By Nini Pieters
Cappuccinos and all the things we take for granted
It goes without saying that ordering coffee is one of the first skills you need to obtain while staying in a foreign country – but when you’re in Kosovo, don’t be surprised if a requested cappuccino turns out to resemble a massive cream-chocolate dessert. It took a few missteps for us to finally realize that the Kosovar concept of cappuccino involves a large amount of whipped cream and chocolate sauce, whereas a ‘macchiato’ refers to a normal milk coffee. The fact that one can get the best coffees, cappuccinos, and macchiatos in Pristina’s bars can be seen as a twisted upside of the extremely high unemployment rate of over 30% in Kosovo, since as our dear Kosovar friend and translator Enver mentioned, “people with a Master’s degree are working in the cafés”. Indeed, the price-performance ratio in the gastronomic sector is excellent, and so having frequent coffees and eating out became an affordable luxury in Kosovo. Ironically, cafés and restaurants are also among the places in Kosovo where the economic grievances of the society become visible. During dinner, we frequently had to face very young Roma boys and women begging for money; oftentimes, there were no functional toilet flushes or running water, let alone toilet paper. The toilet issue is of course not the end of the world, but it did result in some rather hectic moments of searching for buckets and water to manually flush the toilets. But on a more serious note, I believe that these small incidents show how much we take economic security, warm water and electricity, or toilet paper availability for granted –things that have become so normalized that we don’t even realize we have them, until we do not have them anymore.
The beauty within Kosovo
Oftentimes, it seems as though Kosovo is associated mostly with a post-conflict, malfunctioning society, shaped by deep ethnic divisions. Although these issues are undeniably part of the current reality in Kosovo, they are by far, not all that defines the young state. When we first arrived in Kosovo’s capital Pristina, each one of us was amazed – and admittedly even slightly surprised - by the beautiful landscape and almost tropical weather that welcomed us. In fact, though internationally still lacking in popularity, Pristina is increasingly being described as a vibrant and tourist-friendly city, and rightly so. The narrative of Kosovo solely as a war-torn place neglects the positive atmosphere in cities such as Pristina or Prizren, the many bars and restaurants where all sorts of people come together, and above all, the extreme kindness and hospitality of the Kosovars themselves. The latter started with our Albanian hosts who welcomed us so warmly into their family from day one, but also manifested itself in almost every conversation with a stranger on the street. Unfortunately, besides the summer visits of the diaspora, there is relatively little touristic interest in Kosovo, which is a pity also, because a boost of this sector could help to support the troubled economy of the young country.
Getting to know Kosovo’s highways and criminals
Entering an environment that is so different from what one is used to inevitably gives rise to unexpected events and activities; this includes good experiences, but also some more questionable ones. One night, we had an interesting encounter with the Kosovar highway in the middle of nowhere when our bus started smoking and filling up the air inside with the smell of burnt plastic. Since perceptions of time in Kosovo also slightly differ from our Western European views, the alleged twenty minutes to wait for a replacement bus turned out to last for over an hour; and when it finally arrived, we were called off the road within the first five minutes because the driver exceeded the speed limit. However, even during these dark times we found solace in playing games and drinking traditional ‘Skanderberg’ brandy shots (for clarification, Skanderberg is a 14th century legendary Albanian war hero). Another ambiguous situation occurred when a group of four girls decided to explore a park in Pristina after one of our peacebuilding meetings, and we unexpectedly met some interesting Albanian youngsters who indicated as their occupation “criminal, drug dealer, and deported from the US”. Although these would not necessarily be people to have conversations with under ‘normal’ circumstances, it was really interesting to listen to their perspectives and stories that differ so much from ours. Admittedly, we were quite relieved when we ultimately found the exit of the park and started recognizing buildings in the center of Pristina; yet, this unexpected experience at an unexpected time is one that will certainly stay with us for a long time.
Wining, dining, and learning from each other
Since the culinary experiences definitely constituted a significant component of our field trip to Kosovo, it seems natural to refer to our last dinner on Wednesday when describing the possibly most unexpected gift during this trip. After having enjoyed a delicious meal (and in Erik’s words “a fair amount of wine”) at a restaurant called ‘rings’ on the central boulevard in Pristina, each one of us shared with the rest of the group what had been the most impactful aspect of the trip. It was truly inspiring to hear how all the interesting meetings and discussions, amazing meals and drinks, beautiful moments and laughters that we experienced together during these ten days has changed each and every person in their own way. The field trip to Kosovo has definitely brought us closer to the core and practice of human rights, state building, peace keeping, and reconciliation; but it has also shown us what it means to grow as a community that knows, trusts, and deeply cares for one another. And even though this concerns a more personal aspect of the field trip, in a sense it also relates to peace and reconciliation. To listen, understand, and learn from each other can not only teach you the most surprising things about your peers, but it is also an essential precondition for building a sustainable, peaceful society.