American cars a sign of status, admiration in Kosovo

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Valdrin Jonuzi, a Kosovar who moves to the U.S. as a child, brought his Dodge Charger with him this summer when he returned to Kosovo on vacation. (Photo by Nate Tabak.)

The Bleri parking lot in downtown Pristina resembles a cross between a can of sardines and a carousel during peak hours.

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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.

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 United States.

“They’re probably here on vacation," Nehbiu said. “Albanians are used to bringing their cars with them.”

It’s difficult to say exactly how many people bring cars over from the United States. Over the course of 24 hours in downtown Pristina, 13 cars with American plates, from Florida to Alaska, could be seen.

Among them was a black, 340-horsepower, 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 U.S. 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.

That doesn't include a host of other expenses, like insurance and gas.

“I didn’t want to rent a car," he said. "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 the help he can get because 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 U.S. is revered for leading the NATO bombing campaign in 1999 and backing Kosovo’s independence.

“Our country supports everybody and helps people,” Jonuzi said. “I think America stands for democracy, 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.

Joey Muriqi, 19, was having coffee with friends recently. 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 $5,000 over there, you sell it for 5,000 euros, you make a good profit because the euro is (stronger) than the 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. Two young women joined Jonuzi, the US Army veteran, in his Dodge Charger right before it vroomed away.

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