On the bus from Novi Pazar a gregarious old lady got me to sit next to her. She spoke or understood some Russian so by mixing it up with Serbian we were able to have a conversation. She was a Muslim from Serbia going to visit a friend in Macedonia. Her children lived in Sarajevo. Another reminder of how artificial the boundaries were. I learned a few words in Serbian from her.
The road to Skopje went through Kosovo. I’m unclear on the status of the border. I heard it may be closed on the Serbian side because they do not recognize Kosovan sovereignty. It turned out to be no problem at all. The Serbian guards checked our passports and there was no border control from the Kosovan side where I was expecting NATO troops to man the border.
What I saw of Kosovo looked like a big construction site. So much was destroyed in the war or maybe not much was there to begin with because Kosovo was so poor, so everything was new. About five kilometers of the main road didn’t have any paving at all, they were working on it. Piles of trash sat along the road. My companion pointed out that Albanians lived in family compounds surrounded by a wall reminding me of Moroccan _casbah_s. When we pulled off at a gas station – the highway, glass office blocks and slick snack store – it could have been anywhere in America except the signs were in Albanian and completely incomprehensible.
On my first night in Skopje I had dinner in the central square and walked to my hostel along the river bank. The city appeared modern and well-kept, if a little tacky with that defining emblem of kitsch – a lit-up musical fountain. In daylight my impression changed. In recent years, in an effort to construct a national identity, the government put up dozens of monuments in the city center – larger than life sculptures bathed by fountains, a gallery of notable figures lining both sides of a bridge, a triumphal arch and a museum in a neo-classical style. The whiteness was blinding and the bronze hadn’t had a chance to turn green, if indeed some more modern alloy designed to never lose its shine hadn’t been used. Plaques with various sayings of Mother Theresa, born in Skopje, popped up on walls all over the center. The main square held the statue officially known as “man on a horse” because due to disputes with Greece it could not be called “Alexander The Great”.
All these statues and fountains struck me as very kitsch. They were pushing a very nationalistic and conservative viewpoint. For example, the only women represented were in the role of mothers. The money could have been better used to tidy up the extensive Turkish part of the city where old hans (guest houses) were falling apart and overhead wires marred the view. The čarsija wasn’t as nice as the one in Sarajevo but also held many cafes and restaurants.
Plaques commemorating the earthquake of 1963 that destroyed much of the city were scattered around. An ambitious scheme to rebuild the city was never finished but gave the city an elevated railroad track and blocks of modern earthquake resistant housing. Many signs were in four languages and two alphabets – Macedonian (Cyrillic), Latin, Turkish and Albanian.
I was staying at a hostel in a 50’s era apartment building. The owner, Valentin, used to live in Pittsburgh where he worked as a pizza delivery guy. The guide for the walking tour I took had his sights abroad as well. His grandfather was a well-known Macedonian writer and he wanted to translate his books into English to sell in Australia where over a million Macedonians lived – far more than in Macedonia itself.
Matt, with whom I hitchhiked from Ljublana to Sarajevo, happened to be in Skopje at the same time so we met up. He was with Stas, a Pole he met at his hostel. Matt has been having bad luck couchsurfing since meeting me. Together the three of us took a taxi to Šutka, the only municipality in Europe run by Roma. It was about a fifteen minute drive from the city center, well on the outskirts.
The bazaar in Šutka closed way before we got there around six. So with nothing else to do we went down the street where a wedding party was blocking the road. A band that could very well have been at Guča was playing and a crowd of people was making its way to a schoolyard where tables were set up and a different band was playing eastern-inflected dance music.
We started going toward the mosque when we were hailed by a “'Sup” from across the road. Our greeter was a really drunk but still coherent Roma who spoke in a broad New York accent. We found out he was deported from Connecticut and now lived here with relatives. I’m not sure how much of what he said about Šutka was filtered through an American consciousness with helpings of movies and gangster rap and designed to impress us with the toughness of the place. He told us clubs near the bazaar area would reopen at nine with drugs, prostitutes and so forth available. He kept trying to impress on us how it was not a place to joke around and that beyond the mosque lay a boundary line we shouldn’t idly cross. He said his uncle built the mosque and was the treasurer and offered to take us there for a look. Of course we couldn’t go in the building but we got a look through the glass. He got money for a beer for his troubles.
At the bus stop we talked to a Roma and a Macedonian who worked in Iraq for Americans. They claimed to know the bus driver and arranged for us to get on for free. Or possibly we just fare hopped. The Roma young man said he wanted to go to Germany as no one would give him a job here.
Valentin really sold me on Ohrid and I decided to give it one day. Valentin gave me a ride there. On the way he told me that a war with Albanian separatists was a real possibility. After the heat died down I walked over to the old town. The market square is at one edge of it. There’s a mosque there and a few blocks of the Turkish quarter. Then you have to go uphill through little alleys and a park until you reach a crest. From there it’s all downhill to the lake. The streets are twisty and cobbled and the houses look several centuries old. For the first time since Italy I got the feeling of unchanged antiquity.
A Roman amphitheater is at the top of the hill, facing the sea. As I passed it a sound system was being tested with loud drum’n'bass for an upcoming concert. A small church sits on a promontory away from the town. Inside are frescoes from eight hundred years ago, the smell of burning candles and the hissing of melting wax hitting water. Narrow paths take you into the forest along the lake. The smell of pine sap was strong and fallen needles glowed in the golden sunset. A group was meditating among the trees. It was really peaceful especially if one ignored the vulgar chants of the boaters down below.
I tried to find the university, the first in Europe, where the Cyrillic alphabet was invented. I was expecting it to still be functioning but I only found some ruins circling a beautiful Orthodox cathedral. I avoided the door tax. This was for the best as by this point in my trip I generally don’t go to places charging admission.