Monday, June 15, 2015

"Put your 'flexible' caps on!" ~ Anne, on us almost going to Albania today.

(Jo Coenen -- Second year international relations student.) 

         Today, Sunday the 14th, was clearly meant as a break from the confrontational talks and visits we held over the last week. The day begun as always with us meeting at Newborn before heading off to our next destination. The mood was a little different today, though; we had a relatively late start (which helped us catch up on some devastatingly necessary ZZZs) and we were going on what felt like a grade school field trip to Prizren. 

                    The Old Stone Bridge with the Ottoman Sinan Pashan Mosque and the fortress in the background.

         I consider myself a bit of a nerdy history buff and I was definitely looking forward to going to Prizren. The city is Kosovo's historic crown jewel: it has survived the cyclical rise and fall of no less than six civilizations (if you're curious the Romans, Dardanians, Bulgarians, Serbians, Byzantines, and Ottomans all extended their borders over the city), which have all left their cultural mark on the city one way or another, and many Kosovars know it. I asked two cab drivers and our bus driver what their favorite parts of Kosovo were, and they all mentioned Prizren as a must-go destination, if not for the beautiful sites left behind by the multiple civilizations but for the Turkish food. Our wonderful guide, Bardha, told me that her family and friends come to Prizren very often, and sometimes even weekly. It's close to Pristina, it's pretty, and the Kebab is crazy awesome, so why not?
         I sincerely enjoyed walking down the old streets of Prizren, around the edge of the river, up the mountain to the Ottoman fortress, through the main shopping square and around the old fountain (so I've learned two things: either drinking from the fountain grants you the ability to come back to Prizren or a shinny new husband. It's probably both.), and finally into both the Sinan Pashan Mosque and Our Lady Ljeviš Orthodox Church. All of this despite the blazing heat. Goodness, we nearly melted into the sidewalk and became part of the attraction!

         We went to Prizren to sight-see and not necessarily to learn about a new UN destination or perspective-defying aspects of the 1999 conflict like in previous days. The time I had to walk around and take in the sights, however, allowed me some reflection -- and I guess sometimes you need those reflective moments to really take in what you saw the previous days. The full impact of this trip is probably going to dawn on me when we're back in Amsterdam, while I'm lazily laying in bed recovering, probably.

         The first thing I thought about, actually while sitting on the wall of the fortress overlooking the whole city, was the role of history of this conflict. We learned over the previous two weeks that Kosovo is a central aspect to Serbian nationalism and culture -- that it is the cradle of their civilization and that they feel their history completely intertwined with Kosovo's. I love reading about history, I truly believe that knowing our history can help our future (the whole "History shouldn't repeat itself" shtick), but I never understood allowing history to define who you are. To me, history is something that I am not responsible for and something that does not represent who I am. Yeah, I'm three-halves American, Dutch, and Nicaraguan and a quarter bad at math, but the history of these three countries do not represent my identity. To me they're more of a side-attraction, fun-facts maybe, that maybe explain why your culture is a certain way, but do not define it. To me culture is food, attitude, music, language, things that define the present community. I don't pay attention to the actions my ancestors committed. The previous week we have learned that many people in the Serbian community like to focus on what I have not. The battles fought by Serbians 600 years ago are their battles too.

          My second thought was, "Oh, I get it," when we went into the Serbian Orthodox Church. The church was destroyed by arson in 2004, and the Serbian community restored it two years later. The guide who was showing us the Church at one point began to flip through his phone, showing us the damage that had been done to the church. He seemed a bit angry (maybe I was projecting these emotions onto him, I don't know) he and flipped through the pictures and spoke in a way that defensively said "Look! Look at what they did!" In a context that shows that the burning of this church was in a response of the Serbians burning 100 Albanian mosques, his attitude seemed hypocritical to me. The thing is, the church provides for a tangible proof of the Serbian's historical presence in the area. It's presence is reassuring to the Serbian community -- it's their connection to the land. It makes sense to me. Their connection with the land is also found in their history. If you know that your descendants lived and thrived in an area then you're naturally connected to it. It makes it harder for you to give it up, as many Serbians would claim. To me culture is loose, in the sense that I'll carry my culture wherever I travel. If a bunch of Nicaraguans move to France or whatever, they'll carry their culture with them in their language and food. On the other hand, if you feel your culture is connected to the land then so be it. It's a matter of whether you place your cultural values and representations in food and language, or also a geographic area. And so, despite me believing that the conflict would be easier to resolve if all parties focused more on the future than on the past, I understand how history can really still play a role in it.

       This probably feels obvious to many of you, but it's what I thought about for part of the day. The other part of the day we had a wonderful time swimming in a lake by Pristina. We rented a boat and went to the middle of the lake and messed around and had fun. There was beer, wine, and amazing food. I didn't think much about anything.

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