06 July 2012

A Hero's Welcome

"You should love your country the way Kosovars love America" - some professor in France.
Our guide at Pristina's Ethnographic Museum relayed this quote to us and laughed at the exuberance with which his fellow countrymen adore the United States.  We just arrived a day earlier and were taken aback by the welcome we'd received.  Every answer to "where are you from?" visibly shook people, roused them to their feet for a handshake.  It was strange, surprising, slightly uncomfortable - like a celebrity we hadn't earned, nor asked for.  This is why we mentioned it to our guide at the museum.  While he joked about it with us, he was also sure to make us realize the root.  "Without America, there would be no Kosovo."  We fell silent at that even more powerful quote, said casually and in earnest.
"Europe turned its back, but America came.  America! To this little country" - guy in Rahovec.
It was one of the many history lessons we were given in casual, two or three minute conversation.  Sometimes people really just put things so perfectly, convey exactly what they mean even with a language barrier.  The idea that America, in all of its late 20th century infallible glory, even knew what was happening in this corner of former Yugoslavia felt magical to Kosovars.  The fact that the USA swooped in to protect it felt miraculous.  At the helm was Commander-in-Chief Bill Clinton.  A national hero so revered people have begun to name their children after him. Not just 'Bill' but 'Bill Clinton.'  Hi, my name is Bill Clinton Bajrami.
We'd laughed when coming across a big, bronze statue of Clinton.  It's just so strange to see a modern figure - especially one that would never be described as "statuesque" -  rendered in bronze, two stories tall.  But there he was on Bill Clinton Boulevard in all of his pre-heart surgery pro-McDonalds glory, classic open-mouthed grin and round nose.   He stood holding a tablet with 24 March 1999 etched into it, the date NATO began its bombing of Serbian posts in Kosovo.   In America, there was some criticism of Clinton for exaggerating the number of Kosovar Albanian casualties when defining the situation as genocide - but, hey, he always bent the truth a little bit, right?  Here, he is an almost mythic figure - and we, as a result, were greeted as heroes.  Saying we were American gave us carte blanche, handshakes and hugs.  Lengthy conversations that were thoughtful, insightful and cherished by both parties. 
During our time in Eastern Europe, a number of countries have shown a particular interest in/infatuation with American culture, music, movies, television, style, personalities.  This was different.  Instead of Lakers jerseys, Yankee caps or t-shirts with Tommy Hilfiger and Abercrombie & Fitch emblazoned across them, red, white and blue patterned hats and our flag covered the clothing of Kosovars wherever we went.  There was no sense that anyone wanted to be American, that our nationality held the allure of a status symbol.  Instead, there was an overwhelming sense of gratitude to America for letting them be themselves.  In those other countries, there's the element of American being a refuge, an oasis.  Move there and everything will be perfect!  Unlike in a number of those other countries, Kosovar citizens have been able to emigrate to the states.
Directly following the war of '99, as many as 20,000 Albanian Kosovars refugees arrived in Fort Dix, NJ.  Over and over, we'd be told that someone's father, husband, brother was in the Bronx, which has the largest ethnic Albanian community in the US.  An exact number of how many of those Albanians are Kosovar hasn't been figured out, but it is sizable.  If our conversations are any barometer, there's a mini Kosovo in the Bronx.  They say that about 15% of Kosovo's GNP comes from its diaspora, most of which live and work in Germany and Switzerland (Kosovars actually take the third place slot as largest immigrant population in Switzerland).  So, America isn't the holy grail here. It's not even the best place you can leave to go work!  But it is their liberator, their hero, the first people to recognize them as their own state, which is vastly more important to the citizens of this young nation.  Throughout the country, our flag flew right there next to the the blue Kosovar and red Albanian.
We were here during 4th of July, which you sort of forget isn't the name of the holiday until you say it to a foreigner and they look at you as if you've just proclaimed it Monday!  People kept telling us that the American Independence Day was celebrated in Kosovo and we were looking forward to seeing what that actually meant.  We wound up being up in Rekë e Allagës on the 4th, where fireworks (and the talk of grilling hamburgers) would have spooked the cows.  Still, this July 4th felt like the most patriotic of my life.   America is only 232 years older than the Republic of Kosovo - which is a blip in the history of other European countries.  (We always joke that our nation is younger than a lot of houses we've been in here in Europe).  I couldn't help but marvel at how our little clump of colonies' declaration of independence went on to affect the world.  It's hard not to feel the whole 'proud to be an American' thing while in Kosovo. 

1 comment:

  1. this was the best thing ever to read! As an American, it really awakened a sense of pride that, unfortunately, has felt more dormant than anything else..Is there some way to post this in aftermath of our July 4th celebrations, on fb??

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