It started as a joke. In early February 2008, Kosovo declared its independence, and the photographer Steve Ryan and I decided it would make a good story to spend a weekend there, in the newest country in the world. And so we did. We had a good time — too good, perhaps. It didn’t take us long to make friends, and on the night before our departure, drunk in a bar called Dren’s Place, we promised to return.
“We’ll rent a house and stay for a month,” I said.
“We’ll call it the Irish Embassy,” Steve added, perceptively.
The story I wrote was wildly inaccurate and factually hopeless because all my interviews had taken place in bars, but our idea had a life of its own, and a month later we arrived to open Ireland’s first embassy in Kosovo.
Ireland has no diplomatic presence in Kosovo and had none at the time. Running an embassy is expensive and economically fruitless in a country with zero trade links to your own. And until Kosovo takes an interest in Irish butter, beer and woolen products, that’s how it will remain. At the time, we felt this decision was shortsighted — more specifically, that by focusing solely on trade links it failed to recognize the cultural similarities between our two nations. Kosovo and Ireland had equally large youth populations, a shared love of music and writing. Furthermore, though smaller, Pristina was a close-knit, tribal, largely ugly city, brimming with dark, small bars, just like Dublin. Irish people love to call themselves plucky underdogs, but the pluckiest underdog in Europe is Kosovo.
Our plan was to operate as an alternative embassy, performing all the cultural functions of ambassadors and none of the bureaucratic ones. We drove around the city for two days looking for the perfect place. A tip-off sent us to the ex-American embassy. It was four stories high, with a basketball court, fifteen rooms, three kitchens and a view of the whole city. It was directly across the street from the British Embassy, and bigger.
We erected a flag on the front lawn, and blew so much of our budget on renting this enormous diplomatic cadaver that we couldn’t afford to heat it. It was February in Kosovo, the coldest winter for many years. On our first night in our new embassy, we slept with all our clothes on, under a dozen blankets. Despite having enough space to house diplomats, security, cooks, drivers, and all number of secretaries and assistants, we shared a room for warmth. Ambassadors are known for their attraction to the fine things in life; during our month in Pristina we became known for our attraction to heaters.
Pristina was a much smaller city than it is now. It was run-down, slightly bruised from the war, and very muddy underfoot. In the years following independence, grand glass hotels would be erected and dozens of cafes with broad terraces would unfold across the streets, but back then, in the winter of 2009, the city felt like it was buried under mud, snow and gloom. After dark, you had to pick your way through back alleys, your legs ankle deep in puddles, looking for the dangling light bulbs that sign-posted hidden bars.
There were soldiers from every other European country on the streets. The fighting had long since ended but very occasionally you heard shots at night when the army went out in packs to shoot stray dogs.
The Unofficial Embassy of Ireland was warmly welcomed in the city by strangers who very quickly became our friends. We established a program of poetry readings, Irish film nights, Irish food and, thanks to some phone calls to the right places, managed to get a decent supply of Irish whisky sent over to us as an add-on to a shipment of technical equipment for the Irish Army. People would arrive at the embassy wearing all their clothes, and inside the big, empty function room we’d cook up stews, pass round bottles, and as the night drew on we’d watch our breath in the air, reciting poetry and song lyrics and pieces of prose that brought us closer together. Our guests brought guitars and blankets. When the snow fell and the temperatures dropped, we’d offer to let them sleep in one of our many spare rooms, but even a potentially catastrophic walk down the hill to the city center was less perilous than staying over in our freezing embassy, and everyone declined.
Our neighbors were the Turkish, Swedish, British and German embassies. We invited them over but the only person to take up our invitation was intern at the German embassy. He’d heard about our free whisky.
Beyond getting people drunk, which was by no means hard to do, our project’s function was to redress what we considered a great tragedy for Kosovo’s youth: beyond Albania to the south it was close to impossible for them to travel outside of the country. To this day, Kosovars can travel to less than a dozen countries without a visa, and they’re barred completely from travelling to the Seychelles and Singapore. Unable to extend an invitation for them to visit us in Ireland, our damp, cold, echoey home in their capital was as close as we could come.
Word spread very quickly in Pristina that there were two Irish boys living amongst the other embassies, pretending to be ambassadors. One morning a TV crew knocked at our door and came in to interview us. We offered to make them tea – Irish tea – but the water in the pipes had frozen and we couldn’t even fill a kettle.
As winter progressed and the temperature dropped even further, our embassy began to take on a mobile aspect. We’d run events in bars and other people’s homes around the city, staying out till early in the morning, often helping bartenders stack chairs onto tables and sweep the floors, doing everything possible to delay going back to our beautiful freezing home. One thrill was when we’d hail a cab and tell the driver, “Ambasada Irlandeze,” half of the time they knew the place.
In Ireland, we have a very ancient sport called hurling. Two teams of 15 players with long sticks made out of ash, and a ball so hard you could break stones with it, run around for the guts of an hour-and-a-half lashing the ball at breakneck speed from one end of the field to the other, while trying to hold on to all of their teeth. We wanted more than anything to host an exhibition game at the national stadium in Pristina. Kosovo, not recognized by FIFA, the IOC, or other athletic bodies, wasn’t allowed to play sporting fixtures against other nations and we imagined this as our way to change of this what we could. And even though hurling is not popular outside Ireland and is never played at an international level, and putting aside the fact that neither Steve nor myself could play the game well, we thought it was, at least, a start.
We asked to use the national stadium and to our surprise, permission was granted. The field was frozen and the grass was covered in snow and, as was explained to us, if we wanted to risk breaking our legs running around on it, that was our choice. We trained teams. We broke windows and annoyed passers-by teaching them how to fire the ball into the air.
Ireland played Kosovo for the first time in sporting history on a wet Tuesday afternoon in late February. When the stadium owners saw the sticks we were using they asked us to reduce the game to just twenty minutes and not play too rough for fear of causing irrevocable damage to the frozen grass. The was no discernible winner.
We appeared on television again. The newspaper ran our picture. Our flag fell down in a snow-storm. Our electricity was cut off for 24 hours so we stayed at a friend’s and spent most of that time huddled around the radiator marveling, much like our Paleolithic ancestors might have, that a metal box stuck to a wall could create all that warmth with no fire. We were very privileged guests in a country with identity issues, a very brittle economy, and all manner of ethnic tensions and unrest, yet it felt like the locals were mostly concerned about our well-being, how we looked so thin, so tired, so wane.
At the tail end of February the weather broke and warm sunshine rolled down the sides of the valley into Pristina. The city was instantly pretty, loud with birds and the noise of tables being dragged outside. The ice melted, winter came to a sudden end and, out of money, we left.
During our time there, we created no economic contacts, granted no visas, and established no entrepreneurial links between Ireland and Kosovo. We cooked hearty stews, screened classic Irish movies with impenetrable accents, and introduced the country to a sport it’ll probably never play again.