Kosovo and Bulgaria are not far away from each on the map but have yet to make a real connection that goes beyond stereotypes.
"Not that it is dangerous or something, but still, it is a weird place to go, you know... It was enough that I came to Sarajevo to see you. I don't plan to spend my summer vacation in Kosovo."
I am sitting and listening to Kristina explain why she does not want to come and spend some time with me while I am doing my internship in Pristina. She is one of my closest friends but no matter how hard I try, I find no rationality in her arguments. They are irrational but not surprising, however. The Balkan identity of most Bulgarians that I know reaches as deep as going to the Serbian border on a day trip and ordering grilled meat. Not travelling around Kosovo, just like that.
On the other hand, if you take a map and draw an imaginary straight line between Sofia and Pristina it would be no longer than the line between Pristina and Durres or Sofia and Plovdiv. Of course, imaginary lines do not match real roads, let alone political and historical conditions. But one thing I know for sure, Kosovo is too close and too beautiful to be dismissed so easily.
With every day that passes during my stay here, my head gets more and more dizzy from the spirit of the place, the beauty of its mountains and the hospitality of its little towns and its crazy and friendly people. I often think of Kristina, how wrong she is and constantly catch myself looking for real connections between my country and Kosovo. What are the non-imaginary lines that exist after all? I find them in unexpected places.
“Oh, you are friends with Svetla! Of course, I know her too, we went skiing last winter in Bansko with our friend in common from AUBG.”
When people go to a foreign country on their own, they try to find initial contacts there. They check their Facebook profiles and ask for friends of friends of friends who live in the same city. It may be a fake way to meet people but it is a better choice than drinking your beer alone. Pristina looks like a hopeless case. I do not know any Bulgarian who has spent time, let alone lived, here. I have only heard of a judge who came to work in the EU law mission, EULEX, but who probably left a long time ago.
My despair does not last long, however, because I remembered that Svetla could help me. She graduated from the American University of Bulgaria, AUBG, which was giving scholarships to Kosovars and students from Balkan countries after the wars of the 1990s, mainly for reconciliation purposes. Those who went to study in Bulgaria 10 years ago are back to Prishtina, working for the UN or the EU or running their own projects.
The ex-class mates keep track of each other, young smiley people who are the same age, have a good education, most of whom went to study together in the US, too. Svetla is among the few in Bulgaria who is interested in Kosovo and is aware who PM Isa Mustafa is. Her friends here know about places in Bulgaria that nobody would have otherwise have heard of, about current affairs, about cutting trees in the mountains and ski resort moguls. These are the people who take me with them to Baba Ghanoush, a nice vegetarian restaurant in Pristina, on one of my first days in the city. Thank you, Svetla!
"So, if you maybe want us to spend the night together, I can give you my number."
I am the last passenger to leave the bus in Peja and face the fat driver’s face who stands in front of me talking in a business tone. “It is just an idea, if you do not want, fine!” he continues in Serbian. An hour ago, when he found out where I came from, he had become overly excited and started talking in Serbian, skillfully interlaced with some Bulgarian phrases. This is my fourth time in Kosovo and I am already aware that the stereotyped image of a Bulgarian woman in Kosovo is one of a prostitute. I have heard the stories about “bars” in remote areas where apparently only guys go and where the women working there are allegedly Bulgarian. I have heard about many Kosovar men who were going for the same purposes on excursions to Bulgaria during the 1990s, when there were no visa restrictions.
I also know that every time I pass the Macedonian-Kosovo border alone I have troubles, particularly in 2011 when the border guard told me that I had to wait as Bulgarian girls were not being allowed to enter anymore. Full stop. They made me spend 30 minutes trying to figure out what he meant by “They make problems” before I found a long-expired journalistic card in my wallet, which managed to convince him that I was trustworthy.
I had also already talked to the waiter in the Prizren fast-food restaurant who cheerfully explained how much he likes Bulgarian girls. I had also met the guy at the bakery who was politely translating for me and had given me his business card if I needed something.
Still, this is the first time someone absolutely openly assumes that I am a prostitute just because of the country I come from. And it is not just his offer that surprises me, or his looks, but also the fact that I have not made the slightest effort in my appearance that day and it could not be more obvious that I do not aim to attract anyone's sexual attention.
The stereotype must be really powerful if this very guy could make this assumption with me right now, I think to myself, raising my eyebrows and shaking my head sharply as I turn my back and leave.
I leave because I choose to leave. I order a tuna-fish sandwich. I drink a macchiato and as I get on the bus for my next destination I already find the story funny, anticipating the comments my friends from Kosovo and Bulgaria will make when they hear about the dude. I even think it is a sobering way to get out of my privileged Bulgarian comfort zone, where everyone either knows me or knows someone that I know and would never make such assumptions. I feel now how stereotypes and shaming actually function. But I also could not help but wonder - what kind of a choice did the girls who met this man before me have? I think about the ones who built up this stereotype in his head and whether they were able to just leave and order a tuna sandwich. Is it so funny in the end, I think?
"I work with Bulgarian singers. Wait! What was the name of the song? ‘Totalno tvoya - ti vi ou eich’."
“Totalno tvoya” in Bulgarian means “Totally yours” in the female form, which I find ridiculous coming from the mouth of Granit, a serious looking guy traveling next to me on the mini-bus to Gjakova. He is doing a Masters in New York but has a company for shooting videos. He personally knows many Bulgarian turbo-folk singers and is name-dropping at me. The “Totalno tvoya” singer’s name is Alisia and she is particularly big in the Bulgarian tabloid media. Apparently she, among others, had come to Kosovo to shoot some videos with Granit’s company. “It is cheaper but not just that - we are really good,” he says.
On the next day, my efforts to find some information in the Bulgarian media regarding Alisia's work in Pristina are a failure, which is something that PRs would never miss sharing if it came to shooting videos in Dubai.
But it is not just Alisia, I constantly meet people, from those drinking at the bars around Nenë Tereza to the Roma kids in Plemetina who try to be polite when I say where I come from, by talking about Azis, the Bulgarian turbo-folk icon, or by singing me the choruses of kitschy songs. I find it cute but I still hesitate about how to react to this image somehow being projected towards me as well.
So, this is where my one-month research on the actual relations between Kosovo and Bulgaria ends. Prishtina, my lovely city, was an incredible experience and I’ve started missing it long before I have to physically leave.
My research tells me that the commonest reactions all concern turbo-folk music, prostitution or contacts through American universities, particularly the one in Bulgaria. I believe it raises a question about why the few channels for communication between the two countries are mainly taken care of from the outside in the best case or by local pimps in the worst. Why do the Bulgarian media mention Kosovo only in relation to war issues and unsuccessful EU integration? Why do my friends feel uncomfortable coming to a place that I like so much?
Why do people not meet?
I am not advocating big political or business projects here. I am talking about normal communication, knowledge, travelling, building up relations between ordinary people on an everyday basis, between the media, civil society, or if we bravely abandon the cliché - between mountain guides and environmental activists. Why not? Mountain guides and environmental activists, who are neither pimps nor turbo folk singers, surely exist in both countries and beyond any stereotyping share common interests and problems, from corrupt politicians to beautiful nature. Of course they do. Because, seriously, take a look at the map!