One of the biggest reasons why I travel solo is because I want to focus on the place I’m visiting and not on my day-to-day companions. This time, I wanted to focus even more on the people I meet on my way than on the place itself. On the young people living in a young county. Although I really enjoyed the vibrant atmosphere of Pristina and the unspoilt nature of the Accursed Mountains, it’s actually thanks to the people I met in Kosovo that I’m so eager to come back.
The idea to write this article was evolving slowly in my head and, to be honest, I know there are many ways I could approach this topic. The political, economical, and social conditions of Kosovo are extremely complex and, although I did my best to learn and understand as much as possible, I am not pretending to have grasped it all; I am also not trying to play any authority, predominantly in the area of politics, especially that people I met had themselves often very varying opinions on the most burning issues.
The motivation for me writing this post is to challenge some misconceptions about Kosovo and its citizens that I heard from the mouths of adult and well-educated people in my own environment. I wanted to confront the war-torn, shaky, concrete-faced, uninteresting image of a region filled with foreign tanks and check for myself how true it is.
When it comes to the portraits you will see later in this text, I wanted to keep them simple and straightforward; as if each person featured was still present at a hand’s reach. Our meetings were very casual and so had to be the photos.
Before I proceed to introduce the young people of Kosovo to you, some background is absolutely necessary.
Table of Contents
- 1 Demographics of Kosovo
- 2 Kosovo – the youngest country in Europe, literally
- 3 Challenges the young people of Kosovo have to face
- 4 In a cage – visa liberalisation burning issue
- 5 Young Making the most against all odds
- 6 Building new bridges between Kosovar Albanians and Kosovar Serbs
- 7 Taking future into your own hands… with enthusiasm
- 8 Shaping future with art
- 9 Can’t travel? Make the world travel to you
- 10 Slightly underground Pristina
- 11 Little acts of kindness
- 12 Working hard
- 13 Don’t trust appearances (and stereotypes)
Demographics of Kosovo
Kosovo has the population of approximately 1.8m, out of which roughly 92% are Kosovar Albanians. The largest minority inhabiting Kosovo are Kosovar Serbs, at 4%. The most populous city is, of course the capital, Pristina, inhabited by about 205,133 people. The predominant religion is Islam (95.6%) while Christians constitute 3.7%. As you can see, religion percentage roughly reflects the ethnicity of the country, where the Kosovar Albanians are Muslims and Kosovar Serbs are Christians.
And now the biggest surprise. Kosovo is the youngest country in Europe. It declared its independence on 17th February 2008 – but this is a fact that everyone knows. Kosovo is the youngest country in Europe due to its demographics.
Kosovo – the youngest country in Europe, literally
The largest age group in Kosovo are people aged 25-29 (according to the data from 2014) both when it comes to females and males. The second most populous group constitute people between 20-24 years old. What’s so special about that, you might think. Well, just for comparison, the largest age group in Poland are people between 30-34 and 35-39. In Germany, it’s 45-49 and 50-54. In France, 40-44. Can you see the difference now?
You can easily notice the demographic structure of Kosovo on its streets, especially in Pristina, Gjakova, Prizren. It feels as if you landed in lively academic centre during a students’ festival, the only difference is that the young people are everywhere, not only in the capital or where the universities are located. The young people are a domineering part of the city landscape.
Cafes and restaurants are full, the main boulevard in Pristina is teeming with life not only in the evenings, if you want to drink coffee around lunch time in Gjakova, you should carefully look for a free table in the numerous restaurants. Looks great, doesn’t it? But there’s one devil behind that all.
Challenges the young people of Kosovo have to face
The unemployment rate in Kosovo stands at more than 32%; that’s a lot; but here comes the worst part: the unemployment rate among young people between 15-25 years old is ….. roughly 60%. If you add to that that the poverty rate is almost 30%, the image you get is not too glorious.
The economy in Kosovo is close to non-existent. This region used to be the poorest one even during the times of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and it got only worse due to the war and many other conflicts following which a lot of people lost their jobs. Nowadays, its highly dependent on the aid of foreign organizations and a pretty large diaspora.
In a cage – visa liberalisation burning issue
Another issue Kosovars have to face is the lack of one of the most basic rights that people in Europe take for granted: travel and mobility. When I went to Kosovo, the topic of visa liberalization was on everyone’s mouth; it is one of the most burning issues that, hopefully, will be solved in near future.
Currently, the citizens of Kosovo can travel visa-free to a handful of countries only: Albania, Turkey, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia. For all other countries, they need a visa, and to get one now is extremely difficult due to requirements that have to be met.
Another thing that goes along with the visa is money. Even if the visa liberalization law goes into life in the EU Parliament in the next months, there’s still a question of money. Living in Western Europe is so much more expensive than in Kosovo that a lot of people who would like to move, would still have to fight a lot of obstacles.
Young Making the most against all odds
And despite all that, what I saw in Kosovo and what I learnt from people whom I got to know there, the reality is not as gloomy as it seems. Although it’s not bright, I’ve noticed a lot of energy in that place and after the conversations I had there, I can firmly state that the young people are the biggest asset of Kosovo. The future is being shaped by them right now and although it’s often challenging, I think they are doing a great job.
Every person I talked to in Kosovo made a lasting impression on me: each of them is making the best of what they have in a unique way and what they do is inspiring. Warning: it’s not a report, it’s going to be personal, like the time we had.
Building new bridges between Kosovar Albanians and Kosovar Serbs
It’s nearly 7pm and the air in Pristina is still so hot. I’m slowly walking down the Bill Clinton Boulevard, watching the sun preparing to set, the view is spectacular; everything looks like painted with gold.
I am about to meet Arita. We talked already on Facebook and were planning to drink coffee together (have I told you in Kosovo you drink coffee even in late evening? I never do it in Poland, I was always doing it in Kosovo) and talk. I wanted to ask her mainly about the whole visa issue, because until that day I was hearing contradicting news. Some people said it’s confirmed, some said it’s unlikely that the law will be passed and I wanted to finally confront the rumours with reality.
Arita works full time in Pristina and she manages to cram into her busy schedule a lot of voluntary projects as well. Warm-hearted, smart, self-confident, clever, thoughtful, and caring; that’s how I see her after the first 15 minutes of our meeting and later on, it only gets better and better.
She learns Serbian and actively participates in NGO projects created for the purpose of building and maintaining good relationships with the Serbs. What impresses me the most is that she also belongs to the Rotary Club in Pristina. It’s an international organisation with motto saying “Service above Self” and it’s clear that Arita follows that in her life.
She tells me about the long way Kosovo had to go through in their battle for visa liberalisation. The topic has been on and off since 2008, but things started to finally change since 2012. Kosovo had a lot of requirements to meet and when the image of visa-free travel was really close, always new issues would crop up.
This created a lot of frustration among the young, especially after the last report was released in December 2015, when Ukraine and Georgia received green light from the EU, and Kosovo received a new set of requirements to fulfil and the vision of visa-free movement dissolved into thin air yet again. We also talk about women in the Kosovar society.
It’s still quite patriarchal and the sex roles seem to be clearly defined and rather fossilised. However, there are more and more extraordinary women who are working to change that, Arita being one of them.
Taking future into your own hands… with enthusiasm
One day I’m off to Gjakova. This morning didn’t start well for me: I left the key to my locker in the bathroom the previous night and now it’s gone. After an hour of frantic search in my backpack, duvet, on the floor, I sit resigned next to my hostel room. A couple from the room next door passes and, not thinking much, I ask them if they had seen my key. Well, they have. They actually took it thinking it’s theirs. I feel tremendous relief. In no time I get ready and off to Gjakova. I have someone to meet there!
The bus is so sultry, I instantly fall asleep. When I arrive in Gjakova 90 minutes later, to my horror, I notice 6 unanswered calls. It’s Gentrina, the girl I am supposed to meet.
I walk around the busy bus station and slowly head to the centre. I need to find a place with Internet to talk to Gentrina, since my stupid phone of course does not work. I am walking down the street when I hear a loud “KIIIIIINNNNGAAAAA” behind me.
Am I going crazy or someone is calling me by my name …. in Kosovo?
It’s Gentrina and her school friend, Dren. I am still to experience how crazy those two high school graduates are.
We go to the old bazaar of Gjakova. I feel I must have teleported myself to Spain or Italy, can it still be Kosovo? We enter a charming, cobbled street that is teeming with life. Literally, the whole street is filled with cafes, colourful tables, fancy, artisan adornments, and shops with traditional Albanian clothing. You can almost see no sky, because the space between buildings is filled with colourful lanterns in the most unique shapes.
Gentrina and Dren are in the midst of having their exams. Although the summer is approaching fast, they have to study hard to get as many points as possible. If they succeed on the final exams will determine if they make it to the university. Both Gentrina and Dren want to study in Pristina.
Gentrina wants to become a psychologist, Dren is trying to make up his mind between architecture and medicine. They are so young and yet seem so mature, with clear vision of what they want to achieve in their lives; and what’s best, they work hard for this. Gentrina is involved in many voluntary initiatives, especially with the Red Cross.
She’s like an energy volcano. I have an impression this girl has no limits and no matter what she envisions, she will make it. I love meeting such people who simply have their enthusiasm and ACT, instead of being bitter and inactive.
Dren is not lazy either; his English is as good as mine although he’s so much younger than me. When he is not accompanying Gentrina in the voluntary services, he’s into graphic design and movie making. Hardly ever do I meet people so young and yet so adult in their approach to life. The day we spend together is one of the best of this year. We go hiking to see the panorama of Gjakova, eat delicious dinner at Oxygen, talk to the imam at the Hadum Mosque, and…..
Shaping future with art
When Gentrina said we had to visit a shop with handmade things, I didn’t expect we were actually going to visit an established artist. The shop looks quite normal from the outside. The moment you enter, however, you realise it’s not only a shop, but also the workplace where Mimoza Rracit creates her art (or shall I say little miracles?) Actually, the colourful lanterns that are hanging in the old bazaar were made by her. In her shop, every single thing is unique. There’s no mass production; each necklace is different and of good quality.
She paints, she draws, she carves. You can buy necklaces, drawings on paper, paintings on plates, handbags, just name the thing and I can be sure Mimoza has it in her shop. This girl takes inspiration from just everything that surrounds her and does not limit herself to creating only one type of art. I admire her for the courage of following her vocation, which is creating art, instead of going the usual road in a job she would waste her talent.
I am looking at the things she is painting, carving, drawing and can’t believe that despite having such a big talent, Mimoza is so modest. I hope she will make this shop online one day.
Can’t travel? Make the world travel to you
Somehow, everyone seems to know this guy and the fame of the Triphouse exceeds the boarders of Kosovo. Is it because he has hosted hundreds of people and is now a CouchSurfing ambassador? Or is it because it’s fun to be in his company and the list of topics to discuss seems endless?
It’s a pleasant Friday evening in Pristina when I meet Altin, “the coolest man in town” who made CouchSurfing his lifestyle. He’s a doctor during the day and an ardent CouchSurfing host and partier at night.
We decide to hit some pubs near the Mother Theresa Boulevard. I’ve not seen it after dark yet, so I am curious to experience the night-life of Pristina. We turn into a relatively small street from the main boulevard and I can hardly believe my eyes. Hundreds of young people are getting warmed up before hitting the clubs. There are hardly any seats left, actually, most of the people are having a standing party at one point. We buy beer and Rakia. I have not had any Rakia since my last time in Albania when an elderly man was teaching Gocha, Jarmo and me how to properly drink it. Remember, you have to take it slow, let it burn your from the inside. This time I learn I can drink Rakia slow and ease the burning in my throat with cold beer. Not a bad solution, to be honest.
The one thing I like about CouchSurfing the most is that the probability of meeting people who share your approach to life is slightly bigger than elsewhere. It takes some courage and trust to be inviting strangers into your own home and to be going to homes of people you don’t know.
Meeting Altin reminds of the crazy times I had at university when there were always some people surfing my couch. Like at that time, we break the ice quickly and start talking about things it normally takes months of friendship to discuss. I have missed that.
Slightly underground Pristina
This is my first “scheduled” meeting in Pristina and I am so curious what it’s going to be like. I’m meeting Zanë, a young student living in Pristina and although we spend together maybe an hour or so, there are a lot of things in common.
This is the only person with whom I talk about feminism and LGBT movements in Kosovo; even the subject of Harry Potter is brought up at one point. She reminds me of a friend I have in the Netherlands. It’s such a pity we don’t have more time, because I would love to explore some of those topics a bit more.
Kosovo is quite conservative, at least on the surface, but if you dig deeper, you can find a lot of informal initiatives that are bringing the change in the approach to diversity. Zanë is also the only person who, after I took a photo of her, didn’t say “how do I look” but “that’s how you see me, that’s the reality”; and it somehow meant a lot to me.
Little acts of kindness
I have been walking alone uphill for the past 30 minutes and have not seen a single human on my way. According to my GPS, I should be walking towards a restaurant, but the whole area looks…. abandoned. There is literally nothing but mountains and forests in the village of Kuciste.
I finally see it. It must be the restaurant, the beginning of the trail to the lakes in the Accursed Mountains. It looks empty but I try to enter anyway. To my surprise, the doors open and I walk into a warm room with a chimney. I order a cup of tea. A young man brings it to me and we start a chat.
His name is Agon and he’s a student in Peja. If you look at him, you will see the most warm-hearted look and the most friendly smile ever; I don’t know him yet, but I feel we could be friends. This meeting was so unplanned, yet so nice.
Agon tells me the way to the lakes and after drinking my tea, I set off. This trip is slightly nerve-wrecking, because I am all alone, it’s cold, foggy, windy and my imagination is going crazy. I am afraid of heights and this makes it all the more difficult. But hey, I’ve come here to face this fear so I keep moving.
After coming back, Agon welcomes me back and says I was very fast. This surprises me because I had a feeling I was dragging myself slowly like a snail, but it must have been some fear that stopped the time for me and made me walk fast. We talk for 20 minutes or so, I can’t even tell you what about, studies, English, life, Kosovo. I remember feeling very good and welcome up there in the company of this young, good man, in this restaurant in the middle of Prokletije. It’s because of such encounters that I love travelling solo so much.
I’ve been trying to find a restaurant recommended by another travel blogger three times. It’s literally nowhere. My GPS is leading me to a street which seems to be closed to the public. I give up and decide to visit a fancy looking cafe close to the Mother Theresa boulevard.
It’s called Han, same as the hostel and I have no idea if I’m actually entering a common area of a hostel or a restaurant. I ask a waiter and that’s how I meet Arber, a physiotherapy student in Pristina, coming from Prizren. It’s our first encounter at this restaurant but not the last one.
Chatting at Han floats so easily that we decide to meet once again after I come back to Pristina in a few days. That’s how I learn about a whole neighbourhood in Pristina, not far away from the famous Bill Clinton statue, where the local people come to have a drink. It’s somewhat hidden from the main boulevard and I would have never found this place if Arber hadn’t showed it to me.
In one of such cafes, I learn that he studies physiotherapy and would like to move to Germany one day. He is not the only young person thinking about emigration that I meet in Kosovo. As much as it’s hard not to understand that, the government of Kosovo should really do more to keep the young, smart, and hard working in the country instead of making them leave.
When he’s not studying, he’s working. When he’s not working, he’s … writing short stories; one of which was included in a bigger collection and published. Also, this crazy man spend his holidays working non-stop for a couple of months in a row to save money for a flat. I admire that, I don’t know if I would be able to do the same.
Don’t trust appearances (and stereotypes)
It’s my first day in Pristina and it’s been quite intense so far. I have just bid farewell to Zanë and am intending to spend the rest of my evening taking photographs of young Kosovars chilling out at the Beer Fest.
I notice three guys drinking beers and this image somehow fits the atmosphere of this place so much, I can’t resist and take a photo. Although I try not to show off my camera too much, one of them notices what I’m doing and that’s how the conversation begins. It’s Kristian and his friends, Agron and Fidan.
They still probably have no idea how strongly they shaped my image of Pristina. Very often the experience you have initially shape how you feel in a given place for the rest of your stay. They make me feel like in the best possible place I could actually be in.
The hours I spend in their company are pure fun mixed with some more serious conversations and I leave the Beer Fest with one idea growing even stronger in my head: do not ever trust appearances.
It’s with them that I learn that citizens of Kosovo have varying approach to the imaginary but maybe possible one day merge with Albania. As it turns out, not every Kosovar Albanian supports this idea. One distances himself from all that, one supports the idea of Kosovo-Albania merger, one is totally against it.
What surprises me a bit as well, is that each of them is of different denomination. There’s an agnostic, a Christian, and a Muslim. And they don’t seem to care about that at all, which I am so glad to see. It’s been already too many cases when religion would stand in the way of friendships or relationships; I’m happy to see this is not the case in Kosovo.
The heading of this is not to trust appearances and stereotypes. If I had met those guys in the dark street while alone, I probably wouldn’t be the happiest person ever. I met them at the Beer Fest in a safe environment instead and thanks to that we had lots of fun and I could also compare the image of young men in Kosovo with the reality. Being a bodybuilder studying criminology doesn’t make you a criminal. Being born into a Muslim family doesn’t make you a religious person. Being young doesn’t mean you don’t have the experience of an adult.
This article is my choice
This article is subjective, one could say. Well, I have actually talked to people from the “other side of the barricade”, although there is no barricade. As I wrote above, different person could have different opinions and experiences. I talked to someone who was trying to persuade me the whole Balkans are just hopeless and helpless and the only solution is leaving that region.
This is not what I saw while I was in Kosovo. Once again I’ll repeat: the young people of Kosovo are the biggest asset of this country. They can be a threat to this country as well if they choose to be inactive or close-minded. What I saw, though, was the opposite.
I met the friendliest, most hospitable, open, young people; each of them having their interests and making the most of their lives. People with good energy, people who don’t spare time for voluntary services, who like to socialise, who study and work very hard.
I want to thank all of you for making my stay in Kosovo the best it could be and something tells me it wasn’t the last time.
Special thanks to Kristian, for encouraging me to finish the article when I was in doubt and challenging some of my ideas, Gentrina, for her never-ending enthusiasm, Arita, for being my biggest source of information about this tiny yet so fascinating country, Arber for showing me the best of Pristina.
Do you want to read more about Kosovo? Click here for a week-long Kosovo travel guide.
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