So I'm in Pristina, in Kosovo. This is my first time in Kosovo. I came with mixed feelings. On one hand, I hadn't heard much good about the province. "A dump" was the most typical comment. On the other hand, I had been pleasantly surprised by Tirana, in Albania. And... I was curious to see what the fuss was all about. Brief first impressions:
-- The airport, like every other airport in the former YU, is miles and miles from the city. I can see that in Belgrade, but why did they do that for modest-sized towns like Pristina and Skopje? -- Thick chilly fog, scented with coal smoke. That bitter brown coal smell. -- Bad roads. Balkan drivers. An Orthodox Church, empty, behind barbed wire, with weeds growing high around it. -- Ugly buildings, just like everyone said. Bad '70s and '80s architecture, lots of Communist block apartments interspersed with the occasional flight of fancy. There's a building topped with Fuller domes. It doesn't look nearly as cool as someone obviously thought it would. -- Cigarette sellers everywhere. In Tirana, they're kids. Here they're young men. Walk down the street, and you'll pass a dozen of them in five minutes. I sat in a restaurant for an hour, and at least seven or eight of them came through. -- Burek shops. Romania is out of the burek zone, but Pristina is right in the middle of it. The Balkan fast food trinity: burek, pizza, doner kebabs. -- Cafes. Romania doesn't really have the full-blown Balkan cafe culture. Pristina does. It's like Belgrade. There must be a hundred of them downtown. More. -- Crumbling sidewalks. A lot of deferred maintenance. The people are, on average, a bit more shabbily dressed than your average Belgrader. But only a bit. Could be a poorish town in south Serbia. -- Kosovo is still administered by the UN. The UN vehicle of choice is the white Land Rover, and the damn things are everywhere. -- Holy cow, do these people love Americans. But that probably deserves a post of its own. I'm staying at the Hotel Grand. Back in the bad old days, this was the unofficial headquarters of the Serbian secret police. Arkan stayed here, with his tigers. Albanians wouldn't dare enter the place. Today... well, it's just another run-down former Communist hotel. Chilly rooms, threadbare towels, toilets that run. Ugly abstract sculpture from the '70s. There's wireless in the lobby, so there are always clusters of people sitting there, gathered around laptops, drinking Turkish coffee and espresso, smoking, smoking. It feels like someplace that's waiting for what comes next. Which, in this particular case, is privatization. It goes on the block next year. 300 rooms, centrally located, great fixer-upper. Be the newest hotelier in Europe's newest country! Apply now! More in a bit.