September, 2007 Archives

Having entered Greece in rather strange circumstances, I was a little concerned as to what might happen should I travel back to Скопје through the same border point, just in case the frustrated waving me on was under some sort of “Well, he’s only a stupid tourist and he’s unlikely to be back any time soon” belief. So I decided to travel up to софия for a few days, and then go back across that way. Eager readers may remember that that’s how I entered Macedonia in the first place, but that time I only got to spend a few hours being driven around the back roads of софия, rather than actually getting to experience the city.

As Greece and Bulgaria are both in the EU these days, I expected the border crossing to be a relatively simple affair. In this I was completely mistaken. The train sat for well over an hour and half at the border. As best I could ascertain there were only about 10 passengers, so I’ve no idea what was going on, especially as I was tucked away in a compartment in the first class cabin with no other passengers. I didn’t actually buy a first class ticket, but somehow the train station in Thessaloniki managed to allocated me a reserved seat in the first class cabin on a second class ticket. Both of the ticket inspectors who examined it during the journey did a visible double take at this, but as I was sitting in the correct car/seat combination there wasn’t a lot they could say.

I’d pre-booked an apartment for a few days in the centre of софия, and there was meant to be a driver waiting for me at the station on arrival, but the delay at the border meant that by time I got in it was after midnight, and the driver was nowhere to be found. I rang the woman I’d booked it through (although I’m pretty sure I woke her up), and after she’d ascertained that the driver had gone home for the night, she offered to pick me up herself. She explained she was nearby, and so would meet me outside the McDonalds at the station in 10 minutes.

This sounded much simpler than it actually turned out to be. I walked the whole way around the outside of the station, and couldn’t see a McDonalds at all. The one remaining taxi driver claimed not to know where it was (although if I were feeling particularly suspicious I’d think he was trying to sabotage my lift so that his hanging around waiting for the last train wouldn’t have been a complete waste of time, particularly as his price also dropped by €5 at this point…)

With a time restriction in place, I couldn’t just keep wandering around on my own hoping to find it, so I tried to find somewhere else who could tell me where it was. Of course, after midnight that’s not a trivial thing to do either. There had been some workers down where I’d gotten off the train, so I tried to retrace my steps back in that direction, but got hopelessly lost by virtue of all but one of the entrances to the station being locked for the night. Eventually I found the right combination of steps to descend, back into the bowels of the underground part of the station, and the right steps to ascend again, back to the track where the train was. However, by now there was no-one to be found. So I went back down into the station and wandered around hoping to find someone. Eventually I found some cleaners, but they spoke no English. I hoped that simply looking lost and asking “McDonalds?” should suffice for them to be able to at least point in the right direction but the looked completely confused. Over the next 5 minutes, growing increasingly worried that my lift would disappear again, I repeated the charade with a variety of night workers, all with the same result (or lack thereof).

At this point, as I passed the bottom of a stairway that led up to one of the tracks, my mobile phone managed to get a signal, and helpfully informed me that I’d missed 4 calls. Checking my messages I discovered that the woman picking me up had arrived at the station to discover that it was all locked and so couldn’t even get to the McDonalds, even had I been able to find it, and she was waiting for me outside by the front entrance. My next adventure was trying to find my way back to there. In my quest for anyone who spoke enough English to understand the work “McDonalds” I’d gotten completely lost underground. Eventually, after about a further 15 minutes of increasingly panicked wanderings, I found my way to the front entrance: but, unfortunately, the wrong side of it, where the heavy duty chains made it clear I wasn’t going to get out that way any time soon. The woman picking me up, on the other side of the door, looked remarkably exasperated and she berated me for not knowing that her suggestion to meet at McDonalds made no sense if the station was locked and just waited for her outside instead! She had no suggestions for how I could manage to find out which sets of stairs and doors would lead me back across, down, round, up, and around again to her side. So I set off on further exploration on the understanding that if I hadn’t found my way out in 10 minutes she was calling the police to come get me out.

Thankfully I made the right guess fairly quickly, reached somewhere that looked familiar, and made it out in just over 5 minutes this time. As we walked over to her car, the lone taxi driver, visibly deflated, clambered into his, and drove off. And I still had no idea where McDonalds was.


St. Sofia from Nezavisimost Square


I recently had my first awkward border crossing (other than entering the US where immigration staff are notoriously amongst the most aggressively obnoxious in the world), crossing from Macedonia to Greece. Interestingly it was on the Macedonian side of the border, rather than the Greek. As with most border crossing by bus in this part of the world, the driver collected everyone’s passports and took them to the security checkpoint, whilst we all waited onboard. 5 minutes later he came back to get me off the bus as the border official wanted to talk to me. Shortly thereafter I learned one of life’s great lessons: Never interrupt an immigration officer to explain you only speak English without at least triple checking that they’re not already speaking English!

With the language confusion out of the way and both of us speaking somewhat slower for each other’s benefit, we got down to the meat of the matter. He wanted to know where I had been staying in Скопје:

  • I rented an apartment
  • What is its name?
  • You mean its address?
  • No, its name!
  • Erm? The name of the agency I rented it from?
  • No! The apartment’s name!
  • Ummm. I don’t think it actually had a name.
  • Well, where are the papers?
  • What papers?
  • From the apartment!
  • I don’t have any.

This went on for quite a while, with neither of really having a clue what the other was talking about, before he eventually got completely frustrated and just waved me through in despair.

From talking to a few people afterwards it seems that the problem came about through my failure to register with the local Police within a few days of arriving in the country. For most tourists this isn’t an issue, as the hotel they’re staying at takes care of it all for them, but because I rented my own private apartment I needed to do that myself. But the border guard was assuming that when I said “apartment” I meant one attached to a hotel, and wanted to know which one so that someone could take issue with them for not filling in my forms. It seems to have been beyond his experience for a shortish term tourist to actually rent like a local. I’ve no idea what might have happened had he realised it was actually my fault I hadn’t registered, rather than some sloppy hotel clerk.

After that the Greek border checkpoint was remarkably simple. Of course it helped that I have an EU passport, so they barely gave me a second look, unlike the Macedonians on the bus who were all treated with grave suspicion and their visas double checked. Relations between the two countries are so bad that even a Schengen Visa isn’t accepted for entry to Greece if you have a Macedonian passport.

Humourously one of the first things you see once you actually make it over the border is a large “Welcome to Macedonia” sign (remember, this is going from Macedonia into Greece!) The dispute over naming is, of course, the primary fight between the two countries, with Greece even threatening sanctions against Canada recently for officially recognising Macedonia under that name).

Unfortunately I wasn’t expecting the sign and we were past it before I could get my camera out. Please leave a comment if you can find a photo online!

White tower


parking.JPGLiz is having fun making the sidewalks near where she lives suitable for traversal. In Скопје I suspect she’d have a little more difficulty. Here sidewalks / pavements / footpaths most certainly aren’t for walking. Instead they seem to be for parking. Walking on the roads generally isn’t too bad, although I’ve had a couple of near misses in the wing-mirror vs laptop-bag stakes, and you need to be extra vigilant for motorbikes (particularly so in the main square where you aren’t expecting them at all and it seems to be more difficult to hear them).

Crossing roads, however, requires an entirely new set of skills. I thought I had developed these in Tallinn, where the trick was to stride out purposefully on to the road and force the cards to stop. I’ve been informed that the same approach is required here, but obviously I still have too much scent of fear, as drivers tend to take that as a sign to accelerate towards me, rather than stop. Crossing at traffic lights is particularly hazardous if you’re foolish enough to expect that a red light will make the cars any more likely to stop.

So far I’ve managed to avoid any serious injuries, but if I go silent for a long period, you’ll know what’s happened.

Calling Tufty

I had tried to plan my trip to Macedonia well in advance. I’d talked to people I knew who had been here, who had put me in touch with others who knew more, etc. I’d even ended up exchanging emails with the Minister for Foreign Investment. But there were two areas where it was difficult to find information:

The first was how long I could stay. There’s surprisingly little information of this type available on-line in English (or if there is it’s well hidden). I thought that maybe I could visit the Embassy to find out, but, curiously, the Macedonian embassy in Estonia is actually in Stockholm. They do have a Diplomatic Mission in Tallinn, but the charge d’affaires there, although very helpful, didn’t know any consular-type information. In general, everyone I spoke to about it seemed quite blasé, in a “I think the limit is three months, but I don’t think it would be a problem staying longer if you wanted” sort of way. My theory is that, as Macedonia is EU Candidate status, it’s in that interesting limbo period where it tries to emulate actually being in the EU, but without actually being so. So, although it doesn’t yet have all those great free movement options yet, it’s quite relaxed about it.

The second was finding somewhere to live. As I wasn’t sure how long I would be staying (or even how long I could stay!), or whether I’d spend all my time in Скопје, or maybe move around the country a bit, my preference was to rent somewhere on a month-by-month basis. My contacts here all said that it would be easy to find somewhere, and I should just book into a hotel for the first few nights and get somewhere when I arrive. However all the letting agents I contacted told me that it was very difficult to find landlords willing to let a property for only a month. In Estonia there are lots of apartments that are usually rented by the night, so a month is classed as a long stay there and you get huge discounts. Here there seems to be a lot less of that sort of short-term letting culture (or, again, it’s well hidden) so a month is seen as a short stay. One agency, however, did manage to find me an apartment that seemed to be in a good area, was well equipped, and, most importantly, had internet access. The only problem was that they had no photographs of it. They talked a good story, and everything seemed fine, but I was slightly reluctant to commit to it sight unseen. By this stage it was only about two weeks before I was due to arrive, so I asked if it was possible to agree to take the apartment, subject to it being OK when I actually saw it, or whether I would need to commit for at least the first month before arrival. Suitably assured that I could go see the apartment on my arrival without committing in advance, I kept the agency informed over the next couple of weeks of my travel plans.

Thus, when I managed to finally arrive in Скопје, I was a little surprised to be told that the person I’d been speaking to was off on holiday, the apartment I thought I had booked was already rented to someone else, and, no, there were no others available. They were insistent that there was no way to reserve an apartment without signing contracts and paying money, which, although perfectly understandable, it would have been nice if someone had actually told me in advance when I asked that very question!

Eventually, after huddling around a computer for ten minutes, with lots of muttering between each other (in Macedonian, of course, so I have no idea what they were saying), it was announced that there was actually one apartment available for a month, in a central location for the same price as the original one, but with no internet access. Requiring internet was a very unusual request, I was told, and almost no apartments came with it available. Tenants would traditionally arrange that themselves, although the minimum contract would be twelve months. There is, however, good wifi across the city that I could probably sign-up to use.

So, with not a lot of options available, I agreed to see the apartment. It was a little smaller than I’d generally prefer, and by the amount of dust it appeared to have been vacant for a while. But everything seemed in working order, they agreed to have it cleaned the next day, and it I figured it would be acceptable enough for a month or two. So I agreed to take it, figuring that if I absolutely hated it after a few days I could just write off the month’s rent as being less than checking into a hotel for the weekend and trying to find somewhere else.

With contracts signed, and rent, deposit, and agency fee all paid (although even that was difficult as they looked with bemusement at my proffered debit/credit cards before showing me where the nearest ATM was), they gave me my keys and dropped me off at the apartment.

Then the interesting problem arose. Neither of the keys they’d given me actually opened the front door of the building. After about 10 minutes of struggling with the keys, and almost breaking one in the lock that did fit but didn’t turn, another tenant arrived and let me in. I rang the agency, expecting everyone to have left for the weekend, but thankfully there was someone there. They seemed to be already aware that they’d given me the wrong keys, said the lock had been changed recently, and the landlord would be at their offices later with a new key. They took my mobile number (again) and said they’d ring me when he arrived, which should be in the next hour or so.

With only two hours sleep the previous night before travelling all day, I was starting to fade fast, but I forced myself to stay awake for another couple of hours. Having heard nothing, I rang the agency again, and, of course, this time there was no answer.

On the Saturday morning I walked round to the agency. Apparently the landlord hadn’t had a spare key, but one of the other tenants was a friend of his, and he had arranged for them to make a copy of their key for me. If I went to their apartment some time after 5pm they would give me a key. Thankfully, this time, someone was leaving the apartment as I arrived back, so I was able to get back in straightaway.

Shortly after 5 I went downstairs to the other apartment, where a woman informed me that her husband wasn’t home yet, but that she’d call him to make sure he remembered to bring home another key, and he’d bring it up to me when he arrived back. At 7, having heard nothing, and getting rather hungry, I went down again. This time she told me that he hadn’t been able to get a copy made, and I’d have to wait until Monday. When I asked how I would get back in any time I went out, she shrugged and said that it wasn’t her problem, they’d just been doing a favour for a friend. I suggested that perhaps I could ring their buzzer, and they could let me in, to which she countered that their buzzer wasn’t working, and that if I had a problem being housebound for the weekend I should just take it up with the landlord.

So I spent much of my first weekend in Скопје stuck in my apartment (and with no internet!) When I ventured out I tried leaving the door unlocked, but each time I came back it was shut again. The longest I had to wait outside for someone else to be coming in or out was about 25 minutes, but I didn’t want to risk venturing out in the evenings.

Thankfully, on Monday evening, my downstairs neighbours were finally able to give me a key, and I can now come and go with impunity! The guidebooks had warned me how frustrating business culture here would be, but I was still unprepared. A culture where you can move into an apartment but not get the key until 72 hours later, and where no-one seems to think that this might be in any way problematic, is utterly foreign to me. But I guess that experiencing foreign cultures first-hand is part of the beauty of travel!

When good plans go bad

At approximately 1am on Friday morning I started to panic. I was in my hotel room in Vienna, with an agreement to meet Aaron at 4:30am in the lobby to get a taxi to the airport, as we seemed to be the only two in the hotel with flights at stupid o’clock. On my flight from Tallinn I had been prepared for excess luggage charges, as I was taking a laptop, an external harddrive, books, papers, and other miscellany to offload onto Marty and Karen. I had estimated that I would have about 20kg of my own stuff and 5-10kg of extras for them. I was a little surprised to actually weigh in at 39kg. And this was after leaving some more books in my apartment at the last minute. (RED Group, who are one of the best rental agencies I’ve ever dealt with, and whom I recommend wholeheartedly for short term stays in Tallinn, were super nice about this and agreed to mail a couple of them on. If I’d been more organised I’d have done this myself, but, as I was leaving very early on a Monday morning, by the time I worked out I’d have too much luggage it was Sunday evening and I had no option but to just abandon them).

So, still stuck with probably 30kg or more of luggage, flying an airline who are known to be sticklers for weight limits, Karen, Marty, and I went through my luggage piece by piece trying to work out what was contributing. A few things were quickly jettisoned, but I was still going to be way over limit. 20kg really isn’t very much, particularly when, as Karen pointed out (and verified online), my bag alone weighs about 5kg.

In a moment of insanity I began to consider other options. My plan was to get to Скопје, but the only direct flight had been ludicrously expensive so I booked a flight to Софиа instead. Even if I had to get a taxi between them it would still work out several hundred euros cheaper. I had an arrangement to meet with a letting agency on arrival to look at an apartment I had provisionally booked, but other than the flight to Софиа, which was a sunk cost, nothing was firm. Maybe I could get the train via Belgrade instead, where I wouldn’t have these ludicrous weight restrictions. Or, if I were considering that, maybe I should just go somewhere else entirely, and skip Macedonia for now?

After about 45 minutes of frantic online searching, I gave up, and returned to the most sensible option – throwing out half my clothes. I’d already discarded two large bin-bags full of clothes in Tallinn, and now I continued to trim back. (On the theory that I’m hemisphere switching to chase the light (and thus also avoid winter), I really don’t need many heavy clothes, and can always buy more if mistaken.)

I was still a little worried that I hadn’t been ruthless enough, particularly when each of the two people in front of me in the checkin queue were sent off to the airline desk to pay their excess charges. Unfortunately I didn’t get to see the weight, so don’t know if I was under, or within an acceptable margin, but fortunately I wasn’t charged anything (and even more fortunately they didn’t suspect just how overlimit my hand-luggage probably was…)

With phase one of my relocation successful I now had the small matter of finding my way from Bulgaria to Macedonia. It had been more difficult than expected to find information online about getting a bus, but the little I had read implied there was a reasonable likelihood that I would get a taxi from the airport to the bus station only to discover that the next bus wouldn’t be for another four hours, and would get me to Скопје too late to actually arrange my apartment, and I’d end up needing to get a hotel for the weekend. And with forecasts for 40ºC I didn’t want to risk getting a bus with no air-conditioning.

So, armed with a Wikitravel note that a taxi should cost less than €100, and would take a couple of hours less than the bus, I braced myself for haggling with drivers who undoubtedly would have very poor English (or at least pretend to, for the benefits of their negotiation). I was pleasantly surprised, therefore, to see that by the door of the airport there was actually a Taxi desk that offered to arrange travel to wherever I desired. I was a little taken aback when I was quoted €160, but it was still within my allowable range, and with less than two hours sleep I didn’t feel up to trying to haggle a lower price with the drivers downstairs.

Having arranged an ‘official’ taxi, I was rather surprised, on arriving several hours later at the border, to discover that the driver I had been allocated had managed to forget to bring her passport, and wasn’t allowed to cross into Macedonia. Thankfully this wasn’t a complete disaster (for me, at least), as, not wanting to make the long drive back to Софиа on her own, she had asked me earlier if it would be OK to pick up her husband to make the trip with us. I had already been pleased with that arrangement as, even though it delayed us by at least an hour, it meant I got to travel through lots of interesting districts of Софиа en route to pick him up that I would otherwise have never seen. But now it was a major bonus as he was able to take over the taxi and drive me the rest of the way on his own, whilst presumably his wife stood aimlessly around the no-man’s land between the Bulgarian checkpoint (which we had cleared just fine), and the Macedonian one (where the problem was discovered) awaiting his return 5 hours or so later.

Bizarrely, having taken over the in car MP3 player shortly after his wife had picked him up, and inflicting far too much Tina Turner, Phil Collins, and Elton John on us throughout the first half of the journey (with occasional forays into Kansas and Billy Idle [sic]), shortly after crossing the border, he switched the CD to a rather disturbing collection of early 90s pop (2 Unlimited! Ace of Base! Haddaway! Whigfield!) Maybe it was the change of scenery, or just a change of mood, but I suspect I’m destined to now forever associate “Funky Town” with entering Скопје.

Actually getting to my chosen destination in the city was quite fun. The driver spoke almost no English, but he didn’t allow that, nor the fact that he doesn’t know his way around Скопје at all, to get in the way. As we got nearer he started hailing pedestrians, truck drivers, taxi drivers, cyclists, or anyone who just happened to be nearby (or unlucky enough to get stopped at traffic lights) to ask for directions based on the address I had written down for him. He only seemed to have about a 50% success rate (my suspicion is that he didn’t speak Macedonian well either), but we eventually managed to arrive at the letting agents.

Of course there was no way that the whole day would go according to plan. The agent I’d been dealing with was on holiday (despite having agreed several days beforehand to meet with me), the apartment I thought I had booked had already been let to someone else, and there were no other apartments available at all.

But that’s a story for another post…