~~Yesss! Thanks to a kind man at an Internet cafe in Thessaloniki, I have pictures!! Can’t rotate the sideways ones on my phone though (sort it out WordPress app) so a few things I’d have liked to post pictures of will have to wait.~~
22nd September, 8:23pm
First Avenue, Mother Teresa Boulevard, Pristina
Reporting live from the country that doesn’t exist if you’re Serbian: Jen Steadman! Europe’s newest country is a funny one: recognised as an independent state by 108 countries, but considered a semi-autonomous part of Serbia by the others, you will see at any point in the city three flags – of Kosovo, of Albania, and of the USA. Eh?
Kosovo originally broke away from Serbia because of a shift in demographic from a Serb population to a majority Albanian one. As a result, many Kosovar people consider themselves Albanian and want to unite the two countries, but sadly Albania just wants to be friends. #friendzone #prayforkosovo
The USA, meanwhile, is held in near godly reverence due to its role in helping them become independent. Streets are named after Clinton and Dubya; a statue of the former salutes its eponymous street, which passes the cathedral; Route 66 type restaurants are plentiful. I’d read before visiting that they also love the UK for similar reasons, to the extent where Tonibler is now a popular given name for children in honour of our latterly vilified former PM, but the Union Jack is nowhere to be seen. There’s just no love left over from their American obsession. Pfffft.
Speaking of Britain, I finally met a solo female Brit on my travels! Step forward Jane from Bolton, who I got chatting to at Kotor bus station before it turned out we were both getting the bus to Ulcinj (no, I don’t know how to pronounce it correctly), a southern coastal Montenegrin town. She too had been looking to visit Kosovo direct from Kotor, but had been unable to find anything suggesting that there was a direct bus from Ulcinj to Kosovo, which made me worry that the otherwise excellent Balkanviator website had let me down with bus info. We digressed onto other subjects on the bus – our respective travels, a mutual love of writing, how annoying it is when people ask why you’re visiting THERE?! in a horrified voice, because obviously Ibiza and the Lake District are the only places on Earth worth visiting.
Fortunately when we arrived at Ulcinj, where Jane was staying for a night before intending to move onto Shköder in Albania, there was a screen advertising a 4pm bus to Pristina. To Jane’s delight it also went via Prizren (which, sadly, I had no time to visit), meaning she could do Kosovo and Macedonia and then move onto Albania. With an hour and a half to spare before my bus, we celebrated in the bus station cafe with a coffee (her) and water (me). She turned out to be far more organised than me in that she’d packed loo roll – very useful given that the primitive toilets provided none, and I didn’t really fancy waiting 7 hours to use a nicer one. (Primitive suggests a hole in the ground. They were better than that, but not much.)
All too soon it was time to board the very busy bus, and to my horror a man holding a baby sat next to me. Some of my friends are already broody. I am the opposite. Every time a mother beams as she wields a pram down a supermarket aisle and blocks whatever deeply nutritious foodstuff I am looking to stuff my face with, I contemplate whether a clinic will let me have a hysterectomy already. Every time a child nearly knocks me over because it thinks a bustling public street is a great excuse to channel its inner Usain Bolt, I wonder why children aren’t legally obliged to be on leashes in public. Every time a baby cries on a train, I consider marketing my own brand of baby gags. Yes, it’s safe to say I am not broody.
For some reason this particular baby really liked my vibes of hatred and discomfort, and grinned at me in absolute delight for at least half an hour, in between trying to trample on its dad’s balls. Eventually, feeling too awkward after this prolonged stare and grin to ignore it any longer, I wearily waved at it. Well, if it had liked me before, it was completely obsessed with me now. I enjoy pulling hideous faces at babies in supermarkets until they cry, but didn’t want to be stuck next to a crying baby for 6 hours, so opted for funny faces instead. The baby tried to grab me, but thankfully its dad was on hand to stop him. This made it cry, at which point the dad told me his son really liked me. Jen Steadman: inadvertent baby whisperer.
I chatted to the dad for a bit hereafter. He was from Pristina originally but now lived in Germany, and had worked by Chelsea’s training ground in Cobham for a few months. The baby was 8 months and its name was something that sounded like Aberdeen (I can’t be sure that its name wasn’t Aberdeen, but why would you name your child after a city so depressing a friend recently vowed to write an erotic novel about it entitled One Shade Of Grey?). He slept for a few hours next to his mum before returning to his dad’s lap, where he waited expectantly for me to entertain him – which I did by waggling my glasses up and down. It worked too well, as this time he tried to grab my glasses, at which point dad decided that playtime was over.
[Then there’s a paragraph about Albania, which I already covered in my previous post.]
Dumped at Pristina bus station and knowing it was too far to walk to the hostel from there, I had to get a taxi with a middle aged couple who spoke next to no English. I think they were being friendly, as the wife kept laughing and clapping and patting my knee when I said things, but maybe they were mocking me… hmmm.
The hostel, Hostel Han, was right by the main boulevard and Mother Teresa statue, and opposite the city’s only 5 star hotel, the Swiss Diamond. After the crumbly and pretty mouldy in places hostel in Kotor, I was relieved to see a clean, modern and spacious hostel – judging by the fact the owner also owned a series of bars nearby, they probably had quite a bit of money to throw around.
The next morning I ended up chatting to Andrew, an extremely well-spoken Slavic language student from America who was studying in Belgrade, visiting Kosovo to aid his study of Albanian. He and another American, called Andy, were off to visit the Newborn monument, so I tagged along to see Pristina’s limited tourist appeal.
From pictures of the monument I expected it to be brightly painted with flags. However, it had been repainted in army camouflage colours, replete with love hearts and bullet holes. Andy started filming himself with it; turns out he’s a successful travel blogger who earns enough from his site to fund his travels. As we went to find the Bill Clinton statue, he talked about his trips to Rwanda and Iraq, which was interesting. I was less impressed by his constant lechery on “the ladies”, as he repeatedly referred to the poor women of Pristina, as he kept trying to chat them up and, when unsuccessful, complained that he preferred countries where the girls approached him. No offence, mate, but how many countries have girls who approach creepy American guys in their 50s?
We stumbled across the Mother Teresa Cathedral, which had been open all of a year and still had plastic chairs where pews should have been. For a Catholic church it was very minimalist – the only stained glass was at the very top of the high windows, decoration was sparse and the walls were plain white. Yet the effect was a pleasant one of airiness and light. Andrew, who had become our ersatz tour guide, said it was conceivable that the cathedral was unfinished, though we both hoped it would stay as it was.
Across the road is the University of Prishtina. To my childish amusement, the sign had been damaged and now advertised the University of Pish tin. We had a look around the campus and found the disarmingly hideous university library building, voted one of the world’s ugliest with good reason. It stood near an unfinished Orthodox church built on the orders of former Serb president Slobodan Milosevic, accused of war crimes by the Hague. It was sad that a nice little building lay abandoned, but given Milosevic’s legacy of attempted ethnic cleansing in the region in the late 90s, it is perhaps unsurprising.
Eventually we found Bill. Andy filmed him, I posed, and Andrew took the photos. Then Andy interviewed some little boys who were bunking off school and hanging out by the statue, before I taught him some English slang. He particularly liked “lad”, which he felt described him adequately and will probably feature in his self-composed epitaph. (“Here lieth Andy Travelblogger; self-confessed lad, fan of the ladies, and pervert.”)
Our tour of sorts over, we parted ways and I went for a wander. To my football crazed delight, I spied a football stadium, which turned out to be not just a local stadium but the national one. Prishtina City Stadium, usually host to Prishtina FC (last year’s third placed team in the Kosovar league), is the size and quality of a Conference ground, with standing terraces in the south end.
Noticing through the railings some children training, I decided to sneak in by hook or by crook to get a better look. (Fortunately neither hooks nor crooks were required, as I asked a man by the door if I could go in and take photos and he said yes.) Standing on the touchline with my camera, ignoring mothers giving me distrustful looks, I struck up conversation with a guy who’d asked me to step back from the pitch so I wouldn’t be in the way. He told me that the boys were actually training for the Kosovar youth team – judging by the number of little chubsters among them, I don’t think they’ll be winning the World Cup any time soon.
It was time to return to Mother Teresa Boulevard and check out more things I’d read about. The Skanderbeg statue; check. (Not sure who he is; need to read up on him.) The wall of the missing (pictures of those missing since the war); check. The Sultan Mehmet mosque; check. Then the bazaar.
It was by far the shabbiest market place I’ve seen thus far in the Balkans, perhaps shabbier than Tonbridge market on a Saturday morning.
Designed by locals for locals, there were stalls overflowing with fruit and vegetables (mainly peppers), while I particularly enjoyed the stall with cigarettes stacked all the way to the ceiling. I asked the guy running it if I could take a picture – not only did he say yes, but he offered to take a picture of me with them. In a fit of YOLO, I accepted. You’ve never seen anyone look so cheerful to be surrounded by cancer sticks.
The last thing I spotted was, at long last, a Union Jack as I returned to the hotel. A little installation tucked behind some trees showed a series of figures joined together and flags sprayed on them. Feeling briefly patriotic, I took a selfie with it. It was just nice to feel loved again after the disappointment of English people not being as revered as Americans.
Tired from my travels and mildly paranoid about all the stares from confused locals, who aren’t used to tourists, I heeded Andrew’s earlier recommendation and went to the restaurant next door to the hostel. I.e. here. I’ve just had a calzone, which randomly had toasted sesame seeds on top of it – not sure I liked this addition, but otherwise it was ok.
Disaster struck just now as I went to pay, realising I’d left my purse in the hostel. In a panic I informed the waiter and offered to leave my bag at their mercy while I went to get it so they knew I wasn’t stealing from them. They were fine with this, mostly because they knew the weather – sunny all day and now trolling the bejesus out of me by sending forth a colossal downpour – would punish me. And so it did, because guess who forgot to bring their raincoat.
A slightly sodden Jen