We spent quite a long time, relatively, in the tiny country of Macedonia. Well, all the countries here are rather miniscule. We stayed to the touristy bits, starting off with a historical bang in Ohrid, the place where the cyrillic alphabet was invented by Cyril and Methodius. Ohrid itself is quite picturesque. The lake was surprisingly crystal clear with minimal trash (especially in contrast to Albania, where we saw people throw their trash straight into the Osumi river in Berat). The city itself hosts unique architecture on account of the building regulations imposed by Ottoman rule on this bastion of Orthodox Christianity, causing the buildings on either sides of the narrow streets to cantilever further and further out until nearly meeting by the third story. Our apartment was at the base of one of these fascinating houses, in a location that literally could not be better – dead quiet at night, yet steps from the main walking street, the churches, and the castle.
We could feel the increase in GDP immediately, as prices for food and lodging were merely inexpensive, rather than hilariously inexpensive. Having thoroughly given up on Balkan food already, Brent led us directly to Dr. Falafel for some hummus right after our short tourism adventure to the church which birthed Cyrillic. It was probably the best meal of our trip (taste-wise). Most importantly, it wasn’t just a huge pile of meat. The hummus was merely adequate, but the falafels were freshly fried to order and delicious. As everywhere, the pollution kicked up in earnest at nightfall. Brent and I adjusted easily to these conditions by hiding in swanky places for longer. The first night, unfortunately, led us to a bar filled with smoke – we were away from the smoking balcony, but naturally the smoke came right in anyways. On the second day, we hid in a Turkish tea lounge twice, instead, blessedly free of smoke or even shisha!
Ohrid’s other sights were very pleasant without being life-changing – a cute castle on the hill named after Tsar Samuel (so we took a photo with Brent’s pig named Samuel showing his castle to his friends), a few other churches with some interesting frescoes and mosaics, an old tree in the bazaar, and a few mosques around on the way to the lakeside. The burek was much improved from the Albanian variety, though a little oily. We intended to take a bus to Bitola, and thought we’d arranged for our host to drive us to the bus station. As it turned out, he drove us all the way to Bitola, free of charge.
Brent pointed out how he (and so many others in the area) are constantly hustling. Businessmen with a dozen different ventures, constantly going from one to the next. Our host Sasha was headed to Bitola to do business as he provides paper trays and bags for the main chicken chain there. We spent a few minutes waiting by the side of the road before we even left Ohrid so that he could pay for a new air conditioning unit for one of the apartments. On the ride, he mentioned that he’d be changing the tiny apartment we stayed in (on ground level) into a pearl shop. He was very interested in learning English, and we obliged him by speaking with him the whole way to Bitola. He pointed out a sulfur smelling industrial town, and a dying town whose primary product is apples, with the youth all leaving to the city and abroad. We chatted about his life experiences having lived in three or four countries throughout his life without ever having moved out of Ohrid – Yugoslavia, Macedonia/The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, and finally, now, North Macedonia. His thoughts on this most recent name change were beautifully and simply conveyed when he said “My name is Sasha. Not Big Sasha.” Interestingly, as with so many I’ve spoken to all over the former communist world, he preferred life in Yugoslavia to the present day.
Bitola is a tiny town traversable in a few minutes by foot. In retrospect we should have spent less time here, but it is always nice to have more time to relax. While the town is the closest to the national park Pelister (pictured above), the pollution and cold kept us away. The cold being relative, of course. According to all our hosts, it was a very warm winter, with most winters being around -20 at this time. Insanity! As a result, our time in the city museum was absolutely frigid. No climate control, so we shivered in the exhibit even fully dressed in our layers, coats, gloves, and hats. I thought it would be our final museum as we’d be meeting Lei the next day (he is museum averse), so I took full advantage, happily drawing sculptures of Tito, Tesla, and Ataturk. The Ataturk exhibit was quite an interesting discovery for us, as Bitola is the place of his birth and youth – the museum was his former school. Our visit to Heraklea, the ruins of an extremely important ancient Greek and Roman city a short walk from Bitola was a bit disappointing, as all the mosaics were covered in gravel to prevent them from cracking from ice. There, too, a tour guide took time off from his own tour to hustle and ask if we needed one.
Everyone always hustling, Brent said. Our host’s sister, for instance, runs a choreography and voice studio upstairs by our apartment, and we could hear students practicing scales in the mornings and afternoons. On the evening of the first night, I was ushered on stage at the vegetarian cafe associated with our apartment to sing some songs at the conclusion of the studio’s year-end concert. I was quite happy to despite the damage pollution did to my voice, and sang through my new repertoire of foreign songs – Cucurrucucu Paloma, Апакем, Пусть бегут неуклюже, ลมหนาวและดาวเดือน, 海洋，and 上を向いて歩こう. Afterwards I chatted a while with one of the other performers, a young woman with excellent English and the now all-too-familiar idolization of the USA.
As with all the Balkans, it was very difficult to find any place free of smoke. Due to the holidays, it was particularly difficult to find any place to eat. The first night we ate with couchsurfer Dimitar, who Brent contacted with a request written in python3. Speaking with Dimitar was fascinating. Like Andi in Albania, he was extremely nationalistic. He disliked the nationalist movements of ethnic Albanians within Macedonia, saying that they were far over-represented in elections due to ethnic Albanians flying from in abroad just for election day. This seemed dubious to us, and reminds me of the xenophobic rhetoric common all around the world. Dimitar was also (understandably) sore about the political nonsense with the renaming mandated by Greece, preferred life as part of Yugoslavia, and bemoaned the death of his town as everyone and everything moved to the capital of Skopje. It seems political and demographic phenomena are more consistent around the world than I originally imagined.
We followed this brain drain ourselves, taking a hilariously long bus ride (nearly four hours for just 170km) to Skopje. What a strange city: unnaturally massive government buildings and museums in gaudily done neo-classical styles crowded around absurdly large statues of national heroes and artists and kings. It felt quite a lot like Vegas, a city faking glory and grandeur – yet unlike Vegas, Skopje didn’t seem to be in on the joke. When we arrived at the riverfront, I said, “This is what corruption looks like,” while Brent noted that they seemed to be overcompensating for the insecurity to their pride brought on by Greece. We spent two days there, walking around the center of town many times, wandering the castle, drinking many hot chocolates (nothing like American hot chocolates, but rather melted dark chocolate with the consistency of pudding), and chatting with Lei and Brent.
With Lei joining us on the first night, the dynamic and tourism style shifted slightly. Brent is most interested in pretty sights and food. I like drawing things, cultural interchanges, and food. Lei likes nature, meeting new people, and food. Our Venn diagram intersects quite strongly at food, but despite our best efforts there’s not much in the way of edible food in the Balkans as a whole. Brent’s amazing tummy prevailed over one such misadventure at our meal in Skopje.I led us on a merry search for a new sketchbook (I incorrectly thought one sketchbook would be sufficient for the journey and had run out of pages already) on our second day, which we capped off by giving in to the Balkans and eating a pile of grilled meat at a surprisingly local restaurant.