The first thing I realized when I landed in Pristina was that the wikitravel page had not lied to me, there was in fact no bus from the airport to the city center, or at least not one I could find. I had wandered around for a while out of pure stinginess, turning down the taxi drivers who stood at the arrivals hall. Eventually I accepted the truth and when the next man approached me, I asked the price. He responded in German and although I was fairly sure I knew what he was saying, I wasn’t entirely certain. He held up his hands, a thumb and a full hand. Ah yes, fifteen, that’s what I’d thought. So I agreed and soon we were on our way.
In the car, he continued to speak to me in German, cheerfully ignoring my English response that, I don’t speak German. Which I really don’t. I had taken a few classes the semester before but had committed to doing absolutely no more work than necessary, merely showing up for two hours and then promptly forgetting everything I’d learned in the intervening week. I didn’t do homework, I didn’t study, I didn’t really expect to learn anything. Two hours were all I could manage at the time and it was just another activity, something slightly more educational than watching a movie but still with no lasting impact. However, his persistence wore me down. The transatlantic flight hadn’t been kind to my mental acuity but I could understand a few of his questions, the ones that resembled the get-to-know you dialogue that constitutes the first lesson of every language class. It seemed less important that I actually answer with substance or sentences, he seemed content with my ja and nein responses and carried the majority of the conversation, pointing out landmarks along the way.
I hadn’t expected to use German in Kosovo to be honest. I hadn’t really expected to use German in the Balkans at all actually. Not that I didn’t think people spoke German but because I had assumed that people would speak English. But like many things, it’s probably a matter of generation and it brought me back for a moment to a similar experience in Slovenia two years and a half years earlier.
My roommate and I had planned a quick trip to visit our northern neighbors. Sure, we said, why couldn’t be go to Munich and Vienna and return to Ljubljana within a few days? They’re all so close on the map! And besides, these are orderly countries where the flowers are neatly tended and the trains run on time. What did we have to worry about?
One unlucky event after another and we were stranded at a village railway station, one of those sleepy affairs where even during the day you probably couldn’t buy a ticket inside. The train had been delayed from Austria and we had missed our connection through no fault of our own. Ok, we told ourselves, so it will be a little later but we’ll make it, a bit past bedtime but that’s fine. When the next train rolled in at the appointed time, I climbed on happily. Doesn’t it seem strange that no one else from our previous train is getting on, my roommate asked. No, I assured her, it’s the middle of the night and it’s the right platform at the right time, just as it’s listed on the schedule. I was being foolish of course. V Ljubljano? we asked once aboard, the wheels already turning on the rails, and the answer was no. Now gripped by a mild panic we explained our situation to the conductor and a fellow passenger. The thing was, my roommate needed to catch a flight that morning. As in, one departing less than nine hours from now and in a city that we were currently moving farther away from rather than closer to. Could we catch another train? Not at this time of night. Could we get a cab? Not out here in the country.
I didn’t expect a solution to appear and yet one did, as one always does. Taking pity on us, the conductor called a friend in a neighboring village and arranged for us to be picked up at the next station and driven home. You’ll have to pay him, he explained somewhat apologetically but we were simply glad that this nonsense would finally end. If we had to throw some money at the problem, at least it wouldn’t be the price of a new plane ticket. Besides the pressing need to be at the airport, it also suddenly seemed essential that we get back to our apartment on Vrhovčeva precisely because it felt so impossible to achieve.
When the driver finally arrived, we climbed into the car gratefully, thanking him in Slovene and chattering between ourselves in English. We asked him a question, or maybe he asked us, I don’t remember now. What I do know is that he responded with numbers. In German. Admittedly, I couldn’t debate the merits of the Common Agricultural Policy or discuss philosophy in Slovene and neither could she. Still, we definitely knew the numbers. Ne govoriva nemško, we answered, taking extra care to use the proper dual word in Slovene to tell him that we, the two of us, didn’t speak German. But he continued as before, repeating the numbers more slowly now, still in German. Which of course is one of those classic tricks that does absolutely no good when you really truly don’t know what the other person is saying. Perhaps he thought that German was closer to English than Slovene and that we could guess. Maybe he didn’t believe that we spoke Slovene. Or maybe he thought he actually did know German and were just being shy. In any case, it turned in to a quiet ride back.
So here I was again a few years later, at the opposite end of what used to be one country with a German-speaking former Yugoslav cabbie, attempting to communicate. As we drove we passed a few remnants of what was once a shared economy. A Slovenian applicance store sold washers probably just like the one I had and there was more than one branch of Nova Ljubljanska Banka, the bank whose evolution and controversy in the past two decades has mirrored the complicated negotiations of the Yugoslav successor states. I could picture the flagship location across from the Slovenian parliament building, standing between an upscale department store and a tall ugly tower that I nonetheless had often relied on for the weather and temperature readouts. I was tempted to pull out my own NLB card just to test out whether it still worked after lying dormant for so long. Entering Pristina, a city that I had never been to before and which was definitely not Ljubljana, I still felt a little bit at home.
Kristina, enkrat za spremembo vem zakaj 🙂