“Pristina? Where is that?”
“It’s the capital of Kosovo,” answered my husband.
I immediately informed him I would be crashing his work trip. We were in Sarajevo, and in no way was I going to pass up an opportunity to visit the place that dominated my university studies and newsfeeds everywhere during the turn of the century. With airfare booked, I parked myself in a café to scour the internet for sites and attractions in Pristina. I was soon disappointed. While there are a few sites highlighting the virtues of the world’s second newest capital city – mainly the urban area’s infectious energy and numerous cafés – the overarching theme seemed to be boredom.
Which is unfortunate. Pristina’s roots run deep – 4th century deep. It’s witnessed empires rise and fall over millennia, from ancient kingdoms predating the Roman Empire through the collapse of Yugoslavia, and has often served as a center of craft and trade. But very little of that history remains; it seemed to have given way to the sterilization of Communism, the bombardment of modern warfare and the glass and steel of international reconstruction. Other than touring religious buildings and a handful of small museums, Pristina offers little for a visitor to pass the time, especially in the winter. Unless, that is, you are working with governments, contractors or NGOs; then, at least, you’d have a conference to attend (lucky husband). I was, therefore, eager to make the most of my short trip, fill my days and try to discover what makes Pristina unique.
Upon arriving, I excitedly set out in search of the acclaimed monument spelling “Newborn,” symbolic of the young city’s emergence onto the world stage. Stepping out into a hazy, cold sunshine, I tasted, more than smelled, the modern sign of industrialization and progress: pollution rolling over non-descript buildings, around construction cranes and down heavily trafficked streets. Avoiding deep breaths, walking in circles (Google maps don’t always work in Kosovo), and repeatedly risking my life to cross the street, I eventually arrived at the brick-lined plaza hosting the monument, expecting to see giant 10-feet-high, three-feet-thick metal letters, brightly painted and dominating the roadside. But the plaza was empty. Not even the pedestals remained.
When I asked different people why the monument had been removed, many were as surprised as I was. “I just walked by it the other day,” someone told me, giving me the universal look of skepticism. It was early February, though, and the 17th would be Kosovo’s 10th Independence Day. Every year the monument is repainted to reflect the mood of the country, so it had “probably” been dismantled for cleaning along with the repainting. Probably. It has also been 10 years since independence, so perhaps “Newborn” no longer applied? (My worries were for not, however – my visit ended up being a few weeks before the official unveiling of the updated monument on Independence Day, which did indeed reveal a regal (and freshly cleaned) silver-lettered, numbered “New10orn”.)
With my first sight-seeing attempt thwarted, I grabbed my laptop and settled into a corner table at Dit e Nat, a trendy café tucked down a side street, stuffed with lively groups of young people and serving criminally cheap, deliciously aromatic macchiatos. Better macchiatos than I’ve had in Italy, actually. Diving back into my online research, and thumbing through a handy 2011 “Pristina in your Pocket” pamphlet (the most recent version I could find), I decided the next afternoon would be devoted to the few touristy sites around the city center.
Thankfully, the wind picked up, clearing smog from the crowded streets and leaving a brilliant, bright winter sun and pale blue sky. I made my way down Bill Klinton Boulevard to take in the 10-foot-high statue of the United States’ 42nd president, waving one hand and clutching paperwork in the other. And yes, it’s placed next to the women’s clothing store, aptly named Hillary, and which also happens to sell pantsuits. A few blocks east, at the intersection of Bill Klinton Blvd and Xhorxh (George) Bush Blvd, is the almost-finished, skyline-dominating Mother Teresa Cathedral. Though she was Catholic and born in Macedonia, her parents were supposedly from Kosovo and Kosovars, who are primarily Muslim, claim her as their own.
Later, while roaming the uneven cobblestone streets of what’s left of Old Town, a storefront window lured me inside with its artsy mugs and magnets. I quickly realized it wasn’t a shop; I had wandered into the office of a local outdoor adventure company, Butterfly Outdoor Adventure. The owner, whom I was told had just left for the day, loves to climb and started the company as a way to draw attention to Kosovo’s splendid outdoors (per their brochure, one can partake daily of hiking and yoga, rock climbing, or cycling throughout different regions of the country). I filed the information away as I left – Balkan countries are teeming with breathtaking scenery waiting to be explored, and a mountain trek would be the perfect future excursion.
Arriving at Old Town’s excellent Ethnographic Museum, a centuries-old Ottoman home affiliated with the Kosovo Museum, I was immediately met by the museum curator. His enthusiasm was contagious, and he animatedly described the buildings, rooms and artifacts, and their relevance to modern Pristina. He also kept stressing the importance of my return during warmer months, when the rest of the museum renovations would be complete and the city would be more enjoyable. There’s not much to do in the colder months, he admitted, unless you ski. Starting in the Spring, mountains can be traversed and cities come alive. I mentioned the outdoor adventure company around the corner and he broke into a large, excited grin. “Oh yes!” he exclaimed. “Uta – she’s a national hero, we love her.”
Turns out that little adventure company was founded by Uta Ibrahimi, the first female Albanian Kosovar to summit Mt. Everest. I missed her by 15 minutes!
He soon guessed I was American. “We are the most pro-American country in the world,” he explained. “We love them because they saved us.” My mind drifted back to the presidential street names. And to the statue of Bill Clinton. The paperwork in his right hand was the 1999 agreement launching NATO’s military campaign in defense of Kosovo, subsequently halting Serbian forces’ ethnic cleansing of the region.
The curator, who was 14 during the war, brimmed with all sorts of information, and not just about history, politics or the museum. His passion clearly lay with the youth and promise of Kosovo. “All the young people sit around and drink coffee. I mean, that is good because what else are they going to do? But they need to work. We [Kosovars] need work.”
Though Kosovo’s economy has been steadily growing at 3.4% since the country’s inception in 2008, unemployment hovers around 32% (50%, for those under 25).
It wasn’t just tourists with nothing to do. Nevertheless, since most of the population was born during or after the war, they don’t have the conflict burdening them the way older generations do. Educated, skilled and motivated, most are optimistic about the future – both for themselves and their country.
Strolling back down Mother Teresa Boulevard, I noticed how young many of my companions were. Taking advantage of the clear skies and relatively clean air, hundreds had descended to parade up and down the boulevard with family and friends, dressed to impress and bundled up in slim puffer coats. The wide, street-vendor and café lined promenade offers the perfect setting to see and be seen. I thought back to the museum curator’s coffee comments. I realized then how the cafés, offering 1€ macchiatos, were teeming with these young people – laughing, chatting, studying.
How silly my fear of boredom then seemed. And the city does pulse with an electric-sort of energy. What Pristina lacks in tourist attractions, it’s people make up in spirit and persistence. I had found what makes Pristina remarkable. I was surrounded by an entire generation making the best of their situation, biding their time until Pristina once again takes its place as a center of craft and trade, and doing the same thing people do everywhere – going for walks, meeting friends for coffee, dreaming about the future.
So, what did I do in a city with nothing to do? I headed to the closest café, ordered a macchiato, and struck up a conversation with the person sitting next to me.