“To move, to breathe, to fly, to float
To gain all while you give
To roam the roads of lands remote,
To travel is to live.”
Hans Christian Anderson
As I walk down Mother Teresa Boulevard on my second to last day in Prishtina, I am overcome with a wave of bittersweet nostalgia. Just eight weeks ago I walked sluggishly down this white brick street, jetlagged and disoriented. My mouth was agape as I took in all the new sights and smells, experiencing the gentle bustle of the hot early summer day. The crowded corner coffee shops, the vendors lining the streets with books, sunglasses, and children’s toys, the head-scarfed beggars sitting in the shade of the sapling trees, heads bowed in prayer, the statues of revered wartime heroes, the husky Albanian language drifting from the mouths of the people that call this city home, this was all new to me. But today, I amble down this street with ease, perhaps with the air and language of a foreigner, but with the look of someone who has truly experienced this place. This city has so much soul, and I am not quite sure if I am ready to leave it.
The past eight weeks have brought a whirlwind of studying, traveling, learning, growing, and barely enough sleep. I have visited six countries — Kosovo, Montenegro, Albania, Croatia, Macedonia, and Turkey — which have shown me beauty I didn’t know could exist. Within Kosovo, I have explored four cities — Prishtina, Podujevo, Peja, and Prizren. I have written three, in-depth news stories for my internship at KosovaLive. I have completed eight credit hours worth of college classes. I have established strong friendships with several of the students who joined me on this trip, and lasting relationships with professors who can help further my career. The amount I experienced in this short time seems enough for several lifetimes. I couldn’t begin to describe all I have learned, all that has opened my eyes and changed me as a person. But I will tell you what I have found most important.
Throughout my time in Kosovo, I have learned that this country’s character and development is rooted in the thoughts, beliefs, and perceptions of its people. Upon arriving here, one immediately sees the Turkish-Ottoman influence, with the red-roofed villages speckled across the mountaintops. They may be struck by the Muslim influence, with the eerily beautiful call to prayer reverberating five times a day from the mosques across the city. They will notice the American flags rippling in the breeze alongside the blue and yellow of Kosovo’s, and Bill Clinton’s statue saluting the heart of the city. They will pass by the shell of the Serbian Orthodox Church and know who also claims rights to this land. In addition, of course they will hear the gorgeous symphony of various languages echoing down the street-corners, with Albanian —a testament to Kosovo’s dominant population — the loudest voice of all. While Kosovo’s mosaic of cultures may make it difficult for one to stand out, that is the point. Kosovo isn’t just the diamond-shaped country with a contentious history nestled in the Balkans. Its identity is found within its people, who blend millennia of different cultures, traditions, and belief to generate a new, unique personality.
Capturing the essence of Kosovo through the written word is not as easy as writing a quick travel blog or column. Its rich history and culture cannot be confined by a word count or column length — a book could span 1,000 pages and barely scratch the surface of this incredible place. But if I were to attempt to write Kosovo’s narrative, and try to describe its culture to a person with little understanding, I would describe its people that I have met, who truly represent Kosovo’s past, but are also driving it toward a better future. I would begin with a narrative about Kelmend Hapciu, the editor in chief of KosovaLive, who fought to sustain an underground, independent news agency during a time of war, when he didn’t know if his wife and daughters were safe from the NATO bombings. His story reflects the persistence of a journalist in a nation that depends so heavily on accurate news coverage, especially when there is so little that can be trusted. I would tell them about Ymir Gushia, our tour guide in Prizren, who has not seen his wife in a year because she has to earn 18,000 pounds at her job in Britain for him to obtain a visa. His story illustrates the struggle Kosovars must face when wishing to travel. I would tell the story of Alex, the owner of Sabaja Brewery, who moved to Pristina with his Albanian wife to establish a local brewery in the city. His perspective contributes to Kosovo’s beer narrative, and how an American would wish to travel all the way to a tiny country in the Balkans to contribute to its economy and enhance its beer consumption. I would describe the teacher I interviewed for sexual education story, who, despite living in a shack in the slums of Pristina, is willing to give what little she has to ensure her students reach success — even if that simply means teaching them proper sex ed! I would talk about Zeke Ceku, the former general manager of the Grand Hotel, who reflects the passion Kosovars put into their work, even wen they have lost everything. Finally, I would write about the director of the Red Cross in Podujevo, Ahmet Ahmeti, who helped establish the Manchester Peace Park in the city. The park was dedicated to the children who lost families during the Podujevo massacre, illustrating the power of a community to come together and honor the dead, while preserving a lasting peace.
This collage of anecdotes is a small representation of the millions of Kosovars who have incredible stories to tell. The overarching message here is that while Kosovo citizens may differ and disagree on ethnic heritage and rightful claims to land, they have faced and fought the same battles, and call the same place home. Above all else, they are working to give that home a new identity, by blending their historic cultural heritage and its values with innovative thoughts and conventions for a successful future. Kosovo is not just the tiny country in the Balkans that is only remembered by its brutal war and controversial history. It cannot be defined by its recognition and international status or lack thereof. Kosovo is defined by its cornucopia of cultures, and the people that sustain them. They push its progress forward, they determine its identity and future, and dictate how and when it gets there. They stitch up the patchwork of cultures and histories and heritages and make a cohesive, intertwining quilt that is that much more colorful with all its intricacies.
In two days, I will come back home to a soft bed, air conditioning, less spotty wifi, comfort food, and a dog that I have been dying to attack with hugs and kisses. But I am nervous I will be entering a period of reverse culture shock upon arriving in the United States. I am not yet sure of the extent to which this program as changed me. I know I have become much more grateful of my easy life in the United States, of the safety, security, and money that brings structure and predictability to my sheltered little world. I cannot take for granted the endless opportunities that lie before me, the various paths, beaten, remote, or well traveled, that I can choose to take me into my future. But I wish I wasn’t reentering a culture of apathy toward the government, of lack of participation in decision-making that affects the wellbeing of our extremely powerful nation. I am especially going to miss the easy-going lifestyle in Kosovo. Americans are in such a rush to be somewhere or do something by a certain time. Life is far too structured by time and schedule. When do we ever get a chance to breathe, to sip a macchiato in a café without worrying about when the waiter is going to bring the check? Our lives are dictated by deadlines that we create for ourselves. Despite how busy I have been during my time here, traveling has taught me to take a deep breath and see what exists outside the endless buzz and stress of work and school: a world teeming with unspeakable, indescribable beauty that is patiently waiting for all of us to stop and open our eyes.
I am not sure what my future holds, but I can say with certainty my passion for journalism has been revitalized. I hope to pursue it long into my life. Kosovo has provided me with the perfect place to discover how impactful and vital journalism is to a community. I realize I have the power to inform the members of a society so they can perform their proper duty and citizens as fully participate in governmental decision-making. And by doing so, I have also realized how important is for me to participate in my government, as well.
I know I will come back to this rugged little country and see how it has progressed a few years from now. I realize sadly that there is so much I am leaving behind undone and unfixed. I hope to see the stray dogs well-fed and in loving arms. I want to see the skinny, haughty eyed children roaming the streets for money in school with full bellies. I hope the Grand Hotel will have a new owner and a brand new look that is able to preserve its glorious history. And above all else, I want all the ethnic tensions and hostilities that persist here to be put aside so a new country with a new identity can develop and flourish.
Kosovo is so much more than a tiny little country the size of Connecticut that was once ravaged by war and is now neglected by the media. It has taught me the power of storytelling, it has ignited a passion for travel in my soul, and has urged me to look inward and discover things about myself I never knew before. Even when I am gone, this energetic, quirky little place will live on quietly in the rolling mountains of the Balkans. I cannot wait to explore others like it one day. After all, in the words of Michael Palin, “once travel bug bites, there is no known antidote, and I know I will be happily infected for the rest of my life.”