The bus from Belgrade arrived in dark Priština late in the evening, snow drearily falling as I exit the bus and make my way to the hotel.
(In actuality, the route was much more direct but Google refuses to believe that such a route exists.)
No restaurants are open, only a little shop with a sign written that it closes at 22:00. The time is 22:30, but the lights are on so I open the door. A slouched over bald man with a wispy grey goatee peers up at me through glossy eyes from his phone. “Hello. Are you open?” I say, as he hurriedly stands up.
“Yes, my friend, open uh, 45 more minutes. What you need? Beer?”
“We’ll get to that. Got any ajvar?” Ajvar is my favorite spreadable eggplant and pepper goo that I discovered on my first journey to the Balkans.
“Of course.” He hands me a bottle of ajvar. “Bread?” he hands me a bag filled with bread. “Beer?” He takes out a 2-liter bottle of local beer.
“Maybe that’s too much.”
“Come on. In Balkans, if only have one beer is no worth.”
“Alrighty then, let’s do it.” He rings up all my goodies for a total of only around 3 Euros, and when I tell him I am from American he raises his thumb in approval.
Kosovo is where I have received the most welcome as in American in Europe. Generally, being American in Europe is more of a novelty for many Europeans. People instantly give me a smirk and ask about trump or about how many guns I have. It feels more like my existence is a bit of a joke for a lot of them. But for Kosovo, America has heavily aided the country since its independence. Take a walk down Bill Klinton street, marvel at the statue of Bill Clinton and countless American flags while being monitored by American security guards throughout the capital. From this perspective, Priština is one of the strangest capitals in Europe. This, along with their bizarre monument of the National Library which looks like cubes covered in fishnet.
Priština is not an overwhelmingly gorgeous city, but much like Serbia, Priština is rather real. You can see the growing pains that the city is experiencing, along with the changes that come from being the youngest nation in Europe. Though I must say, there is much more to do than in Podgorica, the capital of Montenegro. There is a cute old town with mosques and small shops reminiscent of the Ottoman old town in Skopje.
The city can be seen in several hours, so most of my day was spent in cafes reading and people watching, which is always a pleasure. Kosovars are more ethnically Albanian than Serbian, which lends them a great deal of hospitality from their Albanian culture. They are much quicker to smile than Serbs, and in general, have a much warmer approach to life. Kosovars also seem to act like a part of Albania rather than Serbia, as well. There are more Albanian flags than Kosovar flags flying, and there is a monumental statue of Albania’s national hero, Skanderbeg, in the main city square.
Priština is still in its development stages, so I head to Prizren in the South of Kosovo for a little day trip.
Reachable in only about an hour and a half, Prizren is considered the cultural capital of Kosovo. With the oldest mosque in the country and a beautiful old town, the city is worth a visit for a day. I spent the time wandering the old Ottoman town with its old bridge and countless mosques. Prizren also has an excellent cafe culture, so most of my day was filling myself with cheap coffees and people watching.
Above the city lies the fortress, which has stood to protect the city for centuries. From the top is the famous view of the cities red roofs, and I made it to the top just in time for the call to prayer.
Eventually, when I felt that I had wandered the city enough and filled myself with too many coffees, I hopped on the bus back to Priština. I had a jar of ajvar to finish, and meanwhile I tried to find some couchsurfers to spend the evening with. Thirty minutes later I was meeting up with Alexis, a bearded Parisian traveling back from his friends wedding in Russia. We meet in front of the Skanderbeg statue with a local, Shend, who takes us to a popping local pub for some beers. The entire place is packed, but we don’t mind because its full of life and suited political figures. Alexis goes to buy beers and Shend introduces me to his cousin, who works for an American NGO, and her boyfriend who works as a professor in Maryland. I feel as though I am drinking with the upper echelon of Kosovar culture, and once again thank the couchsurfing gods for such luck.
Alexis and I hit it off pretty quickly, as we have both studied the same thing and both feel that the educations we took are a little bit antiquated. Neither of us really know what we are doing, but we both know that we love to travel. Rather than go straight to college, Alexis took a five year gap year hitchhiking and working around Europe and South America before settling back in Paris to take his education. It appears I have found a kindred spirit far away from home in a packed bar in Priština.
Shend works for an American company in the IT department, which seems to be a pretty good setup. Working for an American company in a developing country has some perks, such as allowing Shend and his cousin to travel around Europe much more than the average Kosovar. They are knowledgeable and articulate, something I have noticed in a lot of Serbs and Kosovars alike. Here we spent much of the night until the bar kicked us out, discussing politics, music, and culture of the Balkans and Kosovo.
Nobody seems to know about the Monster festival I am going to in Bulgaria, and more importantly, no one seems to care. Why am I the only one so interested in this? Regardless, we set out of the bar early in the morning, I bid farewell to Shend and Alexis, and grab a couple hours of sleep before my next leg of the journey.
The time has finally come to go to Bulgaria. It has taken me on a week and a half long journey through three countries, and now I find that my destination is soon approaching. Next, a bus to Skopje and then to Sofia to meet with my couchsurfer and eventually the monsters.
Skopje is rather easy to get to from Priština. Buses leave often and only take about two hours. Snow falls down in fat clumps, and I am glad that I am leaving early in the morning. My head hurts a bit from all of the Kosovar hospitality, but its nothing a little bus nap won’t fix. Two hours later we arrive in Skopje, a city I visited last Spring, and I was excited to see what the city had to offer in the snow. With a five hour wait before my bus to Sofia, I took a stroll through the tundra to the sculpture encrusted downtown. I was especially excited to see how the city has changed since last Spring.
The city is still covered in nonsense sculptures and plastic buildings, and I even notice some new buildings and statues. Northern Macedonia is preparing to be signed into NATO, so the capital is continually being built up and given “class”. I reflect on something Shend had brought up the night before. He told me that he liked Priština, because, “it’s ugly, but at least it’s honest. Skopje is so fake.”
I can’t help but agree with him. The city is so absurdly designed, it can only bring joy in its sheer nonsense. But I like the city, I like how weird it is. I like the London-style double-decker buses built by the Chinese that parade around the streets. I like thousands of random sculptures and statues. I like thin, classical buildings that serve no purpose other than imposing an image of Macedonian strength. I only wish that all of this money could have been spent developing the country’s infrastructure or education. Or at least, some more original architecture.
But Skopje is still a very weird, beautiful city. Especially in these fat blobs of snow.
After a fresh ginger beer and some kebab, it is time to go to Sofia. Finally, the monsters are coming my way.
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