Boge, Rugova - Kosova.
Thumbtacks stud the roof of the taxi like a scattered constellation, glinting softly in the late afternoon light. Between them, a filmy gray fabric sags, heavy from years of nicotine filled cab rides. The driver fumbles for his cellphone, maintaining an all too casual eye on the winding, narrow road ahead.
“You’re not going to believe this,” he bellows into his phone in Albanian, “but I’m not going to be able to say goodbye to you tonight. I’m driving to the Rugova mountains." He pauses. "Yeah, to Boge of all places."
“His friend is leaving the country,” Eros translates.
I’m not sure if I should feel guilty or ripped off. Either this friend is not much of a friend or our bloated American wallets pose too great of an opportunity in a country where the average monthly income is two-hundred euros a month.
“I’m sure we’ll see each other again.”
The guilt wins out. When someone leaves Kosova, it’s usually not for a holiday. They’re leaving to find work abroad. One in four Kosovars are unemployed, and those who are lucky enough to have work hold at least two jobs. With Kosova’s statehood mired in EU bureaucracy, the only places that Kosovars can legally travel to are former Yugoslavian states, most of which face their own unemployment crises. The only practical option Kosovars have is to illegally cross the border and seek employment elsewhere, making hard goodbyes routine.
The bus terminal in Kosova’s capital of Pristina is a libertarian’s wet dream. Bereft of a centralized transit system, private bus companies are left to duke it out for ridership. Bus schedules are non existent and erratic stops along the road for more passengers, or perhaps, metal beams for the driver’s construction side job, are to be expected. But hidden within this chaos is a refuge for those seeking to cross the border.
You can spot them, men young and old, huddled in front of buses bound for Germany or Switzerland. Men in outdated Kappa polo tees and track pants, seemingly ossified by the trauma of the late 90’s. While we were dragging our feet at the prospect of a two hour bus ride to Gjakova, a boy no older than eighteen was saying goodbye to his family.
“He probably won’t see them for a few years,” Eros said. “It’s hard enough to get there and once you have a job you don’t risk coming back for awhile.”
But long goodbyes are not new to Kosovars. The genocidal crusades of the Serbian government in the late 90’s spurred a mass diaspora, sending Kosovars all over the globe. It’s the reason Eros’ family came to New York in 1999. Why some of his little cousins gasp mein gott! and why his Agji Iber, a dead ringer for David Hasselhoff, can roll up in a BMW convertible from Germany.
The disparity in wealth between Kosovars and the gurbetgji -- Kosovars who live elsewhere and return for the summer -- is stark. Flashy cars flood the narrow jigsaw shaped streets, overcrowding a chaotically under-planned city.
“They murdered the city planner, you know this?” Eros’ mother Fatmire reaches over to me from across the backseat.
“The corruption is so bad! Trust me. He was so smart, had lot of degrees. He went to big college in America. He want to help Pristina. Look how bad the streets are? And what they do? They kill him.”
We slow to a crawl. These cars all have one destination: a wedding. Or a pre-wedding ceremony. Or a post wedding ceremony. Weddings last at least three days and the entire diaspora rains down on the tiny country to marry off their children in the homeland. It’s what brought Eros and I to Pristina. His cousin Arber is getting married.
We stop at a closed-off street. Construction workers wave us to an even smaller side street. Eros’ cousin fingers through his wallet. Fatmire bounces excitedly.
“Oh no,” Eros sighs.
Fatmire starts to giggle. One of the construction workers approach the car. A flurry of Albanian passes and I elbow Eros to translate. But I don’t need him to. Eros’ cousin pulls out twenty euros and I hear “Amerikan.” The construction worker grimaces but lets us through. He doesn’t take the money.
“Oh God,” I lament.
“It’s because we have Americans in the car!” Fatmire exclaims.
There’s Bill Clinton Boulevard. Bill Clinton Avenue. There’s a colossal Bill Clinton statue in the middle of Pristina. Kosovars have a special reverence for Americans because Clinton sent special forces during the war to push back the Serbians. It was instrumental in gaining Kosovar independence. A fact that has lead to many colorful debates between my Marxist boyfriend and his Albanian nationalist father.
“He said it’s disgraceful that we bribed him and called attention to being Americans,” Eros whispered, referring to the construction worker that let us through.
“He’s said we should be ashamed, flaunting cash like that in a poor country.”
“What is this ‘we’?!” I protest.
“Did you see that, Amanda? In Kosova we love Americans! Like famous people!” Fatmire is joyously ignorant of her son’s politics when she wants to be.
We missed the bus to Gjakova. The sun flames out, long and lean as it sets behind the bus terminal. Nonna Rushje (literal translation: Mother Grapes) leans on her cane, downright furious with her inept daughters.
“I hope the imps eat you all alive!” she cries. Eros tries to explain that this common Albanian phrase is not as harsh as it sounds in English. The daughters flit nervously before deflecting the blame onto their daughters.
“Emira, how could you be so stupid, you made us miss the bus!”
“How was I supposed to know that was our bus?!” Eros’ sister Emira is not the dutiful flower her mother hoped she would be. She’s a New School grad student with a mouthful to say about her mother’s gendered politics.
“They said it leaves at seven! It’s 6:30!” she protested.
“The buses don’t leave when they say they’re going to leave! Budalla!” Fatmire scolds.
Emira stomps back to the ticket stand while we stand stranded with the sun fading fast.
“My mother, she is very sad, Amanda,” Fatmire explains.
“My sister, she say she’s going to pick up Nonna Rushje for the wedding. But she didn’t come for her. My mother is so old. It’s so bad. She shouldn’t be taking the bus like this.”
Dusk leaving Pristina
Nonna Rushje bore eleven children. The first four, from her first marriage, were taken from her when her husband died. Back then, women weren’t allowed to maintain custody of their children when they became widows. The father’s family would assume custody and women were barred from seeing their children. Nonna Rushje doesn’t talk about it and her daughters are hush whenever it’s mentioned.
Fatmire is one of seven children from Nonna Rushje’s second marriage. There are six sisters in all and they’re like a beautiful coven of eternal mothers. They live for their children. The oldest is Tetja Nife. She lives in Switzerland and it’s her son that is getting married. She’s got a broad, sweet smile and a granddaughter that clings to her leg. No one bothers to separate the girl from Tetja Nife; she lets out a blood curdling scream if they’re separated.
Then Tetja Qamile. She’s married to Albanian David Hasselhoff a.k.a. Iber, who offers everyone a joy ride through the countryside in his convertible and pushes rakia (albanian moonshine) on Eros any chance he gets. They live in Germany with their three sons. In the middle is Fatmire, a.k.a “my mother in law,” as her sisters unabashedly poke. Eros and I are twenty-five and we’re not married, making us practically geriatric in Kosova.
Fatmire is fiercely devoted to her children. She and Naser, Eros’ father, were forced from their home by Serbian forces in the late nineties. At nine months pregnant, with Eros and his sister Emira in tow, Fatmire fled Kosova with Naser. She gave birth to her son Etnik on the road in Macedonia. Her heroic tale makes me feel guilty when I resent her gendered urgings that I pack Eros’ bag for trips. Or that I wear painfully high heels. Or that I just put on a bit more makeup.
Then there’s Tetja Edi. All of the sisters are beautiful but Tetja Edi has the bone structure to rival Marlene Dietrich. She co-owns a bus company with her husband in Gjakova and has a comfortable living. Tetja Sanije is the second youngest. She also lives in Brooklyn and has two children. To me and Eros’ siblings she is lovingly “Tet.” A single mom who works six days a week cleaning houses and working checkout at Foodtown. The sisters refuse to let her pay for anything while she’s in Kosova. Last is Tetja Bomi, the youngest of the bunch, who naturally teases that she is ageless.
Packing is a family affair. Three generations of Imeri women. From left to right: Sanije, Fatmire, Emira, Vesa, Nonna Rushje.
Almost all of the sisters and their daughters get ready at Tetja Edi’s house the morning of the wedding. Girls run to and fro, consumed by clouds of hairspray and steam.
The sisters come running at the word, ready to primp, adjust, fuss at a moments notice. They’re only half dressed and made up themselves, with rollers hastily fastened to their heads.
“So we’re not going to actually see them get married?” I ask Eros. I’m getting dressed in Eros’ cousin’s room, avoiding the vacuum of 1950’s womanhood just beyond the door.
“No they already got married in a private ceremony.”
“Oh. But I don’t have to get too dressed up for the first part, right? Flats are fine?”
“Yeah they’re fine,” Eros mumbles. He’s foggy from a night of rakia and secondhand smoke from the nata e darsmes (men’s ceremony) the night before. The door knocks. I wordlessly plead with Eros not to answer it. “I have to, it’s my mom with my clothes.”
Fatmire bursts in with morning kisses and a freshly pressed suit. She is ecstatic at the prospect of tending to Eros’ every need while we’re in Kosova. He moved in with me a few months ago, which means that he’s been doing housework for far too long. She glances at my outfit.
“Oh so good, Amanda.”
She approves of my dress but her eyes linger on my practical flats. She picked out a pair of heels for me last night when she laid out my outfit. I speed walk to the bathroom to avoid confrontation. I stay in there for what I think is an appropriate amount of time for Fatmire to dress her full grown son. When I tip toe back to the bedroom, Eros is waiting for me.
“My mom wants you to wear the heels,” Eros sighs as he opens the door.
“No. I’m wearing the heels to the wedding so I only have to hobble around for half the night. You said the morning ceremony was casual.”
“Yes. That makes sense, no worries.” His smile is forced.
“You wanna wear the heels?”
“No, I know it’s silly. Don’t worry, I’ll tell her.” Eros leaves the room but I doubt his negotiating skills. He sheepishly returns, holding my black heels with Fatmire in tow.
“She said if you just make your entrance…”
“No, not your entrance. When we make our entrance as a family. If you just wear the heels then, my mom will give you your flats after that.”
It’s 9AM and my flats have been taken hostage by the matriarch.
A buzzy clarinet weaves in and out of a heavy, polyrhythmic drum. The groom’s pre-reception ceremony is in full swing. Tetje Qamile holds her head in her hands.
“Why, with the drums at every ceremony now?” She’s been to three weddings just this week. The groom’s father is a bit of a traditionalist and has hired a three piece band to accompany Arber’s morning ceremonies. The women are dripping in jeweled, crystalline dresses while the men accompanying them are in polos and distressed jeans. It becomes clear that the first ceremony is casual, just not for the women. Fatmire relinquishes my flats and I shuffle over to the kids’ table to change.
The fluorescent venue is a sharp departure from the bucolic images I conjured on the way over. After driving past miles of farmland, I pictured a quaint cottage in the countryside with dhemi-clad women throwing flowers and dancing the valla on the front lawn. Instead we pulled up to a lone, neo-grecian structure still partially under construction. I didn’t realize that Kosovars and Brooklynites had the same taste in wedding venues.
“It used to be different when my mom got married,” Eros explained. “She had her ceremony in Punashec, in the house she grew up in, with a garden and a barn just outside.” My pastoral fantasy wasn’t wrong, it was just off by twenty-five years. The band leads the party outside. It’s time to move on to the Kunagjeq, the ceremony held by the bride’s family. Which means that it’s also time to decide who’s going to go in whose car. Fatmire and her sisters were farm girls when they were young, which becomes clear when they start wrangling their children like cattle. But their calves aren’t so docile.
“Mami, jo! I’m not taking a ride with them!”
“Someone has to!”
There’s political strife within the Imeri family. The sisters have to play their cards right and they need to sacrifice one of their young to ride with a controversial family member.
“Emira, you take the ride with them.”
“Jo. Have Eros and Amanda go with them.”
“Ma, no, that won’t be a good experience for Amanda. What about Dorentina?” Eros protests.
“Tina is already driving us, Eros,” Emira corrects. Their cousin, Dorentina, sighs with relief.
The kids were getting ornery and while the sisters are usually self-sacrificing, they’re not willing to endure the awkward car ride themselves. A quick bait and switch and a hand is forced. At risk of inflaming old wounds, I can't divulge the dreaded driver. But I will say that the unlucky party was quite bitter on their way to the kunagjeq.
Wedding band in Gjakova
Traffic. It’s like the scene from Godard’s Weekend. Cars are stuck bumper to bumper on both sides of the road. A ceaseless stream of honking persists while old European men gesticulate out their windows. Men with popped collars and gold chains leisurely lean against their stationary cars and smoke their cigarettes. But it’s the merriest traffic jam I’ve ever been in. It’s another wedding party. With Albanian flags draped over their hoods, flying from their windows, they yell out “Urime!” I’d be terrified if I ran into a wedding party flagrantly waving American flag in the States. But in Kosova it’s nationalism of a different flavor.
Kosovars weren’t always at liberty to express their cultural identity. When the Serbians took hold of Kosova, they attempted to invoke an apartheid state. They shut down Albanian newspapers and TV programming, segregated the schools and fired all Albanian government workers. All of the Albanian doctors at Pristina’s leading hospital were dismissed and replaced with Serbian doctors. It was around this time that Eros was born. Fatmire wasn’t allowed to hold him for days. The doctors told Fatmire that Eros was sick and recommended that they send him to Belgrade for treatment. Feeling uneasy, Naser pulled Fatmire and Eros from the hospital. They discovered shortly after that hospitals were separating newborns from their mothers and later telling them their children didn’t make it to Belgrade.
Traffic jam on the way to the Kunagjeq
The honking subsides, replaced by the beating of the davul as we arrive at the kunagjeq. The clarinetist follows closeby, leading the procession, now on foot, into the banquet hall. The women twirl sheer red handkerchiefs as they burst through the entrance. The bride’s family is dancing in a massive valla in the center of the hall. It’s very much like the Greek circle dance, kalamatianos, except more measured (Naser would naturally argue that the Greeks stole the dance from the Albanians). The sound of our band gets swallowed up by the massive speakers in the hall. With hands clasped, Arber’s family inserts themselves into the valla. They’re here to acquire the bride.
Arber’s bride descends a long, ornate staircase, escorted by her brother.
“She’s not smiling Eros…” I whisper.
“She’s not supposed to look happy” he explains. “If she’s too happy that means she’s glad to leave the family. If she’s too sad then it’s like, why is she getting married?”
“But she’s not leaving her family. Don’t they all live in Switzerland?”
Eros shrugs. Traditionally the kunagjeq was a bittersweet ceremony. It was the last time a bride would be with her family. Arber’s bride faithfully sticks to the tradition, wearing an inscrutable expression behind her crimson veil. She passes us on her brother’s arm while a reception worker follows closely behind with a fog machine. Another worker trails him, spraying what looks like lighter fluid in the bride’s wake. I look to Eros to clarify but he’s just as baffled. A match is thrown and a fiery heart erupts in the middle of the dance floor, the bride’s long veil inches away from the flames. The bride watches it, impassive. The flames die out and the crisp, white tiled floor is left unscathed.
“That’s Arber’s brother, Butrint,” Eros says, pulling me away from the pyrotechnics. He motions to a familiar looking man across the room. His features are very similar to Eros’; it’s obvious that they’re cousins.
“They were so bad when they were young. Neighbors constantly complained about them,” Eros laughs as we exit the Kunagjeq, successfully having acquired the bride. Naser and Fatmire took in Arber and Butrint when the war escalated in the countryside. “Pristina was safer for a bit. Some of the worst atrocities took place out in the country where it was still pretty underdeveloped.”
Tetje Nife could only secure visas to Switzerland for herself and her husband. The boys were just teenagers when they were separated from their parents so, naturally, they got into a bit of trouble. Naser, typically a stern authority with his own children, was soft with the boys.
“My dad’s really proud that he got them out before the airport was shut down.” Naser managed to secure visas for Arber and Butrint just days before the airport was closed by Serbian forces.
The drums are pounding yet again, making our arrival to the groom’s house in Gjakova feel like a triumphant conquest. The bride emerges from the limo, expertly cryptic. Gunshots rip through the air, confirming that this is indeed a victory. Just enough rounds were fired to keep the tradition alive but not enough to call the attention of the authorities. The days of Albanian Picnic are numbered with law enforcement coming down harder on wedding gunfire. Eros and his little cousin run off to find shell casings, but Agje Iber has a better idea.
“Vali, don’t waste time looking for shells. I’ll take you to shoot a gun,” he magnanimously offers, further solidifying his Hasselhoff image.
The bride is led under an altar of flowers and Arber comes to her side. He lets a proud smile slip but quickly composes himself to mirror his statuesque bride.
“Doesn’t the noosa look beautiful?” Fatmire asks.
“She does,” I smile.
The bride and groom after the Kunagjeq. The kids are over it.
“They’re back!” Doruntina whispers at the sound of a car door closing downstairs.
“Nooooo,” there’s a unanimous groan. All of us girls are splayed across Tina’s room, buried under mounds of blankets. We were allowed a brief respite from the matrimonial marathon before the reception. We dig deeper under our blankets and lie still, hoping they’ll see us sleeping and leave us alone. But the door opens and the sisters descend on the room, a merciless battalion, slapping every butt in sight.
“Chu, chu, let’s go,” they corral.
“Didn’t the noosa look beautiful, Amanda?” Fatmire asks me again.
“Mmm-hmm,” I muffle into a pillow. Her wedding hints are getting less and less subtle as the day wears on. Tet plops down next to her oldest, Vesa, and cuddles her. It’s moments like these when it’s clear who the younger sisters are. She and Tetja Bome, along with Nonna Rushje, were the last sisters to leave Gjakova during the war. From what Eros told me, the Serbian army was largely stationed in the foothills of Gjakova, close to their house. Women in the country were brutalized by Serbian soldiers so it was a frightful time to live in such a remote area. Luckily, Eros’ aunts were spared from the worst atrocities of the war, but they lived in constant fear until they were able to leave.
“I would run over this mutt if your girl wasn’t American,” Butrint smirks as he pulls out of his driveway and past a stray dog. I’m starting to understand how Butrint got a reputation.
He’s driving us up to the mountains where the Serbians were stationed, then to the old house where Fatmire had her Kunagjeq. Smoke billows from his cigarette and he rolls down the window, another consideration made for the American. He points to a rolling green crest above the neighbor’s farm. It’s where the Serbians stationed snipers and it’s closer than I had imagined. Butrint’s car stutters. The road to the mountain is rough, so we make a sharp turn and head for the old house instead. We turn into dense woods, the light filtering gently through the trees above. Butrint slows the car and points to a clearing with a scattering of small headstones.
“That’s the family plot,” Eros motions to the private cemetery. We continue on and make our way back onto a dirt road. A lone cow grazes dully, flies swarming around its eyes. Butrint motions to the road ahead.
“They dragged a man through the streets, just over there,” Eros translates. It becomes easy to understand Butrint’s callous regard for the stray when you understand what he was subjected to. We pull onto another long road canopied by trees. The old house is at the end. It’s boarded up on all four sides and has fallen into disrepair. A wire fence lines the whole property. The house is the point of tension within the Imerji family. The car idles for a while, we can’t go any further. Eros and Butrint don’t say much on the way back.
A drone buzzes overhead. It nearly collides with a massive camera crane as they both try to capture the bride and groom’s first dance. A violinist with an electric bow encircles the couple, the LED strip on his bow changing colors as he gingerly strokes the violin. A reception hall worker crouches as he works a fog machine on wheels, misting the dancefloor. Another worker, his eyes glazed over, fans the fog so that it sweeps directly around the newlyweds. It’s a calculated production. A liberal amount of lighter fluid is thrown down on the floor, but I’m ready for it this time. Bright orange flames shoot up from the mist.
“Doesn’t the noosa look beautiful, Amanda?” Fatmire asks again.
“I don’t know Fatmire, that’s a lot of makeup,” I snap. I’m immediately embarrassed. Luckily she didn’t hear me. I’m relieved Eros didn’t hear me either. After a few hours of being subjected to primping, fussing, painful shoes, and the prospect of marriage, I’ve completely lost my filter. I resolve to just smile and nod for the rest of the night.
We’re seated a large round table. Eros’ uncles are getting noticeably more squinty as the raqia is passed around. Tetje Edhe’s husband has pushed quite a bit of it on Eros.
“I don’t feel it at all!” he exclaims as he takes another shot. I want to believe him. Everyone gets up and starts another round of the valla. I smile and sit this one out.
“Amanda, come!” his aunts urge. There is no sitting this one out. The dance is simple but it’s easy to set off the circle with one misstep. You have to seamlessly break in and grasp any hand you can get a hold of. I circle the room a few times with Emira and Vesa before sitting back down, dizzy. The valla goes on.
Eros is engaged in a conversation with his uncles and I’m nervous that I’m going to get swept into the valla again. I look to fourteen-year-old Vali for some companionship, but he has become a mute this trip, answering questions in brusque yes and no’s. Brooklyn born, he’s been embarrassed to speak Albanian with his family. Apparently his vow of silence has also extended to English.
The valla takes a brief pause for dinner. Fatmire quietly argues with Emira under her breath in Albanian. Emira obstinately stares straight forward.
“Jo,” Emira says over and over again. I ask Eros what’s wrong.
“My mom wants Emira to go over and say hi to, you know…” Eros subtly tilts his head to the other side of the room. “She’s telling Emira that it’s uncivil for her to ignore them. Emira is arguing that they should be the ones that come over to our table.”
“She’s not wrong though, no?”
“Eh, no....” he stalls, distracted, wary to take sides and trying to catch the drama in real time.
I notice that all of the aunts are giving their children a stern talking too. I can’t understand her, but Tetje Qamile is scolding her youngest son, Bese. His arms are folded tight across his chest, his head bowed like a stubborn calf being pulled back into the shed, avoiding eye contact with his mother. Tina is gesticulating at Tetje Edhe. The young calves are emboldened by their older cousins and are refusing to give in.
Emira is testing her mother’s saintly disposition. Over the course of my six year relationship with Eros, I’ve never seen Fatmire lose patience with her children. Suddenly Fatmire’s docile eyes narrow and she gives the table a quick smack.
“Oooooh, Emira!” Eros jeered, like a spectator at a boxing match.
“What, what did she say?!”
“She said she would smack Emira silly if she didn’t get her butt up and say hi!” We both started heckling. It was too novel to see Fatmire mad to actually be alarmed. Emira shot back at her mother with a flurry of Albanian. “I’ll go,” Eros offered magnanimously. Emira and I shot him a look for playing into the role of the dutiful son. But it was too late. One by one, the defensive failed. The mothers were victorious. All of the children made their way over to the other side of the hall. The only one that held out was sixteen-year-old Bese, and Tetje Qamile was fuming. Eros came back and patted Bese on the back. “I respect it, Bese,” Eros nodded, shamelessly playing both sides.
Eros is missing. He disappeared sometime after dessert.
“Amanda, come!” the aunts urge again. Another valla was circling around the room. Emboldened by Bese’s bravery, I politely decline. They looked hurt, as if I hadn’t danced at all. It nearly broke my resolve but I stayed seated. After a few rounds of dancing, the Imerji family gathered to take a family photo. I look around for Eros but he’s nowhere in sight. Just before we’re about to take the photo, he materializes next to me. He looked as if he had been in a wind tunnel. The raqia finally hit. He spent the last hour curled up in the corner of the men’s bathroom like a wounded animal.
“Why didn’t you tell me? I could’ve helped you,” I laughed. He skillfully managed to avoid most of the archaic masculine traps on this trip but he fell prey to this one.
“No. I had to sober up on my own,” Eros whispered. He massaged his temple. “How embarrassing. Hi family, you haven’t seen me in thirteen years and I’m drunk. No, that wasn’t going to happen.”
We manage to squeeze in tight next to Arber and his wife.
“Look, you guys all frown for photos,” I poke as I look around at the Imerjie family, stone faced. Eros has a hard time smiling in photos and I’ve made fun of it since we started dating. He has, what I like to call, a frown smile. But this trip has been illuminating in more ways than one.
“We’re a people that has seen war, Amanda. We don’t smile in photos” Eros quips.
The photographer snaps a few pictures. The wedding is over.