Travels in Blood and Honey, by Elizabeth Gowing

>> Wednesday, November 09, 2011

TITLE: Travels in Blood and Honey: Becoming a Beekeper in Kosovo
AUTHOR: Elizabeth Gowing

PAGES: 248
PUBLISHER: Signal Books

SETTING: Contemporary Kosovo
TYPE: Non Fiction

Kosovo: the name conjures up blood: ethnic cleansing and war. This book reveals another side to the newest country in the world a land of generous families, strong tastes and lush landscapes: a land of honey.

Elizabeth Gowing is rushed to Kosovo, on a blind date with the place , when her partner is suddenly offered the position of adviser to Prime Minister Agim Çeku. Knowing nothing of the language or politics, she is thrown into a world of unpronounceable nouns, unfamiliar foods and bewilderingly hospitable people. On her first birthday in Kosovo she is given a beehive as a gift, and starts on a beekeeping apprenticeship with an unknown family; through their friendship and history she begins to understand her new home.
In 2006, Elizabeth Gowing's husband is offered a job advising the Prime Minister of Kosovo, and they move there together. On her first birthday there, her husband gives her a beehive as a present, and this gives her a way into the country's inner life. Over the next couple of years, her beekeeping allows her to meet people she wouldn't otherwise have known, and to begin to understand and love this country she's now living in.

I picked this one up a few months ago, after hearing the author being interviewed on a Radio 4 programme called Excess Baggage (you can hear it here). I was intrigued by what she described,and I also liked the warmth and humour with which she spoke, and hoped this would be reflected in the book as well.

Well, it was. I knew very little about Kosovo before I started reading this, so of course, there was the fascination of learning about something completely unfamiliar. But what made this a fantastically enjoyable book was Gowing's voice, her appreciation of what's around her and her fondness for the people she becomes close to. Her love for her new home shines through, but at the same time, there are definitely things she doesn't like about it, and we hear about both.

I also liked that there's plenty of self-awareness here, too. Gowing is aware of the danger of being a rich Western expat only skimming the surface of Kosovar culture and focusing on the exoticism, and she tries very hard not to fall into that trap. I felt she didn't. She comes across as someone who's genuinely interested and curious and who does her best to integrate as much as she can. She doesn't present herself as some sort of expert on Kosovo, the tone of the book is more about her wanting to share with us just how amazing this place is, a bit like her efforts with several projects she got immersed in in Kosovo, like promoting the Ethnological Museum.

I'm very glad I remembered the book's title after the programme and decided to seek it out. And as a bonus, I've now got a nice pile of delicious-sounding recipes to try. I see myself going through quite a lot of honey in the next few months!

MY GRADE: A very strong B+.


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