Flying down hills from the Albanian border with a tailwind, it was a sort of strange feeling knowing I was now in Kosovo. It just didn’t feel much different from Albania.
I cycled ahead of the French cyclists I had met in Albania because it was going to rain and I didn’t want to get soaked. They somehow still bet me to Prizren though, our target, despite me being “faster.” I like to think it’s because I had too many coffee breaks. In the first town where I stopped for some food, tens of kids gathered around my bike shouting “woah” and I felt like one of those bicycle travellers in remote Africa. Like some strange foreign celebrity. Many were visibly very poor (imagine socks and odd sandals in cold weather). Some were persistently asking for money too.
The road cut across the flat countryside. Nothing around but farms, supermarkets with empty shelves and industrial units.
It was quite surprising for me. I had long thought this country would still be visibly bearing the scars of war, be covered in military personal or that the odd tank lying around wouldn’t be an unusual sight. I’m sorry to tell you if you’re looking for all that stuff you won’t find it here. At least you won’t away from the Serbian border.
Things were surprisingly normal. The language is the same as in Albania (Albanian) but they use Euros instead of Albanian Lek. I first found it strange that people here identify as Albanian but in fact it’s because around 90% are ethnic Albanian. Religion stands at about 95% Islam, pretty obvious from the sheer volume of mosques everywhere—though few people adhere to the strict Islamic rules. It’s diet Islam like the diluted Christianity of the west. People don’t go to the mosques much and they drink beer quite freely (yay!). Prizren actually has a pretty cool pub culture and the people on the whole are very friendly and generous.
Prizren was one of those places I’ll always remember from my travels. The people I met there and the insight I got into the culture because of them was incredible. Here’s a quick digital tour of the second biggest city in Kosovo:
The city is a hive of activity. There aren’t many tourists but many locals can speak English. Especially in the bars, cafés and restaurants around. Food was really cheap and tasty and I had possibly the best, thickest, chocolatiest hot chocolate I’ve tasted in my life. None of this watery powdery nonsense.
There are no McDonald’s in Kosovo, so people that pee Coca Cola will probably have to satisfy their consumerist needs elsewhere, like by buying actual food. Not to say they are anti-American here.
Despite having very little spare cash, many Kosovars go to great lengths to buy expensive things. It’s not unusual for people to buy new iPhones, fancy cars and whatnot and get themselves riddled with debt for years. As one person put it, Kosovo is a perfect example of consumer complacency. People spend the way the super-companies want them too. Advertising works perfectly. And I can’t help but think Kosovo, newly created and still with strict government policies, is a gigantic experiment on control of the people.
Their biggest downfall is their tolerance. A double edged sword. They’re very open to other cultures, and very welcoming to foreigners. But too politically lenient.
The Balkans is going through somewhat of an identity crisis after the breakup of Yugoslavia. Flags fly from nearly every building in Croatia and Serbia, Bosnia is mixed up with three different governments and Macedonia is rebuilding its capital to look like France with red London buses and statues of unknown figures. I hope in future Kosovo finds its feet and creates an identity they are proud of.
Albanian is one of the oldest languages known, and has two dialects: “Gheg,” spoken in Northern Albania, Kosovo and western Macedonia and “Tok,” spoken in Southern Albania and even parts of Greece. Even if you don’t like languages, check out this awesome language tree.