I so much wish I’d know more. 10 days in Albania, 5 days in Kosovo, 2 weeks in Serbia (2 more to come); the latter with a woman who lives between her home country (Serbia) and Montenegro – riddles, puzzle pieces – how does it all fit together, and how to put it into words? I am a big picture person with a background in science. I like to make sense of things. How to do that in the Balkans? A history so convoluted and rich, so deep and multifaceted with only glimpses of it on the surface, the rest hidden, or just hidden for me? How to dig deeper? Deeper where – on the outside, or within myself? Vomiting the layers of grief and manipulation until the beauty is seen and prevails.
I had never been to the Balkans before and arrived in Berat, a UNESCO world heritage site, at 5:30am on the night bus from Thessaloniki, Greece. Nobody on the bus spoke English. At 2am someone gestured that I had to get off the bus – we had reached the border. Someone in a little concrete booth looked at my passport, then gave it back to me. I walked past a barrier and was out fo Greece, but not yet in Albania. A second concrete booth, a friendly woman behind a window, my passport again. No questions but as I looked into her eyes she smiled and uttered a warm-hearted “Welcome”. I was in Albania.
Luckily the door to the hostel was open. I sneaked in, was greeted by a double-headed eagle on a red flag, and fell into an armchair. No one awake yet, at 6am. Later the same day I find myself surrounded by a beautiful bluish river and old stone and lime buildings against a green hill. A new language, a different currency, a different people. In a little corner store by the old bridge I picked up the food I needed and gave the men behind the counter some Euros. He gave me back Lek. Yeah, no need to go to a bank. The walkways between the old houses surrounding the hostel are so narrow that no car can enter. It’s a maze of cobblestone paths lined with walls. Layers of Ancient Greek, Byzantine and Ottoman architecture throughout the old parts of town. 1km away: new communist apartment buildings – concrete stripped of nature’s spark, or so it feels. Contrasts. Mosques next to orthodox churches. The peaceful coexistence of religions is a strong feature of Albania as I learn later.
A short walk around the corner along the side arm of the Osum river revealed more contrasts. Expensive large and colourful houses with Mercedeses parked in front next to small, simple dwellings besides grazing donkeys and little horses which are used to transport firewood, building materials and more. Happy, healthy looking people working the land next to grumpy men and women who seemed lost internally. Is it just me, or is there truth to that juxtaposition of connectedness with nature and divorce from it? I sense the fertility of the land adjacent to both sides of the river. Food growing everywhere. Greenhouses, olive farms, chicken running free. I deeply wonder about the many expensive cars on the road in a country of low wages and a comparatively devalued currency. The memory of smoking Albanian weed in Greece comes to mind – my first connection with Albania before travelling there. What is in these greenhouses? What is hidden? Why did the friendly man show a brief flickering of concern in his eyes when I gestured to him that I had been walking off the beaten track, up a hill, between people’s properties? How do the puzzle pieces fit together? I don’t get many answers in Berat as the hostel is run by volunteers who are fellow travellers – lovely, but devoid of local knowledge.
Walking to the next village I find little cafés with only a few chairs in front of them and one more thing is becoming obvious: I almost only see men. Where are the women? One here and there on their way from one house to another – quickly disappearing form sight again. Men staring at me as I pass by, walking alone, confident, peculiar. The women that I do see venturing the streets, or riding on the bus are mostly accompanied by men. In the evening I go to a nearby traditional restaurant together with some new friends. It’s family-run, cozy, a fire burning in the open fireplace. A young man greets us. Later he tells us that he studied gender roles and equality at university, but he can’t find a job and hence works at his mom’s restaurant. Putting the puzzle pieces together… I didn’t end up here by coincidence. I feel the story without thinking. No need for further explanation. Knowing without an inkling of doubt. It’s that recognition which comes from the inside out.
During a free walking tour in the centre of Tirana – Albania’s capital – I learned about the countries’ isolation in past decades. The tour guide draws parallels to North Korea. During communist times Albanians were allowed to travel to four countries only, mostly one at a time. Connections were good with one country, so people could visit there, then the relationship turned sour and the border closed. Another country opened up instead. People had to fit into strict societal rules or else were ostracised – enforcement of a robotic lifestyle. Leaving Albania to live elsewhere was close to impossible. Those who tried usually died, or their left-behind families were punished, or both. Strong memories to my upbringing in eastern Germany and the history of my home country surfaced. WTF. We went to a bunker which showed myriads of photographs of different people of all walks of life – all killed by a highly aggressive coercive regime which they had opposed in one way or another. No tolerance for individuality, a desire for freedom, for equality, or justice. When the tour guide points to the religious freedom and tolerance in the country I ask: “Does that include the indigenous peoples – the Gypsy/Roma?” The answer could not be clearer: “No, they are not accepted.” There beliefs are not religious. It’s a different story with them, I am told. They wish to not be part of the system and no one knows what to do with that. One can participate in a variety of institutional religions but life outside the system – no way. Great. Coercion and slavery obviously never ended. The shape and colour changed but not the issue itself. Throughout my travels in this so different beautiful country I keep hearing about the high level of corruption. Corruption of what I wonder: institutions, governments? Is that good or bad? I hear how Albanians like to run their own businesses rather than working for someone else, and feel deep sympathy.
Back to Euros, but the Albanian language remains. The country a mix of ancient Greek influences,, Serbian monasteries and geographic names, Ottoman architectures and religion, and an Albanian people visually very different from central and northern Europeans, yet not Turkish or otherwise Middle-eastern. How did all this come to be – the layers of different histories, the worlds within worlds?
Driving through Kosovo what quickly struck me was the high number of gas stations owned by a broad variety of oil and gas companies. Do cars have 5l tanks here and need to be filled up every few meter? Later in Serbia, someone who enjoys salmon prepared in 3 different ways for breakfast, explained to me that this is how drug money is laundered here – capital is re-introduced into the legal financial flow via the oil and gas industry. He also tells me about deep connections between Albania and the Italian mafia. More pieces of the puzzle showing up – those expensive cars, the weed I smoked in Greece and the feeling that this is only a glimpse of what is really happening…
What stands out are again the contrasting building styles very clearly visible for example in Prizren: mostly grey communist apartment buildings deprived of sentience meeting some of the most beautiful alive Ottoman architecture, and what I learned later to be traditional Serbian houses with pyramidal four-sided roofs, built from natural materials. The latter create a unique energetic atmosphere which I came to cherish later when living in such a house south of Belgrade – Serbia’s capital. Unfortunately Prizren’s river Bistrica was already forced into a straight, unchangeable bed, even though one of stone, not concrete. I feel that its connection to the ground underneath remains intact but an aspect of its aliveness is taken away and no longer recognised by the builders. Step by step humanity lost its sense for belonging, the interconnectedness of everything, and for the natural sentience and intelligence of water, rock, minerals, the Earth, the air we breath.
Immediately upon arriving in Kosovo I sensed a heaviness which increased the closer I got to Pristina. It’s something again so familiar from my childhood which cannot be put into words. Trauma of war, conflict, suppression, violence written into the land’s memory and radiating palpably. The heavy air pollution does not help. Smog rising from several large chimneys of a Pristina coal plant day and night. The only region in which I did not sense that heaviness was Prokletije national park which leads right up to the border with Montenegro. The beautiful mountains, streams, waterfalls and forests expel a completely different frequency, overwriting recent histories of the country it seems. So much stronger. If people would just spend more time here.
The cities speak of past traumatic experiences and their translation into contraction, fear, addiction, a more than usual need for security and sameness, a normalcy rooted in routine which can be paralysing, domestic violence, despair and overwhelm. I saw the perpetuation of these patterns in very young children despite their high frequency. And yet it all seems to come to a head, breaking open. People are craving release and nature is guiding the way from the inside out if heard and chosen. I saw inspiring and exceptional creativity and courage too. One right next to the other in the same person, the same community, the same city. Nothing is lost.
What does peace mean in Kosovo? Perhaps the end of excluding one another? The end of claiming land for one people only? Land. It gives us everything we need. Without it we are nothing. We can’t be. In a world of scarcity then land becomes something which has to be fought over and secured. What would our relationship to land look like in a world of abundance? Just wondering… Who invented the concept of buying and selling land, of possessiveness, of exclusion? What kind of a world do we want for our future, our children?
In Serbia I am deeply involved in a non-monetary work exchange with a local woman who grows her own organic hemp, has built her house from a mix of hemp and clay, drinks medicinal hemp tea most days, and builds all kinds of things from this amazing plant. I feel connected to the land in this countryside village 1 hour south of Belgrade. From my host I learn that hemp has a long history here, and its world market price used to be determined in Serbia. She also tells me about the connectedness of her home country with both Russia and the USA, rather than one or the other as typical in most other parts of the world. She grew up watching TV programs from both worlds, listening to the music and the news of both countries.
I learn that Kosovo means ‘field of blackbirds’ in Serbian language, and that in 1389 an army of the Turkish-Ottoman empire took over all of Serbia, including Kosovo following a battle near Pristina. Islam began to grow and Kosovo’s monasteries of previously great significance moved into the background. Yet the country is still considered the heart of Serbia today. Hence the ongoing conflict. Till reaching the border I was not certain whether or not it was possible for me as a foreigner to enter Serbia directly from Kosovo. Many people told me that this is not allowed, and the border is only open to (Kosovar) Albanians with their specific ID’s. It felt important for me to take that straight route though since it is my human right to move freely. I contacted the bus company that I would be travelling with, and got an OK. I can’t use my passport I was told, but with a German national ID card it is possible to cross. And this is how it was. No questions asked.
My host being who she is has not only built her house from hempcrete, but also followed the traditional Serbian pyramid-style way of building with the four-sided roof, rather than a bilateral symmetry. What a beautiful experience. Firewood is stacked underneath the house. She made the doors herself, the shelves, the stairs, everything, together with volunteers from many countries. Through her and her friends I hear that farming used to be organic everywhere in the country until very recently. Self-sufficiency – everyone in the countryside was growing food and living with animals. Now her place is surrounded by chemical farming and many people ceased to live with the land. Corporations have taken over.
Belgrade – the white city at some point in the past – the merging of two rivers: beauty, magic and heavy pollution – ugly high-rises, apartment and office buildings, gypsy ghettos, beautiful old stone walls, towers and structures, the latter remnants of another time. On the edge of the old town I found wild rapeseed plants and ate until my stomach was full. Parks, trees, fountains. I enjoyed my long walk through this city.
How will the journey continue? 2 more weeks in Serbia, then Romania, Bulgaria. Likely there will be a part 2 to this post. I hope you enjoy. Let me know what you think.
A poem for you
This poem was written during my first week in Serbia while processing experiences of Kosovo.
Children of Kosovo,
What happened to you?
Where did the incredible history go?
The connection with nature – so overdue.
Heavy smog leaving many chimneys,
Surrounded by pearls of beauty behind windows
Holding on to fake security,
Searching the anchor beyond scrutiny.
Life is not lost,
Neither forgotten the past,
The lands, the rivers, the inside of us.
Feelings, shaking, layers of frost,
Yet light emerging, no matter the cost.
Broken wings can still repair
Trauma, shock and victimhood.
Life out of control seems so unfair,
Disturbed emotions lost in thick air.
Hands together with courage and fear.
Eyes to the sun watching pain disappear.
Leaping forward, strongly rooted right here,
Holding the breath, releasing the tears.
Slowly emerging a new form of trust,
Beyond the nation, the stories, the bust.
Deep inside the silence binds
What belongs together at all of times.
A place of freedom, a place of strength
Always there for everyone.
Walking to the end – the fullest length,
True power unfolds so very young.
3 thoughts on “The Balkans”
I feel so moved reading this. So many layers, so much depth.
Thank you so much for the feedback Christian!
So good to read, thank you.