I wandered into the open market, a canopy of colorful, wilting umbrellas that were rivaled only by the vibrant produce and pungent cheeses being sold by the vendors. Voices, rising and falling, filled the Bazaar as people haggled in Albanian dialects. I’d been told the Bazaar was one of the few must-see sights of Priština. Most people had laughed off my interest in visiting the city, telling me to skip Kosovo altogether. Locals concentrated on their shopping and trading yet I still managed to draw a lot of watchful eyes. My large backpack exposed me as a traveler, a novelty so rare in the destitute country that it was worth more than a passing gaze. Walking past a stretch of vendors towards a mosque I wanted to visit, I felt the air to my right compress and get heavy. It was the sensation of someone walking directly next to me, matching my every stride.
He was a young man- no older than me- wearing jeans and a plain blue shirt, which emphasized his narrow shoulders and made me notice how thin and tapered his body was, the certain result of hunger. He seemed to have a little bounce in his step, as if happy to see someone new, but gave me an ambiguous smile; was it a coy grin or a grimace?
“This place is hell,” he sighed, with only the slightest hint of an accent, confirming his expression as one of hopelessness. I asked him what he meant.
“None of us have a job; everybody just stands on the street. I’m going to my Nana’s now,” he paused, “she’s dying.” I wanted to tell him I was sorry, but knew he wasn’t looking for condolences. My non-response was still enough to warrant a reply. He continued, “Everyone is poor, but no one steals. There is nothing to take from each other.”
As we walked on, he shared the story of a city and country precarious in its new independence, but without angst because it had never known any other existence. He asked me for my story- shocked that I was American, and that I actually wanted to be there. Amazed that anyone, anywhere at all, had an interest in Kosovo. He seemed to believe that in most people’s mind his country was little more than a name on a map- Kosovo; distant, landlocked, one-dimensional and bleak.
His Nana lived right next to the mosque I was headed to, and he was absolutely dumbfounded that it was my destination.
“You’re American…You know- that’s a Muslim building, right??” I tried to laugh lightly, assured him that I did know, and thanked him for the insight before we parted.