The trouble with writing about Kosovo

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…

Kino lumbarghi in Prizren
Kino lumbarghi in Prizren
Serb Orthodox Decani Monestry
Serb Orthodox Decani Monestry
Snow in Brezovica
Snow in Brezovica
Big Kosovan Landscapes
Big Kosovan Landscapes
Newborn monument in Pristina
Newborn monument in Pristina

Four Ways Israel and Palestine Defies Expectation

Having escaped the bustling streets in favour of nursing a strong macchiato in the wonderful Educational Bookshop in East Jerusalem, I got talking to a girl on the next table who, it turned out, worked for the Palestinian News Network. Mentioning this blog, we got talking about the challenges of writing about the conflict here in the Middle East.

“The easiest thing to do is just choose a specific, small incident and use that as a way of reflecting the wider issues. Otherwise there are just too many angles; it’s tempting to want to write about the whole damn thing, but you’ll only end up losing your reader, and probably your argument, in the process.”

I’m therefore approaching this article with some trepidation. Having had such a mind-blowing experience, with my understanding and viewpoint evolving and shifting on virtually a daily basis with every new conversation, it’s proving difficult to know where to start.

However, what’s top of mind for me right now is the massive number of ways this place challenges and defies any and all expectations and prejudices you might hold about this land and its people. Here are a just a few of the ways my eyes have been opened, which might help you too if you’re thinking of travelling to this region.

Expectation 1: Israel is unsafe for travellers.

Wrong. Wrong, wrong. I can honestly say I have never felt more safe travelling around a country than I have here. When I asked whether I should be careful about pick-pockets in Jerusalem’s bustling old city (as you would in London, Barcelona, New York…) I was laughed at. And when a friend mentioned that a couple of rockets had just hit Be’er Shiva from Gaza, I looked around the chilled Tel Avivian bar we were in and realised that these kind of occurances didn’t even register on people’s nervous systems.

Maybe it’s because everyone speaks English. Maybe its because people are pretty friendly and always keen for a chat. I don’t know. But I can honestly say that the only time security crossed my mind was when a friend from England might text / email imploring me to ‘stay safe’.

Expectation 2: People of different religions can’t live alongside each other

At sunset every Friday, hundreds of Jewish people from the secular to ultra-orthodox pour into the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem’s old city and make their way on mass towards the Western (Wailing) Wall. When they have finished their prayers, finished off their catch-up chats with friends and rounded up their children, they walk back towards Damascus gate to the soundtrack of the Muslim call to prayer.

The next day, at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (which is said to have been built on the place where Jesus died and was resurrected), Greek Orthodox monks wait for the midday call to prayer for the Omar Mosque to finish before ringing the church bells, while pilgrims step in the (alleged) steps of Christ down the Via Dolorosa, dodging Arab market stall owners intent on selling them scarves/sweets/really good shwarma.

I’m not saying it’s a vision of multi-cultural harmony. I’m not saying people from different religions and backgrounds sit around in circles holding hands and singing “all you need is love”. But every day, the most hardcore followers of the world’s three theistic religions go about their business with a respect and tolerance for one another which, I think, is a pretty amazing achievement.

Expectation 3: Israel is a bit scary

You’ll be interrogated for hours at the airport. There are eighteen year olds carrying guns on public transport. The people who live there hate all ‘Arabs’. These were all things I had been told before heading off on my trip, and I would be lying if I said it hadn’t coloured my perception of what Israel might be like.

Imagine my surprise.

Yes, I was asked more questions at Ben Gurion airport security than I would have been if I was departing from, say, Frankfurt or Rome, but to be fair I had just travelled in from Egypt just after the revolution. And the security guards seemed really sorry about having to hold me up and made sure I was fast tracked through the rest of the airport so I didn’t miss my flight. And on my way into Israel over the land border with Egypt at Taba, the major question the guy at Passport Control wanted to know the answer to was whether I liked Cliff Richard. Because he did. A lot.

Yes, the military kids carry their guns with them on public transport, which is undoubtedly a bit weird, but as one of them told me; “we get really shouted at if we don’t look after them. And we travel a lot – what are we supposed to do; dismantle them and pack them in our back packs? Where would we put our clothes?”

And as for the attitude of Israeli citizens towards the ‘Arabs’, saying all Israelis hate all Arabs is like saying all Brits hate all immigrants. If you read the Daily Mail you’d probably think it’s true, but speak to anyone with half a brain and you realise that most people aren’t that one dimensional.

Expectation 4: The West Bank is a war zone

Let’s be clear; there is some very dark stuff happening in the West Bank. People’s homes are bulldozed. Some children’s classrooms are covered in bullet holes. The Separation Wall has cut ordinary people off from their land, or worse, their families. There are still many UN supported refugee camps. Unemployment is rampant. Everyone knows someone who has been killed.

But the thing that struck me most about the West Bank is the incredible power people have to carry on as normal under trying, sometimes desperate conditions. Given these are a people under occupation, people are still starting businesses, going to school, relaxing in cool bars and cafes, sending their kids to dance classes. Parents I spoke to talk about how they hope their children will go to university one day. Children I spoke to were desperate to test our their English and talk about football.

I’m about to use a massive cliche, but I don’t care. Here it comes. People are people are people. It doesn’t matter where you’re from or what you’re going through. For the most part, people pretty much want the same things; happiness, a relative degree of security, a good life for their children and something to laugh at once in a while.  Even in a ‘war zone’.

Five Tips for Travelling Solo

Just this morning I received the following text:

Kim, I have swine flu. I’m not going to be able to make it to Paris because a) I feel like death and b) I’m not allowed to be around people…so sorry! x

Of course, my first thought is; poor Clare! My second (slightly selfish) thought is; hmm…probably best not to be sharing a hotel room with the dreaded swine flu. And my third is; ok…so does this mean I go to Paris on my own?

I’ve always thought of travelling alone as a necessary rite of passage. Yes, the idea of it can be a bit daunting. After all, it isn’t often in our busy lives that we end up forcing ourselves to spend a few days, or a week, or even months with no friends or family around. Add into the mix an unknown place, an unknown language, and a whole variety of unforeseen challenges that inevitably land at your feet when travelling, and you start to see why for lots of people, going it alone is thought to be completely out of the question.

But ask anyone who has spent any time abroad with only their wits, their credit card and the phone number for the British embassy as backup, and they’ll tell you that they’re a better person for the experience.  There is a complete sense of freedom that comes from knowing that wherever you are and whatever is happening, you can rely on yourself and actually have a bloody good time in the process. Plus, if you’re single, you don’t have to rely on ‘finding someone to go one holiday with’ in order to go to the places on your travel hit list.

But that was then. To be honest, having had a bit of a crap year all round – one that’s left me a little bit bruised, I can’t say I feel as confident as I used to about jetting off on my own with only my own thoughts for company. As many a travel writer has pointed out, the problem with travelling alone is that you have to take yourself with you, and if you’re head is not in the best of places then that’s a prospect that might seem pretty terrifying.

However, I also know that if I get myself onto the eurostar, proving to myself that I can rely on myself in a foreign city will probably be one of the most empowering and rejuvenating things I could do.  So I’m going to give it a shot. Drawing on my past experience, these are the tips I’m repeating to myself so I actually enjoy it.

1. Remember, you’re never actually alone

Unless you’re on in the middle of a polar ice cap, it is highly unlikely that there won’t be people close by to remind you that you’re never actually on your own. In fact, I’ve often found that the challenge for lone travellers is more likely to be getting some time to yourself than finding someone to hang out with. Something about being on your own makes you way more approachable to other backpackers/hotel guests/cute guys in the same cafe; and I’ve always found I’ve made more new friends on my lone-travel trips than on group efforts.

However, if you do find yourself getting a bit lonely, or just fancy some company, there are some easy ways to scratch the itch. Signing up for organised tours is a pretty safe bet, while group activities are even better – think group treks, cooking workshops, language classes. And if none of that takes your fancy, always remember that if you really need to you can contact friends and family by text, phone or email any time you like.

For me though, the best way of overcoming any pangs for company is simply by talking to everyone. I mean it. People in the place you’re staying, the waiters and shop assistants, people on the street to ask directions, people in same bus queue. Who cares if your French / Thai / Japanese is a bit shaky. You only need to learn a few words and phrases to make a connection with someone, and you get so much more out of the experience as a result. And if you really don’t know any of the language…

2. Smile

People are more likely to warm to you and want to help you if you look friendly, even if you are babbling in broken English making wild hand gestures to try and make yourself understood.

Smiling also comes in useful when things go horribly wrong; it’s an instant reminder to relax and remember that there is never a problem than can’t be solved.

3. Research the cool cafes

One of the first things I do when in a new place is find a few cafes that can become my home from home – where I can eat, drink, read, blog or just hang out and people watch for hours on end. Let’s face it, spending a whole day and night on your own traversing the sights of a new place can be pretty knackering, and it makes me feel much more relaxed in a new city knowing there are a few spots I can just camp out in regardless of where I am or what time it is. For me, this makes me feel like less of an outsider and helps me make the city my own. On a related topic…

4. Embrace dinnertime

Most lone travellers will tell you that dinnertime can be the hardest time to be on your own in a city. You’re usually busy all day in the bustling town enjoying the sites and travelling from A to B, happily sitting in cafes in bars where no one bats an eyelid as you sit on your own and enjoy a good book. But when the sun goes down something switches. Suddenly all the restaurants and cafes are packed with couples and groups. And waiters aren’t quite so welcoming when they realise they’ll be giving you a table for two but getting half the sales (and half the tip). And out of nowhere, you become acutely aware you’re on your own.

The trick here is to embrace the experience. So what if you’re dining alone? This is your holiday and your evening. So indulge yourself. Eat what you like, where you like. Take your favourite book or your journal and save the best bits to enjoy over dinner. Order your favourite wine. Ignore any snotty waiters trying to usher you into a side table by the kitchen and sit where you want to. Take a deep breath. Enjoy every mouthful of your food. Eavesdrop on conversations (this can be even more fun if you don’t know the language).  Spend as long as you like – there’s no need to rush if you don’t want to. Do something that will give you a buzz, like making a list of ambitions for yourself, or places you want to visit in the next ten years. Or just do nothing, remembering how brave you are sitting in this restaurant far from home, and soak up the atmosphere. Which leads us onto…

5. Get outside

Do not, under any circumstances, sit in your room pondering the map and worrying the big bad city outside. Yes, be prepared. Yes, make at least a vague plan for how you’re going to spend your day. But if you need to consult your guidebook or your map, do it sitting in a Parisian/Argentinean/Californian cafe, not from the edge of your hotel bed.  There is nothing in that room you haven’t seen before and there’s a whole world of experiences outside that you might be telling your grandkids about.