The following is Steven’s take on Macedonia. The words and the content are his, not mine. Any grammatical errors are also his!
From the air, flying into Alexander the Great Airport in Skopje from the north, one sees majestic mountain ranges to the west and south with Skopje laid out in a valley between those ranges and another mountain range that is not so high. The tops of the tallest mountains were still covered with fairly deep snow. Actually the mountains and snow reminded me of the Rocky Mountain range as you approach them from Denver. Everything was green down in the valleys. We flew over Kumanovo, which is a fairly large city in the north. Immigration and customs were easy to maneuver and the hotel had a car waiting for me. The airport is quite a distance from the city, but it is a modern four lane toll road.
The central city of Skopje is really quite modern, having been rebuilt after the 1963 earthquake. It is a city of statutes – mostly new but constructed to look old (ancient). They are everywhere downtown. Many of the government buildings are built to look Greek or Roman – tall but narrow. The river walk is a great place to walk and visit one of the many restaurants, cafes and bars – all of which have very nice outdoor areas. The outdoor areas are very helpful since everyone (or so it seems) smokes. When someone sat down at a table he/she immediately lit up a cigarette, put it out when the food arrived, and then immediately lit up another when finished. The days were warm to me, and the evenings cool. I understand that when I return in July it could be well over 100° F (40° C).
There are Orthodox churches and mosques everywhere, which makes sense for the region. Macedonian Orthodox is the primary religion, followed closely by Islam and then Catholic. Beautiful minarets everywhere. Interesting that the “call-to-prayer” is staggered so that each call is a second or so behind the first one. I did visit the Mosque across the street from Eileen’s house. Met the hoja as well.
Most Muslim women in the region dressed in a very western style and many wore hijab. There would be groups where some wore them and others did not. Few women wore burqas or veils, but I did see a few of them in the marketplace.
The marketplace was interesting- lots of small shops, crowded on Saturday when we visited, but not so much on Sunday when many of the shops were closed. I assume because of Orthodox customs. In addition to the shops, there is a wonderful covered market as well. The fruit and vegetable section was amazing and all of the produce looked wonderfully fresh. There are actually very narrow streets that cars and trucks share with the shoppers. Makes for a fun time when the streets are also filled with people. Did purchase a water color print from a local artist.
Once you leave the central city of Skopje it is apparent Macedonia is a developing country. Roads are very much rural and houses and businesses are not so modern. But then there seem to be several areas within the city that way as well. While Eileen’s village is technically within the city of Skopje, it is definitely rural and far removed from the city. It takes a 30-35 minute bus ride to get out there. As Eileen notes, the drivers drive like they are on a racetrack and one must be sure to get on and off quickly since the drivers don’t wait long before closing the doors. No AC and no heat. It was quite hot on the bus so I can’t imagine what it will be like in the actual heat of summer. I assume they are quite cold in the winter. The drivers pack as many people as humanly possible into the space allowed. Interesting to watch people trying to get down from the upper floor of the double decker buses and off before the driver closes the door and leaves. Apparently there are lots of people who try to avoid paying the fare. There was an inspector on one of the buses I was on and he did catch at least one person. But people take a chance they won’t get caught.
Eileen’s village is Albanian and Muslim. It appeared to me that there are at least two mosques in the village with one being across the street from her house. The home is comfortable, but still under construction. If your house is under construction, you apparently do not have to pay property taxes. That means no one ever really finishes the construction. Eileen does have a nice room that is her own, but I bet it is quite chilly in the winter and could get pretty warm in the summer. There are three living rooms – one for the men and the other two are primarily used by the women and children. A wood stove is also located in the family living room. There is a fairly modern bathroom with a western toilet. The men are supposed to use the outside Turkish toilet though.
The family is very traditional when it comes to gender roles and customs. We had Turkish coffee and tea in the front courtyard served by the daughter-in-law. Her role is primarily one of service. She is responsible for waiting on the rest of the family, cleaning, etc. Her little girl is very cute and she became my friend quickly; however, I understand she can turn on you just as fast. Eileen is teaching Elsa (the little girl) English. Most of the family do not speak much English.
The village seems to be a nice quaint place to live and work. Primary industry seems to be agriculture, although there are a couple of manufacturing plants in the area. Women tend to stay home and take care of the house and children. There is a little “strip mall” across the highway that has a café. Women of the village do not go there, though. I was told women who are traveling back and forth on the highway do stop though. If the women in the village want to go somewhere they go down the road to Saraj and then only if they are in a group or accompanied. The Skopje city bus stops at the corner which is convenient.
Got to visit Matka Canyon. Bus takes you within about ½ mile of the dam and park area. Steep cliffs of sheer rock, a beautiful clear lake that goes for quite a distance back up the canyon, and a nice little lodge. There is also an old Orthodox church located next to the lodge. It was a holiday weekend, so there were a lot of people. We went on Sunday – early – and missed the crowds. The place was filling up by the time we left in early afternoon. The creek running below the dam is as pretty as any mountain stream in the Rockies. Words cannot really describe the beauty of the canyon.
Finally a word about the wines and food – wonderful and excellent. And cheap. There are Italian places, Mexican places, steak houses, Spanish places, Macedonian places. Even an Irish Pub where you can get a huge breakfast for two for around $4.00 . Had a wonderful anniversary dinner at the steak place near the hotel on the river walk. Went to Eileen’s favorite Italian restaurant – excellent!! Also ate at a wonderful Macedonian restaurant near downtown that is in the only remaining traditional Macedonia home from the early 19th century that has a wonderful courtyard. And I highly recommend Macedonian wines. They are among some of the best I have tried.
Looking forward to visiting some other areas of Macedonia in July when I can be there for a whole week.
Eileen is obviously engaged in the culture, the country, the people and her work. The people of Macedonian will leave their mark on her as she will them. What an adventure. What courage to commit to this for the next two years.