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“Fear makes strangers of people who should be friends” Shirley Maclaine
In some respects, this adventure could be characterised by the many faces I’ve been lucky to meet and their stories I’ve enjoyed hearing. Such encounters have restored my faith in humanity and taught me a great deal about a huge range of topics, most importantly about the world, human nature, and myself.
Like virtually every other country, in Kosovo I was welcomed warmly by complete strangers. I was invited to stay with strangers for a crazy 8 nights in a row here. Here is one such night.
A rude awakening by some ‘yobs’
Early in the evening, I’d gone swimming with a few teenagers, the type you might avoid; sporting shaved heads and walking with real swagger, a few smoked, and I’m pretty sure I even saw a few tattoos. They looked a bit rough, and even I was a little cautious.
With that in mind, you can imagine my terror when, hours later, in the middle of the night, I was awoken by voices over my headphones, and these guys standing giant over me, lost in the inky blackness, only slightly lit by the moon above.
I exhaled a sigh of relief when it emerged they had just come to check I was okay. That relief turned to glee as they produced a bag filled with homemade sandwiches, yogurt and a bottle of Fanta, which they had raided from their nan’s fridge. They watched on as I gratefully devoured their (nan’s) gifts.
They then became obsessed with the fact I was surely cold? The fact that I was English, in an arctic sleeping bag, on a hot Kosovo summer night, while they sat comfortably in shorts and t-shirts, was something I carefully pointed out, but ‘no’ was not a valid answer. Wood was quickly collected, a fire built, vodka appeared as if by magic, and just like that my thoughts of an early night vanished.
There’s something special about the way the warm glow of embers and the crackle of wood roasting in a campfire can aid conversation. As it had become apparent that I had learnt more Albanian (Kosovo’s language) in my 3 days there, than they knew English, we really needed all the help we could get! It is amazing how much you can communicate through charades, often with hilarious miscommunications and consequences, rather like an extended game of Chinese whispers.
Late in the night, our campfire was fizzling out, the vodka empty, and my sleeping mat resting on the uneven floor calling for me. One of the older boys, Syl stuttered to me with a warm grin, “I look… I look… no good here. Sleep me”. Within 10 minutes, we were at his house, and I was comfortably wrapped up in bed in the house of someone I’d known about 3 hours. (It was only the next morning I realised he’d given me his bed, and he’d been on the sofa!)
There are few better things, if any, a bike tourer can wake up to than good food. A wave of new and unfamiliar aromas drifting in from a fresh Albanian breakfast as I rolled out of bed is about as good as it gets. The tasty breakfast was interrupted while Syl fetched a coffee, by his Dad waking up. The confused expression on his face made me realise he hadn’t got the memo that a strange, scruffy foreign person was sitting at his table tucking into some food. He faltered but a second, before giving me a friendly handshake and encouraging me to resume eating.
Finally, attention turned to my hair and beard which Syl was insistent he should cut. My hair has been
a source of ridicule among friends from home, and those I’d met on the road for anything longer than 5 minutes. I knew it wasn’t a great look, resembling a strange Wolverine-Chimney Sweep combo, and I’d had one too many people ask me sincerely if I was from Iraq. I acquiesced (again ‘no’ probably wouldn’t have been an acceptable answer anyway) somewhat nervously to having a non-barber cut my hair – I was assured it would be ‘very good’ but that was also the extent of his English.
I always find leaving my new found friends hard, virtually all of whom I will never see again. Syl assured me he’d come to visit me in England, and made me promise to return to Kosovo to stay with him; very endearing, but in reality, unlikely to happen (he didn’t even have a Facebook or phone number to exchange), but that makes the brief time together even more something to be cherished, and the example of unconditional hospitality even more inspiring.
The second tale of hospitality to restore your faith in humanity, in which an entire town comes to my rescue to save me from an untimely end with dogs, will be
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