The summer of 2017 was a defining time in my life. I had just finished my first year at RIT University, at their main campus in New York. Now I was planning to hop over to the other side of the world to spend the summer in a country I barely knew anything about.
Rainy summer days in Prishtina welcomed a shaggy blonde haired 19-year-old boy that year. Armed with raging teenage hormones and a youthful innocence, I hopped off the plane at Adem Jashari International Airport to work an internship at the Gazeta Express newspaper for three months.
I enjoyed the beauty behind the madness that is Kosovo in every second of it.
Those three months turned into three years, and that 19-year-old boy I once was is far from who I am now. I never really had an identity, or a place and people to call my own. Growing up in three different cultures raised by a Danish father and Colombian mother, while spending most of my life in Washington D.C., made it difficult for me to figure out who I was.
Nonetheless, there were some advantages as it allowed me to adapt quickly to new surroundings. Culture shock wouldn’t be an issue for me as I quickly acclimatized to life in Kosovo.
Over time Kosovo became my home, I found my people, found myself, and most of all I found out what I wanted to do in life: To be a journalist. I graduated from RIT Kosovo, worked for many media outlets in the country and learned Albanian.
Eventually I felt like I was a local myself, I wasn’t Danish, Colombian or American. My friends would call me “Kupi,” short for the Albanian version of my name “Jakup” or “Portokall,” which means “orange” in Albanian. I lived in the heart of one of Prishtina’s oldest neighborhoods, Dardania, with friends from Peja, and dated a few Albanian women as well.
Sometimes, when people asked me “Prej kahit je?” (where are you from?) I’d half-jokingly respond “Jom gjysmë-danez, gjysmë-kolumbian, ama në zemër jom shqiptar” (I am half-Danish, half-Colombian, but in my heart I’m Albanian). I wouldn’t even have to call my friends to see if they were out, I’d just drop by Kafet e rakisë and see who’s there, downing Peja beer by the minute. Even the ladies down at the bakeries nicknamed me the “i huaji” (the foreigner) when I would come in every morning craving fresh burek and flija before I ran off to school or work. I was in a sense, a “Prishtinali” to everyone that knew me.
During those times, I’d even miss Kosovo with all my heart when I was visiting my other “homes,” the United States, Colombia or Denmark. Because in my mind, the streets of Mother Teresa Boulevard and the forest paths of Gërmia Park were calling me, I enjoyed the beauty behind the madness that is Kosovo.
My mother would continually ask me, “do you really want to spend the rest of your life there?” Most foreigners come to Kosovo because their work takes them there, but I came because I wanted to, and I stayed because I wanted to, perhaps I’d make my life there if I wanted to as well.
I felt like an outsider, I’d spent so much time abroad that I didn’t see myself as someone from Denmark.
So when graduation day from RIT Kosovo came around in May 2020 — amid the havoc wreaking the world because of COVID-19 — a decision had to be made whether or not I wanted to stay or leave the place that had my heart.
Hell, I even wrote a goodbye letter in Albanian in a writing contest hosted by the Prishtina Municipality that tore the emotions out of me and onto the page. I couldn’t stay in Kosovo to pursue my master’s, I had to go to Denmark where I could find a better education for myself since Prishtina’s universities didn’t have much to offer.
There was a moment over the summer during a road trip, where I was at a party in Vlorë on the Albanian coast and traditional Albanian folk songs began playing loudly from the speaker. Unsurprisingly, everyone formed a circle and began doing the “Vallja e Gajdes,” a common dance performed at weddings. For some reason, it was within my instinct to grab the handkerchief and begin performing my part at the end of the line, step by step. Everyone was surprised at that, even me.
In August 2020, after a bittersweet goodbye to my friends — who I considered to be family by that time — I arrived in Denmark, reaccustoming myself to the Danish way of life, where everyone kept to themselves and everything had to be perfect in a collectivist society. I felt like an outsider, I’d spent so much time abroad that I didn’t see myself as someone from Denmark.
I craved a doner kebab from Tatlises, I’d call my friends so I could practice my Albanian, I was in search of an illegal taxi that would take me to university when I missed the bus, but most of all I missed a society where people were more set about sharing happiness and their home with others.
Reverse culture shock
I didn’t go through culture shock when I first came to Kosovo, which was mostly because of how welcoming Albanian culture truly was, and my own upbringing. Instead, I experienced reverse culture shock when I left.
Dean Foster, founder and president of DFA Intercultural Global Solutions describes the term quite well in an interview with Expatica.com: “Reverse culture shock is experienced when returning to a place that one expects to be home but actually is no longer. It is far more subtle, and therefore, more difficult to manage.”
Hoping I wasn’t the only one that went through this in life after Kosovo, I talked to a few of my friends who also returned to their home country after spending years there as well. They all shared the same thoughts I had, we all felt like the place we once called home before Kosovo had changed when we returned.
The ages of 18-22 are the most important years of someone’s life, the transition from childhood to adulthood, and I will never have a single moment of regret for spending those years in Prishtina.
However, that wasn’t the case. It wasn’t the place that changed, but us who were changed.
One day I will return
Honestly, if it weren’t for the travel restrictions imposed by the pandemic, I would have visited Prishtina at least once a month. I became depressed when I first began living in Aalborg, Denmark. I missed my friends, hanging out at a cafe and figuring out what we’d do that night, ramble over to Miqt Pub, Soma, or M Club and grab a burger at Fati on the way home.
In Denmark I didn’t know anyone, only a few family members but that was it. At one point I even asked around if my friends had any family in Denmark I could practice my Albanian with. I felt like a “shaci,” the term for Albanians who lived abroad and would return to Kosovo during the summers.
Jokingly, my friends back in Kosovo began calling me that when I told them my plans to spend every summer back in Kosovo, the same thing most of their families in Switzerland, Germany or Austria would do every year. Perhaps they wouldn’t be surprised then if I came back next summer with a Shqiponja (eagle) tattoo on my back!
The ages of 18 to 22 are the most important years of someone’s life, the transition from childhood to adulthood, and I will never have a single moment of regret for spending those years in Prishtina. Though my present life is now in Denmark, undergoing reverse culture shock forced me to understand how much of a home Kosovo truly was for me, making me realize for certain, I will be back someday.
That’s exactly why when I left, I told myself and everyone I knew: “Ta jap besën se do të kthehem një ditë, Prishtinë. You have my promise I will return one day, Prishtina.
Feature image: Arrita Katona / K2.0.