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The word Kosovo brings to mind images of the Balkan War — a place of blood — but Elizabeth Gowing talks about it as a place of sweetness, a place of honey with wonderful food, welcoming people and a complex patchwork of religion that manages to get along together in a tiny country. She also explains how her unexpected move to Kosovo led to her love of beekeeping and a new direction helping local communities.
Elizabeth Gowing is the author of five books, including Travels in Blood and Honey: Becoming a Beekeeper in Kosovo. She’s also a professional speaker and co-founder of The Ideas Partnership, a charity that empowers and supports people in need in Kosovo.
- An unexpected transfer to Kosovo
- Exploring Kosovo and the hospitality of the people
- The dying art of silver filigree
- The religious buildings and their significance
- Is it safe to travel to Kosovo?
- The symbolism of the traditional Kosovo foods
- Working with the Roma and Ashkali communities to educate children
- Tips for sustainable tourism in Kosovo
You can find Elizabeth Gowing at ElizabethGowing.com
Elizabeth’s headshot photo credit: Jonada Jashari
Transcript of the interview
Jo Frances Penn: Elizabeth Gowing is the author of five books, including Travels in Blood and Honey: Becoming a Beekeeper in Kosovo. She’s also a professional speaker and co-founder of The Ideas Partnership, a charity that empowers and supports people in need in Kosovo. Welcome, Elizabeth.
Elizabeth Gowing: Hi there.
Jo Frances Penn: It’s great to have you on the show. And as I was saying, I love the book, Travels in Blood and Honey. It’s just super original.
I want to just first talk about Kosovo because, in my mind, I know to a lot of listeners, Kosovo means war in our heads. That’s the only image we have. We don’t know much about it.
Could you explain, first of all, where Kosovo is and how it featured in the Balkans conflict?
Elizabeth Gowing: As you say, it’s the image that lots of people have, which is where I decided to start the title of my book with blood and honey because I realized that lots of people thought of it as a place of blood and I was really discovering it as a place of honey.
It’s a beautiful country with beautiful landscapes and hedgerows and all the things you’d imagine for a place that has great honey. And it’s also a very small country, which always surprises people because it did dominate so much in the headlines, less so now, thankfully. But in 1999 when the NATO initiative against Slobodan Milosevic’s forces was the huge news and the biggest initiative that was taken since the Second World War by NATO.
So people remember it for that war and can’t believe that it’s actually a country the size of Devon. So it’s a small country. Tucked in between other former Yugoslav countries like Montenegro, North Macedonia, Serbia, and it also has a border with Albania.
The people of Kosovo are a mixture of Albanians ethnically and Serbs ethnically with the vast majority of them now being Albanian. In terms of its climate, it has summers that are much hotter than the U.K.’s and winters that are much colder. So it veers between this very Mediterranean summer and then this really what people would probably think of as a Balkan winter.
Jo Frances Penn: And for any people who aren’t in the U.K., you said the size of Devon there. I’m trying to think of an American state that might be a similar size.
Elizabeth Gowing: Rhode Island always seems to get wheeled out as a comparator. But yes, I think it’s about the size of Rhode Island. I’ve never been to Rhode Island.
Jo Frances Penn: That is great because it is difficult to imagine the size. I guess the other question is what drew you to Kosovo and also Albania? And you speak Albanian, which is very cool.
Tell us how you came to work there and how bees helped you make a home.
Elizabeth Gowing: I didn’t intend to go to Kosovo. It was really a big surprise to me when it happened, but me and my partner were looking for some kind of adventure. We’d been based in London and working for 10 years and we were ready to do something.
And then he got a phone call one night saying…he was working as a civil servant at the time and he had worked on the Balkans. So he spoke some Serbian and he knew a lot more about the region, whereas I knew absolutely nothing about the region. And then he got this phone call and all I could hear was his half of the conversation.
I heard him saying, ‘Oh, yes, yes. Definitely. Well, I’ll just ask Elizabeth.’ You know, the wrong way round. And so, he came off the phone. I said, ‘Definitely what, you’re going to ask me?’
He had just been offered this wonderful job as advisor to the prime minister of Kosovo, the newly appointed prime minister who was looking for a British advisor. And 10 days after he was offered the job, our house was packed up and 10 days after that we were there.
I wouldn’t have been able to find it on the map and I didn’t know where we were going and I didn’t have time to get myself ready at all. And it was supposed to be just for six months. It was a short-term contract, which meant we threw ourselves into it just to get the most out of this country.
It’s a country which responds well to enthusiasm and spontaneity. I think people really immediately embraced us and wanted to show us things and it immediately felt like a place we wanted to spend more than six months. And that was 14 years ago. It didn’t quite turn out how we’d planned. I started learning Albanian once I got there.
And then on my first birthday in Kosovo, Rob, my partner, gave me a beehive as a present, a beehive complete with bees, that was on a farm just outside Pristina, which is the capital of Kosovo. We started going every weekend to visit the bees and learn from the farmer who had other hives of his own, how he looked after his bees.
Slowly, I did learn about beekeeping, but I also got to know him and his family and then I got to know their traditions and rural life in Kosovo, which I would otherwise not have had a chance to taste or to see. And it turned out to be the perfect way. I would recommend to anyone moving to a new country to become a beekeeper there.
Jo Frances Penn: Were you interested in bees before you went?
Elizabeth Gowing: Yes. It wasn’t a completely random present, but it was quite a random present. I was interested in the way that one sort of says…I mean, I’ve always said, ‘I’ll get a goat one day,’ and I haven’t ever got to goat, but maybe there’ll be a birthday present one day that will be a goat. But in the same kind of way, I just said, ‘Oh, wouldn’t it be cool to keep bees?’ It was the most wonderful present.
Jo Frances Penn: I love how the book weaves in. We’ll come back to the food and things like that in a minute.
I want to just ask about the place, and you’ve written a lot of travel articles as well as obviously what you’ve got in the book. You mentioned Pristina there and you also have talked about Prizren, I think it is, the Ottoman capital.
What are some of the particular places that you would recommend if people are visiting?
Elizabeth Gowing: It’s good that Kosovo is the size of Rhode Island or Devon because it’s small enough that you can get around really easily. So you can get a real mixture of the rural and the mountain villages where there are still traditional houses, these stone houses which were built in times of blood feud to keep families safe. And some of those are now made into little hotels or bed and breakfasts. And so, they’re very special.
If you can get the chance to stay in one of those and to get a feel of this hospitality, which is really a trademark of Kosovo’s. There is a saying in Albanian that your home belongs to God and the guest. And so, as a guest, you really are made to feel sort of second only to God and there is a sense that the guest is doing you the favor by coming to your house.
Any chance to get into those rural communities where the hospitality traditions are still strong is great. And also, anybody who loves hiking, or mountain biking, there are lots of great opportunities for rural tourism.
And then as you say, there are towns like Prizren, which is a very special town. It’s also the site of one of the Serbian Orthodox Churchill monasteries that are part of the UNESCO world heritage site in Kosovo. Prizren, I would really recommend, and then there are other Serbian Orthodox monasteries.
Probably my favorite is Dečani, which is about an hour and a bit from the capital. But if people just come for a city break because there are Wizz Air flights that get you from London to Pristina and people can do it as a weekend, then there’s even a UNESCO world heritage site monastery just outside the capital. So people often do that as a nice little weekend break.
And then there are the wonderful crafts which Prizren is the center for. And so, if you go to Prizren, I would say, yes, visit the buildings, but also makes sure that you have the chance to see some of the people at work, particularly on silver filigree, which is what I wrote my fourth book about. [The Silver Thread: A Journey Through Balkan Craftsmanship]
That’s something that used to be spread across the whole of the Ottoman Empire, but is now really dying out and has completely died out in some other countries. Kosovo is quite rare in being able to keep that alive. So visiting the guys in Prizren who still make these amazingly intricate jewelry and artifacts.
They start with a rod of silver and then they turn that into wire and then they turn the wire into these beautiful bits of jewelry. So there’s plenty of shopping opportunities too. And then eating. But as you say, maybe we talk about that later.
Jo Frances Penn: We’ll come back to eating.
I know you love the ethnological museum, which you mention several times in the book. What’s special about that?
Elizabeth Gowing: It is a really special place. You know how some places just have a kind of energy? And even though I know it now very well, I just walk in there and get that ah feeling of being in a beautiful old building, which is quite unusual in Kosovo because of the destruction in the war of 1999 where about half of the homes were destroyed.
This was a home originally, this museum. And so, just to be able to be in an 18th-century home is almost a unique opportunity in Kosovo. But it’s also been curated in a very imaginative way. So it’s not just a museum where you might have a room of pots and a room of rugs.
They take you through a cycle of birth and some of the rituals and beliefs about birth, and then the room of marriage, and then the room of death, and then the room of what you leave behind you after death.
It’s a very modern approach to ethnography with some wonderful guides. I’ve worked as a volunteer at the museum and so I’ve got to know the guides very well over the last 14 years. And, of course, like any place, it’s the people that bring it alive.
That’s true for the whole of Kosovo, but it’s also true for that museum. They will take you around and tell you the stories and explain what you’re seeing. And there’s also a lovely little garden there, which is quite rare.
Pristina is quite a concrete city. And it’s got a walnut tree and a mulberry tree. If you’re given the right season, you can pluck down fresh fruits and it does feel like a very magical little oasis.
Jo Frances Penn: That’s lovely. You mentioned a couple of monasteries there. I just love religious buildings. You also mentioned Serbian Orthodox. Now, I guess I’ve seen Greek Orthodox places.
What are the particular religious buildings that are interesting? What interesting about them and what’s different about Serbian Orthodox?
Elizabeth Gowing: The Serbian Orthodox Church is autocephalous, so it has its own head. And, in fact, for a long time that was in Kosovo, which is one of the reasons that Serbia feels so strongly that Kosovo is it’s heartland because it would be perhaps a bit like for an Anglican losing Canterbury because that’s where the church was based.
The monasteries are still a very important part of Serbian culture for Serbs in Kosovo and Serbs outside of Kosovo in the rest of Serbia. And they are definitely worth a visit because of the beautiful murals, and the paintings, and decoration.
They’re very dramatically stage-managed in the way that 14th-century religious buildings do. You walk in and there are these shafts of light coming down and you look up and there’s the face of God. There’s definitely a message there.
But there’s also some wonderful mosques. The Albanians of Kosovo are majority Muslim. There is still a significant Catholic population, but most of the Catholics became Muslim during the Ottoman rule because the Turkish Ottomans were there for 500 years.
Some of the mosques date back to the early 15th century and they also have very beautiful decorations. One thing I love about the religious communities in Kosovo is despite this high ethnic and political tension between the ethnic groups, the coexistence of the religions is something that probably is a lot better than the situation in the U.K. People are very comfortable going into one another’s religious buildings, celebrating one another’s holidays.
There are also Catholic Albanians, including the most famous Albanian, although she’s not probably famous for being Albanian. Lots of people are surprised to hear that Mother Teresa was Albanian. Her father was from Prizren, the town we were talking about, and she heard her calling in Kosovo.
The main boulevard through the capital is called Mother Teresa. And all Kosovos, whether they’re Muslim or Catholic, are very proud of having Mother Teresa as coming from and having such a strong connection with Kosovo.
Jo Frances Penn: That’s wonderful. Everyone thinks of her in Calcutta. She traveled a long way, obviously. And it’s great to hear that people are enjoying each other’s religions. I love to hear that. It’s fantastic.
Let’s also talk about the countryside. You mentioned the beautiful hedgerows, the stone houses up in the area.
What are any other beautiful places that stand out if people want to visit the sort of more countryside area?
Elizabeth Gowing: There’s great hiking because there are Peaks of the Balkans Trail, which takes in the mountains of Kosovo, Albania, and Montenegro, which are called the Accursed Mountains, which always feels very dramatic. It feels like something out of Lord of the Rings.
The Accursed Mountains are these big limestone mountains. And there’s very well-marked trails and places that you can stay along those. So for people wanting to do a longer hike there, then that really works. And also, they’re connected up with that long…what do they call it? A super trail. It goes all the way from Slovenia down into Albania.
There’s now increasing numbers of people who are following that route over weeks of a summer. And I’m really glad that people are being brought to Kosovo that way as well.
Jo Frances Penn: I definitely like hiking. You mentioned the Accursed Mountains there. I’ve got to ask whether it is safe now. We talked about the war and it being, what, 20-plus years ago.
Is Kosovo safe for people to just visit and walk around?
Elizabeth Gowing: Absolutely. It feels so safe. That’s the irony.
And, again, that was one of the motivations for writing the book I wrote because when I first went there, and that was even a shorter time after the war had finished, all my friends in England just kept saying, ‘Is it safe?’ And I was meanwhile having these idyllic walks and honey-drenched afternoons and it just felt such a long way from anything that wasn’t safe.
It is totally safe there. The British government would advise you against going up to some of the parts in the north where there’s one particular city which is an ethnically divided city, which sometimes becomes the focus for unrest. But then, the British government advises you against unrest in Switzerland as well. So you have to read all of that advice in context.
But certainly, walking around, you will just be made hugely welcomed, particularly, in fact, as a Brit, or an American, or from any of the countries of NATO. Then, of course, the majority Albanian population are hugely grateful for what was done during the war. And so, I think you get probably an extra special welcome, which is not always the case for being British abroad.
Jo Frances Penn: That’s true.
Elizabeth Gowing: People really appreciate that.
Jo Frances Penn: That’s fantastic. Let’s talk about the food because what’s lovely about Travels in Blood and Honey is that you have all these little recipes. Some of them are quite simple recipes and some of them are more complicated. And one of them is this…is it fli, you say?
Elizabeth Gowing: That’s right.
Jo Frances Penn: With Kosovan honey.
Please tell us about that and about the wonderful food and drink of the region.
Elizabeth Gowing: Fli is the iconic dish of the Albanians of Kosovo and Northern Albania as well. And I have a theory, and I think it’s not just my theory, that the way that you make fli is in a big round metal tray, which is the way a lot of Kosovan in food, and in fact, Balkan food in general, is made because it’s made to be baked often over an open fire and then put on a round table and then a family sits around that and all help themselves from that central tray.
I think there’s something quite significant about it being around a tray, anyway. And then you make this dish, which is a kind of layered pancake by creating strips of batter and then inter-layering them with cream. So it’s an extremely heavy dish.
If you can imagine a round dish that’s then got strips radiating out from the middle, makes it look rather like a sun. And there is some worship in the traditions of the Balkan region.
The word fli has two meanings. It means that dish, but “flia” also means sacrifice in Albania. So my little amateur anthropological theory is that this is harking back to a form of sacrifice and a kind of offering. And certainly, people always talk about fli as a special meal even though the actual ingredients are very, very simple. It’s just batter and cream.
It does take quite a long time to make, especially the traditional way, which is still how families like to do it for a special occasion, for a Sunday lunch, for example, where you do it over and open fire. You put the baking tray on the fire and then you have a lid that’s kind of like a dustbin lid if you can imagine, hot ash on top so that you have the heat from on top and from below.
You lay one layer of butter strips and you cook it and then you take it off the fire and you slather it with some more cream and then you put another layer of batter and put it back on the fire to bake for a bit and then you take it off and slather some more and more butter.
So it takes a few hours to do and it’s a job you can’t really do on your own, or at least women prefer to do it in pairs or as a group. So it becomes quite sociable…it’s quite a ritual making this dish.
It is a special dish to make and a special dish to be served. You can buy it in some shops, not many as a sort of takeaway. And like pancakes, you can have it sweet or savory, but, of course, my favorite is drizzled with honey.
Jo Frances Penn: Anything else you recommend eating or drinking? I always like to try the local tickle as well.
Elizabeth Gowing: There’s really wonderful food in Kosovo. I think people are often surprised. Balkans somehow has a bit of a grim sound too. You think of Balkan cuisine, it doesn’t necessarily conjure up images of wonderful vegetables because the markets are just really bright with the colors of vegetables.
The vegetables are great, but also all of the carbohydrates, which are all baked in these round trays, whether that’s cornmeal, pies, or pita, which is a kind of layered filo pastry which might be made with spinach, or with white cheese, or with pumpkin, or with meat. So those are all great.
And then the same round trays are also used for all kinds of desserts. Typically, baklava, which is served for special occasions, but also other things that usually involve drizzling with honey or sugar syrup. All of those are great. And there’s quite a tradition of sort of street food of buying a wedge of pie to eat in the streets.
And so, washing that down. People are often surprised how much wine and beer is made in Kosovo. Not just consumed, but there’s a real tradition of winemaking despite it being a Muslim country. A lot of the winemakers are Serbian, so they’re not Muslim. But a lot of the wine drinkers are people who are from Muslim families.
People are fairly tolerant of all kinds of drinking. And beer as well. There are lots of microbreweries in Kosovo, so there’s some good local beer. And then there’s a fermented sweet corn juice, which is apparently…well, probably, the nicest thing that can be said about it is it’s apparently very good if you’re breastfeeding.
Jo Frances Penn: I was going to say my face is like, ‘Ooh, that doesn’t sound good.’
Elizabeth Gowing: You’d be even more, ooh, if you actually taste it, in my opinion. But apparently very good for breastfeeding. But that is a traditional drink, and it’s just semi-fermented. So it kind of is slightly fizzy on your tongue.
Jo Frances Penn: Coming back on the wine, because I think the latitude is similar to sort of Northern Italy. Would that be about right?
Elizabeth Gowing: That’s right.
Jo Frances Penn: Everybody thinks, well, wine obviously is grown in that area of Italy. Just go East a bit and that’s where Kosovo is. There’s wine, right?
Elizabeth Gowing: Exactly. I think in Yugoslav times, a lot of the Yugoslav wine, which sort of my parents’ generation often talk fondly about having drunk Yugoslav wine when they were students, that kind of thing. A lot of that came from Kosovo.
But the vineyards really suffered during the war. Lots of people moved from the countryside to the cities, as often happens after conflict. A lot of the land, not just the vineyards, were really left untended and it’s taken quite a lot of effort to get them back on their feet again.
[Check out Stone Castle Wine.]
For a while, Waitrose was stocking Kosovan wine and you can still get it through some wine merchants out of Kosovo or out of the region. But it is a bit of a speciality brand. I think the white’s not so good in my opinion, but the red wine is really good.
Jo Frances Penn: I think that’s so important because it’s the whole idea of the terroir, drinking the wine of the region with the local food is really important, I think.
Elizabeth Gowing: Exactly. And, in fact, the terroir is also a good way of thinking about the honey because in the same way what you get in a spoonful of honey is completely dependent on what flowers the bees have been visiting in their 2-kilometer radius from the hive.
You can’t predict what it will taste like unless your bees are right in the middle of some monocrop, then a particular bee or a particular hive might have gone more to the lavender bushes or it might’ve gone more to the ivy or it might’ve gone to the heather. And so, you can’t predict, and that’s one of the things I love about real honey is the sense that you are getting a mouthful of all of those scents and smells from around you.
Jo Frances Penn: That’s wonderful.
Coming back on the different communities of Kosovo, you worked with the Roma…maybe you still do, with the Roma and Ashkali community, which you write about in The Rubbish-Picker’s Wife.
What stands out, particularly around that community? What makes them unique?
Elizabeth Gowing: The Roma community, they’re present across Europe. But the Ashkali community is really only in Kosovo. And it’s a community that to outsiders would seem to be the same as the Roma.
They look the same, they both come from India hundreds of years ago. And they also sadly occupy a similar position in society, which is the most marginalized, the highest rates of unemployment, the worst child mortality rates, the poorest literacy rates. All of those indicators are challenges for the Ashkali and for the Roma. And for both of those communities, they often survive by rubbish-picking.
And so, hence the title of my third book, The Rubbish-Picker’s Wife, which is about a woman, and the subtitle of the book is An Unlikely Friendship in Kosovo. It’s about the friendship that I struck up by chance with this woman from the Ashkali community who, by getting to know her and her family, I learned about the realities of that group.
Also then had some ideas about things I could do to support, but starting with her daughter who was out of school at the age of 9 and wanted to go to school and was being told she was too late to register. So I started trying to fight for her to be able to get access to education.
And then she said, ‘Well, what about my friends?’ It turned out it wasn’t just one 9-year-old, it was a whole community of kids who were wanting to go to school and the school wasn’t letting them.
We ended up, me and a group of other volunteers, starting teaching in a building that we rented and putting pressure on the local school and the government to make sure these kids could get their education.
That was 10 years ago and I thought that it was a bit like coming to Kosovo in the first place. I thought it was a six-month project. It turned out it was slightly longer than that because the more we got to know this community, the more we got to see the other issues they were facing.
Unless we could support the women in earning money, for example, then they wouldn’t be able to keep the kids in school because they were losing the income that the children brought in from their rubbish-picking or their begging. So then I started a social enterprise and we employ 12 women from the rural communities or from the Roma and Ashkali community on condition that their children go to school.
We’re trying to break that cycle and also give the income and the status and the sense of agency to the women in the community so that they are the ones who then can decide how their family’s income is spent and can make sure that their kids get what they need.
This has become a much bigger project than I ever imagined. Thankfully, if someone had told me at the beginning when I met Tatema, the women, that, 10 years later we would be the second-largest volunteer organization in Kosovo, that we’d be working in 5 municipalities, I would have been too scared. So it’s good sometimes that we don’t know.
Jo Frances Penn: Wow, that’s really taken off.
Is that The Ideas Partnership?
Elizabeth Gowing: Yes. That’s right. The Ideas Partnership is the name of our charity and then we have this social enterprise which is registered as a business, which is called Sa-pune, and that’s what employs the women. We have these two arms because we can see that you need to do both.
We have a philosophy of helping people in need but also helping people to help themselves. So helping the mums to help their families but through their own work. And then also a philosophy of helping people in need to help others in need to really turn the people in the community into the agents of transformation for their neighbors.
That’s what’s actually rather wonderful about still being there after 10 years of this work because now we can start to see that. We can start to see the first kids who we helped into school who are now finished school and are starting their own charities.
Or we’ve got the first of our youngsters who is now in her second year of training to be a teacher. And she will be the first teacher from her community. It’s not just her life that’s turned around, but all of those kids she will go on to work with. That’s a step change for everybody. It’s quite an exciting time really for seeing that transformation.
Jo Frances Penn: That is wonderful. Most people are not going to do what you did and be there for a decade and help so many people.
If people are going for a short trip, are there ways that we can do sustainable tourism that can help people in the community?
If people are going for that city break or are going through the Balkan area, is it obvious what shops are going to help local communities or any recommendations for that sustainable tourism?
Elizabeth Gowing: It’s so important to be always thinking about that, wherever you are, and to be thinking about buying local food and drink and also to be looking for souvenirs that are not just made in China with the name of Kosovo printed on them but are actually something made in Kosovo.
Whether that’s the silver filigree that I talked about in Prizren or the products made by the women in our initiative. They make tote bags and greetings cards. In fact, the greetings cards incorporate silver filigree. So we buy little pieces of filigree and then the women sew them into cards. So it’s a very special greetings card. So those kinds of things.
But also, we do have quite a few people who come as tourists, perhaps not just passing through but come for a week or a month, gap year students or new university students on their summer holidays who, as they come through, they want to do some volunteering and get to know a community and feel like they’ve contributed in some way. Because we are a volunteer-based organization, we often have people come for a week and they’ll help in our kindergarten.
We seem to have a huge number of knitters in the U.K. Just yesterday, I got a box in the post that didn’t have any name or address, it just said, ‘For Kosovo, with love.’ And it was full of knitted blankets, which I will take back with me when I fly back. And they will go to the new babies, which we always visit when a baby’s born. We have about one of those a week in the communities where we work.
We always need people to help with distributing those, taking photographs, and making sure they get back to the donors in the U.K. Reading with children, reading in English. In fact, we even have people who’ve been doing that on Skype during lockdown. Or teaching English in one of our learning centers or helping in our offices. There are lots of things that people can do. So, yes, we’re always open.
I think the great thing about Kosovo is this spontaneity and I think anybody who turns up with a will to help will be greeted with open arms by lots of the local people and other charities.
Jo Frances Penn: Fantastic. Apart from your own books and, of course, we’ve mentioned a couple, Travels in Blood and Honey, which I read recently, just fantastic.
What are a few other books that you recommend, fiction or nonfiction, about the Balkans?
Elizabeth Gowing: One book came out just earlier this year, which I think is the only other book in English that is not a political or historical book about Kosovo. So as a travel book, that’s called Dragon’s Teeth and its Tales from Northern Kosovo.
That takes more of the Serb community’s perspective and some really interesting stories. I really enjoyed that. I think for Kosovo, it’s so hard to understand the war and to understand some of the background to that, but there’s a great book called Be Not Afraid, for You Have Sons in America, which reads like a thriller, really.
It’s the story of the Brooklyn roofer who was from Kosovo and who set up this way of getting arms from America to the Kosovo liberation army who were fighting in 1998 and ’99. So it’s a very exciting book to read, but also, in doing so, introduces quite a few of the key people who are still active in politics in Kosovo. And it gives you a sense of the history and the reason. So I was really glad that that was one of the very first books I read when I went to Kosovo.
And then I’ve just finished…it’s a bit shameful because I’ve been in Kosovo for 14 years, but I’ve only just read probably the most famous Balkan book, which is Evo Andrić’s, Bridge on the Drina, which is set in Bosnia. But although it says in Bosnia, the story it tells, which is a bridge through the centuries and the different communities and governments that come and go and the different types of people living on and around the bridge, is true of so much of the Balkans. I really enjoyed that book.
And then for fiction, there are the books of Ismael Kadare who’s a great Albanian writer. His books are set in Albania rather than Kosovo, but they’re generally quite depressing books. They’re very beautiful and Kadare is still writing, so they’re up-to-date. People often have one of those in their rucksack as they come to Kosovo.
Jo Frances Penn: Fantastic. I just had one last question. Early on in the interview, you said you were looking for adventure and also you mentioned before we started recording that you’ve been in Costa Rica recently and obviously you’ve been in Kosovo so long in Albania.
As a Brit doing all of these different things, what does travel mean to you at this point when you’re always in different places?
Elizabeth Gowing: I’ve had to really think about that over the last couple of months because it has really thrown up for me just how much traveling I was doing. My life’s been very complicated for the last seven years.
My partner, Rob, has been working in Albania and we’ve been keeping our charity and our friends going in Kosovo. So we’ve been splitting our weeks, or at least our months between Kosovo and Albania, which is a five-hour bus journey. It’s doable commute, but we have spent quite a lot of time on the buses.
And then I’ve been coming back to the U.K. probably most months. I do quite a lot of talks about our charity, fundraising for the charity, and also talks about my books.
So I’ve been living this life between three homes and really living quite a lot of it just through my rucksack and then every so often wanting to go and explore and go on holiday to Costa Rica. We were due to be going to…well, in fact, in this two-and-a-half months of lockdown, I’ve been due to go to Greece, the Netherlands, and Italy, and Montenegro.
That was four trips that have already been canceled. And then I was due to be going to Morocco, which is what my next book is about, in October, which still could happen, but one’s beginning to wonder.
I’ve had to realize that perhaps this wasn’t that sustainable, perhaps not for me and perhaps not for the world. And I’ve realized just…I thought I’d go mad sleeping in the same bed for two-and-a-half months, which is what I’ve done just now for the first time in years and years. Well, certainly since before going to Kosovo.
I’ve been surprised by how much I’ve liked it. I think I am ready to get back on the move. Where we are in Komo, where we’ve been during the lockdown, we don’t even have a car, so literally, for 10 weeks, the fastest I have moved has been when I’ve been running downhill, which is still not very fast. So just the idea of getting in a vehicle that can get me somewhere quickly is quite exciting.
Jo Frances Penn: It’s interesting, isn’t it? I feel the same way.
Where is home to you? If we say home, where is that now?
Elizabeth Gowing: I spend quite a lot of time going mad about that question. I think particularly when Rob started working in Albania and I found myself between three places, I was constantly going, ‘Oh, but this one’s better for that. Oh, well, the food’s better there. Oh, the climate’s nicer in this one.’
And then I realized, it’s not a competition and it’s not a zero-sum game. It’s not like you’ve got to find the right answer. A couple of years ago, the president of Kosovo awarded me citizenship of Kosovo. So that actually really helped and made me feel very, very special and means that I do now have a Kosovan passport.
I can talk about going home when I go to Kosovo. But, of course, there’s so much that I’m from the U.K. and I’ve got family in the U.K. I couldn’t say honestly, it doesn’t feel like home here.
But funnily enough, I think coronavirus has made me feel more Kosovan because all of that sort of uncertainty about what might happen and not wanting to make any plans, that sense of just being grateful for what you’ve got right now because a war could break out or a pandemic is much more part of the sort of normal psyche of people in Kosovo, I think, because of their experiences than it is with this illusion we have in Britain of control.
It’s been quite a good discipline and quite interesting to watch, not just myself, but lots of other people learning some of those lessons as well. So maybe Britain is becoming more Kosovan in that sense and then I’ll be able to feel completely at home.
Jo Frances Penn: That’s fantastic. Where can people find you and your books and everything you do online?
Elizabeth Gowing: I have a website, which is probably the best place for everything. So that’s my name, elizabethgowing.com. I’m pretty active on Facebook and so is The Ideas Partnership active on Facebook.
People can find The Ideas Partnership through that and also Instagram and Twitter. We’re always looking for people to join us at The Ideas Partnership. So we try to make ourselves very find-able there. And my books are all available online so people can order them through my website or through Amazon or whatever.
Jo Frances Penn: Brilliant. Well, thanks so much for your time, Elizabeth. That was great.
Elizabeth Gowing: Well, thank you very much for having me. Stay well.
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