Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Day One in the Balkans

I'll preface this all by saying that I wasn't even supposed to be here this week.  I was supposed to be in Sharm el Shiek, Egypt, with my family, but about a month ago we decided to seek another destination for February Break.  World events have had a way of disrupting my travel plans especially in the last year (ahem, Eyjafjallajokul), so here I am in Belgrad.

Where do I begin?  Having virtually no reference for what to expect in either Belgrad or Kosovo (truly, I wasn't even sure if the latter was a city, country, or what.  Actually, I'm still trying to figure that one out), I'm not sure where to begin to tell you what I am seeing.  I knew that Belgrad was a city because of when a Chinese Embassy was bombed in 1999, I didn't have school in Beijing for a week (more of those world events changing the course of my life).  But other than that, I'm afraid my Balkans education has been sorely lacking.  I'll try to explain as I go and use pictures.

I left Moscow in a blaze, except for the sitting in traffic for 2 hours on the way to the airport (some days it only takes 15 minutes).  My flight to Belgrad was about 2.5 hours.  I met my lovely friend, Anna, and we took a bus back to her house.  After a quick lunch we were off to the bus station where we boarded a luxurious coach and began the 6 hour journey to Prishtina, Kosovo, to see her boyfriend, Peder.  In order to get seats together we had to sit backwards and I am amazed I didn't get sick.  Thank you, Ira Glass and others for distracting and entertaining me along the way.  We stopped after 2 or so hours at a rest stop, and got some tea/coffee.

We spent about half an hour at the border into Kosovo.  There are some interesting rules regarding boarder crossing from Serbia into Kosovo, stemming from the fact that Kosovo says they are an independent country while Serbia does not.  In fact, you can't enter Serbia from Kosovo unless you have entered Kosovo from Serbia.  We didn't have any problems though, and I later learned that in Kosovo, they love America.  I saw quite a few American flags fluttering in the Kosovar wind, and it was weird.  It was about another hour to Prishtina where Peder met us with flowers.  We went back to his apartment and got some food before going to what I'm going to describe as a living room bar.  It was there I had my first taste of Peja beer.  More on this later.

This is where I have a difficult time explaining what I saw.  My first impression of Pristina was a strong smell that recognized from the past, from China.  Later Peder told me it was probably the coal factories, which does make sense.  Prishtina felt old and new, a strange combination of falling apart and being rebuilt.  Everything seemed a work in progress.  Remont.  We went to artsy places where Peder seemed to know most people.  We walked past a large building with a big blue lit-up sign that said "American School of Kosovo."  There were no Western restaurants or stores that I could see.  And we needed to take a flashlight to see the water filled holes in the street.  I have these images and no conclusions.  The day before had actually been Independence Day for the Republic of Kosovo, but there were very few people out that night and no trace of the celebrations.

Moscow is two hours ahead of here, so I fell asleep quickly, after brownies at midnight.  Anna and I are back in Belgrad now and we're about to go to a cafe now for dinner and book reading.  More on the road trip to Peja and new friends later...

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