Cigarettes, Passports and Bicycles

I can still remember how the street sign next to our school on Quellenstrasse in Adliswil Switzerland was titled “Kosvostrasse”. “Kosovostrasse” consisted of housingblocks, most of which were inhabited by Kosovar families. Relatively quickly, Shpati, Mefludin and Liridona became friends of my brother and me and regulars at our home. Since then, many more friendships with people from Kosovo have followed. This summer, I feel inspired and want to finally see Prishtina with my own eyes. 

In Switzerland we have a Kosovar diaspora of around 200,000 people. Many of them have come to Switzerland since the end of the 1990s, because of the Kosovo war.

At that time, I was in primary school and also relatively new to Switzerland.

Freedom to Travel 

I google “freedom to travel” and count on articles about how not all people travel for pleasure. I expect reports about people in my age, who have to travel out of economic necessity, because of war, natural disasters, political and perhaps also personal necessity. 

The reports I expected would have been written from a Western perspective, but at least they would have appeared on the first few pages of the search engine. Once again, the Internet disappoints me. In retrospect, I think I was naive to expect search results on this subject at all. 

So, this disappointment consisted of reports about the loss of freedom to travel that has spread across the (Western) world, due to the corona pandemic. It is neither about the climate crisis, or a critical questioning of a westerners privilege to tourism – the search results speak of the pandemic and the fact that the part of the Swiss population with passports and capital in money, time, and health can no longer travel. 

One report talks about “revenge travel”. “Revenge travel”, a term that has probably come into use, but has passed me by, describes that to compensate for trips that could not take place because of the pandemic, people “travel at whatever cost”. An internalized imperative. 

As a child of the Swiss middle class, I have enjoyed this freedom for some time, or always. At this point, it might also be important to mention that part of my family lives in Greece and therefore I have always travelled back and forth between these two countries. No matter in which of them I happen to live, a part of my family and identity is always in the other country. 

The barriers to freedom of travel have been self-imposed for as long as I can remember, not even money plays a role, because although I don’t have much of it myself, I live in a country where I actually always have the opportunity to go and work somewhere for a few weeks to get the money I need for a journey. Or to earn my money while travelling, by herding sheep in the mountains, for example. If I really don’t feel like working before, or during my holiday, I’m sure I’ll find someone who will lend me money, or maybe even just offer it to me. 

The self-imposed travel barriers are barriers I put up for myself in hope of self-optimization. I want to force myself to stop, to face the here and now, to stop running away from my problems. To confront my privilege to actively choose not to travel, to become aware of my affluent neglect once again. What a privilege! 

When I’m asked to which countries I’ve travelled to, I get ashamed and sometimes I don’t mention all the places I’ve been to. When asked where I would like to go next, I don’t know the answer because, on the one hand, I am happy with what I have already been able to see and experience and on the other hand I don’t want to make space for more places in my heart. 

When I think of the pandemic, it fills me with gratitude that I finally can stay in Zurich and confront myself with my reality at home. I was on an inner journey, sounds trivial, but that’s how it was.

This summer, one year after the pandemic lockdown in Switzerland and like every summer before, shows one more time my privileged situation. First, I complained for a few months about not having any money and then I plan a vacation. And while I’m planning, I turn two weeks into three and three weeks into four. Although I just wanted to go to my grandmothers to read and relax, I buy a new bike, saddlebags, a bus ticket, and a plane ticket and, in the end, look forward to go to Prishtina. The place that my classmates have described to me since I was a child. 

As a Swiss citizen, I am allowed to enter 113 countries visa-free. Someone with a Kosovar passport is allowed to enter 13 countries without having to apply for a visa. 

Getting to Prishtina 

In order not to be too much of a burden to the climate, I decide to fly as little as possible. Therefore, I buy the bicycle and a bus ticket. In Zurich, I get into a bus from Rinori Travel in which I will spend the next 30 hours. 

I am seated in the front row of the bus, right behind the driver’s cabin, with the only other person travelling alone, a woman of my age, Zoye*. She is from Bern, but has family in Gjilan. From now on Zoye is my friend. We want to take care of each other from now on. As Zoye (and all the others on the bus) speak Albanian and I don’t, its rather her taking care of me then the other way around. 

Behind us sits a mother with her 22-year-old daughter, Luana* and Valbona*, both very extrovert, who ask me questions, explain things, and translate everything that is said super diligently. Within the first half-hour, they have told everyone that I want to go from Prishtina to Greece by bike. I get astonished looks, partly because I want to go to Kosovo, partly because of my way of travelling. Most of my fellow travelers seem a bit amused, but still happy for me. They say that doing such a trip on my own would certainly be a good idea and encourage me in my plans. Most of them seem a bit worried, but somehow in a constructive way. I get the feeling that all my fellow travelers approve the decision of stepping out of one’s comfort zone from time to time, be it forced or not. 

We drive towards Vorarlberg in Austria, cross the border to Germany and are checked for the first time by the civil police, seemingly randomly. All passports are collected and handed over to the police officers. After two cigarettes, most of the passports have been returned to their owners and three people are not allowed to continue their journey. 

Zoye and Valbona start to translate and mediate between the police and the people who have been rejected. Luana translates and explains the situation to me. 

The visas of the rejected people have expired. They have exceeded the 90 days. Two of the three people, a married, very affectionate couple, pay the fine of 200 euros per person. The third person refuses. Apparently, he had entered Switzerland via Italy and it was not his fault that he had overstayed his visa, but the fault of the Italian authorities. He continues to argue, and I suggest that we all chip in and pay him the fine. “If he wasn’t that unfriendly, we would, we thought of this as well, but if he behaves like this, no”, a person responds to me. And he is led away in handcuffs in front of everyone. 

As we drive on in silence and the driver turns up the music that has accompanied us already along our trip for hours, the tension drops remarkably. 

At the next cigarette break, Zoye stands next to me and releases her anger about the police controls and the privileges that some of us are entitled to. She thinks it’s unfair that people from Kosovo can’t find well-paid work in Kosovo, and that they aren’t really allowed to go to Europe to work. She wonders where this is supposed to lead to. She says that the world in Kosovo is completely different from the world in Switzerland: “You will see…”.

We remain silent and smoke, then our eyes cross and we both burst into laughter because of the pathos in her last words. 

We get back on the bus and the driver tells us that there will be another short toilet break, 10 minutes maximum, and then we would have to sleep.

When I wake up, we are standing in Hungary, at the border to Serbia. It is about 6am. There are about eight other busses in front of us and a crowd gathering in the toilets. Teeth are brushed, armpits and faces washed. We are provided with a cup of coffee and a 7-day-croissant by the bus company. Between these various activities, people smoke. 

We spend six hours at the border to leave the EU and enter Serbia. In the bus, the long waiting time tends to be interpreted as harassment from the Serbian side. By the time a bus with Serbian number plates is waved through in front of us, this opinion also manifests itself in me. Still standing at the border in Serbia, the Kosovar part of our number plate is covered with white tape. I am grateful that a few of the children ask the question that is on the tip of my tongue and listen carefully as the parents reply with an “It’s better this way”. Although I’ve expected a more explicative answer, for now they seem to be satisfied with it. I notice that many other vehicles do the same and figure that covering those number plates must improve the quality of a trip in a very existential way.

After another couple of hours, we cross the border to Tabanovtse, Northern Macedonia, without any problems. From there we’ll drive through the hills towards Kosovo, where we will cross the border in Hani i Elezit. Since Northern Macedonia, our stops become more frequent and the travel group gets smaller as people keep getting off the bus. 

Those who haven’t arrived yet at their final destination also get off every time we stop to smoke, and although we are less people on the bus, the circle of people smoking together is getting bigger. After almost 30 hours together in one bus, an invisible bond has woven itself between us all. As the group gets smaller, the mood loosens and the characters on the bus become more recognizable. 

I want to mention the eccentric Blerta*. Although she always just spits out what’s in her mind and was quite constantly nagging about something during the whole journey everyone likes her and she manages to entertain the whole bus. At some point she started asking Flurim* what he’s doing in his life, apart from smoking cigarettes (during every cigarette I smoke, the 15-year-old smokes about four). So Flurim presents his masterplan: “I will start an apprenticeship as a bricklayer after summer. And since I don’t want to bring children into this world, I will have the chance to save money and thus support my family here in Kosovo”.

Blerta goes off on him: “Yah, right, waste your chances and talents on the construction site… Like this you will save heaps of money! It’s not like you’re from Switzerland and have real opportunities for supporting your family.” 

She takes it to the extreme until the whole bus interferes and all the women start to act like mothers that shower a teenager with advice. Although Flurim laughs, I notice that he gazes towards Luana and me asking silently for our assistance, but neither of us can do more than laugh out loud about Blerta’s exaggerations. Somewhat ashamed, but still looking cool, Flurim asks the driver if he can snort a cigarette from him, as he has none left. He smokes two anyway and waits on the sidewalk next to the bus until his uncle picks him up. 

After Flurim is picked up, we drive on. The next stop is mine, Prishtina bus station. While I pack my belongings, I thank everyone for their good wishes, then I jump on to the saddle of my bike and ride excitedly into the warm night.

Prishtina City 

I felt at home in Prishtina right from the start. When I arrived, I had the unoriginal prejudice that, as a woman I would at least be stared at; that I would constantly have to fear for my belongings (consisting of my bike and everything that’s on it) – but the city welcomes me with open arms, pizza, and a cool beer. I stay for three days and quickly made friends with the people from Termokiss. During these days, the (pre-)opening events of the Manifesta were taking place. Everywhere in the city one could see people with Manifesta batches, bags and programme booklets. The Manifesta-visitors can also be recognised by the instrumentalised individualism of their art-scene-dresscode.

When these visitors cross ways, they nod and smile somehow knowingly at each other. Sometimes they greet each other and sometimes they ask if they have anything directly to do with Manifesta. I can feel a certain agony in the air, as if they can hardly wait for it to start.

During the day, there are guided tours through the venues as well as the city. In the evening, there are concerts, performances, or speeches. Everywhere I go, the scene is pulsating. 

When I tell the owner in the hostel about it, she has no idea and can hardly believe that an international art exhibition is about to take place in Prishtina. She asks me if I’m not confusing it with the Sunny Hill Music Festival in August. I remember that also on the bus to Prishtina no one knew about Manifesta. Just as the owner of the hostel now wonders why all the hostels in town are fully booked, the people on the bus wondered why the flights this year were even more expensive than usual. The high airfares were the reason for many of my fellow passengers to take the bus. At the beginning of my trip, I tried to engage people in a conversation about global change problematics and that the bus had not only economical but also ecological advantages. But what I said was hardly being noticed, maybe even a bit ignored. Originally, I also saw my bicycle trip as a kind of activism. Relatively soon, however, I had the self-awareness that it was my privileged situation that allowed me to spend ten days to get to Greece by land. A man, Remo*, whom I meet on my journey, even jokes to me about it and from then on, I completely stop mourning to people about global change. 

Being a woman travelling alone seemed to be received as more of an activist action than I expected. People repeatedly ask me whether I am not afraid and why I am doing this. I say that I’ve always wanted to do this and that it’s probably time to prove a few things to myself, which is usually received and answered with an appreciative nod.

Companions 1

The day before I leave Prishtina, I meet a street dog while I’m sipping on my morning coffee. Without us having much to do with each other, he follows me when I leave the coffee shop. So I decide to push the bike and walk a few steps with the dog. The few steps turned into a couple of hours. We walk through the city, deciding which direction to take together. Most of the time we just follow the shadow. We stay in eye contact. If I want to stop somewhere to look at something, we exchange glances and the dog waits for me. If he has to stop to scratch himself, I wait for him. The dog stops quite often to scratch, so I tell him to wait next to my bike in the shade and go to the pet shop to buy him a flea collar. The shop assistant tells me that the fight against fleas on dogs in Kosovo is hopeless, but I buy one anyway and put it around the dogs neck. After that we continue our walk. Sometimes he is in the lead, sometimes I am, sometimes we don’t seem to care about the direction and just choose the shadier path. We pass a park where a food festival is taking place and although I am convinced that we will be asked off the ground, I follow the dog’s wish and walk with him into the park. There, we sit down in the shade and take another break. I discover a few blocks of ice that were probably used to cool some food and show them to the dog, who gratefully licks and rolls on them. We lie on the meadow for a while until a security guard comes and tells us that we have to leave. To be precise, that the dog has to leave. We wander off together, as we are a team now. We stroll through the streets for a while and I notice that the people walking towards us also perceive us as a team. A very exciting development. Some look at me fearfully and, if “my” dog gets too close to them, angrily, others smile at us in a friendly way and a few even speak to us. I find it funny that the dog and I seem to radiate some kind of togetherness. 

At some point, the dog signs that he now wants to lie in the shade for a bit, so I sit down on a bench near him and even then, we earned looks. A passer-by even thanked me for taking care of the dog, as, he says, you rarely see that. When I get hungry, I walk with the dog on my heels to a bakery. The dog waits outside, again we are looked at. With food and water, we sit back down in the shade. 

After a while I felt that I had enough of that dog life and wanted to go back to the hostel to read a bit. Funnily, I brought Donna Haraway’s book, The Companion Species Manifesto with me. Its the book in which she talks about the implosion of nature and culture in the joint lives of dogs and humans, who are bonded in “significant otherness”. 

I get up, the dog too, and a few minutes later we are chilling together in front of the hostel, me reading, him sleeping. We are the attraction of the neighborhood, children ask me if they can pet him, others are fascinated that I dare to get so close to a dog. A woman asks me if it is okay if she comes out with her dog. A few children who don’t dare approaching us but would like to, start throwing pebbles at the dog to interact with him at least a little bit…

I roll my eyes at the dog and he gives me a tired look. 

After a few more hours on the road, I feel dirty, and I want to go to the official opening party of Manifesta. I say a definite goodbye to the dog and thank him for keeping me company and taking care of me, like Zoye did on the bus and go up for a shower.

After the well-attended and pathos-filled opening ceremony I don’t sleep enough, but I’m really looking forward to cycling. 

Cycling day 1 and its companions 

At around 6am, I set off, over-motivated, towards the wrong direction. Luckily I realize that relatively quickly, then turn around and leave the city on Rrafshi Kosovës towards Ferizaj. I’m on the main road, but as it’s still early, it goes smoothly until Ferizaj. As the roads start to fill with morning traffic, it starts to get stressful, I am honked at hangry and really need something to eat. I go to a restaurant in the small town of Ferizaj and finally my prejudice get confirmed: I get stared at by 100 pairs of eyes. 

Although the kitchen doesn’t open until 9am, the host makes me a fried egg and salad and tells me about four Scottish cyclists who were stranded at his house during the pandemic. He also tells me stories about the trips he made to Europe during the 90s and I indulge in more preconceptions and can’t help but wonder if the voluntary nature of travel had the same value to him as it did to me. He would like to talk more, but I am too stressed and afraid of the oncoming midday heat, so I said goodbye as soon as possible. I pay with my last cash and get sugar and water for the road. As Ferizaj will be the last town until Tetovo (northern Macedonia), I want to withdraw money here, but all three ATMs in the small town are out of order. I hope that in the village where I’ll sleep, in the hills of northern Macedonia, it will be ok to pay by card. 

After Ferizaj I follow the main road for a while until I come to a gravel road. For two hours, I am afraid that I will get a flat tire. I dodge potholes, dance around puddles, the sun is burning down on me as there is no shade. I smell the odor of thyme and the decay scent of cats, sheep or birds. 

I wonder if what I am about to do is a good idea and begin to focus my attention on the plant life and the smells surrounding me. Next to thyme I also recognize Cichorion intybus, some Salixes, Trifolium, Quercus, Robinia. I also see a lot of classical edible plants like blackberries, hazelnuts, walnuts, rose hip, mirabelles, wild cherries and imagine how rich in species the entire country must be. I realise that I associate every plant that I can classify botanically with a story and a person. 

So, as I cycle on, my mind still lies on the plants and the stories they tell me. The heat is oppressive and I take a break under a fig tree. After more than 50 km comes an ascent that almost suffocates me just looking at it but didn’t discourage me to go after it. After about five minutes, however, I realize that I have no chance and push the bike up the pass. The next time I look up and feel sorry for myself and my misery, I see an apparition in the shape of an old man, wearing a white T-shirt and a white headscarf. He looks like a ghost and gestures to me to turn around. 

As it is my first day of cycling, I have no confidence in any opinion other than that of my navigation app and shake my head. There’s no way I want to turn back, also I have the feeling that I’ve already covered a fifth of the distance to the top. He continues to talk and gesticulate at me, pantomiming a road, but I insist on my app. Resignedly, he shakes his head and tells me that if it’s like this he will come with me. I try to persuade him to go on, as I don’t like the fact that this old man wants to go up the mountain again with me in this heat. He insists and helps me to push my bike. I ask myself why he thinks this is even necessary and question my decision to go on that journey again. “Am I not fit enough?” Good job, on the self-esteem–part. A few turns later, I see what the ghost meant. The path ends in a dry riverbed, it is steep, hot and muddy. We had to carry the bike, he on the back of the saddle, me on the handlebars. After a decade, we stop in the meagre shade of a tree and I offer Joseph* tea, but he doesn’t want any. Joseph is the most stoic personality I have ever met. He not only looks like a ghost, but he also behaves like one. We don’t really have a common language. I speak a few bits of Russian and he explains to me in another Slavic language that he used to be a professor of history. I imagine that he is a war veteran. The calm, serenity and frugality he radiates as we do hard labor under boiling 40° Celsius impress me and made me want to be a bit like him. After about three kilometers of suffering, silence and cooperation, Joseph leaves me, saying it’s only one kilometer from now on to the next village. I say goodbye to him and give him chocolate biscuits as a thank you. As soon as he’s out of sight, I check the app, there are two kilometers to go and I lie down exhausted and take a break. As I struggle back up, I meet a team of foresters, a carriage and a dog and marvel at how they have made it this far. I hope that the path will get a little easier from now on. 

(It gets minimally better.)

After some time, I finally arrive at the top of the pass and get on my bike and try to follow the route. As I feel that I have super low energy and I lie down on the edge of the road in the forest for a short nap. Immediately I fall asleep. At some point the computer voice on my app wakes me up with the motivating words that I should turn right in seven kilometers. Since this app voice is my only ally, I set off a little stronger. There’s about -1% descent and yet it is exhausting, my head is throbbing and I am thirsty. Ironically, after the first bend there is a restaurant I dig out my last Euros and can buy myself an apricot juice. 

After the restaurant, it’s a steep descent back down the pass and I regain my zest for life! Soon I see a huge North Macedonian flag on the horizon! Only 570km left until Kozani, Greece! One more country that I can add to my collection. I proudly pass the Kosovar border post and am whistled back because I haven’t shown my ID. I am bombarded with questions and congratulated and then finally escape to Northern Macedonia, where I have to answer to questions again and thank everyone for their good wishes.
From now on, I fly over the asphalt and fight my way through the shimmering heat of Northern Macedonia and look forward to the rest of my Balkan adventure. 

After 6 days of cycling, I arrive in Greece and after some more days at the ocean visiting family and friends I go to Athens where I meet Andrès, a guy I got to know in Prishtina and who was also travelling around the Balkans. We meet in a Coffee in Exarchia and by exchanging about our journeys I start reflecting everything I have experienced. We talk a lot about Manifesta and our stories from Kosovo for example about the covered-up Kosovan number plates, and I found out that it is actually forbidden for Kosovar cars to pass Serbia. We mocked ourselves a lot about our will to make a statement which could bring other people to the idea to travel by land and laugh even more about the fact that I am taking the plane back. This entire encounter is a bit surreal, it’s only three weeks ago since we met the first time, but it feels like months. This exchange about new experiences and knowledge gained made it the perfect ending of a journey.

By Roxani Marty Pavlaki

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