Macedonia

The paradox of modern politics and other impressions from Macedonia

After I had been in Macedonia for one week, I sat down in a little Italian coffee place in Tetovo, a town not far from the capital, Skopje, ordered an Espresso, waited for a friend and used the time to collect my impressions from the country. By the time I was down to about one page, the waiter came to bring me a second Espresso, on the house. Maybe he noticed how desperate I, whom I barely ever touch coffee, was for a little kick. I was exhausted, but it wasn’t Macedonia’s fault.

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In total I made it to three places in Macedonia and one of the, apparently, most must-see destinations I skipped, so I’ll have to come back. I walked around Skopje, I conferenced in Krusevo and I hung out with friends in Tetovo, so far, so grand. But where to begin?

Unless a lot of people from Germany I know quite a bit about the Western Balkans, about South Eastern Europe and about past and present struggles. Still, Macedonia and Montenegro are kind of the two countries I neglect in my observations, I do know though that Macedonia is since months failing to create a government and is at the same time constantly shattered by both corruption and civil protest. Knowing as much, I settled into a lovely, family-run hostel[1] on my first day and went, pushed by the receptionist, on the Free Walking Tour through the city centre. On my way to the meeting point I walked pass the river and was astonished in a way. While on my left hand I had little kiosks selling books and snacks, to my right, across the river, I saw the most beautifully renovated old buildings, sitting above the river, covered in statues and with three massive bridges leading towards them. Don’t get me wrong now, it’s not that the Balkans can’t have big Roman mansions, you see very nice old buildings in Belgrade for example, but I was confused for two reasons: Firstly, Macedonia is not known to be a rich country and therefore most streets and buildings outside this marvellous centre are very obvious in desperate need of renovation. Secondly, Macedonia was part of the Ottoman Empire, so I would have expected Eastern-oriented architecture.  dsc07787Turned out, I wasn’t too wrong after all. Skopjes city centre is in a way a perfect representation of, I think, a Balkan syndrome: the wish to belong to Europe. Maybe even some inferiority complex, but I don’t want to go out on a limb here. I also don’t want to be rude, but just looking at national narratives the discourse is defined by occupation, war and an exclusion from the “core” Europe. So, what’s done in Skopje is to invest billions of Euros in architecture from all over Europe (“copy and paste” as my tour guide explained) and in statues to celebrate the biggest national hero, Alexander the Great (some say he’s Greek though), just to be part of the club. Instead of being creative, innovative, individual and maybe futuristic, the look is backwards trying to catch up on a few centuries. At the same time a simple statue of Alexander wouldn’t do – it has to be the biggest. All those constructions which are still being built as part of the “Skopje 2014” projects are not supported by private investors – it’s the government investing the money which its people could use so much better in education programmes, health care systems or simply improved infrastructure. It does not surprise that the daily encounter with those megalomaniac projects infuriates the young generation who sees her future being built upon dept.

Trump Arch
Trump Arch

So there is one thing which does give a pretty touch to all the plain, old-fashioned walls: colourful sparks of colour bombs. Labelled the “colourful revolution” young people took the streets throwing colours at the expensive bricks all around the city centre. So, thanks to these spatters and splodges the buildings get a unique touch, they represent the Macedonian spirit, they are not just plain, copied and pasted. It got only better after I talked to the angry people who took part in the protest or even initiated it (after the summer break there are weekly protests again in the streets), I started to feel the spirit of the people – and wow! So far about the centre. Skopje doesn’t sound very appealing yet, I suppose. So, to change the perception I crossed the river, listening to gentle melodies from the nutcracker and then was chased off the old stone bridge, an actual relict of past times, by a terribly high pitched tone which is supposed to keep pigeons away. Maybe I’m a pigeon. But once that terrible tone was left behind the exciting part of Skopje’s centre begun: crossing the Old Bazaar the cobbled streets lead into the Albanian part of Skopje. Here you see the Ottoman influence. Small stores, mostly clothes and jewellery next to little coffee places and restaurants, uphill it goes on to the ruins of an old fortress overlooking the city and opposite to the biggest Orthodox cross put on top of a mountain (almost twice the size of the Rio Jesus and yet another controversial project).

Quickly going over this I’m worried that it seems like I didn’t like Skopje. That would be a wrong impression. I find the city extremely interesting, but I also find it extremely absurd. I feel the anger against those senseless projects everywhere, the paradox which lies in those constructions. The presence of some men’s need to proof their influence through oversized things just naturally annoys me. Still, I enjoyed the (limited) time I had in coffee places or in night bars, hipster places filled with amazingly outgoing people. It always sounds like the most cliché thing to write in a travelogue, but I really was amazed by the friendliness of the people. They wouldn’t push this friendliness on you, but no question remains unanswered, there’s always time to find the right way together. Still, their humour is … interesting. Firstly, politically terribly incorrect and secondly – I probably just didn’t get the hang of it. I think, every person I approached in the streets, was more than happy to talk to me. It might just be a foreigner bonus which attracts people’s attention, it surely was in Tetovo.

Tetovo is a relatively small town not far from Skopje. Somehow, I have quite a bunch of great friends in that city so I had to go for a night. Tetovo is not especially exciting or pretty, but there is a stunning “painted mosque”, a humble building, unique in its style and very interesting to see in comparison to other mosques. I also was lucky enough to be guided by two teenagers through small streets uphill to a monastery. The boys were talking about their study plans abroad and how they couldn’t wait to leave Macedonia and Tetovo in particular and I could and can understand, but I still find it a shame. Macedonia is a beautiful country, history just didn’t treat it very nicely. Travelling by bus up to the highest town of the country, Krusevo, I drove through the most stunning mountain panorama, lucky enough to see the scenery in sunset. Still, the poverty of the population can be seen at every other corner, the trash along the roads add up to the ragged touch. Macedonia is clearly part of Europe, just as the rest of the Balkans, but looking at it through the grey windows of a small bus, driving on holey streets it does not seem like it at first sight. Is it fair? Certainly not.

Krusevo
Krusevo

Travelling through Macedonia, observing all the absurdity in Skopje and exchanging so much experience with young Macedonians made me reconsider many things which had crossed my mind before. Because too many things doesn’t seem to make sense in this country it helps to rethink aspects of one’s own life and reality. When it comes to the capital, I don’t think that Skopje is extremely pretty or – and I apologize to all my Macedonian friends, and to my amazing local-patriot tour guide Miha[2] – especially worth to see for surficial reasons. Still, I enjoyed my trip to Macedonia and Skopje in particular very much. Because it opens up so many questions and is, as a perversion of egocentric governance and representation of civil, non-violent protest, quite an important statement about modern (Balkan) politics. And in the end all comes down to the people anyways. I mean, I didn’t even know how many Macedonian friends I had, but the number speaks for the country and its people.

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[1] Shanti Hostel 1 located near the central train and bus station and very much recommended!

[2] Definitely a must-do: The Free Walking Tour in Skopje!

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