From Rila I hitched to Skopje in Macedonia*. My last ride was with a guy called Georgi. He had an interesting way of driving: whenever he reached an even imperceptible slope he would turn off his motor and coast until the car almost reached a standstill before starting up again, all the while with one hand holding a phone to his ear, unless he saw a police car in which case he would, in one lightning fast motion drop the hand with the phone and switch on the loudspeaker and simultaneously fasten his seat belt with the other (and steer with his knees). I tried explaining that it would just be easier to have the seatbelt fastened permanently, but he didn't seem to want to understand. I did, finally, reach Skopje, which was under a drizzly lid of cloud. In a strange quirk of time zones I am now found myself in the same time zone I started out in more than 8 months ago, which probably speaks volumes about my inability to travel in a straight line. It also means that it gets dark by 4:30pm, which means I don't have much time to visit places and see what they really look like.
|A typical street in old Skopje (although there aren't many left as most of the town was destroyed by an earthquake in the 60's).|
The next morning when I got out to explore my surroundings I was struck by the Eastern atmosphere of the city. It is the most "Ottoman" of all the Balkan towns I have been to, with minarets ounumbering church spires; and they aren't just for decoration either, with muezzin chants regularly blaring across the rooftops. Then there is the bazaar, all that is left of the old town following a devastating earthquake in 1963, rich with the smells of baklava, burek, doner kebabs and fresh fruit and spices permeating the air. Small, cobbled alleyways leading between tiny shops, most of which seem to sell jewellery (probably for the entire country, judging by their number) make getting lost a certainty, but a pleasurable one at that. In the northern - Albanian - section of town (Macedonia has a large Albanian minority, who are mainly Muslim, whereas Macedonians are generally Orthodox) headscarves and full-length overcoats for women are not uncommon. Red Albanian flags, with their characteristic black eagle, flutter conspicuously from many balconies and houses. Although, I may have come at a biased time, as Sunday was the annual Albanian Flag Day. My Macedonian host was complaining that Albanians in the country get given far too much leeway, but I think that may be overdoing it a bit, as the Macedonian flag has 24 flag days every year, on the 1st and 15th of every month (even if I had known this fact at the time I probably would have kept quiet as in the Balkans nationalistic sentiments run deep). Actually it was a good opportunity to witness the fractured nature of Balkan allegiances. There was a concert in a square in the old town for the celebrations. Albanian flags predominated, of course, but then there also Kosovan flags, US, EU and even NATO ones too, and bringing up the rear, in a token gesture, were a few Macedonian ones. (It reminded me of the time I visited Albania in 2007. George Bush was visiting Kosovo, but not Albania, and yet the streets of Tirana were plastered with posters welcoming the American president.) Ethnicity trumps any other allegiance here and collective memories not only run deep, but also reach far into the past.
*Disclaimer for my Greek readership: In my posts I will be using the name Macedonia for the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macednoia (FYRoM) for simplicity's sake. It does not denote my political view of the country's historical right to use the name.