Wednesday, June 19, 2013

My Big, Fat, Albanian Kosovo

View from room at Hotel Residence

I cannot begin to wrap my heart around this trip.  It all began with a trip to Tunisia the MamaCarts team earned through the Global Business School Network. Never one to stare meekly into the face of a unique travel opportunity, I quickly pulled out my world maps, called some friends, and started google-ing plane ticket prices. 
Tunisian Beach


Tunisia recap
Attending the GBSN conference was the main catalyst for this trip and the latest victory for the MamaCarts ladies. We busted out a few videos about our social venture a few months ago and one received 1st place in the GBSN MBA+ video challenge. We demonstrated that we are putting our MBA’s to use for the greater good and thus won the trip to the annual conference to accept the award. Full MamaCarts blog to come on our website so I’ll stick to the fun stuff. Tunisian beaches are pretty amazing! This is also a French speaking country. Since I haven’t really used my passport or French since Peace Corps, I felt like Belle from Beauty and the Beast, practically yelling BONJOUR to every soul I walked by.  Ok, so maybe I didn’t look or sound exaaactly like a Disney princess…but the hotel was pretty sweet and it felt good to use the language again.  For more info on that leg of the journey, stay tuned to the MamaCarts blog.  For more on my fun-filled adventures in Eastern Europe, read on! 
I left the conference last Wednesday and hopped a flight to Tirana, Albania, via Istanbul.  My  flight landed in the evening,  just as the sun was starting to make the surrounding mountains glow. I’ve never been to this part of the world and am still reeling from the landscape. Will be planning a return trip with camping gear…..

Flying into Albania

My cab rolled up to his apartment around 9pm and we hit the town until 2am! We had months to catch up on and the beer tasted better than ever. 

Leo and Dafina are friends from the MBA program I just finished last December.  
By chance, Leo and I were put on nearly every project together and spent a great deal of time locked in my apartment, drinking far too much coffee, and staring at excel sheets.   A diplomat by nature, this guy tempered my (at times) unruly American tendencies and plays the devil’s advocate better than most, an asset to any team. We talked for two years about Kosovo, its history, his family, and I always promised I would make the trip.  So when the chance came up, there really wasn't the option NOT to go. 

Leo and Dafina are citizens of Kosovo and both work for Yunus Social Business, an incubator that just launched in Albania.  It's a dream place for anyone to work who has graduated from our program as these folks work to promote social businesses in countries like Haiti, Tunisia, Albania, and others. We played "take your friend to work day" and fell right back into the routine of coffee, computer, and brainstorming.   His director took us out for coffee and we discussed the state of agribusiness in Albania, the true cost of subsidies, and what the future holds for social businesses in that part of the world. My MBA-for-a-greater-good-brain was just about exploding when it was time hop a bus over the border to Kosovo and pick up the lovely Dafina from the airport as she'd been working in Frankfurt all week.

Both their families are in Prishtina, the capital so we stayed with them the whole time. I picked up a little Albanian language and perhaps more important, got to eat home cooked meals!  I have no hurdles with food (well, maybe mangos) and enjoy learning about the cooking style of every country I visit, and when your friend's mother is making the dish...well, Anthony Boudain, eat your f#$%^%$ heart out! 

Evenings in Kosovo generally end with many rounds of tea or "chai", served in tiny glasses with tiny spoons and tiny wedges of lemon.  5 or 6 rounds will usually take up the better portion of after dinner conversation and allows time to digest and "visit" as my grandmother would say. 

This was truly my favorite part of the trip. "Visiting" is something we don't do enough of as we are constantly plugged in to something and rarely invest in a conversation whole-heartedly. While we only shared a few common words, Leo and Dafina translated the entire time so I could better understand their families and history.   His mother is also quite the gardener and had some questions about my flower tattoos :)

In Leo's mother's beautiful patio garden, olive & orange trees, lilies,  and more!

Now for some heavier stuff....

Kosovo is a "Muslim-light" country, as their brother calls it. A country united by language, politics but not necessarily religion.  There are mosques everywhere and the call to prayer is clear as ever, 5-times a day, but the mashup of east-meets-west cultures and attitudes makes for an increasingly progressive atmosphere unique to Kosovo and its growing middle class of young families.

The country was occupied in the early 90's then went through a brutal revolution after about 10 years. I don't remember hearing many stories of a place called Kosovo, but I was pretty young.  Tea-time conversation provided the opportunity to share stories of that time, when people stayed in their apartments for months on end, walked through the forest all night without shoes to cross the border, and left their friends and family in the heart-wrenching pursuit of self-preservation and a better way of life.  Stories are a gift, when people tell them they share a piece of what makes them who they are.  It was an incredible privilege to join this conversation and really, these are not my stories to tell so we will leave it at that. 
View from castle in Prizren

We took the last day in Kosovo to visit Prizren, a historical town right on the river. It's been quite warm here so a short hike up the mountain to the old castle definitely burned off all the macchiatos we'd been drinking :)  This was the trip of a lifetime and I know I will be back.  It was my first time to this part of the world and the people, food, and landscapes are not to be missed.  A million thanks to my dear friends who welcomed me with such hospitality - until the next time!

Leaving on a shuttle to Bulgaria, last shot with the family :)