Thanks to everything that has been going on between the Albanians and the Serbs during so many years, one gets the feeling that there are no Albanians living in Serbia. In fact, it turns out to be the opposite. And, many Albanians whom I met would like to visit Serbia, however, they are afraid to do so. Serbs, on the other hand, know that there are Albanians who live in Southern Serbia, for example, in Preshevo Valley where they comprise a majority but know very little about them. But what about the Albanians living in the rest of Serbia?
Needless to say, I live in Serbia and the first time I met Albanians or heard the Albanian language in my life was while I was working in America. Ironically, I had to go to another continent, 7000 kilometers away to meet them. And yet, they were living right next to me. Of course, just to be clear, my reason to travel to America was not so I can hear Albanian, however, it was an added bonus to my travel that influenced how I now see the Albanians. Consequently, since that encounter, the question I have been asking myself for a long time was: How come I didn’t know they lived amongst us?
I tried to give answers to myself. First I said, maybe the fact that I did not pay attention to Albanians around me had to do with my upbringing. In my family, we never labeled people by their ethnicity. To us, it was not important because we have a long tradition of mixed marriages and so does most of Vojvodina. Another answer was, it might be that Albanians learn foreign languages very quickly so in Serbia they never speak Albanian in the public. And even if I had heard it, I wouldn’t have known it was Albanian. Just like most Serbs, I had no idea what kind of language it was, as I did not know who Albanians were.
Upon my return to Serbia, I decided that I wanted to study the Albanian language. I started studying the language at the University of Belgrade and soon I realized just how many Albanians live in Serbia. I met Albanians from Albania, Kosovo and Macedonia living and working in Belgrade, Subotica, Novi Sad, and Sombor but also heard they are in other cities too. They usually own bakeries and pastry shops. After I visited Albania and Kosovo for the first time and tried different local specialties, I noticed that you could find exactly the same pastries in Subotica. For example, the dessert shampite, which I have been eating since I was 7 years old.
Another dessert that I encountered while visiting Kosovo and Albania, was trileqe and the same I could find in a bakery in Subotica, made in the same manner. It had the same look and taste like the ones made in Kosovo and Albania. My initial thought was that Serbs must have taken the recipe from Albanians and they did a good job. But almost three years later I received a text message from Musa, the bakery owner’s son. He recognized me from an interview I gave for a Kosovar television and he invited me to their bakery. I told him I have been their regular customer for three years now, my apartment being right across the street, and until then I did not know that he was Albanian. We met up and spoke in Albanian. During our conversation, he shared his story of how he used to come to work in Subotica every summer while studying in Prishtina but now that he graduated, he was going to stay here for longer. In addition, he told me about his uncle who owns a bakery in Novi Sad. He said that they are from a place in Kosovo called Has, near Prizren. The residents of Has are well-known for making the best bread and pastries all over the Balkans. So I learned new things about my neighbors every moment spent with them.
Soon after, I got a job as a translator at a seminar in a small place in Vojvodina. I was translating for some guests from Albania. During the five-day seminar, we went out to the town of Sombor. They wanted to have an ice-cream and they called me over, “Tomislav, come and translate for us”, they said in Albanian. But before I got a chance to say anything the guy selling ice-cream replied to them “Mirëmbrëma”, greeting them in Albanian. Zemri, the young man, told us he is from Tetovo, Macedonia. He told us that all the bakeries in Sombor are owned by Albanians.
And I don’t know why I’m still getting surprised by the fact that there are so many Albanians in Serbia. But I do! Getting to explore my country and knowing that there are other communities that co-exist together it sure makes me happy and it makes me think beyond everyday politics. Because in the end, these communities have always lived together in peace!
Author: Tomislav Perušić