Hello. My name is Chelsea Charles. I was born and raised in Dallas, Texas. I attended the University of North Texas and graduated with a degree in Cultural Anthropology and Non-Profit Management. I am currently the owner of Buffalo Backpackers Hostel in Pristina, Kosovo.
The first time I visited Kosovo was in 2010. I was running a non-profit organization that had just wrapped up a project in the West Bank. I decided one night to have dinner at an Italian restaurant down the street from my parent’s house in Denton, TX. The food was delicious but I noticed the staff was not Italian. I asked the waiter where he was from and he said Kosovo. In that moment I had no idea what he was talking about. I went home immediately and started researching Kosovo that night. I remember feeling like I just needed to visit the country. There was not enough information online at the time and it all seemed biased. I booked a ticket that night and visited Kosovo for the first time one month later. I stayed initially for two weeks but now I have been living here for almost 6 years.
I still remember boarding the flight from Vienna to Prishtina and being surrounded by Albanians for the first time in my life. I felt like everyone was staring at me and wearing black leather. On the flight the man sitting next to me claimed he couldn’t speak English but halfway through the flight revealed his English was good enough to have a full conversation. Upon arriving at the Prishtina airport I was offered help with my baggage and free rides into the city. I had already lined up a couch surfing host to pick me up and stay with me during my two weeks here, but I will never forget the first moments I experienced Albanian hospitality.
The first two weeks were nothing short of amazing. My host took me door-to-door everyday to research the current human rights violations and network as much as possible. He translated every meeting for free and never stopped looking for more and more opportunities to help me. He made sure I tried the best food and as much of it as possible. I remember having pallaqinka me djath (crepes with white cheese) for breakfast, Stobi flips (peanut butter Cheetos) dipped in yogurt for a snack and flija (Kosovar traditional pie) for dinner – all of these foods I still love to this day! He was a great tour guide showing me all around this interesting city where modern construction meets brutal communist architecture. I loved soaking in every moment. The old men wearing plis (traditional Albanian white hat) while hanging out and playing chess mesmerized me.
I learned how well raki rrushi (homemade grape brandy) and espresso compliment each other. I come from a warm place so I do not have much experience with wintertime and wintertime culture. I remember how amazed I was walking into every bar and café and having them be full with standing room only and each having their own unique character. My host took me to Prizren and Gjilan to meet his family and enjoy an Albanian feast. His grandmother made me eat a whole chicken on New Year’s Eve and I thought I was going to explode! I also tried turshi (pickled vegetables) for the first time in Gjilan. That night I found a new love for pickled peppers in my life. I made many friends in those two weeks that are still my friends to this day. I also made the besa (word of honor) that I would return to Kosovo. Three months later I kept my word and moved to Prishtina.
After I moved to Prishtina for work I also signed up to host travelers coming through at my flat. I spent most of my free time showing others around Prishtina and the rest of the country. It was a great excuse to explore more and show others the hidden gems I discovered. Prishtina is a vibrant city. The year round festivals, exhibitions and live music events keep me constantly entertained. The restaurants and food are beyond delicious with fresh ingredients. Each café and bar in Prishtina has its own unique charm. Once you live here for a while you start doing what the locals do and frequent the same establishments all of the time. On my curious days I still love exploring and trying new places. The reactions from staff and their friendliness never cease to amaze me. People watching in Prishtina is phenomenal.
The alternative high fashion mixed with such an active elderly community constantly puts a smile on my face. The artist community in Prishtina and the continuous varied exhibitions that take place year round inspire me. The building facades covered in graffiti and murals reflect a breath of life in the artist community. Kosovo possesses beautiful nature. Mountains surround the whole country! All you have to do is take a short ride outside of Prishtina and you will experience breathtaking views of the countryside. It is so easy to explore here! I love this aspect about the Balkans. In the USA, you often have many fees to pay to visit nature: park entries, parking fees and camping fees. In Kosovo, you can take a bus or trains to the middle of nowhere or near the mountains, get out and explore as much as you want! I try to get out as much as possible for picnics/BBQ’s in the mountains. I think it is incredible how accessible everything is by public transportation within the country.
Every summer I visit Mirusha Waterfalls several times. The canyon is lovely to climb with at least seven waterfalls and cliff jumping spots you can hike to in an afternoon. Gjakova is my favorite city with a beautiful old town ottoman style bazaar restored almost 95% in original form. The people of Gjakova exhibit amazing hospitality and have some of the best restaurants in Kosovo. Mitrovica is a fascinating city full of history. Unfortunately many historical buildings in Mitrovica have been destroyed but the divided city and decrepit abandoned mining factory should be at the top of the list to visit for people interested in the current history. I have so many favorite places all around this country! The impressive fortress of Novo Brdo is one of my preferred historical sites to take everybody that comes to visit, along with Ulpiana (ancient Roman ruins) and Gazimestan (Blackbird field). During ski season I really enjoy hitting the slopes at Brezovica. The price for skiing for one day on amazing fresh powder snow is just out of this world! Around Prishtina for a quick get away I go to the bear sanctuary to visit the bears, donate fruits and vegetables to them and soak in the gorgeous views over Lake Badovc.
I have learned a tremendous amount during my time in Kosovo. The challenges I have faced and lessons learned are invaluable. I come from a capitalist society. I receive more culture shock now when I return “home” to the USA then I do in Kosovo. Where I come from countless people are concerned only for themselves and live their lives with only their future in perspective. In Texas, we love to shop. People shop all of the time and throw money at temporary possessions. I struggle with this consumerist attitude that dominates US culture when I visit. In Kosovo, I have learned that everything has worth. You spend money when you need to not when you want to. You adapt in order to survive and live much more pure lives because of it. We receive a lot of family support in the states to push us to pursue our dreams and encourage us in education. Here some people have support from their families and others must find a way to support each other in order to succeed. It is discouraging to me the way that Kosovar people critic each other, but despite this cultural norm the grassroots community is becoming stronger and stronger daily.
One major difference between my home country and Kosovo is safety. I feel safer in Prishtina then I do in my neighborhood back home. When I lived in the states I didn’t realize at the time how dangerous it is compared to some other parts of the world. There is so much gang and interracial violence happening constantly. You have to be careful wherever you go because you never know when someone will pull out a knife, a gun or a lawsuit! In Prishtina, I have walked the streets at all times of day and night and I have never had a physical issue with anyone. I have been cat called but never harmed or led to fear for my safety. I find it relieving to not have to worry when walking home late at night. In Prishtina and other cities I have left my coat and purse lying around or forgot them somewhere and they have always been returned. I have friends with stories of leaving their smartphone and other valuables in taxis, which have also always been returned. I am lucky to live here and have freedom of movement without fear. Kosovo inspires creation.
I appreciate the charisma of the youth in Kosovo. I am enthralled with Termokiss. Termokiss is a community center in Prishtina in an abandoned Yugoslav warehouse. Kosovo’s youth are taking the initiative to step up and provide a social space. I am trying to get involved and share ideas as well at Termokiss. Prishtina’s Hackerspace is another great success story in Prishtina. It is an open space for people to go learn and experiment with technology. These are only two of many exciting communities of specialists here in Prishtina led by Kosovo’s youth. I have never before been to a place where so many young people own thriving bars, café’s, nightclubs, record companies, promotion companies, IT startups and the list goes on! The energy here is addicting. Kosovo’s youth impress me daily. I cannot say the same from what I see young people doing back in Texas.
I have recommended Kosovo since the first day I arrived and every day since. If you have not been to Kosovo come. COME IMMEDIATELY. Come to visit this fascinating developing country while it is still in the nation-building process. Some days I feel like I’m living my grandparent’s lives. The way they talked about how they grew up, what they had, how they cooked, how they took care of each other and fought daily to survive. If you begin to integrate you will feel like you go back in time a bit but in all the right ways. I’ve learned to cook from scratch. I have learned what is healthy and important for my body. In Kosovo it is cheaper to eat healthier then to eat fat rich food. The opposite is true in the USA. I have learned home remedies that are far more effective and less costly then taking pills from the pharmacy.
I have learned that taking time to have coffee and a good conversation with someone will get you much further in life then rushing from meeting to meeting without any true connection. Over the years I have known many people that have come from Western Europe and the USA to live and work in Kosovo. The main reasons are usually for temporary jobs, internships, journalist, volunteer work and thesis writers. The majority of these people are forever changed because of their time in Kosovo.
Several have lived here for many years and those that have moved away make a point to come back and visit as often as they can. They are fond of this place and their great memories here. They understood that Kosovo is not just about visiting sites. Kosovo is about the experience. If you are considering Kosovo at all I implore you to come and visit. It has something to offer for everybody from cheap alcohol and food to great music, beautiful sites, amazing nightlife, beyond friendly people and a cultural heritage still waiting to be explored. If you are thinking of living here I really encourage you to give it a try. It is very easy to make local and international friends in the city. You will effortlessly find a scene here you enjoy and getting around is stress free and cost effective. You should check out Europe’s youngest country now and relish in the unique concoction of impressions that life in Kosovo induces, a live depiction of fresh and ongoing progress mixed with quaint and ageless charm.