthy of recognition, but illegal. That's part of what made arriving here an almost surreal experience. Sure, we've received emails about changing the name by which we refer to a country (Macedonia). We've visited breakaway and occupied territories within Moldova and Cyprus (Transnistria and Northern Cyprus, respectively). There has been some dispute about whether or not certain countries should be considered 'European,' but Kosovo brings up a different debate all together. To call its inclusion on our list 'polarizing' would be putting it lightly.
But here we are, in the 4 year old Republic of Kosovo. More specifically, in its capital, which is undergoing some major construction right now. Squares are being constructed to give the Communist-style urban planning a more European feel. The kicked up dust and gravel give a sense of upheaval and ruin, but that's really just connected to everything else we know. The same amount of construction was going on in Sofia and Guimarães, Portugal and I don't think I ever had any images of shelling and rolling tanks. In what will be called Ibrahim Rugova Square, a historic building has been bought by United Colors of Benetton. The Skanderberg statue which used to mark this spot has been moved to the side during construction. He sits on his horse next to part cars, his head covered with a protective garbage bag which gives him an unfortunate resemblance to a Klan member. The square, one of a few under construction, will give the maze-like city more focal points. I personally think that the arrival of a Benetton in sort of like a mini-christening in and of itself in Europe. A McDonald's and an H&M would complete the trifecta.
Sure, there is grit. There's a little bit of a chaotic feel that reminds us of Tirana, Albania. Young women sit outside on cinder blocks for tea. Children come to your table with a single pack of gum to sell, along with their cuteness. It is also a city where an atmospheric cafe is easy to find and a terrific machiato is the norm. We have made no effort to search out a special dining establishment and have had three excellent meals so far. The people are incredibly friendly, helpful and full of smiles - another reminder of Tirana and Albania as a whole. The crime rate is one of the lowest in Europe and even with crippling unemployment and a high level of poverty, people are optimistic and focused on the future. At least, that's how it feels.
I know that I'm making a lot of assumptions here, but sometimes you just find yourself in places that defy your expectations. The capital has an easy confidence, a tasteful maturity, international influence that feels natural instead of a show put on for foreigners or an invasion of name brands. People walk slowly down the tree-lined pedestrian avenues, linger over coffee and soft drinks, root loudly for one team or another in soccer on tv. We not only feel comfortable here, but happy. It's as easy a place as any - surely as easy as it can be in such a complicated place.
I wonder how Pristina will look in another four years. If this trip has taught us anything, it's that the world is changing at a mind-bogglingly rapid pace. It's always the case with newborns - they grow up in the blink of an eye. We never thought we'd be in Kosovo, but we are happy to be here right now, at this stage of its young life. And we're curious to see what it looks like in 5, 10, 20 years. For now, though, we're just looking forward to the next 11 days. Welcome to Kosovo, indeed.    

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