Travel Writing Awards Entry

By Siena Anstis

The evening I fall in love we’re drinking $3 litter-bottles of vodka at a dinner party with no electricity, no water. Pristina, I’m told, in its muggy summer and freezing winters, has a permanently failing electricity grid.

We sit on sofas, strangers in a circle, telling dirty secrets and popping in the corks of unopened bottles of red wine. Drinking cold Pejas, “Kosovo’s Finest Beer” and discussing Kosovo politics: unemployment at an unofficial rate of 70 per cent; ethnic division in Mitrovica intractable; black market activities now make up 40 to 50 per cent of the GDP.

The second evening we’re scrambling up the stairs of an unfinished building in the center of Pristina. When we reach the top, we only narrowly miss falling six stories down and through a basement, the hole is the crowded reflection of a puddle at midnight.

A ladder leads to the thin tin roof and we lie, our heads tilted backwards over the edge, watching the dancing lights of urban sprawl. We imagine we’re surrounded by tanks and bombs as we make love.

I traveled to Pristina to discover a city filled with youth, statistics say over fifty per cent of the population. The bars, always full, serving cold Peja and in the cafes, teenagers always sipping small white-cupped espressos. The war during the ‘90s far from everyone’s mind. And besides, Kosovo was now independent.

I meet him in a town under the blue Southern mountain peeks of Kosovo where buildings are old and cobbled streets charming. Where hundreds were killed and underneath the city’s infrastructure exists a network of war-time tunnels, escape routes connecting one side of the city to the other.

I’m surrounded by children throwing red and yellow bouquets, wearing orange and blue skirts and t-shirts with petals in their hair and he’s pushing a rusted bike. I spot his unfamiliar face. A prominent jaw which juts out when he laughs, a beard, and brown hair, tightly curled.

We eat lunch watching the river. Lamb stew, pita bread, tzatziki. We drink Pejas, and he tells some of his family’s war-time jokes. 

Chilren are posted outside the Gjakova house as sentries and his grandfather flushes the toilet. In the dead of the night, when noise is forbidden, the gurgle sends the children’s minds on fire with the danger of approaching Serb soldiers. His grandfather leaves the house to start shouting, asking if they hear any noise. His hearing aid a humorous impediment to their security, a cause for silent laughter and scolding on a still evening.

Another black night when the Serb soldiers do come – warning shots echoes in the distance – his grandfather boasts surviving two world wars and confidently attempts to lead the family to the safety tunnel. Only to be so stiff and crippled in old age that he can’t descend the ladder and in his wake gather a tail of panicked parents and children.

During the civil war he was a young teenager. His father, a local barber, told the family that if the Serbs found them, every family member had to scatter. They wouldn’t be killed as a whole, to be found sisters and brothers and lovers sharing each other’s bullets and blood. They might re-unite after the war, fragments.

His plan was to run into the arms of the girl he loved at the time, through a Serb blockade he hadn’t considered. He told his old love this story years later when they met in New York, and she laughed. 

He remembers the shackles of growing up young in an undefined country with the threat and the reality of war. Yet, when I see him, my mind is only on him, not his history: how he smiles at every punctuation. How his laughter can never be hollow and always rings clear with humor and appreciation. His jaw jutting out from his beard when he’s pleased. His eyes really dance when he’s happy. He moves easily in his blue and black suits. When he dresses on the shadow-less rooftop, he laughs at the thin white tank-top he wears under his blue collared shirt saying only Eastern Europeans get away with such a fashion statement and within the same thought gives me a definition of what it means for Kosovo to be “independent, but not sovereign.”

There’s a football match the last evening. He meets me outside the oval stadium where crowds are painted green and red and roaring. He’s here for the red team, his home team, who are battling Mitrovica for the first Kosovo Cup after independence. It’s a momentous occasion: Mitrovica, the ethnically divided town partially run by Serbia, against the small Southern Kosovar town. A young man stands on a metal railing in front of us – a red scarf tied around his head and naked from the waist up – making us chant: “ you Serbia, Mitrovica is ours!” The opposing team’s fans echo the same cheer. 

A red shirt is slipped over my arms and blonde hair tumbles away and around. We open Pejas and cheer to what his smile says will always be success. He’s dressed more like an American today. He went to university in Georgia after the war. He ties a red and black striped scarf around my neck and he fills my hands with little salted seeds he teaches me how to suck like a Kosovar.

We walk home in the evening, his hand under my shirt and holding my ***. My preconceptions of Kosovo’s war and the remnants of pain gone, and the exuberance of his personality defining a new Kosovo to me. One where youth do not engender war with pain, but grasp the future with hope and brilliance.