For weeks, the leaves have been fading from green to brown with brilliant tones in between. Oaks, maples and sycamores line the streets and coat the hills that surround most cities in Kosovo. Some days that hills around Mitrovica have burned so vibrantly that it is hard to pull my eyes away. A glimpse out the window at work and my words and responsibilities slip away.
Last weekend, Mitrovica’s lack of parks, an hour’s bus ride, and a 45 minute walk brought us to Gremia Park. Six weeks have elapsed since our first visit to the country’s biggest municipal park. Only six weeks, yet the changes were overwhelming. The bulldozers were busy filling in the gargantuan public pool with dirt. Two tennis courts were built and ready for use. The once pink rose hips had turned lipstick red, while their branches and stalks withered to pale brown. The trees crumpled sheddings piled around their dry trunks. The fresh breeze and active feet of park-goers swept the lost leaves across dirt trails and picnic plains.Gremia Park was much busier than the previous time we were there. All the rental bicycles were taken. Children and men raced between families of picnickers and games of football. All the play areas were crowded with children, while the basketball courts were bustling with teenagers. Roller bladers wove around strollers. Vendors lined the main path near the jungle gyms, selling a rainbowed assortment of balloons on sticks, toy guns, candy bars, soda pop, and badminton rackets.
(I was shocked to see an older man who was set up within the confines of one play structure selling lollipops to unsupervised children under age 10. This is exactly what American children are instructed to avoid. But here, no worries.)Two cafes lay at the end of the central valley in Gremia, where the bustle and high-pitched cries concentrate. Villa Gremia is probably always the most crowded cafe because it has the ideal location: facing out towards the vast valley with steep slopes of forest closing in around it.
Not the best cafe in Pristina, Villa Gremia is still worth going to for its surroundings. It feels like a modern ski lodge and offers larger wooden decks to sip your coffee on while gazing at the hills on all sides. French fries are served in soup bowls with knives and forks. Skip the dessert menu and watch out for pieces of a previous patron’s sugar packet hiding at the bottom of your coffee.
Outside of the park’s main valley, we encountered few people. We crawled up the mountainsides on narrow zig-zagging trails. As we ascended, the forest switched from maples to oaks. The forest became so thick that we could not see down to the valley. Nothing but sound and light breached the density of the trees. Sandy dry grass, orange leaves, and the cracked greying bark of oak trees colored the scene. I no longer felt like I was in Kosovo. The scenery was too much like that of my youth in the Sierra Nevada foothills. The mountainside literally looked like my own backyard.
Down below, we were among the community of Pristina. We were one couple in a crowd of hundreds. Foreign or not, we were like everyone else using their Saturday to get out of the cityscape. We were Kosovars (almost). Up in the hills, the sense of unity faded as things became more and more familiar, memories set in. We became lost. And then, we were lost, unable to find a trail back down. Forward and then back. Forward again, then back. The sun slipping from the sky as the hues of autumn grew dimmer. Finally, Ryan spotted a snaking gravel path that led us back to the main road. Before we finished our descent, we got a glimpse of Pristina’s skyline in front of the setting sun. Autumn’s orange had spread to the sky.