Outside, an endless line of white UN cars stood parked behind checkpoints and gates. The UN folks keep to themselves and don’t mingle with the natives, Greg said.
Greg also pointed out the 10-story Grand Hotel, currently the Pristina’s best lodging and a landmark I would use later to help me find my way around. But it was a huge color photo on a billboard near the stadium plaza that caught and held my attention. It showed New York smoldering after the 911 disaster. Greg told me that the Albanian text underneath asked for prayers for the Americans "who also were victims of terrorism."
"The Albanian Kosovars love Americans because they think they all would have been killed without U.S. intervention during the war," he said.
I mulled that thought until we reached Tiffany Restaurant, which is one block from the OSCE building, behind the stadium. Here we joined Greg’s colleagues and friends, all of whom work for various U.S.-funded agencies to revive the Kosovar economy and share Greg’s enthusiasm for the region. Most of them are thirty-something young men with graduate degrees and a keen desire to make the world a better place. Two have Midwest connections--Dennis Zeedyk, an agriculture specialist from the University of Illinois at Champaign, and Glenn Surabian an MBA from Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Business.
Their enthusiasm for Tiffany and its owner Luli Zhubi was profuse and with good reason. The meal was nothing less than a feast, and I was the honored guest. This Tiffany is Luli’s second restaurant: The first was destroyed in the war.
Luli is a bundle of energy and full of good humor, but it is his wife Flori who is the genius behind the cuisine. Flori apologized that her dishes were limited because all foodstuffs in Kosovo are imported and she has to use what’s available. It made no difference--the results were spectacular.
I can only describe the meal as Albanian "tapas" because Flori made sure we had a tasting portion of every Albanian dish on the menu. These included sarma, grape leaves stuffed with ground lamb, monteja, pastry balls filled with ground veal, Rugova, a native cheese, a lovely composed salad and several lamb and vegetable stews served in tavas, special clay earthenware dishes that are an Albanian tradition. Luli paired every dish with a surprisingly good Kosovo wine, each a pre-war vintage.
Tiffany’s is one of the brightest spots in Pristina and often caters UN banquets as well as local events. It’s easy to see why Greg and his colleagues consider the personable Luli as one of their friends and why they include him in their socializing. When we were ready to leave, Luli was waiting at the door with a gift "for Greg’s mama." It was a bottle of 1981 Kosovar Bourgunde and an invitation to visit again.
Greg had to work the next day, but he had engaged Dennis’ Moldovian wife Marina to take me to some of Kosovo’s nearby points of interest. In turn, Marina invited her Albanian neighbor, Agim Rama, along to interpret for us.
In the next 12 hours I would visit a 12th Century Serbian Orthodox monastery in Peje, a street full of storefronts made of carved wood in Gjakove and a restaurant on the site of an old mill in Prizren. I also would get a crash course in what makes Kosovo tick.
There are barbed wire barricades and KFOR guards at every Serbian church in Kosovo because of fear of reprisal from the Muslim Albanians, who lost many friends and family during the Kosovo War. The monastery is no exception. After a thorough check of our passports and a phone call to the monastery by the peacekeepers on duty, Marina and I were allowed onto the grounds. Agim was refused access because of his nationality.
Marina, who speaks Ukrainian, was able to ask two black-garbed ladies if we could visit the church, and their faces lit up when they realized I was an American. They opened the church just for us, and there we purchased some religious goods and talked—mostly in sign language—about Chicago, a name the ladies seemed to recognize.
From Peje, we drove to Gjakove, and encountered several noisy motorcades waving Albanian flags and blowing their horns. Agim told us the people of Gjakove were celebrating on their way to meet 102 men who had just been released from Serb prisons after years of incarceration. He said it was a great day and there would be feasting and partying well into the night.
We continued on to one of Gjakove’s main attractions, the street of wooden front stores. With Turkish music blaring from every establishment, goods ranging from clothing to electronics to produce were displayed for sale. Marina explained that these storefronts had recently been rebuilt and restored after a fire destroyed almost everything on the street several years earlier.
We stopped at an Albanian café for lunch, and Agim ordered a regional specialty for us, but I couldn’t finish the huge meat and yogurt stew served in tavas. In true American form, I asked for a doggie bag and was stunned when I was handed my leftovers wrapped, but still in the ceramic cooking dish. Agim explained that the custom of taking uneaten restaurant food home is unknown in Kosovo and that the owner had improvised in my honor.
Another unknown American tradition is the use of travelers’ checks and credit cards. Neither is accepted at most places in Kosovo, and only cash (Euros) is used. There are no ATMs in Kosovo, either, so I had to find a bank where I could change American dollars. I was surprised to find that banks in Kosovo have metal detectors and more security guards than patrons, and that getting the 3rd degree is part of the money changing process. Agim explained that there is a 60 percent unemployment rate in Kosovo and theft and counterfeiting are problems, so banks don’t take chances.
Our final stop that day was Prizren, Kosovo’s second-largest city and Agim’s birthplace. The German contingent of the UN forces is in charge here, and it shows. Roads are in tip-top shape, traffic signs are prominent and streets are free of litter.
Agim told us that Prizren holds mixed memories for him. He reminisced about his childhood and showed us his mosque and other places he remembers fondly. But he also pointed out the former home of one of his best friends, who with 55 others, had hidden behind the city’s bus station while trying to escape during the war. All 56 people, most related to each other, were slaughtered by Serbian forces. Agim thinks of them whenever he is in Prizren.
As we headed back to Pristina, I saw farmland that could have been in Illinois or Kansas, forests that looked like Minnesota’s woodlands and mountain ranges that could have been in Colorado. Except for the land mines that still make wandering dangerous, the beautiful countryside could have been anywhere in America, and I wanted to stay and see more.
However, Greg and I were scheduled fly to Ljubljana, Slovenia, the next afternoon, where we would join his fiance Sanja on a road trip. I decided to use my last hours in Pristina to explore the city on foot. Everywhere I went, I was pegged as an American and greeted with nods and smiles from passersby. It was oddly comforting in a place that had seemed so forbidding just 36 hours earlier.
When it was time to meet Greg, I realized I was hopelessly lost and hopped in a cab. I gave the driver a card with Greg’s office address, but the cabbie didn’t speak English or know how to get there and I didn’t speak Albanian. To my surprise, he didn’t exploit my predicament. Instead, he spent 10 minutes making calls to get directions—without turning on the meter. When he dropped me at my destination, he smiled, tipped his hat and said "Thank you." At that moment, it occurred to me that he wasn’t expressing his gratitude just for my choosing his taxi.
The cab driver’s simple act opened my eyes, which now saw Pristina through the prism of its people. I was no longer a tourist who just glanced at the region’s facades, but a traveler who had been allowed to delve into the culture and mindset of its people. This is a place where Americans are seen as the good guys, a place where U.S. altruism is appreciated. In the eyes of the Kosovars, I was part of that and I liked the association. Kosovo had mesmerized me, too.
Greg’s friend Ilir summed up the dynamic as he drove us to the airport to catch our flight to Slovenia: "If they hear your American accent, they won’t charge us to park," he said. When I asked why, he matter-of-factly told me that "It is out of respect for what the Americans did for us." I felt like dancing.