My Dad always said that you will find a lot of acquaintances in life, but you should consider yourself lucky if you can still count 5 true friends by age 50. I was in 4th grade when he first told me this. I remember looking down at my elementary hands and counting to 7. At the age of 9, I thought I was the luckiest girl in the world because at this rate, I’ll definitely have at least 40 friends by age 50, right?
We all have friends that we believe that we will hold onto for the rest of our lives because they make life enjoyable, they accept your quirky mannerisms, and they just understand the way you are. Friends are supposed to inspire each other, so this post is inspired by one of those friends. 3 years ago, I wandered my way back to Asheville after my Jeep found itself on the side of the road for the last time. I met Lucas through couch surfing and to this day, I am the longest staying couch surfer at the “Pink House.” We have a long, whimsical friendship consisting mostly of breakfast potatoes, comparing Chaco tan lines and dreaming about walking in Memphis.
Anyway, I came back from my first international trip just in time to catch him before he left on his first international trip. He was packing his bags and heading to Europe, without a plan. He spent a lot of time in the Balkans and his stories about one specific country is what inspired my very own Balkan trip, but I’ll get to that soon.
A few months later I received a text message.
“Aimee, where are you, I’m on the porch”
Keep in mind, I havent heard a peep from Lucas about his plans on coming back to the states. Next thing I know he’s on my porch with a mustache and a backpack full of stories.
I spent a little over a week in Kosovo and I understood why he embraced the country with such appreciation. I’ll gladly write a bit about my experience in Kosovo, but Lucas’ words spoke more than I could even begin to prepare for you. This post is dedicated to the citizens of Kosovo and their biggest American fan, Lucas Cipowski. I’m handing over the microphone (keyboard) for this post.
“Kosovo – February & March
The grim month spoke even here. Cold grey skies dampened each alley way and sidewalk, and you would be reminded the rut you have been in when that day of sun finally blessed you, even just for a few hours. But though it seems I could not escape the casual murkiness of February, I was somewhere new.
I first came into the city late at night. Carved up some voice to talk to my bus mate during the trip there, a conversation I remember fondly because of the first shedding light on the unique relationship between our two countries. I got off, not having a map or phone to guide me, and started asking around for the hostel I was supposed to work at, or even some wifi so I could maybe look it up on my computer that was on its few last breaths of life.
I walked around a while looking for where I thought it would be, gearing myself towards what looked like to be the entrance way, or center of attention for a city, the main street. My large green Osprey, dirty and over stuffed 60 liter pack, stuck out like a man who perhaps was in the wrong climate. Street lights lit mostly every path, and though I was slightly on the outskirt of Pristina, I could tell there were many small roads and walkways to get around the city. I came to the traffic circle, where many would believe the city center begins, and my eyes, and most likely any other foreigner’s eyes to Kosovo, were drawn to the red mass of the sky. The flag. Not the Kosovo flag, but Albanian, the black and red eagle, and it was the largest flag I have ever seen (and I live in the United States).
Previously before being in Pristina for a month, I was in Albania living for three and half months, from city to city. Kosovo expressed and shared a lot with Albania, language, pride, the kind hospitality, food, but this city was vastly different. It was a city that was still trying to identify itself, an 11th grader drawn to dress for what’s in and whose in, but when looking at the kid you kind of know they haven’t really found themselves, and rightfully so, you’ve got to grow into you. But the city is a mix, it’s a mix of traditional Albania, traditional Balkan, markets, expression, urban homesteading, but with western flare everywhere. It’s night life, it’s city day, the way fashion was laced up and cut, I could only think of the 90’s in United States, where things felt reckless and cool, this was right before our own country was slowly to be refaced with a new era of the information age. We went out to a lot of clubs in Kosovo, I wished I looked and dressed more like an early member of Green Day for the occasion.
The city is a mid way dream for most travelers. A safe and welcoming place, with often more ex-pats than one would think, amazing artists coming out of the stone and brick ,and hip coffee shops that would make you believe you were in Seattle, if you didn’t have a window to look out of. But all at the same time, pockets of culture are built strong. Alley ways and districts, mosque and eateries with five menu items are here and there. The older generations seem to boom with enthusiasm, eager to laugh, shake hands, and drink raki. The language barrier was there, especially if you are looking for a more true taste of the past, but with that so is a deep honesty and care. For the “guest” is something they truly care about in these parts. They will not try to scam you, manipulate you in any kind, for they pride in the ability to host the one that cannot call this place home, and show you why it is for them.
PS. Travel to Gjacova if you do get to these parts.”
My quick perspective: When you decide to quit your life and go to Kosovo, I suggest traveling to the capital city, Pristina. I stayed at a hostel called Buffalo Backpackers, which is a small, cozy house nestled in one of Pristina smaller neighborhoods. The staff members were more than happy to mingle with the guests, and they were excited to bring you to the best food spots. They organize day trips to destinations all around the country, and do you want to know the best part? You get shuttled around in a super cool VW bus. Let’s be honest, you can’t turn down a road trip in a VW bus.
Depending on who you ask, this city is called Mitrovica, Косовска Митровиц or Mitrovicë. Mitrovica is located right on the Serbian border and it’s divided by the Ibar River and ethnic tension. After the Kosovan War the Serbs fled north of the river and the Albanians fled south. Instead of connecting the two sides, the bridge acts as an unofficial border and is guarded heavily by police.
The northern side is decorated with Serbian flags and the local language will be Serbian. You will see signs written in the Cyrillic alphabet telling customers that they will only accept Serbian Dinar or directions to the closest Orthodox church. On the southern side, the local language will be Albanian and flagpoles will be dressed in Albanian and Kosovan flags. Shop signs are written in the Greek Alphabet and stores will only accept the Euro. Instead of Orthodox churches, you will hear the Islamic “Call to Prayer” drifting through the city.
Mitrovica and Pristina are the two must see cities for entirely different reasons. In one city, you will find a divided community struggling to find a way to coexist. In Pristina, you will find a new, hip metropolis trying to find its own identity. Just like Lucas said, traveling to Kosovo feels like taking a trip back in time. Kosovo is a wonderful country that I have a heart full of appreciation for. I would like to thank all of the locals I met for sharing their stories over a beer or two, the Kosovo Museum for moving me to tears over the “Consciousness” exhibit and Buffalo Backpackers for creating a such a beautiful temporary home for all of us lost wanderers.
Happy (belated) 10th birthday, Kosovo!
Thanks again, Lucas!