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June 14, 2008

The Land You Call Your Own

Filed under: blog — nicoletung @ 6:27 pm

An unedited article I wrote a few weeks back-


The Land You Call Your Own

The café was packed with cigarette toting men, and a few well-manicured women engulfed in the comfort of large sofas. Smoke lingered like a slow suffocation as macchiatos were shuffled to and fro, shooting up Prishtina’s beautiful, vogue, restless, and oft-inspired bravado with a spike of caffeinated life.


All kinds of chatter went around exuding a spirited, warm buzz—for in a place like the Strip Depot, or just about every other café in the city, almost everyone was familiar with another. However many hours people chose to be in there, they would be ensured a sanctuary-like atmosphere, insulated from the realities that are a different kind of creature just beyond the door—unless an abrupt power cut decides to snap that reality in.


When the lights go out in Kosovo, this slice of a normal, unwelcome intrusion into daily life is met with varying reactions, ranging from the heavy sighs to the fluid motions of kick starting the rumbling of generators.


“Yup, this is Kosovo,” an interpreter once chimed to me as soon as the room went pitch black—just to make sure I didn’t forget where I was. I had just accepted the solitude of darkness on my second evening there when I realized electricity wasn’t the only issue in households. My after-midnight trip to the toilet confined hand washing to scooping out water from buckets permanently stored beside the sink. Water cuts are also included in the mire of problems.


It’d be unfair to say that it was a mortal pain in the arse to adjust to the shortcomings of a society in limbo, though. It just took some getting used to. As I emerged from my New Yorker mindset of dizzying lights on crack and abundance taken for granted, I instead began to see the daily occurrences as analogies to the way things are in Kosovo: unpredictable, sometimes frustrating, and even surprising—and they went more or less in that order.


Before independence actually became a credible feat earlier this year, it seemed—from an outsider’s point of view—as if Kosovo straddled between a past that wouldn’t let it go and a future that beckoned for it to move forward. The issue of independence was what kept it stationary, much like a barrier that needed to be overcome, before basic necessities and social matters could be adequately addressed. Unpredictability afforded you the luxury of knowing that something would eventually happen—just not when.


Still formally a part of Serbia but close to being its own nation in almost every way, Kosovo Albanians were also, right up until a few days before February 17, unsure of the identity they were meant to forge in a limbo life. Purpose, and life itself even, seemed to loiter on its own two feet, just as someone waits indefinitely at a bus stop for a ride that might not come. Frustrations grew over the political stagnation, as did they grow over persistent power outages and unemployment. But this is where the surprise comes.


Amidst the rather bleak picture I seemed to have painted, it’s not nearly that bad. I learned two important lessons about a culture and country I’ve come to form a love-hate relationship with. Firstly, if you are a guest in someone’s house, you will be fed until breathing becomes a struggle and any prospects of standing properly is clearly diminished. Secondly, without a land you can call your own, you have no basis for a heartfelt identity.


In the total of almost two months I’ve spent in Kosovo so far, I also learned that life did go on in its own grind, albeit rather unnoticed to outside eyes so focused on the ways of Balkan politics that Kosovo became synonymous with. But now Kosovo is independent, and it has yet to open up to the vagaries that this newly acquired country will encounter.


I’ve heard the youth of Kosovo be accused of provincialism, but that can easily be dispelled. This generation—the generation in their 20s and 30s—are old enough to remember what they witnessed and experienced in the war of 1999. They are also young enough to be flexible in the ways they think, to realize that unemployment is not an obstacle, nor an excuse to sit back. Their education is contextualized by the formalization of their home, their land—it isn’t something many get to experience in their lifetimes.


So though my experiences varied—from a few run ins with some unruly men, to a number of victimized women at a safe house, to the good guys (the cops) and the bad ones (of the paramilitary sort)—I would have to say that I’ve been endowed with certain values that can only be learned in a place like Kosovo.


Family, community, and light-heartedness with a twist—common to both Albanians and Serbs—are just among a few of them. I should also mention that the café is an actual institution I was unfamiliar with before, but now know so well—if you aren’t yet the type to hang out in cafes for hours on end, you soon will be.


In hindsight, it is thrilling to muse over the mood that presided over Prishtina just weeks before Kosovo gained its independence. I wonder what the mood is like now, a few months post. I am sure it is a unique buzz in the air that is unmistakably Kosovar. 


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