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Pristina journal

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Aside from alcohol, the barbershop shave is one of the few indulgences the travelling freelance journalist can afford. Combining the two is perhaps foolish, but, after a rough day on the road from Skopje to Pristina, I felt like splurging.

Despite some initial misgivings, Kosovo’s capital was starting to grow on me after the three Pejas (a fine local beer) I drank downtown that evening. So I ditched plans for a quiet first night in the room. It was twilight on a warm, clear May night, the streets felt electric, and I was in a new city. Stay in the room?

The modest but comfortable Guest House Velania, owned by the “professor”, is in a cosy residential area east of the centre. A community emerged as I searched for a barbershop. Children played in the streets; men stood chatting, often taking one another by the arm. Cars lined up outside the local carwash, a ubiquitous sight in Pristina. Then, every few minutes, a passing SUV marked EU or UN or OSCE evinced Kosovo’s fraught past and shaky future just over a year into the country’s independence.

The barbershop on the neighbourhood’s commercial corner – grocery and convenience stores, carwash, café with plastic tables and a delicious macchiato – was this community in microcosm. The three barber chairs were filled, the men jabbering away. A teenage apprentice stood to the side with a broom, pretending to ignore the gossip, and two men waited at back. On the sidewalk out front and across the street, more customers stood talking, smoking, drinking coffee, occasionally peeking in for a progress report.

All this I observed while pacing outside the shop window. The beer buzz had subsided, and, as always happens, I was having second thoughts about a stranger taking a straight razor to my face. And what if I got the youngest barber? He looked barely 20. You want at least 10 years’ experience in a barber. Had his shaving career started when he was still drinking juice boxes?

I got the youngster, of course. My blood pressure hit 160/100 as he affixed a fresh blade to the razor handle (AIDS has jettisoned the reusable straight razor at barbershops) and the apprentice scurried about the chair, boiling water for the shaving soap. But the youngster was skilled, particularly gentle around the lips, and I emerged without a nick, refreshed and brimming with bonhomie.

I crossed the street into a park overlooking the city. The sun hadn’t yet set, and I could still discern Pristina’s outer edge against the horizon. I returned there the next night. It had just rained, and, with the sun falling behind the distant buildings, the sky turned purple to pink, pink to orange, orange to the brightest yellow I’ve ever seen. A sound familiar from a past trip to Sarajevo filled the steamy air. It was Muslim call to prayer.

‘At least now I can hope’
It’s good that no one in Pristina drinks very much. Islam is the dominant religion in Kosovo. If the residents took to booze, the city could easily degenerate into the devastating spread of alcoholism you find in similarly depressed regions across the world.

This thought stayed with me as I explored Pristina over the next two days. The cafes were always full, I noticed. Teens and twentysomethings sat from late morning until evening chatting and smoking over successive rounds of coffee, Coca-Cola and water. On the streets downtown, anyone who looked over 30 stood out in the crowds.

Unemployment is acute in Kosovo, at approximately 45%, according to the United Nations Development Programme. For some perspective on that figure, US joblessness peaked at about 25% during the Great Depression.

I knew the unemployment situation was dire in Kosovo before I arrived. What I didn’t know – and heard repeatedly in subsequent interviews – was that Kosovo has Europe’s youngest population, and that youth unemployment is around 60%, recasting what should represent enormous potential into a perilous liability. Kosovo may have defied almost every Serb on earth to win independence last February after nine years of UN administration, but a nation where the youth – the future – lack hope cannot prosper.

Jobs are so scarce that young people resist leaving school, instead pursuing higher and higher degrees in a weak education system, and are afraid to get married because they don’t know how they’ll support themselves, former student Ardian Spahiu told me outside the University of Kosovo’s library, the hub of the various faculties in central Pristina.

I had spent the morning searching for a friendly face, and Spahiu graciously agreed to speak with me. A 27-year-old Kosovar Albanian with jet-black hair and a self-conscious smile, he said he lived with his parents and had spent the two years since graduating from the University of Pristina Law Faculty looking for work: with the government, the various ministries, even the supermarket.

“It is impossible to find a job if you don’t have connections,” Spahiu said outside the library, where he was meeting a friend. “It is frustrating, and every day you get more depressed.”

Many are the tragedies of an economy enervated by years of inertia, no substantial domestic industry, paltry foreign investment and endemic corruption, but perhaps the most heartbreaking is that Kosovars appear eager to find and create work. Did that barbershop really need an apprentice? Does Pristina, evidently no dustier than the four other Balkan capitals I’ve visited, need a carwash on every block?

Spahiu himself volunteered with the state prosecutor to pass the job-hunting time productively, and remained vigilant. He’d recently found a position as a customs officer, he said, and expected to finish training at the end of May.

Though the customs office still needed a government grant to hire him as a salaried employee, Spahiu was optimistic.

“It feels very good,” he said. “At least now I can hope.”
That was two months ago. I emailed Spahiu last week. He said he had finished training with the customs office – but still hadn’t heard back about the job.

Off to sea

At a good restaurant, even the busboy should know how the chef makes her signature soufflé; the culinary reverence is that pervasive. So I was delighted that my waiter at Il Passatore had mastered the menu and came armed with recommendations: the artichoke and sun-dried tomato salad followed by spaghetti Bolognese, the night’s special.
Owned by Antonella, of Cesena, Italy, Il Passatore has become a Balkan institution, “the best Italian food in the region”, a friend had told me. Antonella opened the first Il Passatore in Tirana, Albania, before moving to Pristina a few years later. On a side street not too far from the guest house, the restaurant was tricky to find on foot, but well-known to any cab driver.

I arrived a few minutes before it opened at 7pm on my penultimate night in Pristina; on to Sarajevo next. I sat in the garden, which is canopied by several large trees and perfect for summer dining, and drank a glass of house red wine while waiting for my food, which was delicious. The salad was simple, but the artichokes and sun-dried tomatoes were fresh and flavourful. Antonella’s spaghetti Bolognese was lighter than most, a pleasant surprise on a warm night and spicy.

“How was everything?”

Antonella was making the rounds on a slow Friday. Clearly a formidable woman likely at ease managing a professional kitchen – a rougher business than many might imagine – Antonella had thick bronzed arms and a genial, if commanding, disposition.

“Excellent,” I said. “Really excellent. What’s that on your hand?”

“A scorpion,” she said, then explained her other visible tattoo.

“How’s business?”

“It’s OK. But I’m tired. I need a break. I want to go to the navy.”

“The navy?”

“Yes, to the sea, you know, on a ship. Maybe for one year.”

“For a year? That’ll be very hard.”

“Maybe, but I need it. I need some time to … to clear my head. My staff is good. They can take care of the restaurant.”

We exchanged names, and I explained that I was a journalist travelling through the Balkans. Antonella returned to the kitchen, and I ordered a homemade grappa. As I left later, she stood smoking on the steps outside with her dog and two waiters.

“Adam!” she said with that vocal buoyancy only an Italian can pull off. “I’m glad you came. It was nice to meet you.”

“Thank you, it was wonderful. And best of luck … if you do go to sea.”

“I need it,” she said.

‘It doesn’t look good’

If the trip goes smoothly, the bus ride from Pristina to Sarajevo, Bosnia’s capital, should take 12 hours. But I couldn’t find any other concrete details of the journey, particularly the matter of whether the bus went through Serbia. Serbia doesn’t recognize Kosovo as a country, and, as a citizen of one of the staunchest backers of Kosovo’s independence, I was concerned about trouble at the border.

Busy with interviews all week, I had asked my best friend, Jeff, a seasoned traveller who died last month of complications due to cancer, to look into this. On Friday, two days before I was to leave, he emailed back.

“Well, buddy, it doesn’t look good,” he began.

Evidently, the bus did go through Serbia, according to several travel blogs, and “wasn’t the safest bus in the world”, as Jeff put it. He recommended flying, suggesting Croatia Airlines. Not wanting to jeopardise the rest of my trip, the next morning I booked a last-minute flight to Sarajevo via Zagreb.

I would not make it to Sarajevo.

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