For more than a decade, I blogged regularly--I aimed for once a week. But, since the start of the pandemic in March 2020, I have managed a measly total of 8 posts, with absolutely no posts since May 2021. Every once in a while, I think about it, and don't quite manage it. It's been a time of change for sure--I shifted to a new position at the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience in November 2020 and last year, undertook my non-travel personal project of driving every road in the county I live in--something that proved unexpectedly joyous. But I think I should jump back in. I certainly can't promise every week, and for sure, it seems that blogging may be out of style. Is it? Should I be making Tik-Tok videos? Doing a newsletter? But blogging it is--and I'm jumping back in with a travel post.
In August, I joined friend and colleague Annemarie DeWildt for a road trip through the Balkans to Manifesta 14 in Pristina, Kosovo and then on to the ICOM Triennial meeting in Prague. Manifesta is a roving contemporary art exhibition, held, I think, every two years. Believe it or not, I saw an earlier iteration in St. Petersburg, Russia, which seems a lifetime ago. I'll come to Manifesta and ICOM in later posts but will start with the road trip.
Annemarie and I flew separately to Dubrovnik, Croatia, and took a taxi to Trebinje in Bosnia and Herzegovina (first border crossed). We overnighted in Trebinje and met the guy who was renting us his car. Off we went, a bit bumpy at first. Our first stop was an artist residency in, literally, the middle of nowhere, to the artists' residency Kamen run a friend of Annemarie's. The residency on the shores of a man-made lake and when we arrived, much back and forthing to set up a screen directly on the shores of the lake to show a film by ,Vita Soul Wilmering. In some ways, this lovely and moving film set the tone for the rest of the trip. Vita uses Dutch tourist films of the former Yugoslavia overlaid with narration by a local man, observing what he says--they are not from here, he says, they are from here, he says about another shot. Who's from here, who's not from here, who belongs and who doesn't were thoughts that continued to resonate as we crossed more borders (Bosnia/Montenegro; Montenegro/Albania; and Albania/Kosovo) in a single day's drive. We drove along, up and down mountains, alongside lakes and broad fields, passing roadside watermelons for sale, over and over (and even spotted a watermelon on the walls of a mosque).
We made a stop for lunch in Prizren, Kosovo, which was full, full full of tourists. But we came upon a quiet corner with a mosque--and a shaded courtyard of kids, including girls, playing soccer and dashing in and out of the mosque, respectfully putting their shoes on and off each time. It made a tourist-filled city seemed like a real place, the place that people lived and cared about. At another stop at a church, we couldn't enter, but the guards, once they learned Annemarie was Dutch, wanted to chat about Dutch footballers from earlier eras.
It wouldn't be a road trip without a little car trouble, and we put-putted into Pristina under much-diminished power. Luckily, our Airbnb host recommended the Volkswagon/Mercedes dealer for repairs to our VW Gulf. In the morning we arrived at the dealer's and explained the issue, with the help of another customer, who, as it happened, had gone to school in Tulsa, Oklahoma. After a bit, they come out with the news. The car was twenty (!) years old and this shiny new dealership didn't carry parts that old, but they made a temporary fix.
Manifesta in the next post, but some observations about travel these days. We found Pristina to have the nicest people of almost anywhere I've been. Someone asked me not long ago how I managed in countries where I didn't speak the language (which, to be honest, is pretty much everywhere). I still remember, pre-smartphones, all the maps that people had to draw me my first year in Kyiv, to do the simplest things! Pristina had, it seemed, a large number of English speakers, and that, combined with their friendliness, made it really easy. Annemarie and I were sitting outdoors at dinner one night, trying to figure out why to order from an Albanian-language menu. The woman at the next table leans over, and says, "can we help you?" She and her husband explain all the dishes, explain which ones are mostly local, pulls up pictures on her phone so we can see what they look like, and as well, tells us that her mother, sitting with them, makes some of the dishes the best. It's lovely to be back traveling again, and this trip reinforced for me that it's not the big destinations or sights that make it worthwhile, it's the kids in the mosque courtyard or the friendly family next to us at dinner.
This is an immensely complex part of the world, with the former Yugoslavia now divided into seven countries. For centuries differences have been exploited, often by those outside the region, and wars are within living memory of most people. But at a time when the world seems ever more fractious and despite the many borders we crossed, this trip was a hopeful reminder that there might just be more things that bring us together than we think. (And oh yes, we made the round trip safely back to Trebinje).