So “Dogana” means “customs” in Kosovar Albanian, and “customs” means “four loosely related offices between which you are sent in patterns of increasing complexity and cost” – but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Mere delineations of procedure don’t really tell the whole story. Here’s what happened. Here’s how a couple of naïve, online retail-enjoying North Americans were again reminded that they are very, very far from home.

It began with a purse. A bright yellow purse on a cutely named American shopping site for girls. It was a grey humid afternoon, all of our neighborhood restaurants sucked (and continue to suck – more on this to come), and our heroine was in need of a little cheering up. “Just buy it,” I said, thinking, you know, dash-of-retail-therapy/sunshine-on-a-cloudy-day/don’t-really-want-to-back-and-forth-over-this-for-very-long type thoughts. I thought it would be a fun thing.

You have to give the Americans credit: they are very good at what they do. Qualms about capitalism aside, Texas-sized PVC islands in the Pacific ignored, they are really good at selling you things — and in the land of surly, post-Communist clerks (is storage! Is no store! You leave now!), you sort of stop taking that for granted.

Within a few days of the purse order, we received this bright orange envelope informing us of what great people we were, what astute shoppers we had proved to be, and how much we had to look forward to – both in the specific sense of the soon-to-arrive purse, and in the implied sense of life in general. This is what U.S. retail types call the “Total Shopping Experience;” it’s a collection of little communiqués and corporate gestures that combine in such a way as to make you feel like part of a select human grouping, a fun, good-purse-having little family that never forgets the niceties. In Toronto or Los Angeles, this stuff works. We would have smiled at the cute little card, leaving it to animate our hallway shelf for a day or two before the actual parcel arrived at our door. It would have been a nice touch, a thoughtful policy, a shrewd bit of marketing. In Kosovo, though, it just became sort of sad.

The note came shortly after the bright orange envelope, but it was not from the cutely named American shopping site for girls, and it did not communicate any aspect of the “Total Shopping Experience.” Instead, it was official-looking, and told us to go to the fucking airport because maybe our goddamned purse was there. Maybe. And so we went. To the fucking airport. With our fun little orange envelope crushed morosely in a stack of papers, protesting in a strained Midwestern accent that this wasn’t supposed to happen; that it really didn’t know what was going on here at all.

Here is how customs in Pristina works when you want to pick up a thing at the airport: First you go to a little room with a bench and a framed portrait of national hero/accused terrorist Adem Jashari. There are two men there, and they are having a good time laughing at something on their computer screen that you can’t see. When you interrupt them, citing the purse that by now doesn’t seem like such a good idea, and isn’t really any fun anymore at all, they wait 15 minutes before sort of tersely pushing some papers at you.  Receipt of these papers requires you to go to another little room with another bench and the same aforementioned portrait. In this room, you give them money – and the amount of money they demand is not the exact same amount that is printed on your form… but it’s close. It’s pretty close. You light a cigarette and you wait for them to print the form that says that you have given them money. You think about other purses, other cities, other lives. You inhale.

The next guy is kind of the joker of the pack, and he lives in a third little room with a third iteration of the typical bench/Adem Jashari aesthetic combo. He’s really nice; seems kind of understanding, even sort of does a little proto eye-roll at the complexity of all this. Unfortunately, his task is to send you back to the money room, as there are further (and seemingly invented-on-the-spot) taxes to be paid.

What can you say? Sales tax? Sure. Handling charge? Seems reasonable. “Stipend of the Barometic Pressure?” Probably just a bad translation. “Propeller Fee?” Sure. Fine. We’ll just stand here like this. Let us know when it’s over.

I think the term “Kafkaesque” is somewhat overused. This situation wasn’t Kafkaesque. Were it Kafkaesque, the story would end with us being packed into the purse’s tiny box and shipped back to America via cargo plane, while the fun yellow purse was placed in a cab and sent to our apartment in Pristina. It doesn’t end like that. We got the purse, exited onto the highway, and vowed to never do something like that again.

It is no accident, though, that Franz Kafka was not from (say) California. Gregor Samsa did not peer from his beetle-y room over the palm trees of Santa Monica. This sort of blind proceduralism, of obdurate officiousness, of Less-Than-Total-Shopping-Experience has Eastern Europe as its home, and the Balkans as its capital.

The next purse will probably be purchased locally, rhinestone double-headed eagle or not.

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