Written by Elizabeth Gowing
(A Runner-up entry in the Travel for Seniors Writing Competition.)
‘Mashalla, mashalla’, smiled the taxi driver when he heard Doug’s age. He touched the bridge of his nose in the gesture of protection which accompanies the Islamic phrase said to ward off the evil eye.
Doug was 95 and had come to Prishtina to visit me. He had had some concerns about travelling here but had never imagined that mashalla would be the protection he’d be offered. He’d been inspired to come by hearing about Kosovan hospitality, about the breads and pies that are served as great golden circles in wide trays, and about the stunning landscapes of Kosovo’s Accursed Mountains. But what neither of us had known was how my wonderful experiences of travel in Kosovo would be enhanced by touring with a senior citizen.
‘Mashalla, mashalla,’ said the waiter in one of the capital’s funky cafes. ‘This makiato,’ he proffered a fragrant coffee, ‘is on the house. Thank you for coming to visit our country.’
Everywhere we went, Doug was treated like a VIP. Kosovan codes of hospitality are generous anyway – the saying is that ‘your house belongs to God and the guest’, and we were truly made to feel something near gods as well as guests. Whether at friends’ houses or just at restaurants, as a guest who had brought a guest – and particularly one who was to be particularly respected for his age – I was seen as doing double the honour to the people and places we visited.
Now in my forties I had got used to being addressed respectfully as ‘auntie’ by strangers here. And I had known in principle that Kosovo showed care for older people that was unknown in Britain. This is in spite – or perhaps because – of the fact that Kosovo has the youngest population in Europe. All the good-looking young people giving a buzz beyond caffeine to the café where Doug and I had sat; these were Kosovo’s greatest natural resource, in a country with more than fifty per cent of its people aged under 25.
When we went together to the charming Ethnological Museum – a complex of eighteenth and nineteenth century houses set in pretty gardens in the old town – the guides offered Doug a personal tour. With pride they showed him the Oda Meeting Room where the elders of Kosovan villages would meet to debate and agree on common law issues. It’s in these meeting rooms, often housed in rugged stone buildings, that property rites or divorce or compensation after road accidents are agreed, by men wearing distinctive domed white felt plis hats and seated on bright woven cushions with eagle motifs.
Doug put on a plis and I could tell he was about to pronounce… What he talked about was the peacefulness of Prishtina in contrast to what visitors expect of Kosovo, having heard only of its war and refugees.
The next day we drove a few miles out of Prishtina to see a Unesco World Heritage Site monastery in the heart of the Serbian Orthodox community of Gracanica. This is also the location of Prishtina’s finest boutique hotel – an inspiring business under Swiss ownership, Roma management and mixed Serbian and Albanian staff. They have a Sunday brunch famed for its cakes and jewel-coloured jams, its exhibitions by local artists and guitar players serenading guests around the ultra-modern swimming pool.
When we arrived at the fourteenth century church we were disappointed to discover a wedding taking place. I had wanted to show Doug the stunning frescoes of mournful saints and apostles with great cheekbones who look down at you in candlelit darkness. I had wanted to take him through the stage-managed shafts of dark and light so carefully constructed by its architects centuries ago that you can’t resist looking up, and when you do, you can’t avoid the dramatically painted face of God staring down at you.
‘But come in, come in,’ said the monk at the door, seeing our disappointment. Unsure, we inched inside, feeling English, and from the back of the church we watched the ceremony as a bride and groom had their hands tied together and untied, and then prepared to process out of the church. On the way out an uncle of the family saw us.
‘Where you from?’ he boomed. ‘Come and join us for celebrations.’
And so Doug’s journey through Kosovo continued, under the constant and enthusiastic protection of a group of multi-ethnic hosts all eager to make a memorable success of travel for seniors in their new country.
POSTED 9th NOVEMBER 2017 by STEVE HANSON on behalf of ELIZABETH GOWING. The photographs were supplied by the author after the competition had been judged. The third photograph was taken by Valon Shkodra.
Elizabeth has been based in Kosovo since 2006. She is the co-founder of Kosovan charity, The Ideas Partnership, and author of four books about the region. She is grateful that Doug, her grandfather, is one of many friends and family who’ve come to visit her in her new home.