As I write this I’m sitting in the communal living room of an 18th century kulla, a traditional Ottoman-Albanian tower-house, in the small historical village of Drenoc in the west of Kosovo. The “guest room,” as they call it, is a large elegant space in the top floor of the tower, with a perimeter of sheepskin cushions for sitting on. The floor is covered in red woven carpets, while the datk wooden beams of the ceiling add to the cozy atmosphere.
The shoes come off at the door, so we’ve all padded softly up here in socks and house slippers. Our hosts have explained that this room was the traditional cultural hub of village life – the place where disputes were settled, business deals struck, and marriages arranged – while Turkish coffee stimulated the mind and eased conversation.
This is where we’ve come to work for two weeks. The magnificent top floor was refurbished in 2006 by a USAid project, but the second floor, the less formal domain of women and children, still needs work.
But a walk through the village yesterday afternoon showed that Drenoc’s traditions extend beyond the seven historic kullas that make the village a significant cultural site. I got a taste of how life operates in a historic village, in the foothills of the mountains, far from any public transit link, in a region still recovering from a war that touched every family less than a generation ago.
The village is wonderful. From a certain spot you can stand and see nothing in either direction that postdates the 18th century, giving you a chance to visualize, if you can, what the world looked like centuries ago when every village looked like this.
Our walk took us past a local mosque, which stands in the middle of the village cemetery. Overgrown with an abandoned air, the best-kept graves are of those who died in the recent wars and ethnic attacks of the late 90s. A boy of 19 stands dressed in his dugs holding his kalishnikov while an Albanian flag flutters brightly over his grave.
A husband and a wife lie next to each other, dead on the same day in 1998. The graves of the war victims generally have a more kempt appearance, local communities ways of commemorating their fallen and working through grief. As we wander quietly through the weeds, we notice that all the stones share the same half-dozen surnames. Nita, one of our hosts, stops at a worn unmarked stone to light a candle, which sits beside several others.
“She is a person who used to live in the village,” she explains. “She had no arms or legs, so she was very good.” Nita doesn’t know when she lived or died, but people from the village come regularly to light a candle and make a wish at her grave.
Once we leave that solemn place and shut the gate behind us, the village takes on more life than I’d previously noticed. Two men escort a line of five or six reluctantly obedient cows down the street and into a dirt lane.
Every spare patch of land is cultivated in its small way, with a few rows of potatoes or onions, and perhaps a few fruit trees. The courtyard of our Kulla has fig and plum trees, and stands selling fresh strawberries line the roads between the village and the capital.
We stick out – were as conspicuous as can be in our practical work clothes (everyone here seems impressively well-dressed all the time, even in the countryside), with our backpacks and our wallets (comparatively) heavy with euros, snapping photos of the most mundane sights with our iphones. But the locals seem pleasantly intrigued. They invite us into their homes for coffee even though we don’t speak a word of each other’s language, and don’t seem to mind us poking around their village taking pictures of their houses, their cows, or even them.
Everyone I see seems to be out-and-about doing something, from the woman out hoeing her garden with a tool straight from the 18th century to the man mowing his lawn with a sickle. Perhaps people with few possessions take care of them all the more diligently: boys out riding bikes stop at a roadside fountain to wash the dust off their bikes; men hand-buff the hubcaps of their ancient cars; and the living room of our host’s house – even though the entire family has been living and sleeping in this one room since we’ve put them out of their own bedrooms – is immaculately spotless.
So I’ve painted a picture of a pastoral paradise – and I hope these depictions don’t come off paternalistic or condescending: “Oh look at these charming poor people who live such simple but wholesome lives, aren’t they charming!” No, it’s obviously much more complex than that.
But there’s no doubt that a different attitude governs the speed of life here, and it’s refreshing. Because we’re here to complete a project – there is work that we must complete before we leave – it’s very tempting, particularly to some of us who are used to a more intense pace, to focus on the job – wanting the work to move efficiently, to begin on time and for breaks to be for strict lengths at specific times. But so often we show up at the time were told, to find that despite our supervisors being present and all of us being assembled, another 45 minutes might elapse before we head up to start working. Then in the middle of the day, the work might be suspended as by some unspoken agreement everyone drifts outside to spend a few minutes chatting and sitting in the sunshine. The workday ebbs and flows to a natural rhythm as people pay attention to their bodies and the weather instead to to the clock. In the evenings we all sit in the same room – Albanian-speaking family with hopelessly English-speaking guests – to pass the time however we please. Some play cards, some flick through faceook, some play around with face swap, and some try to expand their Albanian vocabulary through a combination of charades and pidgin German (which most people seem to have studied in school here).
Could the work get done more efficuently? Yes. But as someone has spent so long doing what I “ought” to do that I have trouble knowing what I actually want to do, this way of doing things is different… But nice