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Interview: Elizabeth Gowing, traveller and writer

12 July 2013

'Kosovans could teach us spontaneity and hospitality'

My main activity in Kosovo, day and night, is running the Ideas Partnership charity. It's an umbrella organisation we set up four years ago, as we began to realise that little things we were supporting with our own time and money could do better if we were organised, and could apply for funds, and so forth.

It helps a women's shelter, who produce honey face cream. We also initiated bigger projects, all to do with the environment, education, culture, and the Roma community.

Today, for instance, I was taking a child who had had an epileptic seizure to the doctor, because the mother can't afford to do it. This is why we set up projects to develop women's micro-finance, like making olive-oil soap, making cloth bags instead of using plastic ones, recycling glass jars which their husbands salvage from city garbage tips. We now have about 60 volunteers and four paid staff. I'm a volunteer, but I put in four days a week.

Other things I do, which pay the bills to greater or lesser degrees, are writing, translating (from Albanian to English), and education consultancy. I've translated two biographies. I've only learned Albanian since we came here, but I'm lucky because, although it's very different from English, it wasn't standardised until 1972, and if I make a mistake, people just think I'm from a different village.

We came here seven years ago because of my partner's job, when he was employed by the British Government as adviser to the Kosovan Prime Minister.

There's a great community feeling - Pristina is a small city, and Kosovan society is very interconnected. I love living in a capital city but being sure, whenever I walk out my front door, that I'm going to meet someone I know, be greeted by name, be smiled at. Kosovo has the youngest population in Europe, so there is a great sense of potential and energy.

I was given a beehive for my first birthday in Kosovo in 2006. It was a wonderful present, a magical process: take meadows of wildflowers, add an intelligent community of insects, and produce something you can spread on toast. And because I had to meet local beekeepers to learn my new craft, it gave me a way into understanding Kosovo - not just through its cities and politics, but through its land and food and rural traditions.

Kosovo is much safer than London, in terms of physical safety. There are still huge political tensions, and despair between Albanians and Serbs. But I called my first book about Kosovo Travels in Blood and Honey, because all our friends expected it to be all about war and violence, but the war ended 14 years ago, and really, my experience has been all honey.

I've just written Edith and I: On the trail of an Edwardian traveller in Kosovo. Edith Durham was an anthropologist and writer, an aid worker, and a feisty Edwardian traveller. Everyone in Kosovo has heard of her, and there are streets and schools named after her. She was the first woman to be represented on a Republic of Kosovo stamp. But no one in Britain has ever heard of her.

Edith and I is influenced by those thoughts of how you're inspired by the lives of others, and how your life becomes affected even in small ways by what you're reading.

I wanted not to tell someone's life story chronologically. That inevitably gives you a slow beginning (childhood illness and precocious minor achievements); a fascinating middle section (the real reason you bought the book); and then what you know is going to be a depressing final section of increasing illness, frailty, and eventually death. I wanted to tell the story of a life in the way that we actually find out about a life, plunging into the middle and the most notable stuff, and then discovering the background so that by the time you get to the childhood information, you're interested in it.

There was a huge surge of enthusiasm among the country's majority Albanians when Kosovo was liberated from Serbia's MiloŠević regime in 1999, and put under UN administration; and again when the country declared independence five years ago. Now people are very disillusioned with their politicians.

I went to the dedication of the new Roman Catholic cathedral recently, celebrating the centenary of Mother Teresa's birth, and that was pretty special. Roman Catholics make up about two per cent of the population here, and there are some Protestants now, since missionary activity after the war ended, and Serbian Orthodox Christians. Most people are Muslim. Actually, Albanians are very tolerant of religious differences.

I hate the way that the Kosovan landscape - a stunning countryside, with hedgerows of wild flowers, and wonderful mountains - is messed up with litter. It's a kind of symbol of the political cynicism, too: no one believes that a small act of care will ever change the bigger picture.

Kosovans could teach us spontaneity and hospitality.

I appreciate things about Britain I never noticed before: salt and vinegar crisps, water from the tap, a decent education system. Some of our relationships have really been strengthened, as people have come out to stay, and shared adventures with us. And people have come out to volunteer from our village in Cornwall, or raised money, or sewed curtains for our centre.

I've probably thought more about where God is in all this than I ever have since starting our charity's work with the Roma and Ashkali community in Kosovo. You can't help but ask this question when you visit the children playing barefoot on rubbish heaps, here in Europe.

The most important choice I've made was in the night after the day that I'd discovered 21 Roma and Ashkali children, aged about nine and living near Pristina, who told me they wanted to go to school. The school had told them they'd missed their chance. I couldn't sleep, and the next morning I asked my partner, Rob, if he thought I could take six months off from my other work and start teaching these children. Within three weeks we had 50 children attending our classes, and by the end of the six months, we got 62 children registered for school.

I never intended to do any of these things, but once you see a need. . . I knew that I couldn't live with myself. I don't think many could. One knows, in theory, that all forms of poverty are interconnected, but you see it here so clearly: if children haven't got shoes, they can't get to school, and then they miss their vaccinations, and some get TB . . . So, when we set up the women's business projects, it's on condition that their children go to school.

Having researched the life of Edith Durham, I've been made painfully aware how short everyone's memories are. What about Frederick John Robinson, 1st Viscount Goderich? He was a British Prime Minister in the 19th century. I can imagine him becoming PM and thinking "Yesss! Now my name will always be remembered." And none of us has even heard of him.

We have a home in Port Isaac in Cornwall, which is a regular retreat and a place to recharge. But I love exploring new places.

I mainly read non-fiction. I was influenced, for example, by The Tipping Point and the idea of how little things can make a big difference.

I love the sound of the sea outside the window of our home in Cornwall. Sometimes, in a big city, I can convince myself that the ebbing roar of traffic is just as comforting.

Jesus clearing the traders from the Temple is my favourite Bible story. It's a good reminder that challenging authority can be righteous, productive and necessary.

I am ashamed to realise that what last made me angry was a child. She had come to a performance we'd arranged for the Roma kids, and had almost spoiled the performance by refusing to sit down so that people behind her could see, and by walking across the performance area. I was really shocked at myself: unproductive, inappropriate, and stupid. So, when I saw the girl yesterday, I made a special effort to understand her, to communicate properly, I think she's not very happy much of the time, but she was smiling yesterday.

I'm happiest sitting on a train with a good book.

When I do yoga, I like the tradition of dedicating the practice to someone who needs strength. Last time I attended a church service, I found myself making a commitment to a family in Kosovo who I know are in terrible need for a home.

I wouldn't mind getting locked in anywhere with my partner Rob.

Elizabeth Gowing was talking to Terence Handley MacMath. Edith and I (Elbow Publishing, £9.99, 978-0-957409-01-9)


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