By Gilbert Carlson
We were in Bulgaria when we decided to visit Kosovo. All we knew about Kosovo was what we’d seen on the news about their war with Serbia and their unilaterally-declared independence earlier in the year. Our travel map was sketched on the back of our first guitar and complemented by a real map of the Balkans in Cyrillic that had been given to us by a driver on the ring road of Sofia. Because of our lack of proper tools, we avoided planning as much as possible and let random events guide us through the Balkans.
We’d hitched out of Sofia with the intention of going to Skopje for a day or so and then heading on to Pristina. But a very kind lady had picked us up outside the border crossing from Bulgaria to Macedonia and told us she was driving straight and fast to a hotel 10 km outside Pristina on the main road.
As we drove through Macedonia I regretted not stopping in the country: it was a sunny afternoon, the landscape was beautiful, the roads were tiny and beat up, and the living looked simple. It seemed like a perfect place to get lost in for a couple days. Our driver was having an affair with a Kosovan man and drove every weekend from Sofia to Pristina to meet him and we’d been lucky enough to cross paths. She drove fast through the lovely Macedonian countryside. We slowed down a little when making our way through the Albanian markets in the suburbs of Skopje, and again when we passed the UNMIK-controlled Kosovan border. We drove very quickly through the mountainous area of southern Kosovo and gazed out the window at the gorges, rivers and snow covered mountain tops. We were getting excited about the country until it suddenly faded into the flat and uneventful plain that surrounds Pristina.
Our driver left us on the parking lot of the hotel her lover managed. We enjoyed the last of our bread and cheese and took a minute to think about where we were and what we were doing. It became clear to both Nathan and I independently that we did not care much, if at all, about seeing Pristina, or the rest of Kosovo for that matter. We’d wanted to come here for one reason only– to say we’d been to Kosovo. Now that this was done we would be content just crossing the road and hitching back the other direction to somewhere else. Some of these thoughts were influenced by the fact that we were on a parking lot, surrounded by industrial sprawl on a very flat plain outside of a city that had no famous monuments nor anyone we knew. The sun was setting and it was getting chilly and the idea of sleeping outside in this climate was not appealing at all. We considered heading back down south to Greece and its sunny Mediterranean coast. We’d seen signs on our way up which was an encouraging sign for a hitchhiker.
We finally made up our minds and decided to hitch the last ten kilometers into town, spend the night and check it out in the morning: leave whenever we got bored. We’d hitched all the way here and the idea of turning around seemed somehow stupider than the idea of going to a country just to say “I’ve been there”. However ugly and uneventful Pristina may turn out to be it could hardly be worse than the parking lot of a hotel and gas station we were currently standing in. Greece was several hundred kilometers away and the idea would have been hard to sell to the two more reasonable members of our group of four. Hitching proved incredibly easy and fast. We split up into two cars that then drove together as a convoy to make sure we made it to the same spot in the city. Our meeting point had been “the oldest and most famous thing in town” but Pristina had nothing old and nothing famous in it so our cars dropped us off in the middle of town.
A contact on couchsurfing had told us about an abandoned building’s rooftop that we could camp on but we were having a hard time getting in touch so we went looking for alternatives. The big fancy five-star hotel had no free rooms to spare but was willing to let us sleep in a corner of the lobby as long as we could get the security guards to agree to it. With accommodation secured we’d decided to hit the bar scene. It was Friday night and we’d heard good things about the Pristina night life. Of course we still had all our bags which meant we had to find a spacious and relatively quiet bar to crash in.
The Contra fit the description perfectly. On top of that, the staff was extremely friendly, even to the point of forgetting to bill me my drinks and the owner was kind enough to let us spend the night in the bar. Closing time was midnight and we would have to be out by the time they opened the next morning at seven. I crashed at eleven, before the bar was either closed or empty, but no one seemed to mind the tall fellow stretched out on a couch in the corner.
I have no idea what negotiations went on during my sleep but the fact is I woke up the next morning to a thirteen-year-old kid telling me in broken English that it was way too cold for us to sleep in the bar and that we should absolutely come to his house and that his aunt and uncle would pick us up in a couple minutes in their car. Apparently he was one of the peanut-selling kids that go around the bars of Pristina at night. He’d seen us settle in to the couches for the night and according to the others he had tried to communicate all this to us beforehand, but my friends hadn’t quite understood what he meant and were in no mood to give up a comfortable set up in a bar to follow a kid into a cold night. Both he and his sister felt bad for us and convinced their family to come pick us up. When a working teenage boy from a war-torn country feels bad for you, you know you’ve gone very far in a strange direction.
Minutes later we were being driven around Pristina to a house that was well within walking distance of the bar. We were led into a well-heated living room to spend the night and in the morning given hot milk, bread, butter, and jam for breakfast. We got to know the family better and hung out with the two kids while resting after what had been a short and chilly night. After a couple hours we were served soup for lunch.
We went out for a tour of the city, which was a very short affair, and played the guitar to an audience of Kosovan kids. In the evening we drank some more at the Contra and enjoyed free pizza in a restaurant. We returned to the family’s home and spent the night in a warm, comfortable bed.
In the morning we left our generous hosts and hitched our way out of Pristina only to be ‘kidnapped’ thirty kilometers down the road by Isuf, who absolutely insisted on taking us to his house in the mountains, going fishing, showing me how to change the battery on a Caterpillar tractor, taking us out for coffee by the river, and dropping us off the next morning on the road to Albania.