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

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