Kosovo: 48 Hours in Prizren (through the lens)

An open-eyed shutter
Catching fragments of life

in sharpened image

And the rest?
They slip away
like ghosts into the shadows                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               

Time: 23 Oct 2016 5:26:30 pm; Place: Topokli, Prizren; Exposure time: 1/81                      

High above Prizren, I teeter down a rough track of uneven stone: one careless stumble could send me careering to the needles of minarets below.
In the alleyways children’s voices bounce off breeze-block and drift through the burnt-out windows of sagging houses.
Beyond the city, its red roofs spread like jam across the plains, the Šar Mountains rise up to a yellowed sky. The light is fading.

Time: 23 Oct 2016: 5.52:25 pm; Place: The Stone Bridge; Exposure time: 1/23                   

 The Bistrica River is a one-note song, a rush of shallow water that slaps over stone and on through the city. Ahead the humpbacked Stone Bridge is strewn with fairy-lights that blink in the gathering darkness.
On the corner of the Ottoman footbridge, a sallow-faced gështenjepjekës rearranges chestnuts on his grill. The smell of damp leaf, caffe macchiato and sweet chestnut fill the autumn air.

Time: 23 Oct 2016: 6.28:22 pm Place: Aim and Shoot Exposure time: 1/10                          

The gunman raises his pistol and stretches out his arms, stiff and straight. He closes an eye to check his target, takes aim and shoots. Behind him, three nooses hang from the rafters in a neat row.
I’m looking into Aim and Shoot, a tiny bar filled with testosterone-fuelled youths drinking beer and gathered round a paper target board. When they see me hovering in the entrance, they shout out greetings.
“Do tourists come here?” I ask the gunman.
“Of course, of course. They love it.”

“We are a friendly place,” adds his pal, face deadpan.

Time: 24 Oct 2016: 12.21 pm Place: Kalaja – Prizren Fortress; Exposure time: 1/41        

I’m standing on the edge of the ruins of Kalaja above the city, a medieval fortress first built by the Byzantines and taken over by the Ottomans. The air nips a winter warning. Across the plains, the Šar mountains are veiled in wedding white; the town below, a flounced skirt of clammy mist.
At first, there’s just the murmur of traffic in the streets below; then one voice rings out from a single minaret – and another and another until the whole town is vibrating with the call to prayer. The voices clash in discordant notes, then find their harmony.

Time: 25 Oct 2016 10:13:07 am Place: The Wedding House, Karashëngjergj in the Hasi Region; Exposure: 1/196

Behind the smallholder, a lob-sided arch of red and white ribbon splashed with lime-green contrasts the grey and brown of breezeblock, brick and stone – and the rusty black of the iron wrought gates that lead to his dirt yard. Schtjef waves a thick, calloused hand in greeting, grasping a pack of cigarettes in the other. His face, lined and leathered with nicotine and rough mountain living, spreads a wide smile: “Yes, my son got married yesterday. We are very happy.”
It’s wedding time in the Pashtriku mountains – when family return home from foreign places to join in the celebrations, lasting three days – maybe longer. These hillside villages are now alive with voice, barely muted in the deadening of autumn mists.

Time: 25 Oct 2016 10:18:34 am Place: The Rakia Barn and Yard, Karashëngjergj; Exposure: 1/94

We’ve been funnelled off into a stranger’s yard, all twenty-odd of us. We can smell the spirit and it’s drawing us. It’s rakia-making session on the Pashtriku hills, giving more reason for celebration. The grapes have been picked, the juices distilled and the liquid is flowing a fiery white; then burning-yellow.
“Come in, come in,” the villagers call to the strangers: Brits; Slovenians; Croats; Macedonians; Albanians; Serbs and Kosovars – Atheist, Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox or Muslim – it doesn’t matter where or what we’re from. We are all welcome (though unexpected and uninvited). Thimble glasses of plum rakia are handed out. I take a gulp and the liquid burns a hole somewhere deep in my gullet. We are handed plates of salami and dried meats, Šar cheese and bread. The rakia courses through my blood and hits the brain. I register its warm fuzziness along with the fact that it’s not long after 10am.

Time: 25 Oct 2016 10:27:35 am; Place: The Museum in the Basement, Kashëngjergj;  Exposure: 1/10                                                                                                                                      

The museum owner holds up a tiny cradle that held his son thirty-six years ago. Its curved wooden handle is painted in the colours of the Pashtriku hills: the blue of sky; the reddish-brown of earth and green of field. The cradle is covered in layers of bright woven fabric, created by aunts and nieces and cousins, and all the other women of the house.
Family is everything here. Behind, there are paintings of Mother Theresa and objects gathered from Kashëngjergj and the surrounding villages: old transistor radios; a hand-made sleigh and half-broken instruments, as well as an array of unidentifiable farming and cooking implements. I ask the museum owner if he had ever met Mother Theresa. “No, but she’s family.” He tries to work out the relationship. “She is the niece of my father’s cousin.”
It’s time to leave Kashëngjergj, but not before a glass of home-made wine from the barrel in the museum cellar and more rakia in the yard above. It’s still not mid-morning.

Time: 25 Oct 2016 1:15:45 pm; Place: Gjonaj, Hasi Region; Exposure: 1/11                        

A breadboard of mountain fare is placed in front of me: flija, a creamy crepe made of criss-crossed pastry; krelane; pumpkin pie and ajvar, a bright red pepper sauce served with olives; pite, filo pastry filled with cheese and a deliciously charred, stone-baked bread – all served with ripe tomatoes, fresh cucumber and lettuce. And to finish, a cup of macchiato espresso, strong and smooth. My girth grows with every meal – three and four courses, twice a day, along with breakfast. When no one’s looking, I loosen the button of my trousers.

Time: 25 Oct 2016 5:25:07 pm; Place: Vërmicë, Zhupa Valley; Exposure: 1/30                    

We are searching for an elusive spring in the Zhupa Valley near the Albanian border, but all we find is an old fish house of rotten wood, falling into the weedy pond. In the meadows, wispy strands of summer wildflowers stubbornly defy winter among the wizened bracken. Closer to the road, a newer and bigger fish house curls smoke from a tall bronze chimney. There is nothing much here but the fish restaurants, the White Drin Reservoir and the scrubby hills behind. But it doesn’t matter. Life is slow in Kosovo and there’s time: time to talk, to eat, to watch; to see, be still and reflect.
And to hold onto the fragments.

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