It seems likely the 14th anniversary of my arrival in Kosovo from England will be spent in lockdown.
Not only is Kosovo under strict quarantine to manage the coronavirus but when the restrictions were imposed I was stuck in a third country. I got back to London but before I could catch my plane to return to the Balkans, flights had been cancelled.
And so I’ve been spending lockdown in my homeland, the UK. This may be the country I was born in but being here rather than my house in Prishtina during the pandemic has been an additional alienation at a time that’s been alienating for everyone.
In my peripatetic life this is the longest I’ve ever spent at one stretch in this house in a small Cornish village, and I feel a long way from Qyteza Pejton. But at the same time, over these weeks I have discovered some new and profound ways that I feel more Kosovan than ever before.
The paperwork announced that I was a Kosovar the year before last, when I was given citizenship by presidential decree. My Kosovan ID card and passport are two of my most prized possessions, but although Kosovo has been home for over half my adult life, of course this place did not shape me, and I came here with all kinds of experiences and beliefs that have stopped me fitting in.
But sometimes it’s not the big stones that trip you up on your path to feeling like you fit in.
Some of those are definers that I am used to explaining, or navigating. No, I’m not from a Muslim tradition; no, I don’t eat meat; yes, my partner and I have chosen not to have children (no, not even ‘just one’ as the taxi drivers urge me to, like you might offer a box of chocolates to someone on a diet).
But sometimes it’s not the big stones that trip you up on your path to feeling like you fit in. Those are the ones you take care to find a way around; it’s the little rocks you stub your toe on; the gravel that gets inside your sandal and stops you from walking properly — small details of behaviour and habit that I got wrong.
In learning Albanian I was soon able to make myself understood and I have now more or less mastered the challenge to memory and attention of learning new words for familiar objects and the new sounds made by letters I thought I knew — y and q and j all behaving quite differently from when I met them in English; ‘l’s that require you to twist your tongue round as if you’re licking the inside of your upper molars.
But more difficult were the things that don’t translate — in particular the optative form of the verbs, which express blessings and curses: When you sneeze in Albanian it is with an optative that you are wished good health. When someone swears at you they do it in the optative. When you buy a new piece of clothing or jewellery you are wished in an optative by the sales assistant that wearing them may bring you pleasure.
More alarmingly, a friend told me that she wished that I would live to see my lovely new boots rip — a traditional compliment that I was told admires the boots while reminding the wearer that they should still hope to outlast them, however much they love them. How to translate that?
Footwear gave me other problems when I first arrived in Kosovo: I upset people by not taking my shoes off when I entered a home, though I got used to this habit pretty quickly.
I was slower to pick up on the etiquette around bags — when I put mine on the floor new Kosovan friends rushed to pull up a chair or table to perch it on instead. Someone explained it was so that my wealth wouldn’t “drain away into the ground.”
Greetings went on forever. “How are you?”
“Well, thank you!”
“Are you tired?” (I soon learned the required answer to this apparent impertinence.)
“How’s your health?”
I had sort of covered that in my previous response but, “Good, thank you.”
“And your parents?” This from people who hadn’t even met my parents.
“They’re also well. And yours?” I supposed I ought to ask.
“How’s Robert?” Well, he was fine and um, he was standing next to me — I would gesture. Undeterred, they would move on to him as if for corroboration.
“How are you?”
“Are you tired?”
We were consistently and warmly welcomed into people’s homes and repeatedly invited to share long large family meals, with a chance to properly understand how Kosovars prioritise their time with loved ones. At the end of these visits we would stand up and start our goodbyes, thanking our hosts for their hospitality.
The only times when such spontaneity caused trouble in my scheduling was when I had already broken the rule and previously organised something.
Our leavetaking in the sitting rooms or halls was met with bewilderment and no response until we had been shepherded out of the front door and down a path and to the edge of the property. It was here that our hosts’ duty to us as guests ended, and here that they would finally accept our thanks and send us safely on our way — usually with a gift (fruit from the garden, some pie, a pair of socks) and an optative.
I learned that when a friend called and said “I was wondering whether you were free for a coffee” I shouldn’t reach for my diary (as I did the first time, to her hurt confusion) and say, “Yes, sure. I could do next Wednesday, or Thursday 17th.” I should say, “I’ll see you in 5 minutes.”
I learned that the only times when such spontaneity caused trouble in my scheduling was when I had already broken the rule and previously organised something in an unspontaneous way.
One day in Kosovo Rob and I received two invitations to weddings. One was from an American friend sending a “save the date” card for an event six months hence. The other was from a Kosovan friend announcing his marriage in two weeks’ time. That’s the timescale in which you organise major life events here.
Shortly afterwards, I tried to book an overnight bus trip from Prizren to Istanbul. It wasn’t a major life event but it was a journey that would take nearly 24 hours so it was a significant enough trip that I wanted to make arrangements a month ahead of time. When I spoke to the bus company they were wrong-footed by my request.
“Please could you call back no more than a week before you want to travel,” I was told. “We can only make reservations a maximum of seven days in advance.” Of course, I realised, by the time the date of my planned trip came round I could have been invited to a wedding for that day…
I also learned to appreciate just how lucky I was to be able to do things like take a bus from Kosovo to Istanbul. Running through the EU border, in Bulgaria, the freedom to travel here was something not available to most Kosovars waiting for visa liberalisation.
I love my Kosovan passport and travel both proudly and conveniently with my Kosovan ID card on my regular journeys between Kosovo and Albania, but the British passport I’m able to keep next to it in my handbag is currently rather more useful beyond the Balkans. That may change, of course, as Britain joins the world outside the EU, and as Kosovo moves towards Europe… Kismet.
“So was that kismet or mukajet?” he asked pointedly.
This was something else I learned — that even when plans were made they were usually undercut by a Turkish word which had entered into Albanian. Kismet means “fate,” and I was unnerved by how it was invoked at the point of any arrangement having been made.
The driver we employ at The Ideas Partnership NGO I co-founded in Kosovo will obediently write down the time and place where I ask him to meet me and confirm that he will be there, “kismet.”
Eventually I learned that there was another Turkish word I could use to push back on Elvir’s fatalistic response. “Mukajet” means something like “your own efforts.” It’s the conceptual opposite of what you do when you leave something in the “kismet” lap of the gods.
“No, Elvir, it’s not kismet whether you will be there to see me — it’s mukajet,” I objected. “You’re going to make sure that you are.” He kept his counsel.
And inevitably it happened that it was when he was due to pick me up from the airport that my incoming flight was delayed by snow. He waited for me many hours without complaint and when I finally arrived I apologised for him having had to wait.
“So was that kismet or mukajet?” he asked pointedly. We agreed then that snow was fate and there was not a lot anyone could do about it.
A year later, when he told me his wife was pregnant and that there was a chance that he might not be able to collect me if the planned drive was while she was needing him during her labour, we added one more thing that was truly down to kismet. “But everything else, Elvir” this proud Brit asserted, “is mukajet.”
Once again, he kept his counsel.
Only in a time of pandemic do I feel that I have started really thinking like a Kosovar.
I spoke on Messenger with Elvir this month as the coronavirus ravaged our countries. I was unable to fulfil a diary of speaking engagements; unable to visit friends as we’d arranged back in January, unable to make payments from my bank account while my security token was in the wrong country. I explained how my plans were going to have to be revised and Elvir was generous enough to refrain from comment.
It was then that I realised that these weeks of lockdown have taught me more profound lessons about living like a Kosovar than any of the 14 years before. It’s ironic that the month where I’ve had to stay still has been the month where I feel I’ve crossed the most significant border and into a foreign way of thinking.
I had already baked my first baklava and become ndrikulla (like a godmother) to a Kosovan child. Then I voted in my first Kosovan election. But only in a time of pandemic do I feel that I have started really thinking like a Kosovar. Interestingly, so have many of my fellow Britons.
First of all, there are the greetings. This is a time of genuine threats to health.
There are real and well-founded fears that any of us could contract coronavirus. There are enough stories of what can happen swiftly even to fit young people who have the virus that it feels irreverent not to start any greeting, even in an email, with an enquiry into your correspondent’s health.
And the question is serious enough that once doesn’t always feel enough. I want to be reassured. I want to know that not only my friend herself, but also those she loves, are well. “How are your parents?” I find myself asking people, even when I don’t know their family well.
I realise that I am in the hands of something perverse and unknowable to which I may have to surrender.
If we had an optative in English, I would surely be using it now — I would be invoking blessings and hopes for the strength and survival of all my friends outliving their boots. As it is, my new Kosovan sensibilities come out in other ways.
I am suddenly frighteningly aware of the vagaries of fate.
Yes, there’s science with its microscope views that mean I know what a coronavirus looks like — the multi-horned space hopper that bounces around the surfaces of our supermarket trolleys and other public spaces, and our imaginations. But how can I be sure it wasn’t lurking on that envelope I opened before I rubbed my eyes, that there wasn’t a fine mist of it in the still air of the post office?
I realise that in fact I can’t; I realise that I am in the hands of something perverse and unknowable to which I may have to surrender.
Of course, I am exerting all my mukajet efforts to stop that happening. Hand sanitiser and physical distancing yes, but I’m also thinking much more carefully about how I manage the things I bring with me into my home from the outside world.
Shoes? They stay at the door. Bag? I certainly wouldn’t put it on the floor…
And in the light of these threats to the ongoing health of myself and the rest of the world, it is very hard to plan. I have friends who had organised weddings, and even six months notice or more turns out to be no protection against what kismet can do together with coronavirus.
It’s impossible to predict even when we can schedule a coffee — anything that we can’t do now right now is in the lap of the gods.
I’ve spent hours of mukajet looking at data, at epidemiology, at China’s recovery rate plotted against the number of days lockdown in the UK against the number of coronavirus deaths in Kosovo to date to try to predict when I might be back in Prishtina. In May? After Bajram? In June? Kismet.
In the meantime, locked down at home, I am being reminded of that truth that my Kosovan friends have always told me: The fundamental importance of the quality of your relationships with the people you live with; the people you love.
I’m also learning, of course, about how to live and embrace life in a country you can’t get out of: Whatever passport you have, the borders are now closed.
I wish it hadn’t taken a pandemic for me to learn these lessons. I hope — for the sake of friends in Kosovo, the UK and many other countries — that this will pass soon.
But when it does, some things will stay changed forever. One of them is me — the Coronavirus Kosovar.
Feature image: Arrita Katona / K2.0.