Just back from our combo hired car–and-bus trip to Macedonia and Kosovo. A quick summary: this area is a mix of contrasts, chaos, churches, natural beauty, nightlife, meat, mosques, trash, border crossings and a lasting love of Bill Clinton. For more, read on for some random musings:
- Bus drivers and cab drivers in the Balkans seem to be obsessed with music from the 70’s and 80’s. It’s pretty weird to hear Madonna singing “Like a Virgin” as you are driving through a mostly Muslim country. It’s also equally strange to watch a music video on a bus in Kosovo that is a cross between an Albanian version of American Idol mixed with those old-time female singers who performed on Lawrence Welk. Picture women dressed in tight-fitting sequined gowns alongside other women in traditional dress singing pop songs. This while passing mosques in the countryside. Mind-boggling stuff.
- Skopje, the capital of Macedonia, is a vibrant and bustling city of contrasts. We connected with some filmmaker friends of mine who live there and said “we’ll meet you under the fountain with the big horse warrior.” So off we went to find this incredibly beautiful giant fountain in the town square that was erected just 2 weeks ago (!) and has since become a huge people magnet (maybe you saw the YouTube videos of people celebrating there when the Macedonian basketball team beat Lithuania and thus ALMOST won the European championships http://www.youtube.com/watchv=UZC4f7DLQX8&feature=relatedwhen). The fountain is topped by Alexander the Great (apparently a controversial choice) and frequently changes colors to the amusement of children and adults alike. This city also has crumbling benches, stray dogs and cats, a fascinating Old Bazaar across the stone bridge (from 15th century ) from the fountain which is the largest bazaar in the Balkans outside Istanbul. The stone paths and curvy streets were packed with music and people until late into the night. There we drank and ate with my filmmaker friends that I had met last year in Sofia and we had a great time. We definitely plan to go back here and spend more time exploring bustling Skopje.
- Prizren, Kosovo: Picture a charming city that is along the banks of a shallow river and surrounded by mountains. This city is linked to the Albanian coast (2 hours to the sea) on a brand new highway (unusual for these parts) and dotted with elegant old buildings constructed over many centuries. It’s also the city with one of the best documentary festivals in the world (Dokufest) each summer. Here we had the wonderful opportunity to meet with the founder of the festival, Veton Nurkollari, and see the Dokufest office where all the docu-magic happens. Veton was a wonderful host who took us to an art opening in a 15th century hammam (turkish bath) and then to his favorite place for dinner (just point to the meat you would like cooked for your meal and they c0ok it for you) and after dinner to his favorite bar for après-dinner drinks on busy street bustling with people and chatter until the wee hours of the night. The view from our hotel room gives you a sense of this charming town from above. The morning call to prayer from the newly renovated mosque in the center of town was especially powerful as the sun was coming up.
- Next stop: Pristina, Kosovo. First reaction: picture a city that is complete chaos, traffic-clogged, over-built and polluted. Given that Pristina has been bombed as recently as 1999, this all makes sense. But we were getting tired by this point in our trip and did not have a hotel booked (and phones that did not work) so we decided to start heading back to Bulgaria (which would require 3 buses and about 8 hours of travel time to get back). On our way to the bus station, we passed a large statue of Bill Clinton! To this day, Clinton is loved and adored for launching the NATO bombing that stopped the ethnic cleansing of Albanians by the Serbs. There is even a boulevard named after Clinton. Anyone we talked to who asked us where we are from would say things like “We love the USA” and “Thank you for helping us.” Strange feeling to be loved for being an American, especially given all the other things going on in the world today.
- After many hours and transfers on buses, we finally got back to Bulgaria. But not until we were stopped at the last border crossing and we were all asked to get off the bus and take out our luggage for inspection, which took about an extra hour. Not a pleasant way to end the trip. The border crossing rituals of passports that are taken away and given back several times on each side of any border is a constant reminder of what it means that we have our freedom to travel between these countries. Many people in this region do not.
- All along the way, there is trash, trash, and trash. On the sides of roads, in front of houses, on street corners…everywhere. It just seems like this part of the world hasn’t figured out how to deal with trash. I took a picture of a house across the street from the U.S. Embassy in Skopje that had a huge pile of trash and another pic of a pile of trash on the side of a rural road somewhere. But often the trash will be next to something very beautiful so it’s a little bit disarming.
- Finally, I just want to say that I have noticed that women in this region are dressed either very fashionably or they are stuck in the 70’s and that goes for hair styles as well. Check out this hairdo ( in the slideshow below) of a lady who was on our last bus!
In summary, this was an incredible 4 days and is exactly the kind of experiences we were hoping for when Mark Wollemann and I moved to Blagoevgrad to teach at AUBG. One thing I realize is that I still have so much learn about this region and the history. This is just the beginning.