Connor in the Land of the New Pharoahs

I’ve been in Skopje for two weeks now and I love it.

I arrived, tired from a whole day of travelling on a Friday night. I’d been told to get a taxi to a city centre pharmacy and to phone from the taxi and someone would meet me. Unfortunately, 3 Ireland decided I would never need to visit Macedonia, so my phone doesn’t work here. My taxi driver was about eighty years old and didn’t have a mobile, so I couldn’t phone to say I’d be there.

The pharmacy was on a fairly grubby corner. The streets looked like the streets of any Eastern European city. Not the “soft” “it’s practically Austria” Eastern Europe of Slovenia. This was properly Slavic. You could tell that these were people who knew a thing or two about pickling cabbage.

And it felt good. Other than the UK and Ireland, the Slavic world is where I feel most at home. I breathed a massive sigh of relief. I had been worried that after Vietnam, I wouldn’t like being abroad any more. That I’d be stuck in Ireland forever. But no. I can keep on being a rolling stone. Because I love being here.  I wandered around the street, thinking that maybe the man who was meant to meet me would turn up. He didn’t. But I took the chance to practice reading the various signs in the Cyrillic alphabet and to soak in the foreignness of it all. Eventually, I asked a taxi driver who was standing beside his car on the side of the street if I could use his phone. A group of about 6 drivers gathered around me as I phoned the man from the university. 5 minutes later he was there.

The man who met me was friendly. It turned out we’d need to get another taxi to my destination. The taxi driver whose phone I’d used staked his claim, saying he should be able to drive us even though he wasn’t at the front of the queue. After all, he had let me use his phone. The other drivers begrudgingly agreed to this. Then the man from the university said that he’d be claiming the fare back from work so he’d need an official receipt. Suddenly no one wanted to take us, but one younger driver, who I suppose had his papers in order, volunteered.  It was only a 3-minute journey.

We were left in a car park and the man from the university phoned his colleague to find out where we should go. There were no lights and all the concrete blocks of flats looked the same and none of them seemed to have numbers. Eventually, we found the right building.  There was graffiti all over the building, mainly proclaiming it to be “The Centar Boys” territory. I later discovered that the Centar Boys are a basketball supporters’ club. It had never occurred to me that anywhere in Europe would have basketball that was good enough to inspire gangs and graffiti.

And the building itself was like something from The Wire. The front door was hanging off its hinges and clearly hadn’t been locked in years. There were two glass panels missing from it and the wood had been broken in a number of places. The hallway was smelly and damp, the walls covered in graffiti and there was no working light. There was also no lift. Stray cats skulked about too and as we made our way up the stairs, many of the windows in the hallways were broken too.  None of the doors had numbers. The man from the university was shining the light from his phone, trying to figure out which flat was mine (number 31) and I was hauling my suitcases up the stairs, getting the best workout I’d had in weeks, wondering whether I’d die from the over-exertion of climbing the stairs before or after the graffiti-ing door and window breaking gang stabbed me. My flat was on the fourth floor. The door doesn’t have a number, but someone has scrawled the word “Man” next to my door in big letters so I always know which one it is.

The flat is great. The hallways and stairs may be straight out of the Baltimore Projects, but the flat is newly done up and is solid. It has six rooms and a balcony, which is too many rooms for the space available and so there’s an awful lot of floor area given over to walls. An awful lot of walls.

The bed, like every bed I’ve ever had in Eastern Europe, a fold-out couch, and is relatively comfortable, but it is narrow and very creaky and unstable-feeling. I can see where it’s coming apart at the sides and I can only expect it to collapse under me some night when I snore too dramatically.

I wouldn’t feel as guilty about the inevitable breaking of the bed except I’ve met the owner of the flat and he’s lovely. His English could be better. From what I gather from our conversation he’s a dentist who works in a casino, but that can’t be right, so I’m going to blame his English skills and not my listening skills for that confusion. He took me to register me with the police, who all had guns. I think armed police is my least favourite thing about being abroad.

Anyway, Skopje is amazing. The city centre is along a fairly wide river that flows quite fast and makes a pleasing river-ish sounds. There are bars and cafés and restaurants lining one side of the river and half the city seems to be sitting out drinking coffee at all times. Very charming and Mediterranean. There’s also an old bit that dates from when this was an Ottoman city, with little windy streets and steps and tiny shops and mosques. It’s lovely.

A lot of the buildings in the centre were built in the 1960s after an earthquake knocked most of the centre, and so they are socialist and concrete. But this is changing.

The prime minister of Macedonia is a not un-hot man who got the job nine years ago at the age of 36. He decided to completely overhaul the city centre. And you’ve never seen anything like it. It’s absolutely mad.

Since 2011, the city has been being rebuilt as part of a project called “Skopje 2014”. One bank of the river is lined with massive, and I mean massive, neo-classical buildings, with enormous pillars and gigantic statues. Some of these are great buildings of state, national museums, theatres and ministries. But not all of them. There’s a massive baroque multi-storey car park with fancy porticos and statues and columns that makes me laugh hard every time I see it.  And all of these were built in 3 years. In some cases, the old buildings have been left in place and a big new-classical facade has been stuck on the front like an architectural boob job.

And it’s not just buildings. The statues. Oh the statues. Renaissance-style statues. And they’re everywhere. More statues than Florence. And they’ve all been erected in three years. There are so many statues that they’ve run out of people to make statues of. There’s even a statue of Winston Churchill standing on top of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, cheerfully waving at Skopje. Two new pedestrian bridges have been built, right next to each other and there are thirty statues on each one. Literally. You cannot stand anywhere in the city centre and not see a statue. It’s bonkers. And all in three years. It’s like a red-headed child who goes on summer holidays with a pale face and comes home covered in countless freckles. The statues just appeared and are everywhere.

The most comical aspect is probably the ships. There are three historical ships docked in the river. Except they’re not historical. They’ve been constructed in the last 3 years too. They’re not riverworthy and are attached to the ground. These historical ships have been installed for the tourists. They’re going to have restaurants on board.

There’s also an actual Arc de Triomphe. This crazed prime minister has literally erected an enormous victory arch in the city centre. He thinks he’s Julius Ceasar or Napolean.

And of course there are the fountains. Massive fountains. One is of the “Mother of Macedonia”, and there are four huge statues of her in the fountain. Three of them are playing with a child (Baby Macedonia?) and one is heavily pregnant. She’s about ten feet high. Surely this is the biggest representation of a pregnant woman’s bump in art.  The two tallest fountains are of King Philip and his son Alexander the Great. And you can see these from almost everywhere in the city. I’ve seen bigger fountains in London, Paris and Madrid, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen such tall fountains. They’re impossibly tall. Of course, the official name of the Alexander the Great statue is “The Warrior on Horseback”. The Greeks would have a conniption if the Macedonian government claimed Alexander for themselves. I mainly remember Alexander for being played by a blonde Colin Farrell who was clearly in love with Jared Leto, but apparently he still matters to the Greeks. The Macedonians of Alexandrian times were a Hellenic (Greek) people and were not related in any way to the current Macedonians, who are Slavic.

In fact, the Greeks despise Macedonia and keep trying to convince it to change its name. Identity politics is strange in this part of the world. “Macedonia” is not a long-established concept. From what I can gather, it’s basically a province of Bulgaria that accidentally ended up in Yugoslavia. The Bulgarians see it as Bulgarian and the Serbs see it as Serbian. And Macedonian nationalism is only about 100 years old.  It exists. But even in Macedonia itself, you’re not safe to call people “Macedonian”. A quarter of the people in Macedonia are Albanian-speaking and “Macedonian” doesn’t include them. People all tell me that no one really talks about the tension between Macedonians and Albanians, and then whisper in my ear and tell me all about it. It’s not a happy co-existence but it works for the moment.

The most famous person from Skopje is an Albanian. The woman later called Mother Theresa was born here. You can’t turn around without seeing a plaque of Mother Theresa with a quotation. They’ve built a “Mother Theresa House”. The actual house where she was born is in front of a shopping centre, so they’ve built a replica in a nearby street. Except it’s a super-sized replica, because the actual house would have been too small to accommodate tourists. So they’ve built this giant glassy structure and called it her house, even though it’s not and it’s in the wrong place and it’s the wrong size and shape.

Skopje 2014 isn’t yet finished. They’re planning a monument to Mother Theresa. A 30-foot-high statue. LOL. The most notable physical feature the woman had was her tiny-ness. And now she’s going to tower over Skopje, like some kind of proselytising giantess.

One of the many worries about Skopje 2014 (besides the fact of how this relatively poor country with 30% unemployment can afford it all) is that all of these structures aren’t earthquake-proof and I can only imagine how tonnes of insta-concrete would crumble and send Giant Bronze Mother Theresa tumbling to the ground causing utter devastation.

This city has charmed me utterly. Partly with plastic madness. But it really is lovely. You should all come and visit.

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