Premature Exasperation

Posted on September 30, 2012

“That’s the trouble with everybody – you’re all so bored. You’ve had nature explained to you and you’re bored with it, you’ve had the living body explained to you and you’re bored with it, you’ve had the universe explained to you and you’re bored with it, so now you want cheap thrills and, like, plenty of them, and it doesn’t matter how tawdry or vacuous they are as long as it’s new as long as it’s new as long as it flashes and fuckin’ bleeps in forty fuckin’ different colors. So whatever else you can say about me, I’m not fuckin’ bored.” – Naked (1993)

 

I feel like I sort of fucked up a little. I was off by a day or two. I mis-calibrated. Here’s the thing: You know that expression “first world problems?” That irritating little consciousness-raiser of a trope that employs Egyptian prisons, Bolivian cocaine peasants and fly-covered Ugandan babies as parts of its grandly dismissive effort to convince you that your hangnail doesn’t hurt? Well, it has its uses. I hate to admit it, but it does. Check me out: I went on a giant European vacation and I got sick of it. I travelled to the ornate and ancient capitals of my own ancestral Continent,

Pictured: Where white people come from.

wandered in a state of utter leisure among the monuments and archives of epoch-defining civilizations, and decided to go back to the hotel for a nap. I rested on pillows not two miles from Ireland’s National Museum and watched reruns of Geordie Shore.

Bosh.

It’s a little embarrassing. It’s so embarrassing, actually, that I can’t even just let it lie there like that – I feel compelled to add that I am not (read: am often) that type of person, that I toured the Palais des Nations, that I viewed the Trinity College Library, that I ate raclette and took the tram and unfolded the map and stood on the goddamned corner and pointed… but I just couldn’t quite make it to the finish line. It was too much. Too much leisure, too much walking and looking, too much rich food and dark beer and too many desirable things in general.

What Dublin giveth, Dublin taketh away…

It’s a dark truth about us humans, but we’re built to suffer. We flourish in situations of violence and labor, and grow fat, scabby, and diffident in times of protracted wealth. As nations grow more peaceful, more sophisticated, more humanistically-inclined, their birth rates plummet and their suicide rates skyrocket. So there I was, you know, Exhibit A, standing in the cake shop on Dame Street, bitching about my stupid feet and deciding not to go to Dublin castle.

“This sucks. Let’s get out of here.”

I know this entry isn’t really about Pristina, or about Balkan life, but it’s not entirely unrelated. When we moved to this part of the world, one of the main things on the non-“still a lot of land mines around” side of the scale was its relative proximity to the capitals of Western Europe; we came here, in part, so that we could do a lot traveling – and we are doing a lot of traveling. And in the course of doing so, I am learning about what traveling, as a human activity, actually is.

Reflective, no?

The pleasures of traveling are pleasurable only insofar as they differ from the trials of everyday life. As a Westerner in Pristina, my particular trials include things like “ramstek,” comically inadequate produce, and the aforementioned land mines (Germia Park holla!). Yours are likely different, and probably have less to do with rotten tomatoes and bees, but the mechanism remains the same: Travel, and the activities of travelers (sightseeing, shopping, wandering, waiting), are thrilling and energizing for as long as you are able to compare them to the more mundane activities of your day-to-day life. When you begin to forget, and these activities start to become a day-to-day life of their own, the sights blend together, the streets grow long and tedious, and the shops seem crazed and frivolous.

“Sixty-nine francs. Get it? Plus tax. Plus duty. Fuck you.”

It was a great trip, not least because I learned this thing, but also for the things that I saw before succumbing to angst and decadence. As for the actual places, well, I have said already that the proudly pragmatic tradition of travel writing is not a strength of mine… but I can claim to have received certain impressions. There was Geneva, closed and beautiful, a Rapunzel city; locks and windows and intrigues. Then came Basel, the kindly old Doktor of the Rhine, dreaming among the instruments of his study… and finally there was Dublin.

Dublin is difficult. Though initially welcomed, after one too many Continental eccentricities, as a mere repository of upper-middlish Anglosphere delights (farm to table!), after a few days I came to recognize a strange little quiver that told me something else was up.

I never got it before. Not in any pastichey “Irish pub,” not in Boston or Montreal, not studying Joyce or Yeats in university. I never really, viscerally, got it – but now I begin to see. Ireland is a very particular realm of the collective human mind. Haunted; feverish; martyred; ill-adapted. Ireland left me not with a pastoral, homey feeling, but with one of wounded ferocity; of self-consumption. Strange people, the Celts. Voices in that air.

If this is all sounding a little occult, here is a picture of the time we went to Starbucks:

Exotic.

It is kind of an insane project, this “doing” of ancient cities in three to seven days, this dutiful trudging, this stubborn demand to be awed. Though I navigated the old towns, though I queued for the monuments, and though I photographed the symbolic-at-the time curiosities,

It seemed like we were on this street forever.

I can’t say that the impressions of “placehood” noted above were definitively linked to any of these landmark experiences. Similarly, though I ate at the airport restaurants, though I waited under familiar billboards, though I took guilty comfort in the bland trans-national competence of Starbucks, I can’t say for sure that any sense of distinctiveness or essence was altogether absent, even in these places.

What I can say is that I got tired. I got worn out. I walked and looked and ate and drank and consumed things both material and discarnate, and I flew back to Pristina in ruins. I suspect that tourism is actually sort of bad for a person, that we are not meant to simply wander around just looking at the world, but are instead meant to live in it. To struggle, to want, and to make our way. I suspect that travel is actually a mild vice.

Fine. Good. I can do vice.

Paris is booked for November.

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The Dog Days Of Dogana

Posted on September 7, 2012

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.

On The Road: Montenegro

Posted on September 2, 2012

I was worried that the car might break down. OK, no, back up: I was worried, having pushed our rented, lime-green subcompact up a half-paved, near-vertical goat path in the middle of the wilderness that something would go terribly quiet; that we would lose all forward momentum; that I would pull over, pop the hood, and find a fly-encrusted grapefruit in place of an engine. I was worried that my girlfriend would realize I was lost.

In the Balkans, I have come to realize, there are no shortcuts. Isn’t that nice and aphoristic? There are no direct routes. If you wish to go to Montenegro, say, or to Macedonia, or to modernity, you have to just accept that the circuitous, meandering path is probably the best, and that routes that may appear temptingly concise on paper are probably either dreadfully steep, impossibly debris-strewn, or infested with giant bees – which brings me back to Montenegro.

As charming (read: hot, landlocked, and culinarily inept) as Pristina in August can be, sometimes you have to take a little break. According to the local fashion, we chose to do so on the Montenegrin coast, basing ourselves in the late-Venetian town of Perast on the Bay of Kotor.

Excepting the work of people like Paul Theroux, or the asides of gifted novelists who happen to be elsewhere for a second, I have never really liked travel writing very much. It’s a form which allows too much of writing’s innate vanity to shine through; it tends toward triviality, toward bloat, toward a very middle-class, Whole Foods, aren’t-I-interesting form of self-regard.

By this, of course, I mean that I find it difficult. What happened when I went to Montenegro? When speaking about this ancient country, what in the world do I have to add?

Five revealing facts from memory:

* Residents of the nightclub-heavy town of Budva call their city “BU2,” referencing the Montenegrin word for “two.” The local nightclubs are of the type that would appeal to people fond of such abbreviations. Think energy drinks; “bottle servis;” those sunglasses with one big lens.

* Perast was the last city to lower the flag of the Venetian republic in 1797. Befitting its mercantile heritage, the town maintains one small market on the Campanile square at which suntan lotion costs twenty-five euros.

* If you take the direct-on-the-map-but-infinite-in-real-life “shortcut” into Kotor, you will be greeted by one of the most stunning maritime vistas that you will ever see. You will then be greeted by 44 cliff-side hairpins, 43 visions of your own grisly death (official metaphor of the descent: “tomato in a tuna can”), and the smell of vanishing brake pads.

* Unlike in Pristina, the waiter does not visibly wince when you order the fish.

* When you first arrive in Perast, you can’t help but come to the (disastrous) conclusion that the place is infested with giant bees. Fortunately, this is not quite the case: Instead, the Kotor region just has a lot of these “Macroglossum stellatarum” things, which are hummingbird-sized moths that have the general coloring of bees. They don’t sting, and they don’t ruin your trip – but don’t get cocky: There are a lot of actual bees there as well.

Given my limited experience, I can’t really say anything categorical about Montenegro – save for the fact that it was able to provide a fairly crucial cluster of European qualities that Pristina notably lacks. Ancient architecture, a dramatic coastline, and a selection of interesting, modern, would-even-be-good-in-London-or-L.A. restaurants go a long way when you’re growing weary of concrete and rump steak. The fact that golfball-sized bees aren’t actually a real thing is just a bonus.

We will be back to Montenegro, and we will take the long route – if only to save some time.

Baby, Baby (Or: Why Birth Rates Matter)

Posted on July 29, 2012

In Kosovo, people still have babies. Not as many as they once did, perhaps, and not so many that nobody wishes for more, but they still fill the bunkbeds around here. They make sure that my front stoop, for instance, has the tell-tale hearts and scratched-out names of fickle teen romance carved into its side, and it seems required that my bedroom window be hit (hard) by a football at least once every week.

Note the plural: in Kosovo, they have babies. With an “s.” These are not the long-shot, fertility pill-aided one-offs familiar to (say) New Yorker subscribers back home near the Empire’s center. These are not the lonesome little Augustens and Caits we see peering from the rear windows of Audis as they are shepherded from jazz piano to Mandarin (it’s the language of the future) at seven-thirty in the evening – these are just kids. The sort you have four or five of, starting in your early twenties and naming them after dead relatives. The sort who you allow to have little crushes, and who are free to kick footballs in the alley.

That isn’t to say, of course, that little Artan and Vija (and Engjell and Vitore and Vojin and Yllka and so forth) are not the subjects of intense and intrusive parental speculation – they are, and the equivalent of “internship in Manhattan” is pretty much “job in Switzerland, with money sent home every paycheck.” It is only to point out that in the case of children, as with so many other human requirements, mild abundance decreases neurosis. There is, for instance, no “helicopter mom” ready to sue the building manager when her precious Besnik catches a rock in the eye… but if his brothers find out who did it, they’ll make him eat dirt in the back lane (if not dogshit, or part of a dead bird – you know how brothers are).

It’s not unusual to have an aesthetic preference for the instinctive over the fraught, or for North Americans of a certain type to indulge in xenophilia when confronted with traditional life (so long as it occurs in foreign and GDP-deprived lands, of course – we despise it in Alabama). Focusing on the birth rate as proxy for some difficult-to-pin-down vitality, however, is a troubling exercise, not least because it places one in dubious company, and forces one to consider the consequences of what we call freedom, and what others call decadence.

“It’s my driveway and I’ll decorate it however I want.”

In order to have a high birth rate, you tend to require a few key ingredients – and they’re not ones that are terribly popular in Western capitals these days. To start with, you need robust taboos concerning gender roles and extramarital sex. This is best aided by the ordering presence of a strict religion – preferably desert-derived, and at best Abrahamic. If you really want to reach for the stars in this area, a bloody cocktail of war, disorder, famine, and chaos is what you should be ordering. The superpowers here are places like The Democratic Republic Of Congo and Somalia; the pitiable laggards are Germany and Japan.

I sometimes worry that the perceived necessity (among liberal Westerners) of “questioning privilege” and “problematizing perspectives” comes from a much stranger and more occult place than we realize. Why do we so dutifully do this thing, which transforms instinctual sources of pleasure into considered forms of shame? Why must we — must I — place this enjoyment of the alley kids in a prim, wary context of ruthless taboo and god-haunted poverty? Why do we still seem to feel that virtue is best achieved at the end of a (self-administered) whip?

It is Sunday afternoon as I type this, and the daily game, with its attendant hecklers, cheerleaders, bystanders, and heart-carvers is loudly gathering steam (where does an Albanian-speaking Kosovar learn the term “motherfucker?” And at, like, six?).

Falimenderit, Quentin.

The kids are out and the parents are only intermittently watching. From the perspective of my first-floor balcony, it is almost like theatre; it has the properties of a created thing, of art. It is a lot of fun.

There can be no art, however, without a frame – which is to say that, in this area of Balkan life as in so many others, the borders create the circumstance. A Sunday like this one is probably not very fun for the girl locked in her room by her brothers, who dislike whatever thinly-mustachioed Romeo has started to come by her balcony. It can’t be particularly fun for the young boy who has realized that he likes other young boys. It’s not terribly rewarding, I suspect, to be the 19-year-old woman who wants to be (for example) a botanist, and who has no desire to marry.

These are the metrical constraints that define the daily poem of the alley, and they are ones that Western Europeans and many North Americans have judged to be unnecessary, or even cruel. We have also, and indirectly, judged that the beauty of the alley-poem is not sufficient, does not outweigh the curtailed freedoms and heavy expectations that form the crucible of its creation.

In this regard, it seems that the West will win — again. The birthrate in Kosovo is falling fast, and full membership in modernity (as symbolized by the coveted prize of EU admission) is the defining goal of the Thaci government.

In time, the pressure to have babies, to have families, will slow significantly, and the pressure for those who are already alive to express their individual wants and preferences will intensify. The small square of concrete that serves as my alley’s Wembley Stadium will be painted, lit, and eventually supervised, and the crowds of football-playing children (and cat-callers, and cigarette-sneakers, and name-scratchers) will thin and decline.

Eventually, the footballers will grow too old for their games, and the next crop of would-be window smashers will be smaller, and watched over more closely. Seeking stability, the now-of-age alley kids may purchase their apartments, turn the building into condos, and form some sort of neighbors’ association which will watch out for things like cigarette butts, insensitive language, and football-damaged windows. The square will be replaced by a parking lot or a decorative hedge, and the games will be replaced by nothing.

At this point, Kosovo will have grown up.

Reductio Ad Abserbum

Posted on July 25, 2012

In yesterday’s post concerning UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s visit to Kosovo, I addressed SG Ban’s late arrival by cynically noting that “the first rule of power is make ‘em wait.”

I wasn’t wrong, really — just a little sunburnt and surly — but new reports from Koha Ditore indicate that my aim may have been a bit off. There’s a first (not first) time for everything, I guess.

According to the Pristina daily, the power in question was not exercised by Secretary-General Ban at the expense of us rapidly reddening journos, but instead by Serbian border authorities at the expense of the UN.

Though Ban’s meetings with the Nikolić government in Belgrade were characterized by calls for “dialogue” (that grandly disingenuous modern favorite!) and UN-supervised negotiations with Pristina, Serbia’s border guards allegedly took a harder line with the Secretary-General.

According to Koha Ditore, the UN plane waited for 45 minutes on the tarmac in Belgrade before being denied clearance to fly to Kosovo. Despite the energies of UN officials, all diplomatic requests for clearance (see: “dialogue”) were rebuffed, forcing Secretary-General Ban to take an indirect route through Macedonia.

Of all the sunburns I have ever received, this is by far the most cloak-and-dagger.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon Visits Kosovo

Posted on July 24, 2012

In the course of my unrelated-to-Disney-movies-from-the-‘90s duties, it sometimes happens that I attend media events – such as UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s visit to Pristina International Airport earlier this afternoon. Here’s how, loyal reader, it went down.

First rule of power is you make ‘em wait, and so there we waited, shuffling and tripping over camera wires as incremental delay after incremental delay was announced. A mixed crowd of local and regional journalists (plus yours truly), we buzzed around in a collective, multilingual “nic fit” until the UN turboprop taxied in, depositing Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon into a crowd of flower-bearing courtiers whose hands were shaken in (presumable) order of seniority as he made his way to the dais.

The speech itself was fairly pro forma, and archetypically late-globalist in its repeated calls for “dialogue” and “mutual respect” between parties who don’t really wish to speak and who have no respect for one another. What else can you really say? It’s the only thing that doesn’t bring the guns out.

Today’s visit marked the first time that a United Nations Secretary-General has visited Kosovo since the 2008 declaration of independence from Serbia was issued by Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian leadership. As such, the (non-Albanian) minority-protecting aspects of UN Security Council Resolution 1244 were emphasized early in Secretary-General Ban’s speech, which closed on a conciliatory note by commemorating the recent death of (Kosovo-born) Albanian poet Ali Podrimja.

As there were no questions permitted, the five-minute address concluded with us journalists disassembling our gear and filing down toward the free bottled water in the Arrivals lounge.

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon exited toward a phalanx of UNMIK Land Cruisers, past a display of international flags in which the emblem of the Kosovar republic and that of Albania flew at equal height.

The Lion King: Balkans Edition

Posted on July 21, 2012

So last night I was persuaded to watch Disney’s The Lion King for the first time ever. I know it’s meant to be a classic, you know, a modern myth and a watershed moment as far as big-budget animation goes… but it came out in 1994. I was 16 then, and at that age you tend to be reflexively scornful of mass-market blockbusters, and intent instead on making sure the record-store clerk is aware that you knew who the Smithereens were before Kurt Cobain started talking about them (untrue in my case, and yes, it’s consumerism all the way down).

In any case, I watched it a bit too late in life, I guess, or maybe I’m just in a Kosovo state of mind. Though monkey sorcerers and implied polygamy are great and all, I couldn’t help thinking about those hyenas.

You know who I am talking about here: The slavering, undifferentiated mass of barbarians who could not ever be allowed representation within the leonine power-structure? The backward, mindless bundle of flesh and sinew who were permitted only to slither around the polluted wastes at the edge of the kingdom, lest they overwhelm the polity with their destructive impulses and short-sighted demands?

Isn’t this kind of… non-democratic, message-wise? Aren’t these sorts of portrayals dangerous? Don’t we have a bad history with this sort of thing?

Or maybe I’m just old.

Thanks a lot, adulthood. And thanks, the Balkans.