Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Reflections on Kosovo

What I like most about traveling, especially to places that most Americans would never dream of visiting, is the opportunity to see and absorb the differences. It's one reason why I like to rent a car and travel out to the country side in many of the places I've been to - it allows you to see life through the eyes of the locals more so than simply visiting the largest city in a given country. In the same way that visiting New York City does not give a visitor a true impression of American life, visiting and staying in a country's top city is often limiting, not just from a sightseeing standpoint, but from a day-in-the-life standpoint.

So with that said, this being my last day in Kosovo, I've been reflecting on what I've seen and there's plenty of differences to write home about. Many of them are not so positive, but Kosovo is not a wealthy place and that can be seen in daily life. But that was also what I was signing up for - the opportunity to live in a developing country for some time, doing without the comforts we are familiar with in the US and in Western Europe. It's certainly not on the same scale as living in Africa, but it's not France or Norway either.

Observations include:
  • Smoking - This being my ninth Europe trip in seven years, I know that smoking tends to be more prevalent in European society. With that said, and after being warned before arriving here that "there's a lot of smoking," I don't think Western Europe measures up to the Balkans. The Skopje, Macedonia In Your Pocket Guide says that people in the Balkans are "born smoking." That sums it up well. In Kosovo, men (rarely women I've noticed), go from establishment to establishment with a carton of cigarettes trying to earn a living. It's a habit easy to start here, and even easier to sustain since a carton of cigs is as cheap as a can of soda. When you sit down to eat at a restaurant, the ash holder (is there a formal name for it?) is brought to you just as quickly as your drinks. Indoors, outdoors, in the car, while eating, while working, in the morning, in the evening, smoking is part of Kosovar daily life no different than brushing one's teeth or changing one's clothes.
  • A je lodh? - This is Albanian for 'Are you tired?' a greeting that goes hand in hand with 'How are you?' You'll hear it in the same sentence as Qysh je (How are you) or by itself. To American ears, it's somewhat humorous and one of those cultural differences worth embracing.
  • Dogs and cats - Kosovo isn't the first place I've seen stray dogs and cats wondering around looking for food. Poland seems to have a similar problem and I recall making a mental note of it the two times I've been to that country. There seems to be more in Kosovo, however, which seems logical. There's obviously a root cause for the problem, poverty and an overestimation of what it takes monetarily to care for a pet are my guesses, but without doing the research, I am only speculating.
  • Poverty - In Kosovo, you'll sit outside at a restaurant and a girl perhaps 10 years old will approach you and give you a hug in the hopes of winning a few euro from you. This happened in our second week here to a classmate as we sat outside a restaurant. We had no idea what the intent was and we all thought it was cute until we finally figured it out. Other times, an elderly person, Roma or not, will approach, stand there with their hand held out hoping you'll give something. People ignore these beggars and they eventually go away empty-handed and continue on to the next outdoor establishment. In one case, a begger went from table to table and placed a piece of paper with writing on it on each one. I asked what it said, and was told that the person was asking for money. The establishment takes no action against these people asking for money, and because I can't remember the last time it happened to me in New York, my guess is this is something establishments in New York would never tolerate.
  • Roads - From traveling in the former Soviet bloc, in places like Poland and Slovakia, I knew what to expect from the roads here. I figured they would be narrow, bumpy, two-lanes only with a lot of passing and slow-going sitting behind trucks and farm equipment. I was right and I was wrong. Somewhere in June, perhaps it was when I rented a car and drove to Albania, experiencing the driving first-hand, I declared out loud that the roads in this part of Europe are worse than up north. Part of the reason is that Kosovo is not flat; roads curve around quite a bit, making passing more difficult and the whole driving experience more draining. 
  • Searching Through Dumpsters - In Kosovo, and no doubt in other places around Europe, it's not only stray cats climbing around dumpsters, it's also teenaged Roma. They climb inside a dumpster looking for food or anything else they think is usable. I've seen this a few times and captured it once with a few photos.
  • Dusty streets - It didn't take long for my new casual shoes, bought for the trip, to become old casual shoes. Walking in a developing country means getting a little dirty.
  • The weather - The weather in Kosovo is fantastic. While reports of 100 degree heat were coming out of New York, Kosovo's hottest day never felt nearly as hot as what people in New York were dealing with this summer and will continue to deal with through August. Without the humidity, the heat feels completely different, more like California's heat. The evenings are usually pleasant where an air conditioner was never needed. It may be what I will miss most about spending the summer here, especially after I return to New York where I am certain the air conditioner will be on full blast.
Overall, it's been a positive experience. Kosovo is an  interesting place, not just because of its status in international relations terms, but for its culture, its history, and its future prospects as an independent nation. As it grows and builds up its tourism infrastructure, the word will get out and more people will visit, creating more economic opportunity for the Kosovar people.

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