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As always, my trip starts when I leave the house, that’s simply how I perceive it to be. At once, I look at my surroundings with a different lens …and I should probably take some of that sensation into everyday life, but well, that’s another story 😉
Another passenger lets me take their window seat and I am enthused over the views of Montenegro, Kosovo and then even half of Macedonia. We land on time at the “Alexander the Great” airport just outside of Skopje and I’m lucky to snatch a lift with a friendly local lawyer who has already arranged the ride into town for his guest and himself. Sunshine and blue skies, what a great day!
When I meet my host Saša for a stroll around the city, what he tells me about how he sees the previous government’s spending in recent years – hammering out the LOOK of a powerful ancient civilisation in the middle of Skopje – is pretty much confirming what I’ve picked up from my rideshare as well. Also, within the next days I shall hear more on this issue as people are not happy with the way money has been splashed to make their capital look like a former empire’s first city yet not reflecting the proper history and styles of Macedonia. As a visitor, I find it interesting to walk through the new “Skopje 2014” as it’s officially called, wondering at the hundreds of statues decorating every corner of the city.
Researching for this blog post, I’ve actually come across an article from “The Guardian” about exactly this topic. Another one even headlining: “Skopje’s Strange Quest to Rewrite Its History … Through Public Sculpture” 🙂 With this, however, we are only scratching the surface when it comes to controversial topics in Macedonia. And it’s an easy one as I don’t meet anyone who seems to approve of the government spending money in that way “faking architecture that’s never been ours”, as one local puts it; a lot more difficult to grasp, however, is for sure the topic around ethnicities and who “deserves” how much in nowadays Republic of Macedonia.
The more time I spend here, the more obvious it becomes that the wounds of the past haven’t fully healed and it’s much more bubbling inside then one would expect from the outside. “Originally”, as one Albanian asseverates, “we are all the same.” But over time, with emperors capturing parts of the Balkan region, missionaries establishing themselves, wars raging through, mingling and the human dramas that comes with such movements, it all got a bit more complicated over the centuries.
Although the independence from Ex-Yugoslavia was peacefully negotiated b/c 74% of the population voted to split in a referendum in 1991, I speak to a couple of middle-aged individuals who tell me they had a “richer” lifestyle during the days of Communism and their families’ money stretched further. The Framework Agreement from 2002 (established by a coalition government of Social Democrats and erstwhile Albanian rebels) has given more rights to local minorities. Now, from what I understand, local minorities such as ethnic Albanians in particular still want more of this while the Macedonians think there is too much of it already…
Well, what I’ve learned during these few days in Macedonia is that there are people who’d consider themselves as ethnic Macedonians, there are lots of Serbs here, there are Gypsies, there are some ethnic Turks and there is a considerable sized group of ethnic Albanians (and ethnic Albanians, by the way, live all over the place – Albania, Macedonia, Bulgaria, Serbia, Kosovo, Montenegro) living in Macedonia too. What adds another twist, are the different faiths and religions that people follow. I come across Orthodox-Christians, Muslims, Catholics, Jews and of course Atheists too. They are all very lovely and super friendly people and I certainly feel totally welcome here. It’s extremely interesting to listen to the different stories and opinions of people and I recommend one goes and explores for oneself … and tries to look at those issues through manifold lenses 😉
In the photo above (bottom left) you see some delicious and very typical Macedonian food that we eat in the beautiful and historic bazaar district Čaršija where Skopje’s Ottoman past lingers (think winding lanes filled with teahouses, mosques, craftsmen’s stores). My host Saša starts by ordering Mastika, the local aperitif spirit and people apparently eat that with some pickled veggies – salad as they call it – to keep them going until the mains arrive. Tavče gravče – fresh, properly baked butterbeans – are a highlight indeed and of course we have kebapci and uviac meat. After that – Turkish Coffee (top right in the photo above), what else?
In the photo below, you can see the old railway station of Skopje which nowadays houses the City Museum and displays photos from the devastating earthquake that struck Macedonia in the early morning hours of 26th of July 1963. If you look close enough, you can see the exact time when the clock stopped working.
Below are some more impressions from my 3-day stay in Skopje. In the middle is the Mother Teresa Memorial House – Saint Teresa of Calcutta was born here in 1910, left for Ireland when she was 18 and the rest is history. Left of it the colourful interior of the Orthodox Church St Clement of Ohrid. At the bottom you can see Mustafa Pasha’s Mosque in some Turkish Cay. What a great time – I am grateful for all the warm-hearted and welcoming people I’ve met and for how much I’ve learned about a place I barely knew its location of just a little while ago.