Personal

Just Another Day at the Office

“It tastes like candy,” I mused. I’ve never tasted a melon so sweet.

My colleague Ardian perfectly summarized the fruit’s complexity.

“It’s a symphony!” he said, stabbing another piece out of the communal office bowl.

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An office break.

After we eat both melons, a scurry of collective clearing away of the dishes commences.

The melon’s melody intermingles with the clinking in the sink, the pitter pattering of feet walking to and fro, the telephone, and the sounds of traffic from the window.

Dijana begins to make Turkish coffee cup by cup.

The rest of us sit chatting round the red sofas.

There’s still a piece of fli (aka flia or flija) on the table, a painstakingly made traditional Albanian crepe-pie, along with the spinach and leek pitas and tzatziki. It was all purchased at the bakery down the street. And it’s delicious.

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An outing in downtown Prishtina

Eli is reading the newspaper and Fatmir pulls up a chair.

The coffee sits in everyone’s cups like chocolate soup, and the chatting continues until the ground coffee sifts to the bottom. One by one everybody begins to sip.

Then Rrita slips away to answer the phone, and the cups begin to empty.

Eventually we wander back to our desks.

Just another day at the office.

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Personal, Travel

There and Back Again: Magija Beograda

It’s summer in Belgrade, and this is a very good thing.

I’ve always felt summer improves everything: moods, physiques, food. But perhaps a place has never been improved by sunshine and rising temperatures more than my beloved Belgrade. And trust me, I liked it well enough before—even in the deep doldrums of dreary February when I first arrived.

It’s in the winter you can really digest the landscape; it’s a hodgepodge of eras and architectures. For some reason I really took a liking to the newer, Communist style side of the city across the river from the old city center called Novi Beograd (New Belgrade).

Belgrade rivers convergence

MARCH – Fog and slumbering tree limbs overlooking the Danube and Sava rivers converge at Kalemegdan fortress.

It’s not that I’m yugo-nostalgic, but it could be my natural predilection for utilitarian type organization and predictable gridded street systems (no winding European-style streets here, although yes those are charming). Maybe my attraction to such (what some would say) characterless blocks of apartment buildings and monuments is perverse. Either way I’m quite attached to my tastes, thank you.

Then again, wherever you are in the world, everything looks a little more Communist in the winter. The season slows our pace for an interim, things look a little lifeless….but sometimes it’s still beautiful.

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MARCH – Hints of green at Kalemegdan fortress—Belgrade’s city origin that sits at an important convergence of the Danube and Sava rivers.

About the only thing the cold didn’t stop in Belgrade was the lovers (who insisted on walking about or sitting in frigid parks and the old city fortress despite the plummeting temps) and the nightlife. And the pijacas (open air markets). Serbians have to love, they have to party, and they have to eat.

But it’s in the summer (and spring) when the kids come out to play in the parks, when the rose bushes bloom and the windowsills are full of flowers, when the moms and dads and and grandmas and grandpas tootle around hand in hand, when the river splavs (floating clubs and cafes) open for business and shake the river banks all night with the DJ’s beat.

Belgrade dawn

MAY – Dawn over Belgrade and the Sava river from the Novi Beograd side (Usce).

Everything just has a little bit more character in Belgrade; This is the place they call magija (magic)….magija beograda. I would attribute to the magic of the river, which both divides and unites the city and its people. (I kind of added that last statement to tie in all of these pictures of the rivers I have…)

It’s funny…this is my second time back in Belgrade, and I miss home much more this time, despite the magic. But this trip was a little more independent, a little more potent. I happened to pass through the city over the 20th anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide (some contest the use of the “G-word”, especially in Serbia. Is it genocide or just a grave crime?).

But Srebrenica is beside the point. What I mean to illustrate is how I so often find myself in such precarious situations as a guest in this region. I’m an American after all, a westerner; my affiliations of nationality prove to be controversial one way or another wherever I go. And as I analyze and contemplate my daily experiences, like in those surrounding the days around this particular anniversary, it’s hard not to quantify everything based on what I know from back home and exclude the viewpoints right here around me.

JUNE: Charming red roofs in Zemun from Gardos tower—once the Austro-Hungarian outpost that eyes Belgrade proper from the other side of the river.

JUNE: Charming red roofs in Zemun from Gardos tower—once the Austro-Hungarian outpost that eyes Belgrade proper from the other side of the river.

Can it be helped? I remember what a colleague from the Balkanist spoke about once, she called it “helicoptering in”. You know, going some place and pointing out all the problems and issues, drumming up attention, etc. Especially in my chosen study program and possible career, journalism, I often think about it.

It’s one of the easiest tourist traps of all, I think, to be tempted to go around in an egocentric manner; a culture war. But I was never inclined to be just a tourist. So what am I doing here anyway; why did I come in the first place? It’s food for thought, I suppose.

And it’s so nice out I think I’ll take a break from all of this thinking and just go enjoy the sweet Balkan sun for a bit.

Summer has never looked better.

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Personal, Travel

Youth and Statebuilding in Contested Kosovo

I visited Kosovo with my study abroad program last week. These are my impressions:

For 110 countries (including the United States), Kosovo has been an independent nation since it declared itself so in 2008. But not everyone looks at it that way.

Depending on your nationality and/or ethnic background, you are bound to see Kosovo in one of two lights: (1) Kosovo is Kosovo—in other words, independent—or (2) Kosovo (i Metohija) is Serbia, as it was during the time of Yugoslavia. And possibly a third if you want to talk “Greater Albania”.

Serbs populated the area that is now Kosovo in the 7th century, where there are many significant cultural and religious sites including the infamous battlefield where “Serbs” (realistically, the forces were not clear cut between Ottoman and Serb; there was probably a mix of Balkan peoples on both sides) the clashed with a majority Ottoman force in 1389. For modern Serbia, espoused especially during the 1990s nationalist movement, Kosovo is regarded as “the heart of Serbia”; Serbia still legally considers the territory its own.

Kosovo Polje monument

The monument at Kosovo Polje (“Field of the blackbirds” in Serbian, also “Gazimestan” to non-Serbs) where Balkan and majority Ottoman forces met in 1389.

But Albanians who had since settled in Kosovo from Albania in the 1980s and who began to outnumber the Serbs in Kosovo in the 1990s, filed a referendum for independence during the disintegration of Yugoslavia. The Serbian president at the time, Slobodan Milosevic, enacted repressive measures against Albanians and revoked the province’s “autonomous” status.

In 1999, after these “repressive” measures began to include body counts, NATO executed a bombing campaign against Serbia with the official reason to end human rights violations of Kosovo Albanians. Serbian military and police forces were withdrawn from Kosovo after three months of bombing, and an exodus of Kosovo Serb citizenry shortly followed in 1999 and again in 2004 as Albanian reprisal against Serbs also became violent and deadly.

Kosovo is now an almost ethnically clear state. In 2008, there was a 92% ethnic Albanian majority that has increased in past years. The ethnic Serbs making up part of the remaining percentage tend to live in several of the northern provinces, although the minority populations continues to dwindle in these areas.

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The mountains near the city of Peć/Peja in northern Kosovo.

THE CITY & PEOPLE

When we first arrived in Prishtina, I was shocked at how small it seemed. Coming from Belgrade, I had expected more in size from a “capitol” city, but then again Kosovo’s entire population is only around 1.8 million. Prishtina’s official size was estimated by OSCE at around 200,000 in 2011, but immigrations in the past months have probably shrunk that total somewhat.

What is notable about the population, at least in Prishtina, is the sheer amount of young people (i.e. 18-30 year olds) walking the sidewalks, assisting in shops, relaxing outside cafes, and pouring in and out of the downtown walking street. Prishtina, definitely not the Socialist backwater it used to be, is young, fashionable dressed and full of life.  But it’s not paradise yet.

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View from University of Prishtina

YOUTH, POLITICS, ECONOMICS, IMMIGRATION & PROTEST

I assumed that, with the stream of Kosovars leaving for better economic prospects, the young people would have been one of the largest groups to leave. But there are many factors that keep these young people home. My study abroad program’s Kosovo coordinator, Yll Buleshkaj, who is also Deputy Chief of Party of Kosovo IFES (International Foundation for Electoral Systems), said that these include the presence of universities and state administration, a concentration of service jobs that are mostly occupied by the young, and restrictions on international movement (especially to EU countries).

European integration, as it is in most of the Balkans, is a high priority for the Kosovo government, but economic fallout, corruption and the frozen political situation with Serbia are preventing progress and disenchanting citizens. Perhaps the presence and energies of these young generations is a beacon of hope for Kosovo’s future.

“The large number of youth in Kosovo can be both an engine for a better future or a time bomb.” – Yll Buleshkaj, deputy chief IFES Kosovo

It seems, however, that Kosovo will need more than its youth. “The large number of youth in Kosovo can be both an engine for a better future or a time bomb,” said Buleshkaj. “but [we] need better government policies and improvement in the quality of education in Kosovo.”

Whether due to the presence of a progressive younger generation or just a product of the statebuliding process, Kosovo has seen its fair share of protest regarding such government shortcomings. Even during our visit, broken windows on an administration building in the city’s main square were being repaired from a protest the week prior in which protestors hailed the building with rocks.

Kosovo 2.0 Magazine

Kosovo 2.0, a Priština-based magazine, has given voice to Kosovo’s status of emergence. The most recent issue on Sports discusses, in editor Besa Luci’s words, “conviction grounded in the belief that sports can significantly serve as an agent of international recognition and, especially, an internal social and economic force.” And it’s incredibly well-designed. Take a look at kosovotwopointzero.com.

Faith Bailey, an American Fulbright scholar in Prishtina researching Serbian and Albanian youth exchanges in Kosovo, finds youth protest a positive indicator of Kosovo’s future. “I don’t think people would have protested if they didn’t believe in other possibilities,” she said.

“Young people do not have their head in the clouds—they know they are up against a lot in terms of their economy, and change isn’t a given.” – Faith Bailey, researcher

Buleshkaj shares a similarly optimistic view. “I think if we stop and compare the current state of affairs in Kosovo with five or ten years ago we can notice an immense progress,” he said. “The EU is slowly opening the backdoor for Kosovo. The European path of Kosovo faces no serious alternative. Extremism (mainly religious) is being addressed by institutions and soon religious communities are expected to give their contribution.”

Mosque in Kosovo

A mosque in northern Kosovo near the border/administrative line with Serbia.

Bailey describes how it is a common misconception of Kosovo—formed based on perceptions of the failed economy, government and plain ignorance—“that daily life completely revolves around the war that happened and the current frozen political conflict. Of course it is an important aspect to the story here. But it doesn’t define Kosovo”.

From the West’s view especially, she said, ”People sometimes act condescending or have pity on the problems in Kosovo—however, not looking at your own country and seeing the transnational connections would be a misunderstanding of where the world is today”.

All photos by author.

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Personal, Travel

A Week In Austria: Castles, Coffee, and Krapfen

En route to Serbia I stopped off in Austria to visit with some family friends and acquaintances in Vienna and Stockerau. Here is a brief version of my itinerary:

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Stephansplatz, Inner Stadt

CITY CENTRE
Almost directly from the airport we went to Stephansdom, or St. Stephan’s Church, which sits at the exact center of Vienna’s Innere Stadt (“city centre”). Walking on past the Church are several streets of upscale shopping that led us to the Hofburg, the Hapsburg winter palace. This palace offers tours and a museum of the family’s grand collection of crown jewels as well as a glimpse of the famous Lipizzaner stables, but walking on through brought us into the courtyard bordering Ringstrasse (“Ring Street”). The Ringstrasse was originally the medieval city’s protective wall—funded by Richard the Lionheart’s ransom (see “Medieval Castles” below)— but was demolished in 1857 by Franz Joseph I. The street replaced the wall, around which was built the majestic National Library, the Rathaus (town hall—every city in Austria has one), and other important buildings touting imperial social progress.

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The National Library. Adolf Hitler gave an infamous speech overlooking the courtyard from the Library’s entrance during WWII.

I felt rather proud of myself the next day when I took the U-bahn (public train) by myself to tour the Vienna International Center, which is one of the four world headquarters of the United Nations. This particular HQ is home to several well-known UN organizations including the International Atomic Energy Agency which won a Nobel Peace Prize in 2005.

MUSEUMS
Vienna boasts hundreds upon hundreds of things to do, among them a large variety of museums. I visited two:

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The Belvedere

The Belvedere, like many art museums in Vienna, was originally a palace. This one in particular was built in the early 1700s for general Prince Eugene of Savoy, known for successfully battling the Turks in the Battle of Belgrade that led to termination of the Austro-Ottoman War.

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Ceiling detail in the main Belvedere ballroom.

Not a penny was spared in the construction of the grand manor, apparent from the inner frescoes, room after room of gold molding, and in the outer gardens and other elegant grounds buildings. Of course, the Belvedere holds a great many famous works of art, particularly those created by Viennese artists like Gustav Klimt. A whole gallery is devoted to his work, and the painting known as Vienna’s own, “The Kiss”, is a main attraction.

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The WWI exhibit at the Army History Museum has Archduke Ferdinand’s car, military outfit, and gun used, among other memorabilia, from the day of his assassination by Bosnian Serb Gavrilo Princip that set into motion events culminating in WWI.

I also visited the Heeresgeschichtliches Museum (Army History Museum) whose new WWI exhibit was excellent. And while I didn’t see the artwork housed by the Hapsburg summer palace Schloss Schönbrunn, the grounds were enough feast for the eyes even in a frozen state.  Hiking up to the Glorietta (“beautiful view) is a must.

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Schloss Schönbrunn from the inner gardens

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Glorietta detail

AUSTRIAN PUBLIC ETIQUETTE
For the Austrians, and indeed most Europeans, certain types of behavior are expected. I was told and observed firsthand that the Austrian is not necessarily rude, they have just been raised on a more stringent and conservative set of standards regarding public conduct than, say, an average American. For example, on my first public transport ride, I ever so slightly set the sole of my shoe on the opposite empty seat only to be met with very obvious disapproving stares from workers sitting across the aisle. My friend quickly pointed out the infraction, as well as several other “rules” to keep in mind, and the workers went back about their business:

1. Don’t talk to loudly; keep your conversations (including those on the phone) quiet.
2. Probably do not eat; My friend made this as a recommendation, but I never saw anyone eating while on the train or bus anyway.
3. Stay to the right on escalators so that those in a hurry can pass you on the left.

COFFEE CULTURE & AUSTRIAN FOOD
Vienna is also known worldwide for its coffee culture. The marks of a true Viennese coffee house are:

  • A wide selection of newspapers at the counter
  • Marble tabletops
  • A waitor or waitress wearing a tuxedo or otherwise dressed formally
  • Coffee is served with a glass of water on a silver tray
  • A “take all the time you want” service mentality—you often have to ask for the check
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Sacher Torte and Melange at the cake’s original home, Hotel Sacher.

And of course, no coffee house experience is complete without Wiener Melange (specialty viennese coffee drink similar to a cappuccino) and Sacher Torte, a rich chocolate cake with apricot filling that is absolutely the best chocolate-type cake I have ever had. You can get Sacher Torte all across Vienna and Austria, but Hotel Sacher—where I tasted my first—lays claim to the original recipe.

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Second Viennese coffee house experience: Caffe Latte (a personal favorite) and Schokolade Obstkuchen (chocolate-fruit cake).

You can also find the traditional hot chocolate drink Alt Wiener Heisse Schokolade (“Old Viennese Hot Chocolate”) at any Viennese coffee house. I had mine homemade at a friend’s, but the drink is special to Austria by the addition of cinnamon and vanilla sugar to whipped topping.

Krapfen, a powdered sugar-topped donut with jam filling (usually apricot flavored) is especially popular at this time of year when everyone celebrates in excess before Lent (Austria is very Catholic). Also, Wiener Schnitzel and Apfel Strudel (apple strudel) are must-tries, and they drink a lot of Apfelsaft Gespritzt (apple juice and mineral water) with meals.

The immigrant influence on food is also of note in Vienna. Friends took me to an apparently world-renowned Turkish restaurant, Kent Restaurant, that was really amazing. I had Adana Özel, a spiced lamb, rice and salad dish with yogurt and tomato sauces, and finished the meal with traditional Turkish tea. It was an excellent introduction to types of food that heavily influenced the Balkans where I will be for the remainder of the semester.

MEDIEVAL CASTLES
For what Vienna boasts of Hapsburg grandeur, cities and villages all over Austria also hold their own treasure troves of historical architecture. After my stay in Vienna I spent a week in Stockerau, a small city on the capitol’s outskirts.

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Burgruine Dürnstein castle ruins

My host and I also spent one afternoon in Dürnstein, a quaint wine-producing village in the Wachau region on the Danube whose castle ruins overlooking the small town are famed for once imprisoning Richard the Lionheart. The tale is rather interesting, and Dürnstein benefits in the summer from an ever increasing flock of tourists. In the winter season, however, the many shops and coffeehouses remain closed and one can wander about the cobble stone streets and vineyards without so much as a glimpse of another human being for hours.

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Partial view of Dürnstein and the Danube river from the castle ruins.

If you’re up for a workout, you can climb to the Burgruine Dürnstein castle ruins like I did. The terrain is a bit rough, but the view is well worth the hike. Not to mention, you can galavant about the ruins unhindered; the infamous dungeon is also open for exploration.

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Enjoy unhindered exploration of the Dürnstein castle ruins, including Richard the Lionheart’s fabled imprisonment (dungeon opening on left).

Numerous other castles and monasteries loom about the landscape in all their medieval glory, including Burg Kreuzenstein and Gottweig monastery (at both, a restaurant is open to visitors during the summer with beautiful patio views of the Danube river valley, I’m told).

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Feeling tiny at Burg Kreuzenstein. Interesting: Nicolas Cage filmed “Season of the Witch” here.

NEXT TIME
The great thing about this trip is that it could be condensed into a few less days or even a weekend tour, so I’ll hope to visit many of these sights again. But still, you can’t do everything in one visit. My next time through Vienna I’m hoping to also see:

  • The Jewish Square in Innere Stadt is reportedly interesting, albeit not so Jewish as it once was due to Nazi occupation and extermination in WWII
  • The National Opera allows standing viewers a discount (and I hear the view is still incredible, if you don’t mind tired feet)
  • In the basement of Stefansdom are some very interesting catacombs (tours available)
  • Also in Innere Stadt – just down the street from Hoffburg – is Demel’s, a beautiful bakery and pastry shop that boasts k.u.k. on the sign, meaning “kaiserlich und koniglich” or good enough for the emperor and king, in other words. Here I’d like to have afternoon tea—or coffee.
  • Vienna—as both neighbor and Hapsburg half—has a long history with Hungary. Before and during the Hungarian revolution, for example, thousands of Hungarians escaped the oppressive Communist regime in their home country over the Bridge at Andau into Austria (and usually on to Vienna). I read James Michener’s book “The Bridge at Andau” this summer and I’d like to visit the actual spot when I return to Austria.

Images by the author unless otherwise noted.

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