Pristina, Kosovo Report of what it's like to live there - 04/30/13
Personal Experiences from Pristina, Kosovo
1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?
2. What is your home city/country? How long is the trip to post from there, with what connections? How easy/difficult is it to travel to this city/country?
Washington, DC to Pristina was 9 hours flying time with short layover in Vienna, Austria.
3. How long have you lived here?
July 2010 to June 2012.
4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
Balkan homes typically were built for three-generations of family to live together. For rentals, landlords typically split the homes into three separate apartments. Interiors could have a small flight of stairs with several steps between the general living/dining/kitchen level and the bedroom level. No walk-in closets. You will need armoires.
A developer opened an "International" housing community a bit outside of town. Hearsay: it's good.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
Same as Washington, DC. You can get pretty much anything you need. We mail ordered for quinoa, sun-dried tomatoes (without salt), pine nuts, dried cranberries, and any special American stuff. Just a sign of the salt: after you buy your first package of salt at the grocery store on arrival, you will never need to buy it again. It is about a one-pound box.
3. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
Many, many restaurants. Mostly Italian food, seafood, pizza, and Turkish food. There is only one Chinese place and one Irish pub. Street food is burek (stuffed pastry with spinach, beef, or cheese fillings). If you have a sodium-restricted diet, I recommend you cook at home. If you order a grilled trout, for example, it will be salt-encrusted. There are bakeries on every corner selling heavenly-smelling fresh, white Albanian-style bread in small and large rounds. If you want heartier bread, a PanExpert (German chain) has opened one location downtown.
If you like to eat pork (and they serve huge servings of it) go to Gracanica, the Serbian neighborhood about 20 minutes' drive outside town. They don't speak much English over there, so having the Serbian phrases would be helpful there, too. The Albanian population is nominally Muslim, so pork is not usually available at restaurants or grocers. Usually what you find is some dried pork imported from Croatia.
4. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
Some flies, as I recall.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
We used DPO, but I did make an order for something from Austria, and it was shipped using our street address.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
High unemployment. Lots of people available for 5 euros per hour.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
4. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?
Use cash. Get it from a Raffeisen ATM.
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
Yes, Catholic and Protestant.
6. English-language newspapers and TV available? Cost?
The local tv service had a few English channels but with tv programming that was from the 80s and 90s.
7. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
You could get around without Albanian, but it definitely helps for comfort level. I suggest at least knowing the phrases in the back of the Lonely Planet guide. They will love you even more! I suggest starting with the Pimsleur CD set for Albanian. Borrow it from your local library.
8. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
Many troubles. I would not recommend this post for someone using a wheelchair or power chair. Walking without any disability can be hazardous to your health, due to cars parked on sidewalks or uneven pavements. The Med Unit told us that foot and leg injuries were the most common, and there is the occasional wrist injury when someone tries to brace their fall. Before leaving the country, I did notice an effort to make some curb cuts downtown, but not in any organized fashion.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
Taxis were safe and cheap. 3 euros to downtown. 10 euros to Gracanica.
Buses are super cheap but are not recommended due to safety and comfort issues. 30 euro cents from downtown to Germia park.
Hearsay: the train from Pristina to Skopje is worthwhile, if a bit rustic, and is only once-a-day. For other tourism, drive.
2. What kind of car do you recommend bringing to post, given the terrain, availability of parts, burglary/carjacking risks, etc.? What kind of car do you advise not to bring?
Our regular sedan coupe was fine, but it did need new suspension parts after a year. We mail-ordered the parts through the DPO and had a local mechanic do the job. It was all fine. Mostly German-manufactured autos on the road driven by locals, but expats brought a lot of Japanese cars, particularly a lot of Toyota Rav4s, which did well. I would not rely on a local service provider if the car was newer with lots of computer operations. They know the old-fashioned way, mostly. I did notice a Honda dealer in Skopje, about an hour south of Pristina.
Driving around town can be crazy due to driver behavior. I was glad we took an old car, so a few scuffs did not bother us. It is also very dusty and dirty there due to the dry climate. Fortunately, car washes are only about 5 Euro, and you can sit in a cafe and have a 50-cent macchiato while you watch and wait.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
Yes. I can't remember the cost exactly, but it was not a deal-breaker.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
At the time of our stay, the telecom service in Kosovo was limited in that if we drove over the border to Serbia, it would not work. So we needed to buy SIM cards from the VIP company in Serbia. Otherwise, the SIM cards we got in Kosovo would work in all other bordering countries, but with roaming.
1. Are qualified veterinarians and/or good kennel services available? Do animals need to be quarantined upon entry to the country? Are there other considerations regarding pets that are particular to this country?
2. Quality pet care available (vets & kennels)?
More vets are opening. Lots of stray dogs and cats. A new NGO formed during our tour which was attempting to encourage spay/neuter instead of the local government's program of two nights of shooting a year.
Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:
1. What types of jobs do most expatriate spouses/partners have? Locally based or telecommuting? Full-time or part-time? Can you comment on local salary scales?
2. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Work: Professional for professional office, political, public affairs, jobs.
Young people: casual.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
Thefts occur. Do not leave items inside the car in plain view. A thief will smash a window to get a watch and some change.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
Dentistry is okay locally. I think the one dentist that everyone went to was trained either in the U.S. or in Germany, but he spoke English fluently.
3. What is the air quality like at post (good/moderate/bad)? Are there seasonal air quality issues? Does the air quality have an impact on health?
Germia Park is known as "the lungs of the city" since the air quality in town can be poor due to the burning of soft lignite coal for both power generation and heat. Downtown Pristina is surrounded by hills, making the air feel like it is stuck in the bowl of the city, so a hike in the outskirts is a pleasant relief, especially in winter when residences also burn lignite and wood in their home fireplaces. If you have allergies or asthma, the air quality may make it worse, or you may need to change meds/inhalers.
4. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
The air is very dry, year-round. Drink lots of water, especially with all that coffee. It's like Arizona dry. It is dusty in the summer. Winters are cold. Our first winter had no snow, but in the second winter the first snow was in October. Then in January, we got dumped on straight through March. The highest accumulation was about a foot at a time. Road-clearing equipment is generally not available generally so the snow just piles up and gets compacted by driving. Take your Yak-trax or other crampons for your winter boots, since the compacted snow piles can become icy.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
There are several, but not yet to U.S. standards.
American School of Kosova is private, owned by Albanians, run by Albanians and Canadians, but with many American teachers.
Pristina High School - not-for-profit. Many American teachers.
International Learning Group - not-for-profit. Many American teachers.
2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?
3. Are preschools available? Day care? Are these expensive? What has been your experience with them, if any? Do the schools provide before- and/or after-school care?
4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
Large with the Bilateral Missions from many countries, and several multinational missions. Plus all the school teachers.
2. Morale among expats:
Good. People stay a long time and people return.
3. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?
Clubs, music, bars.
4. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
Yes. We are a couple with no children, but singles found plenty of nightlife, and families seemed to be enjoying it as well.
5. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
It depends. There is a growing awareness among the local culture and some acceptance, but there is a large negative cultural bias. There was a recent violent demonstration when Kosovo 2.0 magazine launched one of its quarterly issues addressing the concerns of the LGBT community.
6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
Hearsay only: I have heard that a couple of colleagues of Asian-American and African-American descent were not comfortable.
7. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
Things continue to change and improve in Kosovo all the time. The people of Kosovo are very friendly and the Albanian majority especially express affection for Americans. As an example, the city arranges a large July 4th celebration each year on the main walking avenue (the avenue is named for Nene Tereza = Mother Theresa).
The population is young, average under 30. The Universities seem crowded. Unemployment is around 40% and café culture is strong. You will see many people hanging out for hours at cafés nursing a 50 eurocent macchiato. Otherwise, groceries are about the same price as we see in Washington, DC. Nearly everything is imported as the agricultural sector still needs some work. They cannot produce enough to feed themselves and they are resistant to co-ops to make the best economies of the land.
One of the best things about living in Pristina was how close it was to visiting other places in the Balkans. A drive to the border takes around an hour and can be unsafe in the dark due to vehicles without lights and people dressed in black walking along the highway, so we planned always to return in daylight. Even with that limitation, we drove around and saw a lot in just 2 years - Macedonia (wine tours!), Greece (Thessaloniki, Meteora, Chalikidiki), Montenegro (Tara Canyon, Perast), Serbia (Belgrade, Novi Sad), Croatia (Dalmatian Coast, Zagreb), Bosnia-Hercegovina (Sarajevo), Slovenia, Hungary, Bulgaria.
8. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
Germia park, eating out, travelling to cultural/historical landmarks in Kosovo, travelling to Kosovo's neighboring countries and especially the Adriatic coast!
9. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
Donations when you visit the Ethnological Museum, private donations to the Kosovo Ballet so they can afford new shoes. They are severely under paid and under supported, in general.
10. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
I went in setting my expectations at the lowest level. That way, whatever the post-conflict region had to offer would be a pleasant surprise. Our mission considered it a hardship post. It was not that hard, really. There were a lot of good restaurants, and a new big grocery store opened up outside of town, but there was a small market on every other block for the essentials. The hardship is in the air quality and in getting around on foot and by car. For a good bike experience, I recommend first driving to better roads outside of town.
11. Can you save money?
Words of Wisdom:
1. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
2. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
3. But don't forget your:
sense of wonder and surprise for all things different and all that the Balkans have gone through. It is Europe, yes, but it's not the Western Europe of the tourbooks.
4. Recommended movies/DVDs related to this city:
BBC Documentary based on Little & Silber's book. Find it on Youtube.
5. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?