During peak hours, the Bleri parking lot in downtown Pristina resembles a cross between a can of sardines and a carousel. To accommodate overflow, a small staff of young men keep about a half-dozen cars going in a slow loop in and out of the lot.
It reflects the gridlock of Kosovo’s capital each summer, when many of the 800,000-strong diaspora come home, along with their cars. In the Bleri lot, about half the cars have foreign plates. On this day, there are cars from Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Great Britain, and Virginia.
Parking lot owner Blerim Shabani said around seven or eight American cars come each day, and they stand out. Not just for their license plates.
“Most of the American cars run on gasoline, not diesel. And they’re bigger,” Shabani said in Albanian.
Across town, on Bob Dole Street — right near Bill Clinton Boulevard — Albert Nehbiu runs a one-man car wash, where he washes 20-30 American-plated vehicles a week.
Many are Chryslers, Mercedes and Audis, which Nehbiu said mostly belong to Kosovo Albanians who live in the US.
“They’re probably here on vacation, “ Nehbiu said in Albanian. “Albanians are used to bringing their cars with them.”
It’s difficult to say exactly how many people bring cars over from the US. I did an unscientific survey of downtown Pristina over the course of 24 hours. I spotted 13 cars with American plates, from Florida to Alaska.Among them was a black 340-horsepower, V8 Dodge Charger with Indiana plates and an American flag bumper sticker. Valdrin Jonuzi, the owner, was just visiting from New York.
“It’s a totally American muscle. That’s all I drive. Grew up in America. I’m proud of it, and I like to represent the cars, too, worldwide,” Jonuzi said. “I drove this car all over Germany, I drove this car in Canada, Switzerland, France, Italy, Albania, Macedonia, Montenegro, and we’re waiting to go to Dubai.”
Jonuzi moved from Kosovo to the United States as a boy. He joined the US Army and was wounded in Afghanistan. After his discharge in 2008, he took his savings, headed to Detroit and bought his prized Charger. And it seems that where he goes, so goes the Charger — even if it’s across the Atlantic.
“It sounds pretty crazy, but I wanted to bring it because it represents our country. And you see, I have American flags everywhere on this car. I’m proud of it proud of serving. Proud of our nation, and I didn’t mind,” Januzi said, referring to the $1,200 dollars it cost each way for the car’s boat ride from New Jersey to Germany, and a host of other expenses, like insurance and gas.
“I didn’t want to rent a car. I said, ‘You know what, I’m going to bring my own car there. I’m going to bring my Dodge Charger Hemi 5.7,’ a real American muscle car — with $12-a-gallon-gas here.”
Actually, thanks to the weak euro, fuel is at a more gas-guzzler friendly $6 per gallon in Kosovo. And Jonuzi can use all help he can get since his Charger is rated at a maximum 15-miles-per-gallon in the city.
In Kosovo, brash displays of Americanness are bound to go over well. The US is revered for leading the NATO bombing campaign in 1999 and backing Kosovo’s independence.
“Our country supports everybody and helps people, you know,” Jonuzi said. “I think America stands for democracy, you know, everybody equal treated, That’s [what] we stand for. And if there’s a problem, we’re going to solve it.”
Many American cars make one-way trips to Kosovo.
Nineteen-year-old Joey Muriqi was having coffee with friends. Parked in front of the cafe, on the sidewalk, was a new Volkswagen Passat with New York plates. Muriqi’s brother in the Bronx sent it over a few months ago, and Muriqi plans to sell it.
“If you buy it for like $5,000 over there, you sell it for 5,000 euros, you make a good profit because euro is better than dollar, so you get more dollars,” Muriqi said.
But in the mean time there’s another perk of driving a car with American plates: “Girls like it more,” Muriqi said.
There may be some truth to that. A few minutes after I spoke with Jonuzi, the US Army veteran, two young women joined him in his Dodge Charger before it vroomed away.