That day, Lisa* somehow cheating finished her morning shift at work. On her way, she met a friend by chance with whom she hadn’t talked in a while — their last conversation had not been pleasant at all. But that day, she stopped to exchange a few words, which ended with him inviting her to lunch.
Some thoughts pushed her to accept the invitation: she believed enough time had passed that old disagreements would not flare; she wanted to spend time with him; she wanted to be out of the office, but perhaps the deciding reason was that it was her lunch break and she needed to eat.
They went to a lounge bar near her workplace, and they sat on the broad terrace where the tables were sat apart. She was surprised when she saw many people even though for that place, at that time, it was not unusual. She started feeling a sort of unease that would be confirmed a few hours later on that day, March 13, 2020.
For several days now, rumors had been circulating about the risk of spreading the COVID-19 virus. China had already been hit by the pandemic, while news came from Italy about the scary consequences of getting infected with the virus.
Lisa thought that with the frequent circulation of people between Italy and Albania and between Albania and Kosovo, the virus had likely arrived in Kosovo. In the middle of these calculations, she did not want to stay at the bar anymore, but the waiter was standing over them so she ordered food to get rid of him. Her friend Kela* ordered as well, but since they did not want to eat there, they took the food and left when it arrived.
On a park bench nearby, they ate half of their meals while talking about the virus’s potential consequences. After, they decided to get back to their jobs, her at the office and him at a nearby coffee place where he was working that day.
When she returned to the office, she saw that her colleagues had started talking about the pandemic with panic. Taking advantage of the mess, she decided to leave the office and meet with Kela again but told him that she would not stay inside the coffee shop. So, they bought beers at a small shop and started drinking in the yard of one of the faculties at the University of Prishtina, while having a relaxed conversation for a couple of hours.
That afternoon, the government cabinet held an emergency meeting. A little after 17:00, the then Prime Minister announced at a press conference that two people had tested positive for COVID-19, which marked the first cases in Kosovo. He also announced that in a later meeting the government would decide on further measures against the spread of the virus.
Since she was checking her phone more often, Lisa saw the news first. Amongst many unknowns, Lisa and Kela decided to return to their apartments at Bregu i Diellit neighborhood and continue their conversation online.
On Friday, March 13, the government started to take a series of measures to respond against the spread of the virus. Most businesses were closed, and a few days later, the country went into isolation; citizens were allowed to go out of their homes only for a short period during the day.
During the first month of preventive measures, movement was allowed for four hours during the day. But as the number of people infected with COVID-19 increased, regulations were tightened: activity was permitted for 90 minutes during the day. Moreover, many municipalities went into full quarantine, entrances and exits were controlled by the police, and circulation was not allowed.
All these changes brought a strange way of life. Many people would not see each other for months, and extended stays at home created physical distancing. Still, in many cases — especially amongst youth — online communication increased through social media. Even “dates” started to be held online.
More or less of this happened to Theranda, who spent more than half of March alone with her cat. Her outings from the apartment at Tophane neighborhood in Prishtina were rare. She had no visitors and no contact with people apart from when she bought food or received deliveries at the building door.
She had started to respect the protective measures before they even officially started. But by the end of March, after she posted a picture of her cat on Instagram, a comment would start a conversation that would get her out of her apartment. Lorik*, who she only knew through official exchanges through emails, complemented her cat, and so they started a conversation, which they continued through the entire following day.
“Later, he told me that the cat was only his way to start a chat,” says Therana, smiling and admits that she knew that was the case since the beginning.
In a few minutes, she arrived at Lorik’s apartment, where he lived alone.
The conversation continued the following evening as well when they started talking about meeting up. Theranda was in doubt — not because she did not want to, but for two weeks she had been feeling COVID-19 symptoms. She told Lorik about her doubts, but she also assured him that she wanted to see him.
“No, you don’t have it,” was his answer. “Come, come.”
Sometime after 22:00, Theranda convinced herself to go. Their apartments were on two opposite ends of Prishtina, and she had to find a way to get there during the lockdown, with all the taxi companies closed.
Finally, she managed to convince a taxi driver she knew who worked illegally to take her to the Hospital neighborhood and took her movement pass, which she got from her workplace if the police stopped them. In a few minutes, she arrived at Lorik’s apartment, where he lived alone.
“After the first meeting, he did not see his family for a few days, even though he told me he believed I didn’t have Covid,” says Theranda. “So he made a sacrifice for sex.”
From that night on, they learned that if they had sex with other people, they would definitely tell each other, as they were thinking of continuing the meetings for a few more months. “There have even been times when I started hosting him for two nights,” Theranda says, smiling.
While Theranda and Lorik continued to meet at each other’s apartments, Lisa and Kela’s only chance to see each-other was through video calls.
From March 15, Kela had returned to Ferizaj to live with his parents, while Lisa lived in Prishtina. At that point, both cities had their entrances and exits controlled by the police, but, more than this, neither wanted to risk infection. There were already the first COVID victims in the country, and the number of infections was increasing. Since both of them lived with their parents, they chose to protect them.
In these conditions, they started talking on the phone. “It happened [we talked] even 12 hours during one day”, Lisa remembers.
She knew he liked her. They had known each other for some time now, and at the beginning of the year their flirtations had become “obvious”, and for a few weeks they had even had a few romantic dates. But it all stopped in mid-February when he started insisting on seeing each other more often and inviting Lisa to spend the night at his place. The last conversation ended with shouting. “He became too much” she says, and since that point, they had not spoken until that day in March when they accidentally ran into each other.
At the beginning of quarantine, their phone conversations were dominated by political developments in Kosovo. “He had become a little bit of a militant, but then he became softer”, she says about the period up until the fall of the then government. But they continued to follow politics since it was imposed by their profession as journalists.
“One, Two, Three — start” and the movie started.
In the following weeks, they slowly started mentioning politics less and less during their conversations. Each time more discussions about movies and music took the principal place in their regular phone calls. They even realized they had “a very similar” taste for film, but “for music, he is more old-school”, she reveals.
They started watching movies together despite the distance, synchronizing to play the same film at the same time. “One, Two, Three — start” and the movie started, but according to Lisa, they rarely played it precisely at the same time, “because of the internet, or because he clicked too quick”.
They watched a movie almost every day. “Gadjo dilo” is the movie that Lisa pushed Kela to watch sometime in the beginning of April. Kela was surprised when he realized that she had not watched the Matrix, so they watched it together that same week. After a while, they started drinking while talking on the phone, and during the following months, this became a common habit.
“One glass of wine for me, one for him, and conversation. We even started having virtual sex, like in the “Her” movie, she says.
From the Virtual to Reality
With or without quarantine, it was impossible for Anita* and Benjamin* to meet. He lives in Sarajevo while she lives in Prishtina, and Bosnia and Kosovo continue to maintain strict visa regimes against each other.
They knew each other from before, and one day she wanted to ask him for a translation service but did not want to seem like “she was using him” so she first started a conversation, and at the end, she asked for the favor. Not only did she get the translated piece, but she also gained a good impression from the conversation.
Communication between them started a month after the beginning of isolation. After a while, Anita was writing to him just for fun, and she was receiving responses and conversations she enjoyed. Conversations between them became even more open; they even discussed the relationships they had just ended. “[The breakups] were a little similar, not so well [ended]“, says Anita.
“At the end of April, I know I told a friend: ‘I don’t know but I would marry him in two weeks’”, smiling as she continues to remember her impressions from those days.
During April and May, they talked to each other about almost all of their friends: “He knows almost every friend that I have; he even has his favorites”, says Anita. At some point, they even started talking about their families as well, beginning to know them as if they had met them. However, during this period, Anita was facing difficulties “to talk freely”, as she lived with her parents.
After a few weeks and many conversations, they wanted to meet as soon as the pandemic situation got a little bit clearer and the borders opened.
Lisa and Kela wanted to meet as well.
Theranda didn’t face such problems meeting during quarantine as she was often staying at Lorik’s apartment. Occasionally she went there without telling him beforehand. On other days she worked from his apartment until late and then would decide to sleep there. But there were also cases when she traveled during the night. One night the police had actually stopped her, but because of the permit from her workplace, they did not cause her any problems.
Lisa and Kela wanted to meet as well. Since circulation and arrests of citizens took place from time to time in the country’s municipalities, she proposed to the editors at work that she go to Ferizaj and Gjakova to see “how much the circulation ban was being respected”. First, she would go to Ferizaj — she knew this while she was drafting the plan.
With the car and circulation permit, she headed there, where Kela waited for her. She knew that her article would fail since they planned to go to the park on top of Ferizaj and drink beers. They even knew what they would tell the police if they would run into them: “We are journalists and we are looking if the parks are being frequented during the pandemic”.
Earlier that day, Lisa’s closest proximity to Kela was in the car, as they had agreed to “keep their distance”. “We sprayed the beers, wearing gloves we stayed a few meters away from each-other”.
She remembers that his lighter broke at some point and for a few hours nobody passed nearby. After a few beers, they started to get closer, but also moved around the park to look for a lighter, which a family that was walking nearby provided them with. “At some point, we even kissed”, but before that “we barely removed our gloves, they were stuck”.
They hung out at the park until around 21:00 when Lisa had to return to Prishtina, and the next day told her colleagues that the article had failed since people would not stop to talk to her.
They went to Gjakova together around the middle of May, on a Saturday, since they both had circulation permits. “I saw some pictures of Kusari Cave, it looked very nice, and we went. There was nothing there but some stairs”, Lisa remembers the visit, but she says that despite the weak impressions of the cave, they used the corners and the forest for sex.
During May, Kela went to visit Lisa in Prishtina as well, where they held their meetings at the yard of one of the faculties of the public university.
Around the end of May, government measures against coronavirus had already started to ease. Citizens were allowed to move freely until 21:00; parks, coffee shops, bars, and pubs were opened, and entering bans were lifted for the municipalities which were in quarantine. During the first days of June, when a new government was voted into power, the measures were eased further.
Kela started working in June and started seeing Lisa more often. They replaced virtual meetings and long phone conversations with frequent outings at coffee shops. Often they stayed out even after the time movement was restricted — together with friends, they frequented park corners, often until morning hours. But more frequent were their meetings at motels, or Airbnbs, which they constantly visited during the summer.
But after a while, things changed. Lisa explains how returning to some extent of normality during the summer pushed them apart; there were even weeks when they didn’t talk. “As if the time when we all lived the same passed. Now we had choices — this brought out the differences”.
They met from time to time since they had common friends, but at the beginning of winter, they decided to remain just friends.
At the same time, Theranda and Lorik were planning to go on vacations together. Around the end of July, they left for Albania, where they spent a week together. They continued to see each other during the following two or three months, but less often and with less interest in each other. Even the apartment visits became rarer.
“In July we started to become aware of what was happening — [we had] very different interests, very different [from each other]”, says Theranda.
Unlike them, Anita and Benjamin still had not met and decided that they would meet in Belgrade in the middle of August. She invited two friends with her, who stayed the first day and then returned to leave the two alone.
“We spent five days together”, she says, “and when I came back I couldn’t sleep alone”.
But they continued their online conversations almost like during quarantine.
As dor Theranda, Kosovo’s opening meant more opportunities to find work. She started to focus more and more on her professional life, as well as on the different views she had with Lorik that eventually alienated her from him. “In November we decided not to meet anymore”, she remembers.
Lisa and Kela had already started going out with other people. They met from time to time since they had common friends, but they decided to remain as just friends at the beginning of winter. They even started talking about the people they were seeing, but occasionally there were also “unpleasant” conversations, which pushed them even further from each other.
At the beginning of this year, they started to exchange text messages again, which would push them to another date. “On the day of the elections we hung together at his apartment”, she says, but now she doesn’t believe that she can continue seeing Kela as more than a friend.
It looks different for Anita. At the beginning of the year, she and Benjamin cleared up some disagreements that they had and started making plans to meet again. The visa problem remained, so they met in Tirana, where they stayed for a few days. “After a month we plan to meet again somewhere in Albania, Montenegro, or Belgrade”, she says hopefully.K
*The names are pseudonyms to protect the identity of the people, who have talked on the condition of anonymity.
Illustrations: Arrita Katona / K2.0.