English Holiday: Charmed From Day One

England charmed me from day one. I was a lucky visitor, too — the weather was mild and even warm at times. There was rain of course, and wind, but the holiday atmosphere, food, and my gracious hosts made that as pleasant as anything.

Christmas in Kent:

The first leg of my trip was spent in Kent, the southeastern tip of England (you’ve seen a billion pictures of the Cliffs of Dover). Kent’s location has naturally made it a living museum and therefore full of great old houses, cathedrals, castles and other important historical sites. William the Conqueror landed and built his first castles here, for example, and the county’s close proximity to London (as well as its “gateway to Europe” type position) have kept it important through all ages.

Fog

Kent’s countryside is still hopelessly romantic. The winter had been so mild that England’s characteristic green landscapes still look their very best, and small cottages and rows of townhouses, mansions and quaint farms occupy picturesque knolls, valleys, and quiet village streets at every turn.

My hosts live in Kemsing, but they keep some sheep and pigs on and near the Oak Hall estate grounds which sit on a bluff overlooking their village. The manor now houses a Christian retreat ministry. You will find that most great houses like Oak Hall have undergone similar evolutions in ownership and use — whether they now belong to private organizations and individuals or to the UK’s National Trust, for example.

Knole House

On such place is Knole House (above), which we visited on one very particularly rainy day. It once belonged to the Sackville family and sits on 1,000 acres, famous for its woods and deer hunting. Distinguished guests of the family over the years have included Henry VIII (he apparently adored the hunting grounds) and, more recently, the author Virginia Wolff.

The Orangery Knole House

In the Orangery at Knole House

We also spent and afternoon in historic Rochester, the site of one of the Normans’ first castles and its Norman-built twin, the Rochester Cathedral. It was also the home of Charles Dickens for several years. Some of the businesses on the city’s high street are cleverly named after his iconic characters and stories.

Rochester Cathedral

Rochester Castle

Cathedral interior (top) and Castle (above) in Rochester

New Years in the North

One of our first excursions after heading north for New Year’s was taking a hiking trip (almost) to the Snowden summit in  Snowdonia National Park in North Wales. Such views I’ve only dreamed of setting up camp in. The wind was rather insatiable, but the fog that rolled in with it was something majestic. I loved the place.

Snowdonia

Snowdonia

Liverpool was a delight (to my surprise, I must admit), but apparently the 2008 European Capitol of Culture made good use of the many extra visitors and pounds. We did a whirlwind tour (quite literally, the wind never really subsided) of the main sights – including the docks, the Cavern, the mesmerizing Liverpool Cathedral and also a quick stop by our friend’s workplace, a BBC radio station – winding up at the Philharmonic Dining Rooms for a proper pub and toilet (it’s a craze) experience.

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Liverpool Cathedral

We were based in Chester during the week, once the Romans’ northernmost capitol in Great Britain, and took another blistery walk on the old city wall, taking in the tourists-loved Tudor-esque high street, cathedral, and another of William’s castles. We spent the afternoon of New Years’ day taking in my first proper tea at a properly posh hotel, clotted cream and all.

NEXT TIME

Many, many things to see next time, but here are a few highlights:

Hever Castle   The childhood home of Anne Boleyn in Kent; they filmed parts of “The Other Boleyn Girl” here;

Canterbury – the famous cathedral city on a Middle Ages pilgrimage route;

Crosby BeachThree-mile beach stretching from Liverpool docks with permanent art installation of iron men by Antony Gormley;

London – Aside from our lovely day trip including Borough Market and Chinatown’s best Dim Sum, most of my experience with London has been spent at Heathrow (the airport) or on the M25 (or the London Orbital Motorway encircling the great metropolis expanse that is now the city). The city is vast and rapidly changing, and it deserves at least a week or two for a proper visit.

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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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Over Olympics and Kosovo, Serbia’s Hands Are Bound

But precedents and sensationalism aside, there is nowhere to go but forward.

BELGRADE, 15 May 2015 – Mazlam Dzemailoski is on a tight schedule.

“You came at exactly the wrong time,” he said with a gracious smile.

“We are collecting our Men’s National Team to go to Iceland tomorrow. There are players injured, there are flight arrangements…there is so much to do.”

Still, the Serbian Handball Federation international secretary has time to chit chat over match results and training as I sip traditional domaća kafa—domestic coffee—in the Federation’s Belgrade office.

But I don’t know handball, and I actually came to talk politics.

Kosovo billboard

A billboard that reads “proud of you” in Albanian celebrates the participation of Kosovo-based basketball club Sigal Pristina in the Balkan League championship final outside a government building in Prishtina. The club was named League champion in late April, a historic moment for Kosovo and advancement of the sport there.

In April, the Serbian Junior Women’s handball team blew past their first obstacle to the regional championship 40-19. The win was notably over Kosovo, Serbia’s breakaway southern province whose independence they have yet to recognize.

This game was the first meeting between Serbia and Kosovo national teams in any sport. It is also a marker of how far Kosovo has come since it began lobbying for international inclusion after declaring independence in 2008 despite fierce opposition from Belgrade.

The match itself went largely unnoticed, but women’s and youth sports tend to have less of a following in the region—particularly when played outside of either team’s borders.

Regardless, the Serbian Federation doesn’t have much to say about Kosovo. “When I spoke with journalists after the match, I told them not to ask any politically charged questions,” said Dzemailoski. “We will keep this just about sport.”

In the Balkans, however, a game is rarely just that. Often, sport enables expression of culture and identity, acting as a political metaphor.

And with Kosovo’s December 2014 admission into the International Olympic Committee (IOC) as Rio 2016 hovers on the horizon, the tension is palpable.

“Since wars and politics have played main roles on the social scene in the past several decades, [sport] has been one of the few means through which common people could send their message to the world,” said Nemanja Andjelković, a football and basketball enthusiast from Smederevo, Serbia.

“It gives us a chance to have a fair game with neighboring countries, some of whom we share an unpleasant history with.”

For many in modern Serbia—including Andjelković, whose Serb grandparents migrated from the former province—“the heart of Serbia” still beats in Kosovo.

Even sixteen years after the ’98-’99 War between Serbia and the ethnic Albanian majority for the territory, reports of wartime atrocities still continue to surface from both sides.

And when sports embody fresh memories over seemingly irreconcilable pasts, the politics often follow.

Posters advertising the Pristina-hosted Kosovo Men’s Handball match against Italy were hung all over the city leading up to the match. Although they lost 22-29, Men’s Handball remains one of Kosovo’s most competitive teams.

Posters advertising the Prishtina-hosted Kosovo Men’s Handball match against Italy were hung all over the city leading up to the match. Although they lost 22-29, Men’s Handball remains one of Kosovo’s most competitive teams.

Sport and politics in the mix

Shortly after declaring independence, Kosovo began lobbying and publicly advocating for international integration, including in athletic organizations.

In March 2014, Kosovo played in its first FIFA-sanctioned friendly opposite Haiti. Then, in early December, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) voted—after five years of deliberation— to ratify Kosovo’s membership, as did the International Basketball Association (FIBA) in March.

The IOC decision in particular opened doors for Kosovo, who is now a full member of 19 federations and a provisional member of 11. Four, including the football federation, remain to be recognized.

While it seems unlikely that Serbia will recognize Kosovo independence anytime soon, its commitment to normalization of relations with Kosovo as provisioned by the signing of the Brussels agreement in 2013 continue to bind its sovereignty.

“Serbia’s role and possibilities are partly restrained by the Brussels agreement between Belgrade and Pristina, so there is only so much they can do to prevent these things from happening,” said Balkan identity and sport scholar Dario Brentin, referring to Kosovo’s efforts to compete in international sport.

Brentin also emphasized the role sport can play in politics, or vice versa. “There is no social field free of ideology and ideological struggles and hence sport and politics always mix. Sport is… particularly important in terms of symbolic politics,” he said.

Fans like Andjelković are likely to agree with Brentin, but athletes, coaches and other sport figures have a different point of view.

Avoidance a big price to pay

Goran Vojkić has been around long enough to know the system. Since joining the Basketball Association of Serbia (KSS) as an Administrator of Men’s Teams in 2008, Vojkić has watched developments in Serbian sport over Kosovo since the independence declaration from the front row.

He said that, despite publishing a strong response to FIBA’s inclusion of Kosovo in March that warned the KSS would avoid matches with Kosovo at all costs, the Serbian Basketball prerogative follows a top-down process, especially regarding participation alongside Kosovo.

“We can try to be brave and say some things the way we want them, but in the end it’s going to be what the higher authority tells them…If someone from the top says it that way, then it will be that way,” said Vojkić.

He explained that not only does the KSS look toward the Serbian government, but also answers to FIBA and, overall, the IOC.

Ultimately, Serbian coaches, athletes, and other sport figures are reluctant to play political ambassadors. For them, it would be better if sports did not facilitate political expression at all.

“That’s not my job,” said KSS Vice President in charge of men’s teams and retired professional player Igor Rakočević.

“Every time I played the game, every time I watch on TV or in the arena I always hope that everybody sees that sport is the most important thing…[not] a political instrument,” he said.

Still, Serbia is reluctant to comment on whether competing with Kosovo could mean recognition, silent, indirect or otherwise. This clear distinction between sports and politics is also what the Serbia Handball Federation says governed their competition with Kosovo.

“Kosovo was only one opponent in the road to the European championship…We play the match, we won and we are happy, and then we start to prepare for another match,” said head Junior Women’s team coach Vlada Šimičić.

But the match took place without national flags and anthems—a condition Kosovo accepted in their first FIFA friendly against Haiti, although they are only a provisional member of that organization.

The Serbian Federation general secretary Bozidar Djurković emphasized that anthems were stipulations to participation with Kosovo. “Only in this case we can play,” he said, emphasizing that contact between the Federation and Serbia’s foreign ministry and it’s minister—Ivica Dačić —is maintained regarding participation with Kosovo.

Kosovo is, however, a full member of the European Handball Federation, and Competitions Manager Markus Glaser said this decision was made with tested knowledge that “especially for national representative teams, they are also representing their political situations.”

“We were looking for the most practical way to keep away things that have nothing to do with our sport, to play without disturbance,” he said.

A copy of Kosovo 2.0 magazine (bottom left) sits amidst fashion, beauty and political commentary at a kiosk in downtown Pristina. The progressively voiced Magazine, whose spring issue focused exclusively on sport in developing Kosovo, founded a campaign called #KosovoWantsToPlay in September 2014.

A copy of Kosovo 2.0 magazine (bottom left) sits amidst fashion, beauty and political commentary at a kiosk in downtown Prishtina. The progressively voiced Magazine, whose spring issue focused exclusively on sport in developing Kosovo, founded a campaign called #KosovoWantsToPlay in September 2014.

Nowhere to go but forward

As Serbia maintains official distance, however, numerous precedents cast a shadow on Serbia- Kosovo sport relations running into the Olympics.

After the breakup of Yugoslavia, for example, newly independent Croatia made a dramatic statement at the 1995 Eurobasket awards ceremony as Yugoslavia—by then just Serbia and Montenegro—received their gold medals. After accepting their bronze on the same stand, the Croatian team exited the arena in blatant political protest.

That was after the infamous Maksimer incident in 1990 when hooligans from Croatia’s Dinamo Zagreb and Serbia’s Crvena Zvezda football clubs clashed on the pitch, an event often called— albeit symbolic—the beginning of the war.

Then over twenty years later in last October, audiences worldwide were shocked by the ensuing hostilities during the Serbia-Albania Euro 2016 football qualifier after a drone waving a nationalist Albanian flag—including reference to Kosovo—was flown over the pitch, impassioning the all-Serbian crowd to riot.

Still, the tension isn’t limited to sport. In 2012 a Macedonia-organized regional summit was cancelled after Serbia refused to participate with Kosovo present, and reports record Serbia— with Russia’s help—blocked Olympic inclusion of Kosovo, until 2014 at least.

Yet perhaps it is too tempting to wax sensational about an impending confrontation. While there are no upcoming matches between the two on the schedule, Serbia can’t avoid a confrontation forever, especially as Kosovo continues to gain credence worldwide.

“If we say ok, we don’t want to play versus Kosovo, they say ok we will expel you from FIBA and then you will not play…Nobody will do something like that. Then we would be the ones who are suffering, not Kosovo,” said Vojkić.

“Then we are just pretending to be heroes [in our] nation….saying ‘yes we said no to Kosovo but now we are not participating at the Olympics’,” he said. “That’s a big price to pay.”

emains of a poster advertising the participation of Kosovo basketball club Sigal Pristina in the Balkan League championship are pasted to a phone booth at a construction site in Pristina.

Remains of a poster advertising the participation of Kosovo basketball club Sigal Pristina in the Balkan League championship are pasted to a phone booth at a construction site in Prishtina.

The show must go on

Meanwhile in Kosovo, Prishtina’s House of Sport—where most of Kosovo’s sport federations, the sport Ministry and the Olympic Committee operate—is abuzz with activity.

“Recently we were visited by [IOC] President Thomas Bach and his delegation and he promised that in case we will achieve one medal he will do the best to present that medal at the Olympic games,” said Kosovo Olympic Committee president Besim Hasani.

Due to its lack of sport infrastructure, funding, and a widely spread diaspora talent base, Kosovo’s prospect for an Olympic medal isn’t overwhelming, although at least 15 individuals will compete in judo, boxing, swimming, running and more at Rio, including world judo champ and former Olympian—for Albania—Majlinda Kelmendi who could win big.

In Kosovo’s case, inclusion is already a win-win. “We will want the medal, but just participating in Olympic Games itself is marvelous,” said Hasani.

And for Serbia, the show goes on. “The media and popular opinion will use that fact that we have to play versus Kosovo to make…a political [conclusion] out of it,” said Vojkić.

“But in the end the game has to be played.”

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Originally translated and published in Serbian by VICE Serbia with support and training from SIT Balkans. All photos by author.

The writing and research process for this piece was documented in this video where you can also learn more about the SIT Balkans journalism program.

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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.

Kalemegdan belgrade

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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“You need to understand that everything in Serbia revolves around food.”

“You need to understand that everything in Serbia revolves around food,” my host-mother told me as I accepted a third helping—sans protest—of her delicious Sarma (mince-meat wrapped and cooked in cabbage leaves). “It doesn’t matter what is happening, food is always in the center!”

My three months in the Balkans have adequately communicated that whatever the occasion is, it absolutely relies on the presence of food and drink. For the Balkans in general, food is the conversation and substance of life.*

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One of my favorites, šopska salata is made with chopped tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and crumbled or grated cheese.

NEVER SAY NO
Serbian cooks spare no oil, sugar, butter or any other traditionally “fattening” but flavor-intensifying measures when preparing their daily goods. In fact, a typical response to any complaining about gaining weight while in Serbia would probably be met with the common phrase “poprevila si se” which literally translates to “you fixed yourself”—as in gaining weight is always an improvement to one’s profile.

It is also customary that, especially as a guest, your host will continue filling your plate despite even the most adamant of protest. While you are expected to admit defeat (because you literally won’t be able to eat any more)—i.e. “ne mogu” (I can’t)— it is downright rude and devastating to your hosts to refuse. Just. Keep. Eating.

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Serbia has so much to offer in terms of food that I didn’t miss much from home. A friend and I did manage to develop a craving for marshmallows, however, which was satisfied with Rolling Barrel Pub‘s unique topla čokolada (hot chocolate)-one of the few places to get your marshmallow fix can be found. Photo by Emilija Lafond.

DAY IN THE LIFE
Serbians generally begin their day later than the average American or western European, so breakfast is a light affair: Coffee, perhaps a pastry from the local pekara (bakery), etc.

But, Serbs do not generally grab their coffee to go. Like the rest of Europe, cafes dominate the social space in the Balkans (village or city, it doesn’t matter), and sitting down for a cup and conversation are both a leisurely and necessary experience. Cafes—which do not include Starbucks—tend to fill up in the afternoon and evening when families, friends, couples and etc. gather for conversations that can last upwards of two hours.

After their morning and coffee rituals, Serbians eat “lunch” which is usually served in the late afternoon or early evening. This is the main meal of the day and can be a sumptuous affair, involving a variety of traditional dishes. A host might offer you supa (soup) first, then salad and a main dish. And at my host family’s, we always like to have “something sweet” after.

Some also eat dinner later, some not. But because of the nightlife scene that is virtually always active (all night, all year), you can eat any time. Open late food stands or pizzerias feed you at night, and bakeries open early in the morning. Belgrade is always awake and never hungry.

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Various varieties of burek are served with yogurt in Pristina, Kosovo.

THE STAPLES
If you’re a proper Serb, you probably have these things on hand:

#1 – Hleb (bread)
This is bought fresh at the pekara every day from the local pekera – another centerpiece of Serbian food culture – and it is served with basically everything. At meal times, the bread goes to the side of the plate on the table, never on your plate.

#2 – Rakija
This often homemade brandy-type alcohol is Serbia’s national drink. It is usually made out of fruits (plum is most common, opt for cherry if you want something sweeter) although I’ve heard honey makes an exceptional version. Rakija is also the main ingredient in a variety of Serbian home remedies.

#3 – Kafa (coffee)
Turska Kafa (Turkish coffee) is called different ways depending on where you are. Serbian/Bosnian or domaci (domestic) are all versions, but it is always made the same way—boiled in water over the stovetop, grounds sit at the bottom and must not be drank in any circumstance—and always delivers the same strong flavor.

#4 – Kajmak
The closest I can get to describing Kajmak is a cross between butter and cheese (it’s actually boiled dairy cream). And it’s delightful. Eat with pljeskavica, čevapi, on bread, anything!

#5 – Ajvar
And speaking of spreads, ajvar—a red pepper relish, sometimes with eggplant or garlic—is also absolutely delicious. It packs a multi-layered flavor punch great on sandwiches, on crackers, etc.

#6 – Jogurt (yoghurt)
Jogurt in Serbia is produced slightly thinner…drinkable basically. It is commonly served to balance heavy dishes and strong flavors.

#7 – Plazma
Serbia is crazy about these cookies, which come with or without chocolate, in a variety of shapes and other flavors, etc. You can also get crumbled plazma which is often sprinkled on palacinke (Serbian crepes).

#8 – Eurocrem
Like Nutella (but possibly even more popular here), Eurocrem is the universal go-to sweet spread for Palacinke, hleb, etc. Half of the tub is dark chocolate, the other white chocolate.

RECOMMENDED EXPERIENCES
There are many good reasons to visit the Balkans, including for the food! Here are some of my recommended culinary experiences:

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Friends and pljeskavica after visiting our favorite food stand in Belgrade.

Out and about in Belgrade, Serbia:
1. Begin your morning with a burek and jogurt at a local pekara (bakery). Burek is filo-dough pasty filled with meat and/or cheese, and it’s to die for.
2. Visit the local pijaca (market) for fresh and delicious fruits, vegetables and a variety of other goods—you’ll never have sweeter jagode (strawberries) or prettier cveče (flowers). Serbia’s agricultural industry is unsubsidized and many pharmaceuticals are banned so market wares are essentially organic.
3. Serbian food stands are incredible. Here you can get pljeskavica, a mince-meat burger in pita bread. Add some onions, tomatoes, kajmak and whatever else captures your fancy.

4. After a long day, particularly after seeing the local nightlife, savor the favorite crepe-style pancake palačinke—sweet or savory. I recommend nutella or eurocrem with bananas or strawberries.

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Topla čokalada (hot chocolate), warm wine and palacinke on top of a ski hill in Kapaonik, Serbia.

In beautiful Sarajevo, Bosnia and Hercegovina:
1. Go to the Turkish Old Town and sit down for some Turska Kafa* or Čaj (tea). This is usually served with ratluk* (Turkish delight). I recommend having desert along with the drinks. Baklava (filo-dough pastry layered with honey or sugar syrup and walnuts or almonds) is a necessary choice, but Tufahija (baked apple with cinnamon and walnuts) is also excellent.
2. Even Serbians rave that Sarajevo has the best Ćevapčići (mince-meat sausages). These are usually served with kajmak and pita bread.

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Turska čaj and baklava in Sarajevo, BiH. Photo by Emilija Lafond.

While visiting baba (grandma) in small-town Smederevo, Serbia:
1. Serbians are natural hosts, and you’ll often be welcomed to their home with a spoonful of slatko, a thin fruit preserve. The flavor is delightful but extremely sweet, so you will also be given a glass of water to help balance the potency.
2. And if you’re lucky, maybe your host—particualry if she is your baba—will send home a jug of zova with you. Zova is a sweet syrup made by boiling elderberry flowers; the syrup is mixed with water to make juice and is my most favorite Serbian drink! And apparently it is also quite healthy, or at least that’s what babas here are always telling you about everything they make…

All images by author unless otherwise noted.

*I live in Serbia, so unless otherwise noted I will use the Serbian variant of names, recipes, and etc. However, to attempt to explain an incredibly complex history of factors that breach into all realms of identity in a far too few sentences—food included—suffice it to say that Serbian/Bosnian/Croatian languages were Serbo-Croat until the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s and that there are several variations in vocabulary and grammar (i.e. dialects) that currently exist (particularly regarding food which is indicative of these very consciously created cultural and political distinctions but which alone would require their very own blog post…or book actually). 

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“We have scars”: Remembering and moving on in post-war Belgrade

Today marks the 16th anniversary of the NATO bombings of Belgrade’s Radio Television Serbia that left 16 employees dead, their families and nation in mourning. This article was originally written for the journalism tract of the SIT Balkans study program.

BELGRADE – It is very quiet in this part of Tašmajdan Park, a stark contrast to what would have been a deafening sound 16 years ago when the building across the parking lot — Belgrade’s RTS (Radio Television Serbia) — was hit with a NATO missile, killing 16. But now the building stands half-obliterated, silent and exposed. Such a poignant reminder that, even when tucked behind Crkva Svetog Marka on one of Belgrade’s busiest Boulevard’s, is still raw and emotional.

On April 23, 1999, six hours before the strike, journalist Sanja Radan, who worked for RTS at the time, left work to stay in her friend’s home, concerned her apartment was too close to potential bombing targets in the city center. “Suddenly my friend and I heard specific sound of projectile flying over the building,” said Radan.

“The first pictures of that ruined building of RTS were played on city television Studio B…Pictures of people stuck in the rubble, without arms and legs, wounded and killed,” she said. “I started screaming, it was my first reaction that was stronger than me.”

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The RTS building in Belgrade, Serbia, burns after it was hit with a NATO missile on April 23, 1999, killing 16 inside. Photo via SerbiaSos.

The bombing was part of the NATO mission to force withdrawal of Serbian forces from Kosovo. During the split of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, ethnic Albanian Kosovars began pushing—against a Serb majority—for independence from Serbia. NATO, who intervened to end human rights violations against the Kosovars and later supported the Kosovo declaration of independence in 2008, justified bombing RTS due to its role as the Milosevic administration’s main propaganda arm.

Unlike previous targets, the RTS was not completely evacuated before the strike. Some, like journalist Tamara Skrozzo, believe that the government used the 16 deaths—all technicians, not journalists—for their own purposes: “There is a theory that those people were put there as targets; that the government was informed but refused to evacuate in order to use the victims for their propaganda…I believe it 99.9 percent,” she said.

Others maintain that NATO should never have bombed a civilian building. Even Skrozzo, who was a young “opposition” journalist for an independent anti-Milosevic radio station in 1999, agrees.

“Those people who were killed weren’t the editors or journalists supporting Milosevic, but technicians who just wanted to feed their families and live their ‘ordinary’ lives,” she said. “Being angry [about it] doesn’t describe the feeling.”

While RTS manager Dragan Milanovic was sentenced in 2002 to ten years in Serbian prison for failing to protect his employees—the only conviction in relation to the bombing so far, Serbian, NATO or otherwise—many questions remain unanswered.

“I can’t sleep at night like so many Serbian people…[The families] are still asking themselves “why” just like me,” said Radan.

But no answers, no reason and no blame will bring the 16 employees that perished in RTS’ rubble back to their families. These are the sixteen families that erected a small monument in this sleepy corner of Tašmajdan. An upright stone sits opposite the bombed remains of RTS heralding “Zašto?” —which means “why?”—in Serbian cyrillic to passersby.

It seems that all of Serbia, like Radan, identifies with these families’ pain. “I can’t sleep at night like so many Serbian people…[The families] are still asking themselves “why” just like me,” she said.

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Flowers for the bombing’s 16 victims are laid in front of a monument the 16 mourning families erected in Tasmajdan Park. The current RTS building can be seen in the background. Photo via B92.

“It’s really a tragedy, but you know in wars and situations like that, it happens. Always innocent people,” said 21 year old student Nevena Nikolić. Only six years old during the campaign, Nikolić’s three year old friend Milica Rakić was killed in her home by shrapnel from a different hit in Belgrade.

Between them—Radan, Skrozzo, and Nikolić—none denies the questions and pain still present in Serbian society. Some remains, like half-destroyed buildings, serve as everyday reminders. Nikolić said, “We have these scars, like destroyed buildings and such. But you know it’s more than 15 years from that moment…Now you just live with it.”

Nikolić said, “We have these scars, like destroyed buildings and such. But you know it’s more than 15 years from that moment…Now you just live with it.”

“[The buildings] are a small punch in the chest whenever I go by them, a reminder that is neither constructive, nor painful—just emotional,” said Skrozzo. “However, I wouldn’t change those remains, wouldn’t reconstruct the buildings, just like I wouldn’t change my memories of the bombing. Those were very hard times…but also times of getting to know yourself, rearranging your priorities and times of growing up.”

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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.

Pec/Peja

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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