The Skopje airport was filled with feral cats, walking, climbing over radiators, counters and abandoned trunks....After a ride through what seemed in the dusk to be a series of war-torn neighborhoods, we arrived at my street. My landlord's daughter, Svetlana, greeted me in perfect English and a warm hug. Her mother and father do not speak English (although both use "OK" and "No Problem" rather well).
I was excited. The apartment was small, clean, and had crocheted covers or a tablecloth on every surface, reminding me of my Albanian grandmother's house - except for the DVD and VCR. The fridge contained the basics of Macedonian life - bottled water, clementines from Greece, butter for the bread and a can of Turkish coffee.
The next morning, I awoke to a view of ugly concrete and half-finished construction, tiny smashed-up cars, and trash lining the streets. Add to that a constant layer of smog....As I strolled to the U.S. Embassy, everybody walking past me sported a cigarette in one hand and a cell phone the other.
I bought a week's groceries for about $25. The cheese is wonderful - feta that doesn't taste like it came from between your toes.... I've been walking about five miles a day. There is a certain freedom in not having a car, especially here where driving is an extreme sport. They eat a big breakfast here at about 10. No lunch. Virtually everyone drinks coffee and smokes cigarettes all day, which is probably why no one is hungry. Work ends at 3; they go home and eat "lunch" with their family no later than 4:30.
Walking through the largest Turkish market outside of Turkey, I saw many Roma - gypsies to us - hawking goods. The Turkish bazaar was absolutely beautiful in a distressed way ... old stone, tile roofs and Roma driving donkeys carts.
The concrete University of Sts. Cyril and Methodius buildings have graffiti, torn up tiles, peeling paint and cigarette-permeated walls.... Students can't afford textbooks. A new book can cost half a month's salary, if the student has a job (35% unemployment here). Visiting professors bring books and the school photocopies them.
Everyone wants a college degree and professors are worshipped! The women actually run most of the University. The younger women here are impressive - well-educated, fluent in several languages and determined to make something positive happen in their country. They worry about bringing up children in a polluted country, where even the well-educated throw things in the river.
My shoulders are killing me from walking home from the supermarket with the groceries in the backpack. A far cry from tossing everything in the back of my volvo wagon!
Arriving back from a day trip to Greece, I got very homesick. At a café with super-fast Internet access, I made calls to the U.S. for 10 cents a minute. On the way home, I stopped at the Orthodox cathedral ... no chairs or pews and hundreds of lighted candles in wooden holders around the sides.
Lunch at McDonald's - double cheeseburger, fries and a Sprite for about $3. They also sell beer. Everything is cooked to order by young women in stylish red skirts and sweaters, Macedonia's official color. It's very clean, and the food is brought to your table.
Crossing the bridge to the Old City, I was greeted by a little Roma boy sitting in a cardboard box, begging. These kids are expected to bring home money each day and don't come home until they earn it anyway they can, including stealing. My office colleagues fondly remember socialism where everyone had a job and a free university education. What they don't remember is everyone had the same job for life with a salary that never changed.... Macedonians hate that Macedonia is associated with corruption, but everybody knows someone who can get their kids a job, or a quick visa, or a cheap TV.