Day: June 1, 2012

Pristina is looking up

Things are looking better in Kosovo's not so pretty capital

That’s Mother Teresa Street below, the grinning prime minister on the building that houses his party headquarters, and the city beyond.  It never was one of Yugoslavia’s prettier spots:  exotic Sarajevo, Mitteleuropa Zagreb, cheerful Ljubljana, cosmopolitan Belgrade and even hodge-podge Skopje have always seemed to me to have the advantage.  But a few days here in a chilly but mostly dry springtime week suggest that Pristina is gaining gradually on its better known competitors and becoming more than a dowdy provincial capital.

Pristina’s week began in Cannes, where the paparazzi enjoyed Arta Dobroshin’s “Marilyn Monroe” moment.  But if the Daily Mail was scandalized by Kosovo’s movie star exposing the wrong cheeks, people here–including Arta, whom I met at an avantgarde art show opening at the National Gallery on Wednesday–were not.  They seem to be enjoying Kosovo’s racier image. We too, they seem to be saying, like kooky art works, spectacular legs, and a good glass of raki.  There must be some grumbling imams in this nominally Muslim republic, but they are not much in evidence.

Of course the daily grind here is a good deal less glamorous, but the main downtown drag, Mother Teresa Street, has been jammed all week with young people.  Last night it was mostly children enjoying mimes, clowns, pop music and cotton candy.  My friends here all seem to favor Komiteti, an unpretentious but good bistro just around the corner from the former Communist Party headquarters, after whose central committee it is named (with tongue in cheek of course).  But tonight I plan to visit Crème de la Crème, a well-known hangout of the city’s more cosmopolitan youth.

The city is unquestionably lacking in many amenities.  There are no parks downtown, though the two nearby are more than adequately verdant this time of year.  I refused yesterday to leave the tarmac in the larger one, where NATO cluster bombs are still occasionally found.  I run on the oval street around the soccer stadium, where traffic is light in the early morning except for those seeking to park on the sidewalks. Ten times around is a pretty good 35-minute workout.

The stadium is not far from the glorious new Swiss Diamond hotel, which is a match for most first-class establishments in the U.S. or Western Europe.  Its competition, the also newly opened Sirius, is likewise a big step up from the old Yugoslav Grand Hotel, whose renovation is still not complete.  The smaller, “boutique” establishments in which I’ve stayed on recent visits are adequate–and I hope they’ll respond with upgrades to the newer and more glorious competition.

Are there any Serbs in town?  Perhaps a few hundred, well-informed people answer.  With a few more thousand in surrounding areas.  I met one at a cocktail party after the art show opening.  She works at the American embassy and speaks Albanian, which seems to be the principal requirement for a Serb living here.  She feels comfortable in Pristina, she said readily, sipping wine.  No doubt many other Serbs would tell me something quite different, some with good reason.  There are still a lot of unreconciled people on both sides of the ethnic divide.

When I ask people in conflict zones what they most want, the answer more often than not is “a normal life.”  I want, they say, my kids to go to school without being afraid, I want to go to work without hearing machine gun fire or other detonations, I want to travel to other countries and not worry too much about what is going on in my own.  While for the poor life in Pristina and Kosovo generally is still very difficult, increasingly there is a middle class enjoying a normal life.  Things in Pristina are really looking up.

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