Monday, 1 June 2015

Welcome to Europe's youngest capital city.

So, upon touching-down at Pristina International Airport, I somewhat-anxiously awaited the arrival of my luggage which, after three consecutive flights with two different carriers through two major airports, I wasn’t 100% optimistic about. So, when both bags appeared on luggage conveyor, I knew that I was already winning.

I was met in the arrivals hall by my work colleague, who drove me into town to find me a hotel room for the night.

The view of Pristina from my balcony.
First impressions:
  • Okay, we’re on the right-hand side of the road again.
  • The roads are in good condition, and it’s all cars, no motorbikes.
  • For 10pm on a Tuesday night, there are a lot of people out and about.
  • Many of them are young people – mostly in their 20s.
On this final note, my colleague explained to me that many of those who lived in the central Pristina area were university students. However, Pristina is also the “youngest” capital city in Europe. This is not only because it is the capital of Europe’s newest independent nation, the Republic of Kosovo (though, whilst this is recognised by Australia, there are still many nations who do not recognize its sovereignty). In terms of demographics, 50% of the population are aged under 30 years.
Indeed, in the weeks that followed, walking down the main pedestrian strip of Nene Tereza Boulevard felt a lot more like wandering through a university campus, with many young people gathered at cafes, or wandering along, dressed in designer clothes and enjoying each other’s company. Certainly not the culturally-devoid Balkan backwater that some would have had me believe before arriving. In some ways, Pristina reminded me of Melbourne – mostly because everybody is well-dressed, and the coffee is excellent.

Let me say that again – the coffee is excellent. I have yet to have a bad coffee here, compared to Vietnam, where it generally ranges from passable to awful, and unfortunately coffee is almost undrinkable in Macedonia and Bulgaria. But here, every cafĂ© has an espresso machine, and everybody drinks macchiatos - though my preference is for an espresso, no sugar necessary.

Finally, Pristina’s population is 90% Muslim. There are numerous mosques, and there’s no escaping the intermittent call to prayer, broadcast from their minarets. But at the same time, religious expression os not something that I’m overly aware of when interacting with the local people. It’s certainly not present from the way people dress, and from conversations I’ve had with people, attitudes range from completely agnostic and indifferent, to “it’s purely a personal thing”. It feels a bit like Australia's relationship with Christianity, to be honest - it's present, but nobody's going to judge you either way for your own beliefs, nor force it upon you. Furthermore, the government has had a no-tolerance policy of citizens who go to fight with ISIS in Syria, with offenders facing up to15 years in prison. If anything, this is a city that feels like it challenges Western notions of Islam being oppressive and culturally restrictive. It also sits in a happy co-existence with the Catholic church here – who proudly claim Mother Teresa as one of theirs.

So, overall impressions? It’s a small city – with a population of 200,000 people, it sits somewhere between the size of Hobart and Geelong. As a young city, it’s still trying to find its own cultural identity, still living in the shadow of its past, and not yet sure how to assert itself into the future. But that said, it definitely has its own liveable charm, with its share of visiting international cultural festivals, al fresco dining and drinking, and a vibrant social life.

And did I mention it has good coffee? It’s the small things that are the most important.