This year I went to Kosovo a lot.
‘Kosovo?’ I hear you say, ‘Why on earth would you go to Kosovo?’
Good question. After all, tourists aren’t really going to Kosovo. In most people’s heads, Kosovo is still a mash up of ethnic hatred and post-war reconstruction and memories of atrocities we’d all rather forget.
That war was however nearly fifteen years ago now, so it would be fair to assume that things in that tiny landlocked corner of the Balkans might have changed a little in that time. Which is why I went.
To be fair, I also went because the lovely people at the British Council and Kosovan Foreign Ministry paid for me to get there, giving the amazing opportunity to dash all over the country on a Political Tour and talk to all sorts of very important people so I could write about it for BA’s High Life magazine.
And having gotten just a little bit under the skin of the place (and, for the place to have gotten a little bit under mine), I met a guy who was the creative director of an incredible documentary film festival in the pretty town of Prizren and saw the potential for another story. So I pitched it to The Guardian, and lo and behold I was back there this summer too.
Which means I’ve been to Kosovo twice this year.
What I found out is there’s a hell of a lot of stories to tell about Kosovo. And very few of them have been told yet. I’ve tried to tell two of them – with varying success – for those afore mentioned publications. I’ve just written a 101 word summary about what I thought it was like there, which of course feels a bit one dimensional and a little glib and doesn’t quite do the place any sort of justice.
Which is what’s proving to be the problem. How can one person’s writing about a place ever do it any sort of justice?
A freelance writer I had working for me recently wrote a lovely blog about how all travel writing is a kind of process of translation. The writer sees and experiences a place, they do their best to learn all they can about it, and then they attempt to communicate all that that experience was within a 1000 word word-limit.
But every place is so big, so multi-layered, they can never really, fully succeed. They can give an idea, the beginnings of a sense of things, suggestions perhaps. They can offer attempts at insights which never quite capture but at least point towards the truth of the matter, or at least their version of it. They can add that to the body of all the other things that have been written and hope to add something new and authentic.
In essence, they can just do their best.
The trouble with writing about Kosovo however is all that and more. Because not only is there the challenge of writing an accurate version of the place, but there is also the challenge that because very few others are writing about it, there are so many versions to be written.
The version I want to write is about what it’s like right now. The young energy and the cool hangouts and the start-up creativity; the girls with fringes and boys with beards; the techno beat pumping from backstreet apartments. The guys running off-piste ski weekends and the club owners capitalising on the fact this very young population really just want to have some fun.
But there is another version. Like the 2000 people still missing and the mothers still hoping their sons will walk through the door.
Another friend of mine says you should never use the phrase ‘xxxxxx is a city of contrasts’ in a travel piece – that it’s such a hackneyed, well-worn phrase that it’s become meaningless. But in Kosovo’s case, it’s true. It is a place of contrasts. As Nathan Coley’s Pristina installation last year proudly proclaimed in light bulbs; it’s a place beyond belief.
Which probably means that until there are more people writing about it so you can aggregate all those different viewpoints, you should just go and see it for yourself.
And until then, here are some pictures of my version…