PRISTINA, Kosovo--Novelist Kurt Vonnegut once observed that "Unusual travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God." But when I received an airline ticket to this war-ravaged region as a gift, the only dancing I could envision involved high stepping around land mines, rubble and refugees.
Okay, the ticket would enable me to visit my son Greg, who lives and works in Pristina and whom I hadn’t seen for almost two years. Because mail and phone service between the U.S. and Kosovo ranges from erratic to non-existent, we had communicated almost exclusively through email, thanks to his employer’s microwave receiver.
I was eager to spend time with Greg, but I had a persistent, unpleasant mental image of Kosovo that involved a TV commercial showing Americans distributing macaroni-and-cheese dinners to refugees in snowbound tent cities. This was not my idea of a good time.
The population of Kosovo is predominantly Muslim Albanian. Thanks to the war, Pristina’s population doubled almost overnight from 250,000 to half a million when Albanians fleeing Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic’s "ethnic cleansing" settled there.
Before the trip, I looked for travel guides that could suggest sites worth visiting in this war-torn region that so intrigued my well-traveled son. All I could find was a history of the Balkan Wars, which documented battles and atrocities that had occurred in Kosovo over the last 800 years. I was going to be on my own in the search for Kosovo’s hidden allure.
Getting to Kosovo from Chicago isn’t easy—there are no direct flights, and I had to transfer in Zurich, which included a four-hour layover because there is just one connecting flight per day to Pristina. But I was a mom on a mission and airline schedules weren’t going to deter me.
Greg met me at the crowded, chaotic and inefficient airport, where I collected the half of my luggage that had made the trip on my flight (another story). My orientation to the Kosovar culture began with a wild drive around a city still struggling to recover from the 1998-99 war that tore it apart.
As we approached Pristina proper, I was alarmed at what seemed like my son’s erratic driving. His Land Rover was weaving and lurching, but so was every other car on the road. Greg explained that such diversionary tactics are necessary on Pristina roads, which have been transformed into obstacle courses by potholes, some big enough to hold a refrigerator.
Our odd traffic maneuvers put us in a "rush hour" snarl of civilian and KFOR (Kosovo Forces) military vehicles, many of which were making random U-turns, parking wherever they stopped, and playing chicken with people trying to cross the street. It was like a surreal version of bumper cars.
But this was no Disney World excursion, and the scenery was no back lot wonder that would melt into a picturesque village when the ride was over. Pristina is a real urban jungle of high-rise housing projects landscaped with litter and graffiti and surrounded by countless gas stations and shops selling pirated CDs and cheap merchandise, ranging from clothing to housewares.
Every single balcony of every single high-rise is "decorated" with laundry and two ugly white orbs. Greg explained that satellite is the only way residents can get TV reception and their only connection to the outside world.
What was it about this place that for two years mesmerized my son, a magna cum laude Notre Dame graduate with an MBA who has lived in the south of France and on the beaches of Costa Rica?
The mystery deepened when we reached Greg’s apartment. He rattled off a list of "tips" on how to work the hot water tank, what to do if the electricity went out, how to flush the toilet at night when the water is turned off and how to block out the plaintive wailing of hundreds of stray dogs that prowl Pristina looking for food after dark. This could be tolerable, but it sure wasn’t Provence.
We then headed out to meet some of Greg’s co-workers at their favorite restaurant, which was a 30-minute walk across town. The pedestrian viewpoint helped me begin to peel away the war-torn façade and glimpse a glimmer of the real Kosovo.
As we navigated the maze of side streets and alleys in the dark, I expressed some concern about safety. "Don’t worry," Greg said. "Crime is low here and besides, the Kosovars love Americans; they’re more likely to help you than hurt you."
I filed that away as we walked near a huge sports stadium, half of which is a burned out shell and the other half a school. We passed the United Nations compound, which once was one of Pristina’s most modern buildings and now is a self-contained "city" for UN employees.
Part 2 follows.