It’s my last night in Macedonia and I’m mainly wondering how I should dispose of the axe I bought here on a musical whim. I’m also a little bit worried that I forgot to “unregister” with the police and I may be in trouble at passport control in the morning.
I’m sitting in a bar where all the TVs are showing a water polo match, because this is abroad. And I’m feeling a little nostalgic about Skopje. I didn’t do as many touristy things as I had planned and there’s lots I haven’t seen here, but I’m definitely glad I came.
Macedonia is a cowboy country and it’s impossible not to love it a little for that. McDonalds Europe closed down all the McDonalds restaurants in Macedonia a few years ago for not operating to a high enough standard and I think Skopje is the biggest place I’ve ever been that doesn’t have a McDonalds. If McDonalds are saying that your standards are too low, then you probably have a lot to think about.
I’ve travelled a lot in Eastern Europe and I’m used to standards being different. But Macedonia is even more different. An American I met here told me he struggled to buy a legal copy of Microsoft Word, because computer shop staff couldn’t understand why he wouldn’t want a much cheaper illegal version.
Politics here is everything. On Friday, I told a young Macedonian man that I have friends in Ireland and I don’t know which party they vote for. He was amazed at this. In Ireland, you can support an opposition party and still get a job in the civil service, the police force or as a teacher. And I don’t think anyone chooses the university they attend for party political reasons at home. That’s not how it is here.
I was getting a lift through the city centre on Friday. On one street, every set of traffic lights was switched off and the police were making sure that the traffic was flowing freely in one direction. Flowing very freely for rush hour on a Friday. Apparently this is what happens when a government minister is leaving the office and going home. They switch the traffic lights off for him and expedite his journey. Democracy my bottom.
Attitudes to everything are different here. It’s a country where it’s still normal for a husband to share a flat with his parents as well as his wife and children. It’s the only place I’ve ever been in the world where you hand your Visa card to a shop assistant and call out your PIN number so that they can enter it for you. If you want to claim expenses here, you must ask for a handwritten receipt, because, for some bizarre reason, these are more official than printed ones. It’s also the only place I’ve ever been where there is a coin that is five times more valuable than a banknote.
It’s a funny place. One of the national dishes is a shopska salad. This is a regular salad (lettuce, tomatoes, maybe some cucumbers and onions) with about a tonne of soft white cheese grated over it. The cheese has a lovely texture, not quite as wet and semen-like as feta, but not really a solid cheese either. It’s about the only dish you can get in every single restaurant here and they’re very proud of it. I like it. But of course I do. It’s a bowl of cheese that is masquerading as a salad. They serve the same cheese grated over chips, but this dish doesn’t work as well and makes me want to bring the whole country out for cheesy garlic chips at Jackie Lennox’s. The food here is good. They love their kebabs. The most common form of kebab seems to be to serve it in rounded fingers of kebab that look like sausages, but you’re not allowed to call it sausages, or you’ll get in trouble. Just like when you try to call a hot dog a sausage to an American. People worldwide seem to have a sensitivity about the word “sausage”.
Of course lots of people here aren’t having their lunchtime kebab-sausages at the moment because it’s Ramadan and a quarter of Macedonians are Muslim. I’ve taught Muslims in Ireland during Ramadan, but it’s an art-form here and much more like Irish Lent than I expected. You’re not allowed to curse during Ramadan, but the consensus seems to be that if you curse in a foreign language then that’s ok. It’s just like I remember from childhood Lents, when there was a broad societal agreement that giving up sweets did not include giving up crisps. I even remember arguments about whether or not sweets included chocolate.
Anyway, on re-reading this piece, I realise it reads as a bit condescending and I don’t want it to. I genuinely can’t think of the last time a city has had as positive an impression on me as Skopje has. I’ll miss it.