Pristina, Kosovo – Twenty minutes, a hundred first impressions

So approximately thirty minutes after picking up my bags from the airport, I find myself already sat down – armed with the foamiest cappuccino I have ever enjoyed – to write about this new place called Kosovo. Except it’s not new – but it is – but it isn’t. See, the Republic of Kosovo only declared itself in 2008, but many countries – in particular Serbia – still don’t recognize its sovereignty (much more on that later, I’m sure). But Kosovo the region has been a battleground for centuries, all the way back to the 1389 Battle of Kosovo, the definitive legendary battle of the Serbs against the Turks, which inspired myth and epic, and gave birth to Serbian national pride as, like, even a thing.

All I’ve done so far is grab my bag, send a few quick texts to let people know I’ve arrived, take a fifteen minute cab ride, and plop myself down in the restaurant of my hotel. You may think I’m exaggerating when I say that my hand way itching – literally twitching – to start recording everything I was seeing. That short ride was its own battle inside me – my brain’s desire to jot down every single thing I passed in the car, warring against the sheer unbearability of looking away. Even now my writing is all chicken scratching a because I just can’t get the words out fast enough and why oh why did I leave my laptop at home?!?!

Really the first impressions began before even landing. Flying from Istanbul had been cloudless, the sun shining down strong and uninterrupted on vast arid plains and the occasional ridge of lovely mountains. Beyween the flight map and GPS on Google Maps, I was keeping eager track of our progress, trying to pin down if this river was the Macedonian border, if that city was Skopje, and whether those mountains in the distance might actually be in Greece.

But then, as we crossed into Kosovo airspace and the pilot announced our imminent descent, I know it sounds extraordinary but the plane suddenly swooped down – no really, with a swoopy engine noise and everything! – into the only cloud bank we’d seen the entire flight. And suddenly the unrelenting sunshine gave way to a dull grey cloud through which we sank down, and down, and down, before breaking into a world of gloomy deep-green mountains below. Ominous. Omen-ous.

And really, if I could use only one word to describe Kosovo thus far, it would be green. I don’t know if it’s just that time of Spring, but from the instant I stepped out of the airport – no, even when we were flying over – which sits face-to-face with a sizable hill-slash-mountain, everything here is green, growing green. The grass is thick, velvet green, the trees are energetic and springy, and the mountains are a deep, mysterious green, entirely appropriate to their looming presence under the gloomy sky. I hadn’t expected this lush growth, this pervading impression of fertility. And actually, the earth does look sort of dry and crumbly, but you’d have to look pretty hard to notice it because it’s entirely covered in green stuff.

So Kosovo is solidly Greener Than Expected – what else? Well there’s the airport, apparently so new that it still smells faintly of construction. It’s filled with shiny, welcoming, cosmopolitan duty-free shops that are all eerily empty. It’s got that Sochi Olympics vibe of a place built to resemble the west but which ends up a ghost town. The Swarovski crystal display stands glittering hopefully and imploring passers-by, “Please, someone… Can’t anyone afford me?!” Sorry, buddy. I couldn’t afford you in Glasgow and I can’t afford you here. So I too pass on. The cab stand is populated enough though, so I check the price to the city – fifteen euros – and hop in.

And the whirlwind begins.

From the lines of cars two decades out of style, to the dude parked just outside he airport selling from the boot of his car what appear to be rusty antique landmines brightly painted with clock-faces. And the green – of empty grassy fields, cultivated plots, small groves of fruit trees, and garden centers apparently growing acres of decorative shrubbery – contrasts with the bright copper of new brick houses – new construction everywhere, it seems – topped with cheery terracotta roofs.

But sometimes it’s difficult to tell – is that house a bombed out shell, or still being built? Are things going up or coming down? Both, certaibly, but I’m thinking a bit more of the former. Kosovo is the new kid on the EU block, an up-and-comer with international sympathy on its side, trying to unshackle themselves from the specter of Serbia, which still officially claims the region as theirs. It’s just come on the euro, has a brand new “International Airport” and even a Mango going up in its new shopping mall. So it’s probably no accident that the route between the airport and the city is buzzing with construction projects of capacious, modern-style houses that any westerner would envy – I certainly do. Whether anybody actually lives in them, of course, is less certain. But they certainly look impressive, and that’s the point.

Further into the city the ghosts of communist-era housing still remain, and I’m reminded of the noxious 70s high rises that line the route into Moscow. You get the odd minaret and the Albanian flag here and there – the country is 99% Muslim and ethnically Albanian – but the people walking on the streets look like you’d find in any city in the UK (except perhaps a bit more tanned…).

And aside from the curious sites that conjure the past, like the dude selling landmines, or the “Association for Kosovan Prisoners of War” located across from my hotel, my first impressions are all of a place that is trying desperately to escape the mortifying past and catch up with the rest of Europe.

Maybe in a bit I’ll have some further thoughts, when I’ve spent more than twenty minutes in the place. But now perhaps a nice nap… Zzzzzzz.



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