Friday, January 17, 2014

“Samo da ne bude rata – as long as there's no war”

“Samo da ne bude rata – as long as there's no war”*

Delusion and confusion exploring former Yugoslavia

My family stuck out like a sore thumb in the German village where I grew up, my father being Turkish and my mother originally from Berlin, I never really associated myself with this small township. Luckily, I found an exotic comrade in this traditional environment when I started elementary school: a boy whose family had fled from the war in Bosnia. We were best friends for four years, until his family unfortunately got deported in 1999 when Germany deemed the situation in former Yugoslavia safe enough for them to return to the ruins of what they had once called home.

Of course his departure was sad for me, but entering a higher school in a bigger town in addition to the general transitory nature of a child’s mind, I more or less forgot about my childhood friend and went on with my life. A strong desire to travel, always nurtured by my venturesome parents drove me to some remote corners of the planet, but it was not until I had to decide what I wanted to do after high school that I was unexpectedly confronted with my old friend’s home country, or more precisely, home region – the Balkans.

The combination of a merciless German admission system for medical school and my everlasting hunger for new cultures and experiences can be considered the reasons why I resettled in Belgrade, the former capital of Yugoslavia. The country that I had continuously heard tragic stories about on the news during the 1990s but never really understood why people were waging war with each other and why the NATO was bombing it. 
To be fair, there still is a great deal of details that I do not understand, but I have done my best in the last two years to investigate, taking as many perspectives of the conflict into consideration as possible. Even though I study in English, the majority of my fellow students are children of families who escaped from the war. They were born in different parts of this once huge country and grew up all over the world. The thing they have in common is that no matter where exactly their families were from, they consider themselves ethnic Serbs and Serbian orthodox Christians.

Speaking to these people, as well as to people who grew up in Belgrade and did not escape during the war, the image I got of the conflict was probably as one-sided and unrealistic as the one I had beforehand. In popular Western media, the Serbs are largely blamed for everything that went wrong, they are portrayed as a cruel, ferocious people who mercilessly slaughtered people of different beliefs and tried to take away as much of their land as possible.     
Bearing this in mind, I was surprised at the friendliness and openness of the Serbs that I encountered upon my arrival in Belgrade and was quick to believe their stories of how the war was mainly caused by Americans and big European nations who were shivering in the face of a supposedly strong Yugoslavia, which could have theoretically dominated the continent if it had further progressed after Tito’s death. So, according to many Serbs, naturally those scared big nations tried to kick up a breeze to manipulate the extremely multicultural Yugoslavs into killing each other and destroying almost everything that had been built up in this region for centuries.

After two years of living in Belgrade, I have visited practically all the shattered pieces of the former Yugoslav republic. It may be a coincidence that my own background – German and Turkish – is in some way a reflection of the main influences that have clashed on the Balkan long before Yugoslavia was even founded.  The Western European, mainly Austro-Hungarian and middle Eastern, former Ottoman empires shaped these regions culturally and architecturally which is still apparent while walking through any city center in this region today, no matter how relentlessly they have been battered by the First and Second World War, the civil wars as well as the NATO intervention in 1999.

Riddled with countless other cultural influences, the metaphor that comes to mind is a puzzle, and looking at a current political map of the former Yugoslav countries it seems miraculous that they were once united under the same flag. As different as for example Ljubljana and Pristina may seem at first glance, I could not help but see far more similarities than differences between all the different people I have met on my travels. For one thing, most of them share a grammatically complex but beautiful language rife with consonants.  
Furthermore I have found all people to be warmhearted, hospitable, curious, and polite. Not once did I come across any hostility, not when I told the people in Kosovo that I study in Belgrade, not when I talked to Croats and Bosnians in my broken but obviously Serbian Serbo-Croatian, never when anyone heard that I am German, Turkish, and non-religious. The attitude that I was constantly greeted with was genuine interest, about why I would leave Germany to live here, what I thought about the Balkans, and which my favorite type of Rakija was. Approval is the general reaction I received whenever I mentioned how beautiful I think all Balkan countries are.

Perhaps war is the expectable outcome of centuries of heteronomy, multiculturalism and a long period of soiling picturesque scenery with brutalist buildings, but this case seems exceptionally tragic to me because of how recently it happened. In Germany we are constantly reminded of the dark history of our country, but very rarely do we encounter any people who remember the times. When we meet them, the age gap is so significant that it is hard to grasp their sentiments about the Second World War. For me it is unimaginable what people my age may have lived through here.

To the astonishment of anyone who enters Belgrade for the first time, there is a big ruin towering over one of the most central streets. It is the remnant of the ministry of defense that was bombed by the NATO in 1999. After the NATO had already taken action in Bosnia in 1995, they thought it was a good idea to intervene once again four years later to stop the Serbian rampage in Kosovo. The German foreign minister at the time made claims of having seen “concentration camps” in one of the football stadiums of Pristina, but diplomats and journalists in Kosovo at the time denied all such claims. 

Media coverage in Serbia at that time was rather secretive, so the bafflement of the general population when they first heard the sirens is imaginable. Only strategic points were bombed (and yet around 500 civilians died through this campaign) but what I find particularly interesting about this is, that the NATO conference in which the mandate for this intervention was concluded, was held in in April 1999, but the first bombs hit Belgrade on March 24th
Parts of the ruin of the former ministry of defense are visible from my balcony. How many times I sat on this balcony, wondering who sat there the day the bomb dropped and the impact the explosion must have had in the whole neighborhood. I also wonder where this person is now. Every single individual here has a story to tell, and what gives me hope is that there seem to be more and more people willing to listen to these stories.

My impression is that people on a global scale seem to have accepted that the Balkan war was a messy affair on all sides, that not one party can be blamed for everything, but above all, that these countries have not been irrevocably havocked by this absurd decade at the end of the 20th century. This is evidenced by the increasing number of tourists that flock to all former Yugoslav countries, of course most to Croatia, especially now that it entered the European Union, but I have met a fair number in every country, even in Kosovo. It is inspiring to see that people are focusing on the bright sides of these countries and that they are finally not so isolated anymore. I am especially happy that around 60 Erasmus students have come to live in Belgrade for one or two semesters for the first time this year. They are all as enchanted by Serbia after their first two months as I still am after two years.

One of my best friends now is another Bosnian who was born in Sarajevo a few days before the siege started in early 1992. The haunting image I get when I think of his family’s refuge is of his mother running away from gunshots with a crying baby in her arms. He lived a comfortable life in Sweden but never wants to go back to Sarajevo because of what happened to his family, which I can hardly blame him for. The least I felt I could do to pay some sort of respect when I went to Sarajevo was to visit the synagogue, because my friend’s family is Jewish and his great grandfather was a famous Bosnian author, Isak Samokovlija.

As I walk from my backpacker lodge in the buzzing part of the old town towards the river Miljacka, crossing it via the Latin bridge next to which Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in 1914, I am again haunted by the thought of the five year-lasting siege. I get goose bumps when I look at the hills covered in forest surrounding the city, knowing that shots were being fired onto almost every house in the city from up there, which is creepily evident by the bullet hole covered façades of almost every building.

The woman in the synagogue is surprised when I ask her about Isak Samokovlija and smiles warmly after I explain my interest. She is touched by the fact that two people can be best friends, in spite of their families being German, Turkish, Jewish and Serbian respectively. She points out of the window on the first floor, back across the river towards the city center and tells me to look for Isak Samokovlija’s statue in front of the Serbian Orthodox Church. When she hears that my next stop is going to be Višegrad, she writes down this Samokovlija quote for me: "Drina je za me jedan od najdubljih doživljaja. Zanosila me je kao neko živo, božanstveno biće.", roughly translated: “The Drina is for me one of the most profound experiences. It swayed me like a living, divine creature.” (Drina: a river that forms part of the modern border of Bosnia and Serbia, site of many battles throughout history)

Slowly crawling up and down the hills to Višegrad in my old car the next day, the view constantly blocked by trees, I am enthralled when we finally make it over the last hill and descend into the valley of the Drina. I am not sure if the people here are so attached to their land because they are not nomadic half casts like me, or if Samokovlija was right in his quote, but this valley really is one of the most beautiful places I have seen in the world. The hills still lightly covered in snow, while down by the river life has been set in motion by the timid spring sun. The water clearer than glass, the meadows full of bees and the air smelling of flowers, there are few audible sounds except for the tender purl of the river and the joyful chirp of the birds. It is somehow ironic that I consider this the most peaceful scenery I can imagine, when you think of how much blood must have blurred this river and of the brutality it has witnessed.

Stirred by the beauty of my surroundings, I get upset at the misleading information and rumors about the region that are circulating in Western Europe, I shake my head vaguely remembering my politics teacher in high school blathering about concentration camps, I think of the German government that is currently trying to blackmail Serbia and Kosovo into resolving their conflict at the cost of their respective interests, even though nobody, including me, really understands the conflict. Of course a puzzle is not going to solve itself by letting the pieces fight each other endlessly, but neither is it going to be solved by some outsider, who crams unsuitable pieces together like a colorblind person with no sense for shapes.

These thoughts fade at the sight of the Mehmed Paša Sokolović bridge in Višegrad. Regardless of the fact that it was once the site of a massacre in a civil war and destroyed and rebuilt in both World Wars, this quote by Ivo Andrić now seems more meaningful to me than ever: And the bridge stood still, as it has always been, with his eternal youth and perfect ideas of good and great human acts that do not know what is aging or change and that, so it seems, to share the fate of the transient things of this world." (Bridge on the Drina**)

 

Me in front of the statue for my friend’s great grandfather, Sarajevo 2012



After a NATO bomb hit Novi Sad, 1999 (from Wikipedia)


Mehmed Paša Sokolović bridge in Višegrad (from Wikipedia)


Former ministry of defense in Belgrade, bombed by the NATO in 1999 (from Wikipedia)



*Samo Rata Da Ne Bude (So long as there is no war) by George Balasevic.The song was an urge to the people of Yugoslavia by the popular singer of Serbia not to go to war. He begins by showing a haunting picture of nationalism and war: "Drunk boys march down our lonely streets, behind them follow weeping girls. Don't you know? They are headed for the army. Just let there be no war". He uses extreme examples of possibilities to imply "Even if the worst of the worst could happen, it is still better than war".

** А мост је и даље стајао, онакав какав је одувек био, са својом вечитом младошћу савршене замисли и добрих и великих људских дела која не знају шта је старење ни промена и која, бар тако изгледа, на деле судбину пролазних ствари овога света.“   Ivo Andrić, 1945 in Bridge on the Drina

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Get off the beaten path - roadtripping through Serbia and Bosnia

As a reward for passing our physiology colloquium, a Serb, a Bosnian, an Italian, a Canadian, a Slovenian and a German (me) gathered in the middle of a friday night on Slavija to saddle the golf and motorbike to go on a day trip to Višegrad in Bosnia.
Even though most of the passengers in the car were really tired and some intoxicated and there was barely any space in the car, the time passed somehow and we saw amazing landscapes while the sun was rising above the mountains that we were crawling up and down on scary roads.

Our first destination was Mitrovac, in Tara national park. It was a small village full of school kids who, like us, had come here from Belgrade to breathe some fresh mountain air. We had breakfast and suddenly realized how horribly we had planned this trip, because everyone was really tired and we had a whole day of walking around and then the ride back to Belgrade in front of us. I can't really say that this lifted the spirits, but our next stop was a lookout point on a mountain top close to Mitrovac, and just the view we had from there was worth all the trouble. We were all a bit sceptical while we were rambling through the forest, following a sign to that lookout point.









 









After a certain amount of time spent marvelling at the view and taking pictures, due to reasons that I do not care to elaborate on any further here, I got bitten by a horned viper, the most venomous snake in Europe. At first I shook it off as unimportant and suggested to continue with our normal program. By the time we got back to Mitrovac though my arm and swollen to the size of my leg and the pain was unbearable. We managed to google the consequences of this certain bite (including necrosis and neurological damage), so I was really relieved to hear that they had the antivenom in stock in the small ambulance in Mitrovac. A nice doctor couple, the woman of which had just come out of the shower and still had her towel wrapped around her hair, greeted me with the words that this has only happened 2 times in 30 years and that they only have 2 doses of antivenom (which would be the appropriate amount for a child). They were frantically reading the instructions of the antivenom, discussing hectically which way is best to administer it. They finally injected it intramuscularly and put me on a glucose infusion. While I was watching the swelling spread up my arm into my axilla and chest, worrying about my organs, my friends were sitting outside in the car because just as I had entered the ambulance a thunderstorm with heavy rain and lightning started.
I felt guilty because the roadtrip had come to a sudden end because of me, but there was nothing I could do at that point except lieing there quietly waiting for the ambulance to come and take me to a real hospital.
It was the first time in my life to ride on an ambulance. My friend from Canada came with me as moral and interpretative support. As a result of the curvy mountain roads and the breakneck pace the driver was going in, Mirjana almost got sick just at the same moment that the driver took a hard break and the nurse flew through the ambulance hitting or head on the wall! Well, that's what happens if there are no seatbelts in an ambulance. But everyone was fine at the end of the ride and in the hospital they gave me some antibiotic, something to cool the arm and told me to go to the hospital in Belgrade as soon as we're back.
My EKG was normal, I didn't feel nauseous and was in a clear state of mind, so they concluded only my arm was affected by the bite and told me I could go.


The others were waiting for me outside and I was surprised to see that it was only 2 o'clock, so we continued with our program and drove to Drvengrad/Küstendorf ("timber town"). It's an ethno village founded by the movie producer Emir Kusturica:
"I lost my city [Sarajevo] during the war. That is why I wished to build my own village. It bears a German name : Küstendorf. I will organize seminars there, for people who want to learn how to make cinema, concerts, ceramics, painting. It is the place where I will live and where some people will be able to come from time to time. There will be of course some other inhabitants who will work. I dream of an open place with cultural diversity which sets up against globalization"

According to wikipedia it was visited by Johnny Depp in 2010, and there's supposedly a statue for him, which we didn't see. We took a ride on a historic train, which was fun because it didn't require any of us to pay attention on any road and we could just relax for some time.
When we were done with the train there was only about one hour of sunlight left, so we decided to hurry towards the Bosnian border to make it to Višegrad before sunset. Traditionally on a spontaneous roadtrip, someone always has problems with their papers, in our case the Italian girl didn't have a passport and the Canadian on the motorbike didn't have a green insurance card.
On the Serbian side the border patrol took one look at my distorted arm and immediately waved us through without even taking a look at our passports. On the Bosnian side they weren't impressed by my arm at all and checked our papers, and didn't let those two enter. They wanted to return to Drvengrad to sleep in a hotel, where we would meet them the next morning after spending the night in Višegrad. Unfortunately for them, the guard back at the Serbian border hadn't seen the Italian girl in the car, because she was sitting in the back and we drove through so fast, that they didn't believe her that she had just come out of Serbia! They probably thought she was a prostitute, because the Canadian had passed the border 10 minutes earlier on his bike alone and then returned with a girl without passport.....eventually they let them back in luckily.
We had finally made it into Bosnia, and like when I drove to Sarajevo last year via a completely different route I was shocked at how apparent the war remnants are here. In the first village after the border there were bullet wholes in the majority of houses on the main street as well as countless ruins. It didn't take long to get to Višegrad, where we were immediately stopped by the police and asked for our papers again. Unlike any policemen in Belgrade they even spoke English and agreed to assist us with finding accomodation for the night. We ended up in an appartment that had seen its best days a long time ago, with bed sheets that had been changed last in pre-war times judging by their smell. The bathtub was rusty (I hope it was rust, my first guess was blood) and the whole condition of the appartment was the first thing I had seen in Europe that could live up to (or down to) Indian hostel standards.


Višegrad is mainly famous for two things: its ottoman bridge over the Drina and the nobel-prize winning novel "Bridge over the Drina" by Ivo Andrić. Of course it was already dark when we finally started walking to the bridge, and it was obvisouly also starting to rain when we got there. So we just took a short look at that and then asked our old friends, the policemen who had found us the appartment - they were still patrolling around the small city center - where we could eat something. Eventually we ended up in an italian restaurant right next to our appartment, eating the first proper meal of the day and trying to get drunk enough in order to fall asleep in the disgusting appartment.
I guess Višegrad doesn't sound too nice in this account, but I still thought it was an interesting place because of its mixed population, the "exotic" appearance due to its mosques, and generally it seems very picturesque, at least as far as I could tell from the car when we were crossing the hill. 
We left at about 4:30 the next morning and met with the other two in Drvengrad. It was cold and foggy, so the drive was kind of dangerous. We stopped one time for breakfast and another time because we got caught speeding by the police. 

When we arrived in Belgrade, I was so happy about the weather and in my mind already started planning the next few days in the sun while I was walking to the Emergency Room, where I thought I would be given some medication before I can go home again. Instead I got admitted to the Intensive Care Unit where I had to stay for 5 days! Now, exactly 2 weeks later, my arm looks completely normal from the outside, but my hand and elbow still hurt. 

I learned a lesson about wild reptiles, but most of all again I realised how beautiful this region of Europe is. The people are so warm and friendly in all balkan countries (if you ask me) and the landscapes are spectacular anyway. I can't wait for the summer, when my final exams are over and I will have more time to travel around!

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Healthy Life – why should we eat healthily?!


What we eat

Evolution has given us a metabolism fit to digest molecular compounds of food that has always been available to us – in other words: ORGANIC compounds (not in the sense of grown in the countryside by barefoot people with long, blond hair but just chemically organic, as opposed to inorganic).






A "map" of our metabolism, all the chemical reactions that take place in our body and how they are connected to each other















Due to industrialization, globalization and a lot of other factors, the diet especially in so-called "first world countries" has changed drastically over the last century or so, and the balance between organic and inorganic compounds that we ingest is badly disturbed in the majority of the population. 

What is inorganic food? Anything that has been processed! Instant noodles for example, the few grams of grain that might have been an ingredient for the pasta originally has been treated with so many preservatives and other chemicals before you can buy them in the supermarket that it is almost purely inorganic.

If you visited an indigenous village somewhere in the rainforest, inhabited by people who live solely of nuts, seeds, fruits, vegetables and maybe meat (things they can find in nature) and handed them a bag of instant noodles and told them “This is what we eat” without telling them how to prepare it, they might take a wild attempt at consuming it by just eating it "raw". What do you think would happen? First of all, they would think we are disgusting (because that’s what it would probably taste like) and then they would get sick, because it consists of chemicals that their unspoiled bodies would not be able to digest (ours isn't either as a matter of fact, it's just used to it and stores it as waste that we think is fat everywhere on our body).

The idea behind evolution is to increase our body’s ability to succeed from an ability or a trait, that has proven to be beneficial in several generations of mutants. After a significant amount of time has passed, the majority of a population will have acquired this mutation. 
So before we started eating processed food, the diet that had proven to be the best for humans for hundreds of years (of course this statement is a bit vague, it depends on many factors for example which region of the world and social status etc., but still there is food that humanity has almost globally known for centuries to be beneficial) gave the model for what our metabolism had to cope with. 

For example: milk has been an important source of protein for a long time, so people in regions of the world where milk has been consumed for centuries now largely support lactose metabolism, which is an evolutionary mutation. Whereas many people in parts of Africa and Asia, where milk isn't traditionally consumed remain lactose intolerant.

Nowadays many people eat almost only processed food, which our whole body is not designed for dealing with. You would think the logical consequence is that eventually, maybe in a few centuries, evolution will have taken care of it and made us all cope with this new, conservable, chemical food and that we will progress even further as a species because this type of food is cheaper, more conventient because it requires less time to prepare and has a longer shelf life. 

But in reality evolution only works forwards, if the majority of the members of the species choose to disregard what they were supposed to eat, they will die out. 
If a colony of ants only drinks coca cola for a week they become extinct. And with humans it’s ultimately the same, if more and more people start eating processed food due to globalization and industrialization of third world countries, the human race is going to become extinct.

Maybe this sounds a bit dramatic, but if you look around, almost everyone knows a handful of obese people and a handful of people who have died of degenerative diseases like cancer, and by far more than a handful of people who have minor health complaints (not even to mention the people who die of starvation in those parts of the world that we don't care about because of uneven distribution of food on the planet). 

So diet is something that everybody should take seriously and NOT in the sense of “I will go on a diet until I can show myself on the beach again” – and then start eating whatever the hell you want, usually when winter starts and Christmas is coming up.
Up until a few weeks ago I ate really unhealthy food myself, but when we started learning about metabolism in biochemistry, I realized this:

Anyone who has a car knows what to put into it so that it will drive. For example if your car runs on Diesel, you will put Diesel into it, wouldn’t you? I have never heard of anyone who puts Diesel into his car in the morning but gas at night, which is the equivalent of eating a healthy breakfast and unhealthy dinner.
So what would happen to a car that runs on Diesel if you ONLY fill it with gas? It’s not very hard to figure out and that’s why nobody does it. 
Unfortunately - or fortunately - our body is much more resistant than a car and even years of wrong “fuel” can go relatively unnoticed before the organism takes serious damage.
I don’t know if this allegory has such an effect on anyone else, but once I realized this I thought why should I eat things that are not good for me? Or: why don't I treat my car like crap but I treat my body like crap? 

Which brings us to the biggest question: what is good for me? I researched extensively over the last few weeks and have found a way to live healthily without any extra expenses (Hah, it’s even cheaper than to live off fast food!).
The reason why I started researching the topic (apart from biochemistry) was the movie “Hungry for change” which should be obligatory for everybody to watch. So if you don’t know it, WATCH IT! http://www.hungryforchange.tv/

Besides the beneficial health effects, it's also nice to know that you're not being held by the ankles by the food industry anymore, who gets you hooked on sugar and other addictive substances so that you will keep buying their products at the expense of people in developing countries, who are systematically exploited by that industry. 
Yeah I know, it all sounds like a lot of newage hippie bullshit, but so far I haven't found a reason to stop eating healthily...

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

A day in Kosovo

As assimilated as I am to the Serbian way of life, I arrived 5 minutes before my bus to Pristina was supposed to leave from the main bus station in Belgrade, which has a surprising resemblance to a very small airport. I didn't realize that you needed to pass a "security check" in order to get to the platforms, and the only test that this check consisted of was throwing a token that you apparently get when you buy the ticket into a turnstile. I had bought my ticket two days before and carelessly spent or thrown away the token, so after looking at my ticket the security guards told me with eyebrows raised to the sky that I cannot enter the platform. The motor of the bus was already running, so I hurried back to the information office and told the lady behind the counter my dilemma. With equally highly raised eyebrows as the security guards she took both my tickets and my passport, looked me deep in the eyes and said "Trust me, please" and then disappeared. 
That's when I got nervous and thought maybe they're trying to keep me out of the bus because it's run by an Albanian company and they don't want foreigners on it because it might make crossing the border harder? She finally returned with a token and my documents and I managed in the last second to hop on the bus before it started driving, only to be warily stared at by all the people that were on the bus, three of them denied me to sit next to them so I ended up in the second last row, with 5 older men in the back row behaving like 13 year-olds (which I have come to expect as a given in busses on the balkan). 

I could not hear a single person speaking Serbian on the bus, but to my relief there were two travellers, one from Canada and one from the US sitting across the aisle from me. I started talking to them in English, told them which hostel I would be staying at in Pristina (the same as them) and then, maybe out of nervousness, imagined that I can understand what the men behind us were talking about. I frequently heard the words "Germany, USA, Canada" (in Albanian) and somehow, because I told myself they use many Turkish words, was convinced that they were plotting how to rob and kill us once we get to Pristina. 

However, when we were waiting to cross the border one of the men started talking to me in German and told me he had lived in Nürnberg for 20 years. He asked me where I was going and why, and was surprised but also happy that I wanted to visit Kosovo out of pure interest. After I told him that I'm half Turkish and we even talked a little in Turkish there were no more inhibtions, and all the men in the back row patted my shoulders and smiled at me and said how nice it was of me to visit their country. At that point I was really ashamed of myself and realized that as soon as you are nervous or scared your mind can easily play tricks on you, which can end in paranoia, prejudices and misunderstanding. 

The border itself was less spectacular than the border between Hungary and Serbia or Bulgaria and Serbia. Some barbed wire on the fence gave the impression that this is one of the controverse spots on earth, but the image that had been drawn in my mind by Serbian as well as Western media of barricades, road blocks, soldiers, tanks, guns, danger and violence was simply an illusion. There was NOTHING, just one man sitting in a booth on the Serbian side (who did not stamp our passports, so if you look at my passport I never left Serbia...) and one man in the booth on the Kosovarian side. No tanks, no soldiers, nothing. It took less than 10 minutes in total, and then we were in Kosovo (and mind you, this was the closest border crossing point to Mitrovica, so really the "most dangerous" and most "controversial" area of Kosovo...don't believe everything you see on TV!)
 It was immediately apparent that this is one of the poorest countries in Europe, there was no plastered building on the horizon, the streets off the main road were in a horrible condition and there was the occasional waste dump next to the road. 

An albanian-kosovar human rights activist from Mitrovica, who was on his way back from a meeting in Belgrade, took care of me and the other two travellers once we arrived in Pristina. Without his help we would have NEVER found the hostel, because it was moved a few days before we arrived, to a completely different address than what was described on the website. In those first few hours in Pristina we noticed how incredibly hospitable and friendly the Kosovars are, we asked for directions several times and there were at least 5 different people who really tried to help us, walked with us, made enquiring phone calls for us, invited us to wait inside their homes...that's why the whole situation didn't seem sketchy to me. Even though we had to wait outside a lot and never really understood what was going on, we just sensed that these people were genuinly friendly and trying to help us. After all we found the hostel, in the middle of the very small center, just off the main pedestrian street. The appartment hadn't been completely renovated yet and the only heating element in our room was a very tiny heat blower and immediately upon arrival we were informed that there is no running water between 10pm and 6am. 

None of those things mattered to us though and we started exploring the heart of the city with our new friend from Mitrovica, who told us very interesting things about the history, politics and general life in Kosovo. He showed us the campus of his university and took us to a really nice bar inside a book shop. We were all astonished by how many young people you could see on the streets and how well they were dressed. Many girls in Kosovo are breathtakingly beautiful and the guys are not the stereotypical macho in track suits that you picture if you grew up in Western Europe. 


Wikitravel explains that because most people don't have enough money to actually go out (unemployment rate at approx. 43% according to the german foreign ministry), they just like to dress up and walk up and down the city center, to see and be seen, to socialize and to pass the time. My jaw almost dropped to the floor the next morning, when I went on the balcony at 10 in the morning and the entire street was PACKED with young, amazing looking people sitting on chairs on the sidewalks drinking coffee! The entire city seemed to be buzzing with joyful and relaxed people, walking around apparently without having school/university or work to attend to, even though it was tuesday morning. 

We didn't hesitate before we also went outside to explore the city. It's possible to see almost every street of the center in about one hour, that's how small Pristina is. Of course there are some run-down buildings and a few shabby corners where the trash piles up, the city center is generally picturesque with trees, monuments (for example for Mother Teresa or Bill Clinton), international institutions, very unique architecture like the university library, the Newborn monument that shows the letters of the word Newborn decorated with the flags of all countries which have recognized Kosovo as a country (many of them really small island nations in the pacific which have their own recognition issues), a completely abandoned Serbian Orthodox church in the heart of the center on the university campus, a huge ugly catholic cathedral as well as several mosques in the old part adjacent to the center and some typical western shops, but I was really happy to see: McDonald's has not yet contaminated Kosovo! Instead there are many small traditional grills, pizza and pasta-, gyros- and fastfood restaurants at every corner. The streets of the center are lined by cafes with tables and chairs on the sidewalks, and because the weather was so nice on the day I was there, there were hardly any empty seats even though it's only the beginning of march.

























































Apart from the unplastered building in the countryside, the trash in some places and the vast quantity of free time on the hands of Pristina's inhabitants you can tell that this is a very poor country by the prices. Everything is dirt cheap, we paid less than 4 euros for a fish dinner with salad, soup, desert and a drink. Even Belgrade seems expensive in comparison to that!

A highlight of our day was the simple but genius act of entering a high, multi-storey resedential building in the center and linger in front of the elevator, after 2 seconds we were talking to a nice guy who used to live in London and who was more than happy to fulfill our wish: he took us to the roof! The view was amazing and I can highly recommend doing this in any city, works almost every time!

video

The american and canadian who I had spent the day with left after dinner and I went back to the hostel to talk to two german journalists who are producing a radio show about Kosovo. It was really interesting to hear about their work and their perspectives, because they had researched the political and economical situation much more thoroughly than I had. One of the interesting things they explained to me is the symbolism behind the university library: the weird-looking structural elements are supposed to represent grids, holding back the intellectual testimony of Kosovo. It was designed in response to the ban of the albanian language in schools in pre-war times.  

Later we flocked to one of the countless cafes that were showing the champions league game, like apparently all men in Pristina. This is where I met the protagonist of their radio show, a young guy who studies German at university and is trying to find work in Germany. Some of his friends were also there and again, even though there was a language barrier everyone was just so friendly and nice that I still can't believe it. 

One day might have been enough to see all the sights of the city, but it was definitely not enough to get to know the people. Everybody is so open and curious towards foreigners, and not once did I get a weird reaction for studying in Belgrade. The only thing they didn't understand is why I would voluntarily live in Eastern Europe if I could be in Germany instead, for many of them the biggest dream is to make it to Germany or another Western European country (or Canada, but not the US). All in all I heard so many good things about other regions in Kosovo, that I'm planning on coming back in the summer when it's possible to hike through untouched nature in the mountains and visit villages that have been isolated for maybe hundreds of years...

My journey ended with two students who I asked for the way to the bus station, who walked with me, laughed with me at how late I was for my bus (I met them 3 minutes before my bus was supposed to leave, approximately 10 minutes away from the bus station) and eventually ended up waiting with me for the bus, which of course was almost one hour late. 

The ride was uncomfortable and long-winded, and I was back in Belgrade just as the sun was rising. For the first time I realized how huge, busy and chaotic Belgrade really is, after calm and peaceful Pristina. And Belgrade is calm and peaceful in comparison to most german cities, so maybe that's why I don't want to live there...


Just a word of conclusion about the whole political dilemma: from everything I read online and all the information I got by talking to people, it seems like this is an endless story and Serbia will NEVER recognize Kosovo's independence, just like Kosovo will never give it up. However, I hope that one day the young people of both nations will realize how stupid it is to hold on to grudges that they were taught by their parents, who were taught the same by their parents and so on and so on. Like I said, no one seemed to think less of me because I studied in Belgrade and when they collected our passports on the bus and then handed them out again I heard many Serbian as well as Albanian names and everyone set next to each other peacefully and the border police didn't look at anyone with disgust regardless of their ethnicity. Yes, politics are complicated, but at the end of the day it's so easy to get along if you can just find a tiny spark of respect somewhere inside of you. So let's hope the situation will get better one day (without trying to be a cynic, I think I won't live to see that though).