I’m in the Munich airport, on my way home. Hopefully I’ll blog more when I’m back in Canada. In the meantime, here’s a post I wrote for Kosovo 2.0, a multilingual magazine currently planning their first print edition:
(Original link here)
I had this moment, leaving the apartment Monday, which may or may not say something about what it is to be a foreigner in Kosovo, or anywhere else.
I’m staying in a place up the hill from Prishtina’s city center. It belongs to another journalist. He’s in Belgrade for the week and left me the keys.
The apartment is on the fourth floor of a decent building down a long driveway near Magic Park, a skating rink cum banquet hall that plays loud pop music about 18 hours out of every 24.
Each floor in the building has four suites arranged around a wide foyer and staircase. My moment occurred on the second-floor landing.
I was walking down the stairs when a man with thick fingers and a moustache told me to stop. He had a sheaf of invoices and was, I presume, some kind of bill collector: maybe for the water, maybe the utilities.
As it turns out, “stop” was about the only thing either one of us understood in the other’s language. For about five minutes he tried to give me a bill —I think —while I did my unilingual best to explain that I was just visiting.
“I don’t live here,” I said. He waved a finger. “I’m a guest,” I replied. He jabbed at his sheaf. “Guest,” I said again. “Guest.” As if by repeating myself I could achieve some form of immaculate translation.
And so it went on. He would say something. I would reply. He would jab. I would gesture. Soon we were half yelling in the stairwell.
Eventually, both of us frustrated, I just walked away, down the stairs, out the door and into the street.
It was the kind of event that always feels more sinister in the moment than it actually was. The two of us had no common language and no shared social norms. Neither of us knew what to expect from the other.
I was flustered. So was he. He wanted something. I couldn’t tell him why it would be useless to get it from me. It was a classic fish-out-of-water moment, the kind that litters travel writing and says, I think, almost nothing about Kosovo or Canada or even much about me or that guy.
Living as an outsider, a foreigner, one not familiar with the way things are done, can disrupt your everything. It can occupy your brain. Force you to think about little things you usually do without thought. And as a writer, that’s dangerous.
My original idea for this blog was to write about crossing the street. My first night in Prishtina, I stood at a crosswalk for an uncomfortable period, waiting for the cars to slow down. I considered how long I could be there before people would notice. I thought about working my way around or just going back to my hotel. I even tried to look like I was waiting for someone or otherwise occupied in something other than staring at a street. (I did this by putting my hands in my pockets and pacing. Once, I fiddled with a pen.)
The point of this story, I guess, would have been that you cross the road differently here. Back home you wait till the cars slow down, make eye contact and go. Here you just go.
Does this difference say anything about either culture? Probably not. But it’s the kind of anecdote writers, like me, use in lieu of actual understanding. It tells the reader how it feels to be me here, but it doesn’t really speak to what here is.
A few years back I interviewed an American author about a book he’d set in Buenos Aires. The writer grew up in New York and lived in Israel. He’d spent time in Argentina but not enough to consider himself local.
Still, he told me, he wanted to write the city like a local would. He didn’t want to dwell on the landscape an outsider would notice, the physical reality of any place that is jarring at first but soon blends in.
Sometimes I worry that, in writing about Kosovo all I have is the outsider’s reality, the run-ins with bill collectors and mishaps while crossing the road. After all, I don’t really understand this country. I don’t see how I could. I’ve been here barely a month and half of that was spent in a half-nervous fog.
But when I get home, I’ll still try to build something from what I’ve seen. I won’t cut myself out. I can’t pretend I wasn’t here. But I do hope I’ll have more to offer than awkward encounters and my own neurotic fears.
As for the bill collector, he left the tab at my door. It was there when I got home.
So Nate, if you’re reading this, there’s a bill here. It’s on the counter. I think you owe 4 Euros.