By Lisa van Holsteijn
“Nature doesn’t care about religion. It doesn’t care if you’re white, green, yellow, Serbian or Albanian. In nature, you just leave your footsteps and that’s it.” - Besim
As Petra, Xanne and I were crossing the main square in the centre of Pristina, I suddenly remembered our promise to revisit the lovely baker Toni, whom Petra and I had met a week earlier. Hidden underneath the mother Theresa Boulevard in a small basement, Toni’s bakery is a small traditional bakery that makes only Albanian pastries and delicacies. The elderly women that work there are grateful to have a job as the unemployment rate in Prishtina is very high, and at their age it is difficult to retrain to seek employment in another sector. As we descended the stairs into the little bakery, the scent of freshly baked flija and pastries wafted towards us. Toni smiled warmly as we came in, and we asked whether he had some time to talk to us about our project.
Quick side note about our project so you understand the context:
Petra, Xanne and I are creating an instagram page that somewhat resembles the famous “Humans of New York” -esque style of interviewing, where we are trying to gather different people’s perspectives about the future of Kosovo. The page is called Kosovar Dreams and we try to end with a question where we ask our interviewees to imagine a hypothetical reality where anything is possible - giving them the opportunity to dream big about an ideal reality for their newly formed state. We couple their interviews with photos of them or an object that represents their identity or a dream that they described to us.
Back in the bakery:
As we savored the spinach and feta pastry that Toni served us, he told us how everything they make in the bakery is made by hand, and that it's so important to maintain these traditions in a time when the dynamics of life are changing rapidly. He explained, “this is how we keep our identity alive” people who enjoy our food, “are nostalgic for the past.” Smiling, he said “my grandmother stays alive in the food.” We continued our conversation, and asked him about his perception of his country’s future. Toni swallowed, “what can I say. It’s not easy. Life here is becoming more and more difficult. There is so much corruption, and this makes me skeptical.” With a sombre smile he looked at us to say: “But I do have dreams of course. I would love to expand my bakery into a big business. But these dreams are so difficult. Politics is playing with our lives.”
Sadly, the theme of politics and corruption, is a theme many of our interviewees referred to. But the rather sombre atmosphere suddenly changed when Toni’s friend, Besim burst through the door. Introducing himself with a broad smile, he asked us what on earth we were doing in Prishtina. We spent the following hours drinking coffee with Besim and Toni, and listened to them tell us about their experiences of the war and how it continues to affect their lives.
“Balkan mentality,” Toni explained, “this is a problem for us all. We used to be one nation. Now, not anymore. In reality, there aren’t many differences between us.” Besim chimed in, saying: “Exactly. In fact, when you listen to Balkan music without paying attention to the words, you won’t actually hear any difference between Albanian, Serbian or Bosnian music. Nevertheless, we can’t help but have this hatred for each other.” Toni concluded by saying: “War cannot be forgotten. I don’t think this political tension will ever change. Both sides believe that they are the martyrs and everything is blocked now. We have a newly formed state, but it’s just not functioning.”
Very quickly, it felt like we had known Toni and Besim for years. They were so happy for us to ask them questions, and I got the impression they didn’t get the opportunity to talk about their experiences and emotions very often. After being frustrated by talking about political struggles, Besim changed tack and began telling us about the beautiful natural landscapes Kosovo enjoys. He showed us some exquisite photos of snow covered mountains, and rugged forest landscapes, saying: “When I need a break from all this, I just drive to the mountains and go for a hike or swim. Nature doesn’t care about religion. It doesn’t care if you’re white, green, yellow, Serbian or Albanian. In nature, you just leave your footsteps and that’s it.”
Several hours later, we had spontaneously agreed to take Besim up on his offer, and were all squeezed into the back of Toni’s car, on our way out of Prishtina to get a taste of the nature Besim had told us about. The rest of the afternoon was an incredible experience - representing the perfect “icing on the cake” of our trip to Kosovo. To begin, we jumped off a bridge into the refreshing waters of Gracanica lake, we then swam all the way across the lake to spend some time sunbathing on the grassy banks next to some fishermen and cows, before driving to a bear sanctuary! After being introduced to the life of brown bears in Kosovo (many of which had been rescued from shockingly tiny cages in restaurants) Toni and Besim insisted we stop to try the local Raki (a traditional Balkan liqueur) in a small cafe at the side of the road. By this time, we were all starving hungry and so 30 minutes later we found ourselves being served by traditionally dressed Serbian waiters at a beautiful restaurant just outside the town of Gracanica. After hours of sipping on raki and savoring freshly baked bread, local cheeses, salads, and a never ending number of other delicious platters, we decided to head back home to Prishtina.
This was an incredible experience, and really taught me to have faith in the kindness of strangers. It was also an afternoon where I was able to see a bright future for Kosovo due to the amazing kindness of two strangers we had only just met. As Besim said, at the end of day, “we are all human, that’s what really matters.”