There was something lacking in the title ‘Birrë: Albanian For “Beer”’, possibly because the two words sound too much alike. The best, and until recently only Kosovan beer is called ‘Peja’, named after a city in Kosovo, and I suppose that would have worked in place of the actual word for beer, except that people in Kosovo don’t really drink Peja all that much. Although now that I think about it, that might actually be perfect, since I don’t know a single Australian who drinks Foster’s. Nevertheless, this post is about my adventures in Kosovo not speaking any of the language, so the title will stay as is.
If (when) you go to Kosovo, do not be daunted by the fact that they speak a language you’ve never heard of outside of a Liam Neeson movie. You can get around fairly well with English, and German (and apparently Italian) comes in handy on occasion, just lay off of the Slavic. You might well be understood, but I doubt it’s worth the long stare you’ll likely receive. If all else fails, of course, we have body language and fingers for counting. Pen and paper work great, too. Basically what I’m saying is that you should be flexible and rely on the kindness of strangers. Fortunately, kindness is in no short supply in Kosovo.
Just because someone is kind, however, does not mean that it will necessarily help you. My first afternoon in Kosovo’s capital of Prishtinë, I was met with many helpful suggestions of how to orient myself, and most of them were spot on. I had heard that the hostel I was staying at was very hard to find, and Burrë, who runs it, had sent me instructions to make the task somewhat easier. I managed to get very near the place without the slightest mistake (a feat for yours truly…I regularly get lost in my hometown of Memphis-come to think of it, I’d much rather be lost in Kosovo than take a wrong turn on the streets of the River City), but once I’d entered the complex where Burrë’s building was, I got confused. I couldn’t see the other landmark that he had told me about, and finally a guy came over and asked how he could help. When the big backpack doesn’t give it away, the querulous expression does. This man did not have any idea where I wanted to go, but he thought he did and offered to take me there. Still suspicious of this unknown land, I was not about to get into a car with a stranger (not that I would be much more inclined now, skeptic that I am), but he simply shrugged and explained how to get there. I spent the next half an hour wandering around until I was almost back where I started.
It was then that I started asking about the second landmark, which was a parking garage. Thankfully I had local street and business names to work from, so English did not particularly matter. After two interactions I stumbled upon it and then asked the gentlemen who worked there where to find the mini market that was in Burrë’s building. They pointed across the lot-I was getting close. Close never got anybody anywhere, however, as all but horseshoe and hand grenade throwers will admit. I soon found myself asking a group of six year-old children if they knew where this market was. I got the most puzzled stares I had received in a while. They were probably thinking, ‘Dude, we’re like six. How do we know where a market is, and why are you speaking some language that’s clearly from outer space and expecting us to understand? Now give us candy.’ No bother, the market was just around the next corner.
I felt my destination within reach as I approached the guy at the market and asked him about the hostel, Burrë and anything else I could think of. The guy was stumped. I think he tried to sell me a bell pepper, but I’ll never know for sure. Knowing that this market was the supposed gate-keeper to Burrë’s place, I nevertheless pressed on and asked how to get into the building. Another stare of disbelief as the man pointed toward the gaping entrance behind me. Ah, that entryway, eh? That’s the entrance to the building? Cheers, mate. Now I was truly excited. My shoulders hurt from carrying my bag all over Prishtinë, and I had begun to grow disheartened about finding this place. True to form for any good hostel caretaker, Burrë had given me his phone number to call in case I got lost, but I had no money left on my cell. As a last resort I could try to use someone else’s, but I hadn’t gotten that far yet. Here was the building, I had only to walk up to the fifth floor (sixth floor for us Americans), and I would be saved.
You know that part of the movie when you scream at the hero, ‘Don’t go in there!’ because it just looks creepy? That’s what my brain was doing. There was no good reason for this, mind you. It was just an apartment building, after all, but something about it freaked me out. And yes, as I mentioned in yesterday’s post, silly things tend to do that to me. I walked up half a flight of stairs and, spying darkness ahead, made my way back down. There must be one of those switches that turns on that timed hallway light…nope. Ah, a resident approaches! Might she know Burrë? No? Do yon elevators work, perchance? No? Excellent. So, without even mailboxes downstairs to find this guy’s name, I was left with a decision. Did I really want to walk up five flights of stairs, as tired as I was, and brave creepy hallways just to discover that I was in the wrong place. Again, had I planned ahead and had money on my phone, I could have called to make sure, but the biggest adventures happen when you run out of options, and that’s where I found myself at that moment. I trudged up the stairs.
The first floor was well lit, along with the second, but the third had only one light bulb remaining above the landing and cast a glow that reminded me of that creepy hospital in Jacob’s Ladder. I continued into the utter darkness of the fourth floor and up and around to the fifth. The numbers on the doors did not match what I had written down. They were almost right, but almost right doesn’t count with numbers, I’ve learned (not exactly a mathlete). I was near to abandoning hope when I saw, written in marker on one of the doors, the number ‘17’. This is Courtney’s favourite number, and if I was looking for a sign (I was), then that was it. The fact that ‘17’ was the apartment number I was looking for in the first place is of no consequence. It was a sign, dammit. I knocked and was greeted at the door by a young guy who spoke perfect English and, along with his girlfriend and one of his best friends, was about to make this entire odyssey worth it.
I entered Burrë’s apartment, where he immediately offered me coffee. I was used to this tradition by then, but I was nevertheless very pleased at the offer. Knowing what I did then about how important that cup of coffee is, I accepted and sat down in the living room with Burrë and his girlfriend, Mikeshë. Posters of Jimi Hendrix and Bob Marley covered the walls of the living room and the room in which I was to stay, and there were several models of guitars to be seen as well. The place felt like a tribute to rock n roll and free living. At first glance, I could have been sitting in an apartment somewhere in the US, or even Western Europe, but there was one item that would be somewhat out of place in most American man caves. Behind me draped an enormous Albanian flag, its black, double-headed eagle splayed out on a field of red and reminding me just where I was. For a moment I was surprised that it was not the Kosovo flag that I had seen everywhere on the streets of Prishtinë, but this was soon cleared up.
‘Nobody likes that flag,’ Mikeshë told me when I asked. Burrë agreed.
‘We wanted to have the Albanian flag be our flag, since it’s the flag of all Albanians, but when we declared independence we had to choose something unique. It’s not very pretty: just the colours of Europe, an outline of Kosovo, and six stars.’
‘Why six stars?’ I wondered aloud.
‘For the six nations that live inside Kosovo,’ Mikeshë said. ‘Albanians, Serbs, Roma, Turks, Bosnians and Gorani.’
‘Who are the Gorani?’ I asked.
The two exchanged looks, neither knowing quite how to describe this group. I looked them up later and found that they are called ‘Highlanders’…that fact alone bears further research! If I discover that they are a sword-wielding clan whose battle cry is, ‘There can be only one!’ I will let you know.
‘But that’s pretty cool that the flag tries to incorporate everyone,’ I plunged ahead.
‘Yeah, it’s cool,’ Mikeshë nodded.
‘But we want the Albanian flag,’ Burrë repeated. ‘That’s the flag that has meaning for us.’
At this point I was trying to be careful not to ask too much too fast, but curiosity was steadily getting the better of me.
‘Do you think that Kosovo will become part of Albania one day?’ I asked.
Nods from both.
‘Really? You don’t want to be independent?’
‘Only the politicians want us to be independent,’ Mikeshë laughed.
I was confused, but I shouldn’t have been. Burrë followed this up with an answer that ought to have been obvious to a veteran of the zero-sum game equation of my undergrad years.
‘Right now, the politicians have power in Kosovo. If we become part of Albania, they will lose that power, so they want us to stay independent. But everyone else wants to be part of Albania.’
‘But there are some advantages,’ Mikeshë added. ‘If we become part of the European Union, for example, Albanians will have two votes: one from Albania and one from Kosovo!’
I smiled. I suppose there’s an angle in everything.
‘Also,’ she continued, ‘a girl from Kosovo represented Albania in Eurovision this year. Kosovo can’t send its own representative, since we’re not fully recognized as independent, so we compete along with Albania. So that means that Albania chooses the best singer from both countries.’
Advantage: independence, once again. But aside from these examples, I could see quite plainly that these two truly identified as Albanians and saw an independent Kosovo more as a means to an end than an end in itself. Burrë summed it up nicely.
‘We all speak the same language, share the same culture and the same history. Why shouldn’t we be part of the same country?’
‘We have still many Serbs in Kosovo who do not want to be part of Albania,’ Mikeshë reminded him. ‘They are mostly in the north, but still it’s a difficult situation.’
‘Do you think Kosovo will ever be able to be truly independent?’ I asked. ‘Enough so that you can decide whether or not to join Albania?’
‘That’s difficult,’ Mikeshë finally said. ‘I think that Kosovo as it is now will have to change. We will lose some towns in the north to Serbia, but maybe there are some towns in Serbia that will join us. It will look different, but it will be more fair.’
The Albanian word for ‘idealist’ is…well, it’s just ‘idealist’, but pronounced differently. My point is that this is a pretty idealistic way of looking at the situation. I do not make that statement critically. I admired these two for their idealism, and I told them so. That is when Mikeshë said something that was to become one of my two favourite statements by Kosovars that trip.
‘Albanians are a very positive people,’ she said matter-of-factly, ‘because in the end all that we have is our hope.’
I was dumbstruck by this (and anyone who knows me will tell you that it is difficult to ‘dumbstrike’ me). Even after such adversity for such a long period of time, this girl was telling me that people managed to remain positive. What a testament to human ability and a beacon of hope in its own right that we as a species can find a way to work things out for ourselves once and for all (you see, I am an idealist, too-pronounced however you choose).
My coffee was long since finished, and I felt that I had imposed on this lovely couple long enough. Burrë was preparing to go to the US for the summer, which was why Mikeshë was up in Prishtinë in the first place. She was saying goodbye. Burrë was leaving two days later, the same day I was, and I figured I should give them a little space. Before I headed out to explore Prishtinë, however, I had a question about the language.
‘How do you say ‘hello’?’ I asked.
‘Tungjatjeta,’ they both answered. Yeah, that wasn’t going to happen. I would skip ‘hello’. Who needed ‘hello’ when you got down to it. The most important word, in just about any language, was ‘thank you’.
‘Faleminderit!’ Mikeshë replied when I asked how to say it. Well, shit. They saw my troubled expression and took pity on me, the saints.
‘But you can also say fuhluhmuh. It’s the short version.’
‘Fuhluhmuh?’ I experimented.
‘And that’s polite? I mean, no one’s going to think I’m being cheeky?’ Atta-boy, Peter. Use a word like ‘cheeky’. Everybody knows what that means.
‘No, it’s fine,’ Mikeshë said, either an English genius or just really good with context. Probably a little of both.
‘Fuhluhmuh,’ I tried again. ‘Is that, like, literally the letters, ‘f, l, m’?’
More nods. Cool. I immediately internalized it as ‘fml’ and had to spend the next day trying to reroute that pathway in my brain…fml, indeed.
I will go ahead and tell you now that fuhluhmuh, or whatever it is, is the only useful Albanian word I ever learned, with the obvious exception of larje, which means something like wash. When you go to Kosovo you will understand because you, too, will see that everywhere you go there are car washes. And if you, at any given moment, cannot see a car wash, then you can see a sign for a car wash (and Californians, this is not like the Chase Bank ad about how often you see a Chase ATM around…this is a statement that is borne out by facts). Auto Larje is as ubiquitous a sign in Kosovo as Free Wi-Fi is in the US. I truly believe that if you ask me on my deathbed, hopefully a good century or so from now, how to say ‘car wash’ in Albanian, I will, without hesitation, reply, ‘auto larje!’. I hope those aren’t my last words, though.
It was while winding my way through the maze of Prishtinë streets, wondering just what was so important to Albanians about car washes (I never found out), that I saw a baby driving a car. No joke. It was sitting in its father’s lap, of course, but this was no five or six year-old, this was like a one or two year-old. Hands on the steering wheel, face full of laughter, this baby was having a great time. I can only hope that the father had assumed the eight-and-four position to his child’s ten-and-two, but I will forever be left with the image of that laughing child barreling down the streets of Prishtinë. And the next thing I saw brought to mind cars again, along with the old joke about parking on driveways and driving on parkways. When cars park on the sidewalks, people will walk in the streets. Entire families went single file down the narrow lanes while empty cars hogged the safer path meant for these pedestrians. It’s somewhat true of most of Europe, I must admit, but I especially noticed it that night in Prishtinë.
The next day I traveled by bus to the town of Gračanica, not more than 20 minutes or so outside of Prishtinë. There is a monastery there, as I mentioned yesterday (and will again in more detail tomorrow), as well as a sizable population of Serbs. I was not expecting this to be the case so far south, but when I got off the bus and bought a delicious juice drink in a local market, the woman quoted the price to me in Serbian. Now I love languages and being exposed to new ones, but it’s not particularly often that I find myself surrounded by a language that is wholly unfamiliar. Even Hungarian has at least a few words I can pick out. Albanian, however, is yet a mystery to me, and I had not realized how starved I was for easy communication with local people. It is truly incredible how homesick you can get for a language that you actually speak, or even one that you can kind of fake your way through. I asked this woman for directions to the monastery and said ‘hello’ to just about everyone I saw there, just because I could. Damn, it felt nice!
That night I returned to my hostel to find Burrë and Mikeshë accompanied by one of Burrë’s good friends, Shok. He had come to see Burrë off as well, and the three of them were enjoying some beers (Laško! Slovene beer, for those of you not in-the-know on the Laško) and watching an Albanian music awards show. These kind people sat me down and gave me a water glass full of homemade wine from the region of Rahovec. Verë Rahoveci, they called it, and it was delicious. I can tell you that it was the first of many.
‘Gëzuar!’ they exclaimed, lifting their glasses. Great, even ‘cheers’ is difficult to pronounce. I made a laughable attempt at this word and finally got it close to right. List of things to do: learn Albanian.
‘When are you going to Albania?’ they all wanted to know. This was a serious question, and to be honest I had been thinking about it all day. All of a sudden I had an intense desire to see this country and learn more about it.
‘As soon as I can,’ I answered truthfully. I was then met with a barrage of place names and suggestions of things to see and do. I struggled to write things down as they sounded, hoping I would be able to decrypt them later, when Burrë finally produced a map. The four of us looked at this thing and talked about what absolutely had to be seen and experienced there. Finally, I asked about the language barrier.
‘Do you need to know Albanian to travel easily down there?’
‘Oh no,’ Mikeshë replied, to my temporary relief. ‘People speak a lot of Greek and Italian as well.’ Meaningful pause. ‘You should learn some Italian before you go.’
Correction. List of things to do: learn Italian.
We then spent the next couple of hours discussing all things Albanian. Food, history, politics, travel, music, television, more politics and history, and finally we ended up back at food again.
‘You must try flia,’ Mikeshë told me, showing me pictures of the labour-intensive, multi-layered pastry dish that I would never get to eat before I left. ‘It is one of the best foods that you can have in Albania.’ I look forward to trying it next time, Mikeshë.
Over the course of the night, ‘Kosovo’ had been steadily replaced with ‘Albania’. In all likelihood this was due to the fact that we were actually talking about the country of Albania a good bit, but I smiled nonetheless as these Albanians discussed their traditions, culture and history in a country that bore a different name.
My most important Albanian lesson was still to come, though. The four of us somehow got on the topic of given names and how in Albanian every name means something.
‘Does your name mean something?’ they wanted to know.
‘Yes, it means ‘stone’,’ I replied, opting for that meaning, for obvious reasons.
‘Wow, that’s cool!’ someone replied. Yes. It is cool.
‘But Americans have two names, yes? Do you have a second name?’
‘I do. It’s ‘Carr’.’
Laughter ensued, and I’m talking full-scale. Haha, yes, I get it. It’s like ‘car’. Vroom-vroom, very funny. But no, that’s not why they were laughing.
‘Yes,’ Burrë replied, the only one able to speak, ‘it does mean ‘car’, but it also means something in Albanian.’
Did I really want to know? Of course I didn’t.
‘What does it mean?’ I asked.
‘Well, it uh…it means…‘penis’, you know?’ Burrë answered, to which Mikeshë’s eyes filled with even more tears. Great. Again ‘penis’. Does the madness never stop?
‘So, like, ‘penis’ or more like ‘dick’?’
Mikeshë was almost on the floor.
‘Like ‘dick’!’ she managed to squeal. Yay.
‘That’s great because ‘Peter’ means ‘penis’, too,’ I shared.
‘What about ‘stone’?’
‘Yeah, that’s the original meaning, but ‘Peter’ is also a slang word for ‘penis’.’
Yup. And add to that the last name ‘Woods’ and you’ve got a winning combination.
‘Hey,’ Mikeshë said. ‘Just tell Albanians that you don’t have a second name.’
Got it. Many more laughs later, from my side as well, we eventually eased on off to bed.
The next day was my last in Prishtinë and Burrë’s last in Kosovo. I said goodbye to him and Mikeshë and promised to keep in touch. I hope that we will. Shok said his goodbyes and then told me he was going to head back home as well. He gave me his email address and said that we should write each other. I said I very much hoped to see him and everyone else again soon.
‘If you believe in it, it will happen,’ he told me. And that was the other favourite thing I heard in Kosovo. Wow, what a cool bunch of people.
Note: Although I’m sure they wouldn’t mind, I decided that, due to the nature of the conversations that I have repeated here (and, more importantly, my lack of knowledge about whether they could get into any trouble if I shared their opinions), I should keep my Albanian friends anonymous. However, in keeping with Albanian tradition, I chose names that have meaning: Burrë translates to ‘host’, Mikeshë to ‘female friend’, and Shok to ‘friend’ (I just hope the English-Albanian dictionary I found online is accurate). These individuals have names of their own whose meanings are far more reflective of their personalities and their individuality, which goes beyond their relationships to me and one another; however, I felt it was more important to respect their privacy for now. Perhaps you’ll encounter them in your own travels one day. I can only hope that you do, for your sake.