Monday, November 12, 2012

Let's Go to Kosovo

Yes, you read that right.  Like so many people of my generation, going to Kosovo was the last thing we ever dreamed about.  Heck, when we were growing up Kosovo didn't even exist as its own country; rather it was a part of what was then called Yugoslavia.  In the eyes of some countries, including neighboring Serbia, Kosovo still doesn't exist as a sovereign country .  Fortunately for us, the United States does recognize its sovereignty as a country and with our Embassy recently lifting travel restrictions to this once war torn land, we decided to take a quick weekend trip across the border to a country that was essentially unknown to us.

Kosovo is a small country--just 3,898 square miles-- nestled between Albania and Montenegro to the west and Serbia and Macedonia to the north, east, and south. Like all of the Balkans, the land that is now Kosovo has a long and hard history that mostly revolves around being occupied by various warring and conquering armies.  Serbs, Austro- Hungarians, Bulgarians, and Ottomans are just some of the empires that occupied this area at one time or another and pieces of their influence are still in evidence today.  The Kosovo War of the early 1990s was the most recent conflict that tore this tiny land apart yet it was this very war that has helped shape the country into what it is today.

Today Kosovo is a meeting place where old meets new.  Newly paved highways make way for well maintained cobble stone streets in city centers.  Ancient Ottoman era buildings that have survived numerous wars share sidewalk space with modern high rises.  The partially built concrete houses along the Albanian border reflect that country's ongoing influence as well.  The contrasts are astounding but seem to speak to what Kosovo is all about.

So what did I think about Kosovo?  I wasn't sure what to expect.  As is the case whenever we cross the boarder from Albania we immediately know we are in a different country. (On this trip we were surprised before we left since the Kosovarian immigration official did not allow cars to push their way to the head of the long line.  That sort of discipline and understanding of rule of law doesn't exist on the Albanian side of the border.  Sorry folks, everyone really must wait their turn).  As a first time visitor I was immediately surprised by the country's fertile farmland.  While ringed by mountains, the country itself is relatively flat.  We probably passed more tractors than cars- both old, new, and questionably recognizable as such-- in our drive from the border to Pristina.  Boys and old men alike hawked cabbage, grapes, and pears from wagons parked along the side of the road.  Agriculture is obviously a large part of Kosovo's economy.

Evidence of Albania was readily apparent everywhere we looked.  The population of Kosovo is 92% ethnic Albanian so we readily understood the language- well as much as we do in Albania anyway.  Kosovarians are just as excited about Albania's impending anniversary as their neighbors to the west. The ubiquitous black double-headed eagle graced signs and buildings and every jewelry store window had at least one piece of jewelry with the national Albanian symbol on it.  Albanian flags waved from storefronts and windows and like Albania, appreciation of all things America was strong.  Stores bragged of "New York style" foods and clothing and the American flag flew alongside that of Kosovo and NATO.  Just as many cars sported Albanian plates as Kosovarian and restaurant menus read the same as those back in Albania.

The long term influence of the NATO KFOR was immediately apparent.  From the well maintained and well marked roadways to the completed buildings and evidence of on-going foreign investment, the capital of Pristina seemed to be bustling with activity.  Even early on a Sunday morning construction work was continuing on the expansion of a pedestrian only walkway.  Glenn had visited Pristina this past September and commented that significant progress had been made in the past couple of months.  Along the roadways police were enforcing traffic laws and not once did we see a double or triple parked car within the city.  Hence, traffic flowed along the roads the way it was intended to and marked crosswalks and working streetlights made it safe to move about as both a driver and a pedestrian.

Overall I liked what I saw.  The planner in me was excited by the well thought out construction that was taking place.  The reconstruction of Kosovo is far from complete but I am hopeful that the country is headed in the right direction.  As we were leaving we decided that we want to go back again. If for no other reason that to see the continued progress (and to be able to drive to the end of the almost completed interstate).

In front of the Skenderbeg Statue in Pristina


  1. I enjoyed your post. I didn't know much about Kosovo as I was way of of school when it became its own country. I am a New Yorker so the New York food made me smile. I am glad you got to enjoy your visit!

    1. Thanks. New York is the epitome of American here in the Balkans so it is hard to find a city or town that doesn't have a New York style something or other.