I return from Ohrid, turn in my rental car and hustle to the Skopje bus station for the three-hour ride to Pristina. I hand over a wad of denars to pay for the ticket, my stomach rumbling as I begin to feel the inner-workings of those last two for-the-road macchiatos having their way with me. I would like to avoid a public bathroom, but I may not get a vote in the matter, and now, it seems, is not a time to be choosy. The Skopje bus station shares a men’s room with the train station, is poorly lit, dirty, smelly, and guarded by a ruffled elderly man charging 10 denars (about 20 cents) for the right to pass. He has an arm’s length of toilet paper, if you so desire, and Cyrillic reading material as well, and inside the broken-locked stall is a simple porcelain-lined hole in the ground. I enter, hesitate, and reconsider: this is clearly not for the fainthearted. But I came seeking adventure, and if it presents itself as a Balkan train station bathroom, so be it. I pay the man, leaving my backpack at his feet, and decide against taking in my headlamp – there are, no doubt, countless things in the world worse than what awaits me, but at this point none come to mind, and I don’t need illumination to help with my evaluation.
With both mind and other processes clear, I board the bus and focus on things more important. The short ride to the Macedonia-Kosovo border is mountainous and winding, but once across, Kosovo opens into a vast basin, the Sharr and Goljak Mountains on either side cupping a brown expanse blending the Dukagjin and Kosovo Plains, the road running through it like a daisy stem, a few houses interspersed here and there among the detritus of post-war life, wood and metal and cinderblocks and trash; oh my the trash. Plastic and garbage line the highway from the border to the Pristina outskirts, strung-together colorful like polyethylene prayer flags, modern-day bread crumbs marking the trail to progress. There will be progress at the end of this line, no doubt, environmental regression traded for economic progression. People who produce so much trash are people who can afford something else. Poor people use everything, then reuse it, but the people who leave their trash here, on the side of the road, have the luxury of selection, and either have nowhere else to put their waste or simply do not know what tomorrow will bring.
We rumble ever closer to Pristina, the rubble and scrap now forming piles, now moving back away from the road, now behind buildings, now gone completely. In its place, progress. Development, advancement, chrysalis, a flowering; and that’s what Pristina is, a flowering at the end of a daisy-stemmed road, the city practically blows up before me. Shiny new boxy mirrored buildings, stuccoed and glassed, I’m at the industrialized outskirts, and then car dealerships every third building, Mercedes Benz, Volkswagen, Porsche, Hyundai, Citroen, Skoda, all here, buildings so new they must have been waiting at the international border on the backs of idling tractor-trailers, half on this truck, half on that one, Caution Large Load truck in front and back, impatiently waiting for the Kosovo Grand Opening.
Pristina is a frenetic mess, but things are clearly happening. The city itself has been here since the fall of the Roman Empire, but Kosovo has been an independent nation only since 2008, and even that is dependent upon who you ask – the Serbian Prime Minister, Kosovo being a former state in his nation, has said that as long as Serb people exist, Kosovo will be Serbia. Kosovo shares a border with Serbia, and was a Serbian state until 1999 when NATO airplanes, many of them American or American funded, bombed Serbia until Slobodan Milosevic, the Yugoslavian President at the time, agreed to withdraw Serbian troops from Kosovo. It is an intensely sensitive and complex set of facts to an American ear, though I find Kosovars, many of them self-described Albanians, see it in fairly simple terms. I am told, among other things, not to enter Serbia from Kosovo unless I came from there first, I am told to avoid northern Kosovo, where Serbian enclaves are still in abundance, I am told, more as a challenge than as a question, you are here on holiday, when I say “I am here on holiday” (illustrative is the number of pages – four – Lonely Planet dedicates to Kosovo. By comparison, Latvia gets fourteen). I visit the Gracanica Monastery, a few miles south of Pristina and six hundred eighty-nine years old, and find it guarded by a KFOR Swedish machine gunner. I ask him if there is ever trouble. “There is occasionally trouble,” he answers.
But that is for yesterday, and Pristina is for today. Apart from the Grand Hotel, prominent both for its size and location near a busy intersection and for the industrial grime shower-stall stains all over its facade, every building seems new. Pristine Pristina. I find a side alley hotel, boring and fungible outside but spotless and tasteful on the inside, the black-and-white suited owner selling me on the in-room jacuzzi and wireless internet, though he is marginally contemptuous when he learns I don’t have a laptop. My room is equally pastelled parts Stevie Wonder and Queen Elizabeth, and after dropping my bags and having a cappuccino, I head into the city.
I walk the packed sidewalks, everyone going to or coming from, knee-high boots and jet black hair and Jackie O sunglasses ubiquitous. Urban Pristina is a maze and has accumulated as much trash as the suburban, so I try to look up instead of down. The streets are unannounced, the concrete structures new and unpocked, the old ones aged or bombed beyond recognition or shrouded in scaffolding and I only get my bearings after stumbling upon the caged and bubble-wrapped National Public Library. It is unlike any other building I have ever seen. I eventually work my way back the direction from which I came, and soon realize I am woefully lost. Not an unusual occurrence, and typically intended, but my internal gyro is effected by further bad luck: it is St. Patrick’s Day, and I seem to have found the only city in the world without an Irish bar. Again, a cappuccino; again, a request for directions; again, helped by a stranger. I am practically walked back to the Hotel Begolli, and after taking my first bath in about a decade, the terrible European techno-pop blaring beyond the point of recognition from the jacuzzi radio assuaged by multiple Pejas (“Kosovo’s Finest Beer”), I sleep, dreamless, the streets outside my window quiet.
I leave Pristina the next morning, on a bus and via Bil Klinton Boulevard, heading for Peja, or Pec, depending on your Albanian or Serbian point of view. It is a beautiful town at the base of the more beautiful Accursed Mountains, and I waste the day away on a rooftop bar reading about Alexander and Henry Adams and talking with my waiter who has a friend in New Jersey and two girlfriends in Pec and would like to go to America, but it is so hard to get a Visa. It is easy if you are American, he says, you can go anywhere you want to, your passport is like a get in free card but it is very hard to get into America. I tell him that it is, I suppose, all a matter of timing and that he’s just a little late, a few hundred years ago his ancestors could pretty much go wherever they wanted. This appears to be of little solace. But a few hours later I am reminded again what it is to be American, and this time I am humbled: it is midnight, I am on a bus and leaving Kosovo for Montenegro, and at the international border a guard is saying Josep, Josep, until I realize he means me. “Joseph?” I answer, “Morse?” And he, from the front of the bus, leans his big bus-driver hatted head towards me and says “Josep. American. Come here.” And my first reaction is an internal should I bring all my things because this might be bad. I should bring all my things because this might be bad but I leave my pack in my seat and go forward, the guard tall and stern. “You are here on business?” he asks and I say no, holiday. “Holiday?” I hear, for not the last time. “Holiday?” Yes, I reassure him, I am here on holiday and then the man says I have a brother in New York and my sister lives in Utah. Utah! Utah! and I am safe. “Utah is a long ways from Kosovo,” I offer, and then tell him I am from Nevada. “Nevada,” he says. “You have good horses.” And I am overjoyed and I love this Kosovar border guard, at midnight, the day after Saint Patrick’s Day, on my Balkan holiday. We do have good horses, I answer, and beautiful mountains and a star-filled sky at night and a high desert that smells, after it rains, like earth brand-new. He hands my passport back to me, and I take it, but he doesn’t let go. “God bless you,” he says, “and God bless your country for defending Kosovo. God bless you and God bless America” and I find myself not knowing what to do with all these people asking God to bless me.