Unexpected Encounter (the long version)

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Several weeks ago I posted a blog about a trip to Pristina.  It was a submission to a travel writing contest that unfortunately did not win.  Here is the unabridged version of that same story…  

It’s later than I planned, if we hurry, we might be able to get in 15 minutes at the National Museum of Kosovo before it closes.  Even though we get there in record time, and despite the dozens of people walking around and operating hours, the museum does not appear to be open.

We huddle and discuss options.  There is a man standing by himself and I approach him to ask if he speaks English and if the museum is open.  He explains that everyone is getting ready for a special event, a party for the next exhibit.  The museum is closed.

We huddle again.  I go back…

Will the museum be open tomorrow?

He explains that unfortunately the museum is closed until Monday when the new exhibit will open.  Hmmm…

Like kids on a playground, I go back to my friends and we huddle again.  Number one on my list of places to visit in Kosovo is the Field of Blackbirds.  It’s tomorrow’s top priority, but from my research the logistics look difficult requiring several bus changes and a long walk.

He confirms everything I researched online, but he has the day off work tomorrow, and would be happy to take us.

WHAT?!

Dilemma.  This is either an awesome opportunity or the first line of my obituary.

If we make it to the Field of Blackbirds, it would be an appropriate place to die.  It was the location of a brutal battle in the 1300s between the Serbian and Ottoman armies.  It is also where Serbian President Slobodan Milošević announced the nationalist polices that eventually lead to ethnic cleansing and the wars of the 1990s.

My mother’s words come to mind – “you should never get a car with a stranger.”  I thank the man for his kind offer but tell him we aren’t sure of our plans but take his phone number just to be polite.  But the offer stays with me and after we explore downtown Pristina, take silly photos at the Newborn Monument, and experience bliss at a marvelous Thai restaurant, we throw caution to the wind and I call Valon and we agree to meet in the morning.

The next morning, we chat about family and Pristina, his city, as we drive through the capital.  We stop sooner than expected.  Valon explains he thought we might like to see the Jewish Cemetery.  Convenient to die in a cemetery, even better than an ancient battlefield.  But of course he’s right.

We were very interested to see the 19th century graves on a hill just on the outskirts of the city center, and learn about the history of Judaism in this predominately Muslim country.  Like other areas of the Balkans, Jews immigrated to Kosovo in the 15th century fleeing expulsion and the inquisition in Portugal and Spain.  At the time the Ottoman Empire was remarkably tolerant and welcoming.

We relax a bit and settle in for the drive, but on the way, Valon had a second surprise for us.  We have time for a quick stop at Gracanica Monastery.  The monetary is a well preserved 13th Century building with original frescos intact.  It is a World UNESCO heritage site and guarded by KFOR troops as a reminder of Kosovo’s precarious status in the world order.

We continued out of town towards the Field of Blackbirds.  Leaving the city, the flat, open landscape makes the distance feel farther than only 8kms.  Visiting the Field doesn’t take long, the online reviews and travel guidebooks are right, there is not much to see or do at the field.  Except for a lone tower, it could be a farm or field anywhere in mid-west United States or Central Europe.

Kosovo3But standing there with Valon and talking through what I thought I’d learned in history books about the Ottoman rule of Kosovo, beginning understanding how it was a different relationship than elsewhere in the region, made me feel as if I were inhaling the spirit of Kosovo.

Kosovo is a distinct heart and soul.  While it is a Balkan country, it’s not Serbia.  It’s not Bulgaria.  It’s not Macedonia.  Kosovo has its own past and its own future.

After our conversation at the Field of Blackbirds we visit the nearby Tomb of Sultan Murad. Interestingly, it’s the tomb of the Sultan who was killed in battle when the Ottoman army defeated the Serbians and annexed Kosovo into the Ottoman Empire.  To this day it is guarded by Turkish soldiers, with the Turkish flag displayed prominently.  I am amazed and baffled by this, almost a hundred years after the dissolution of the empire, a mausoleum to a slain conqueror, in the conquered land that is now a sovereign nation.

As always happens when I travel, I leave with more questions than when I arrive. 

The best way to celebrate a new friendship is with a meal, so on our way back to town we stop at a local cafe for a late lunch and to talk about our day.  We learn that while Valon had the day off from work, he missed a birthday party to be with us.  We talk about Albania, and we talk about Serbia.  We tell him about an earlier trip to Macedonia, and he gives us ideas for future trips around the former Yugoslavia.

As twilight descends, we make our way back to town and one last stop.  It turns out Valon works at the Ethnological Museum.    He takes us to his office in the museum, where we have cups of hot Balkan tea before a private tour of the museum the way only an expert and student cultural anthropology can give.

Our day finally comes full circle, walking through the history of the region and some unique symbols of local culture.  It has been four years since our day with Valon but I remember it so clearly, much more than if we’d spent an hour in the National Museum or had played it safe and taken a cab to see an empty field.

That day we made a friend.  I also more deeply understand the history and culture of Kosovo.  It also watered a seed.  I had already visited Bulgaria, Macedonia, and Albania.  Now I need to visit the rest of the diverse Balkan region.  My day with Valon helped me understand his country more deeply, but it also helped me more deeply understand myself, and why I love what I find most fascinating in life.

I’m most comfortable as a foreigner.  I love to travel, and when I can’t be out exploring in person I love history and reading.  It’s really the confluence of history and culture that inspires me, how they create and shape each other.  I have more questions and curiosity about the Balkans now than I did before meeting Valon, questions that can only be explored locally and with locals.  After years of shared history, I want to understand why Kosovo is so different than Serbia.  With a shared history, language and ethnicity, why does Kosovo remain separate from Albania?  And why does Kosovo have a large memorial to their Ottoman conquers while Bulgaria has an enormous monument to their overthrow?  Seeing these sights with Valon and being able to talk with him about these ideas I began to see what no travel review website could ever tell me.

I also learned a second lesson that day that also germinated over the next several months of travel throughout the area.  While Valon is exceptional due to his work and knowledge of his city and country, his kindness is representative of the region.  Time after time I had interactions with individuals who bent over backwards to help.  Interwoven into each trip is the story of a former stranger who became a friend once I was willing to let go of a little fear and just smile, say hello or ask a question.  Since that weekend in Kosovo Valon and I have deepened our friendship through social media, and I look forward to the day I am back in Pristina, and we can catch up over cups of hot Balkan tea or Turkish coffee.

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