Elizabeth Gowing is a British teacher who moved from the UK to Kosovo five years ago. Previously unfamiliar with the country's rich culture, she received a beehive as a present and was thus whisked away on a journey through the country's food and culture.
Her new book, Travels in Blood and Honey: a Beekeeper in Kosovo, tells the story of a foreigner who falls in love with the traditions of a divided land. The tale behind the naming of the Balkans factors prominently in her story. In Turkish, "bal" means honey and "kan" means blood, representing the duality of the country's divided, but beautiful, heritage.
SETimes: Who is Elizabeth Gowing?
Elizabeth Gowing: I initially worked as a teacher in London. I still do some teaching, but am mostly busy with my writing and the NGO, The Ideas Partnership, which I set up with my partner and our friend to work on education, environmental and cultural heritage projects in Kosovo. I'm currently working on a book called Edith and I: Adventures with an Edwardian traveller in the Balkans, on my travels following the route of Edith Durham around Kosovo and Albania.
SETimes: How did you end up in Kosovo and what made you write a book that goes beyond a simple history?
Gowing: My partner got a job as an adviser to [former Kosovo] Prime Minister Agim Ceku. It was on very short notice and I went from a position of almost complete ignorance of Kosovo to suddenly discovering it was where I lived! Maybe that's a good way to experience a country - before you build too many preconceptions.
On my first birthday in Kosovo I was given a beehive as a present. That was the first time I felt I really had a connection, even if it was with one very small part of the land. My book tells that story. I've also included some recipes for the food I learned to cook with the honey my bees produced, to try to convey some of the strong tastes that flavoured my experience.
SETimes: How did you learn about Kosovo's culture through beekeeping?
Gowing: Beekeeping is a great way to get to know a country. Beekeepers are generally gentle people who are usually interested in sharing their knowledge. I was apprenticed to a wonderful beekeeper whose family I became very close to. I also met a number of interesting individual beekeepers -- victims of human trafficking and survivors of domestic violence who were being taught to set up a business with beekeeping through a women's shelter; the activist who told me about his life as a political prisoner; and a former guerilla fighter who had been given a beehive as part of his pension. Their histories became the personal stories through which I could understand Kosovo better.
SETimes: What is your experience of being a foreigner in Kosovo?
Gowing: Both Albanian and Serbian culture treats guests as something sacred (the Albanian Kanun says 'your home belongs to God and the guest'). So, Kosovo is a wonderful place to be a foreigner.
It also probably helps that I learned to speak Albanian and, to a lesser degree, Serbian. So I was able to communicate with people. The thing that annoys me most is when I ask someone something in my accented Albanian and they reply to me in German.
SETimes: What did you learn about the culture and tradition in Kosovo? Do you have a special place, food or story in Kosovo which is especially important to you?
Gowing: There was so much to learn - about the elaborate greetings that even a stranger will ask you and the appropriate behaviour at various festivities. My favourite place in Pristina is the Ethnological Museum, where I learned a lot and worked as a volunteer.
My favourite food in Kosovo? Honey! But also all the things you can make or serve with honey - pogace bread and llokuma 'wedding doughnuts' and baklava are my favourites.