Before I packed my bags in the beginning of the year to live a few weeks in Skopje, I was suddenly in the grip of a grand fear. A thoroughly irrational, panicky part of me was to 100% certain that I would not be able to live and work in Skopje without this leading to a mental breakdown after a maximum of two days. But in definance of the coming end of my MA studies and the accompanying existential fear I have one goal for 2019: not to let my fear paralyze me. I forced myself to embark that plane to Skopje, even if this short trip (I am staying only 5 weeks) seemed to be the most foolish idea of the new year. Maybe I would have been less terrified if I knew to travel to a stunning city, buzzing of cultural life and creativity. Skopje falls in none of these categories. Before I left, Skopje had absolutely no appeal for me also – or because – I already know the city quite well. Yet, when I landed in Skopje, greeted by the mountain ranges around the valley of the city which were dipped in the most fantastic sunset colours, the biggest pressure and tension fell off me.
My relation to Skopje – and equally to Macedonia – is ambiguous. A colleague summed up this ambivalence: “Macedonia is a marvellous country, but a terrible state.” It is just like that and it is such a pity that the most beautiful parts of the country or the good sides have often – if not almost always – no chance to withstand the stale smack of rigged politics. Or that – because of weirdly chosen political preferences – the potential of the most beautiful corners or traditions is wasted or not used.
There are plenty of marvellous nature spots in Macedonia (I was lucky enough to visit many of them two years ago during a road trip), but Skopje itself is a strange city, somewhat patched-up and definitely not a place which would touch my soul. Big streets are lined by run-down, old and dirty building which appear even greyer in the smoggy air.
One exception is the old town: Carsija. But even this pretty part of the city has experienced better times before – only a few years back (that’s what I was told) one would find the cultural heart of the city here. It was a meeting spot for people from different ethnical backgrounds and for marginalized groups, such as the LGBTI community of the city. The atmosphere was open, friendly and diverse, but religious conservativism is becoming stronger and stronger in the small alleys leading towards the Bit Bazar.
When I returned to Skopje now, I was surprised, but in a negative sense. I had kept the city in better memory, less run-down, less depressing. Maybe I had been naive back then or the spring sun had simply put the city in a better light? It has been two years since I last visited Skopje and I returned in the expectation to see some change. But, judging quickly, nothing much has changed, only that the airport was renamed from “Alexander the Great” to “Skopje International” Airport. The melting snow in the city invited nobody to sit and chat outside coffeeshops, everyone sprinted swiftly through the cold city. It was hard for me to handle the gloom that was floating above the crumbling facades (good that the happy mood in the office cheered me up without difficulties).
Yesterday the weather suddenly changed over night and there is a slight feeling of spring in the air. I strolled through the old town with a friend and was beyond happy to see that the life has returned to it with the increasing temperatures. People filled the streets, we were entangled in a short chat here and there and it was just a pleasure to sit among the people in the faint sun. Some ease was in the air.
Every time I walk through Skopje I can’t help, but to think how much potential there is in this place. All the corners that could do well with some paint and renovation and the pretty stores which could fill empty shop windows with their products. But where to take the capacities from in a country where corruption and nepotism obstruct development and creative competition?
There are different things I enjoy about this city and every week I discover – with the help of friends – some new alternative and open-minded spaces. Almost every day I happen to talk to strangers who welcome me with kindness to their city, who want to know – slightly surprised – what brings me to this corner of Europe and who share some of their plans, dreams or fears with me. So, I really can’t say to be unhappy, but Skopje does give me a lot of food for thought and reflection.
Before I made new friendships, which luckily did not take me long, I was almost a little lonely here for a short moment, because many of my friends have left the country to live, work or study in other parts of Europe. I understand them, because the life in a city like Skopje goes heavy on the heart, especially if you desire to be wild, free and special.
I for my part like to come back to Skopje, and let it just be for academic reasons. I can’t help but feeling a deep affection for troubled societies and democracies. I have different corners and spaces here where I feel very welcome and can be just who I like to be. For travellers who like to travel off the beaten track the city is definitely a hidden gem – but before I will enlist Macedonia’s capital as a must-visit – one of my most-loved spots on earth – many things must happen. How and when is written in the stars.