Category: Macedonia



Скопје Wall Art


My tour of the Balkans came to an abrupt halt at the start of October. I had planned to spend the next couple of months working my way up the Adriatic coast through Albania, Montenegro and Croatia to Slovenia. However this plan fell apart somewhat when Socialtext appointed a new CEO and summonsed the diaspora to Palo Alto. After some initial confusion as to whether this would apply to the non North-America based people, I had to hastily find a way from Охрид to California. This was much more difficult than I had expected.

Although Охрид is a major tourist destination during the summer (and rightly so), by the end of September most of the flights in and out have stopped. Retracing my steps and flying out from софия again would involve getting the whole way back up Скопје first. The only plausible flight out of Tirana was much too early in the morning to have any sensible way of catching it. Eventually I discovered that British Airways fly from Θεσσαλονίκη to London, and, best of all, depart late afternoon. That just left the problem of getting there. There are no trains or buses across the border between those points. And, as most Macedonian taxi drivers don’t have a visa for Greece, the standard advice is to get a bus to Битола, a taxi from there to the border, cross on foot, get a taxi on the Greek side to the nearest town, and then a bus on to Θεσσαλονίκη.

This would be considerable hassle at the best of times, and has far too much scope for something going wrong when catching a plane. Thankfully one of the hotel staff came to my rescue and arranged for someone he knew with a suitable visa to drive me there for a reasonable price. I started to get a little worried at first, as the drive to Битола took much longer than I had been expecting, but thankfully I had no difficulties at the border crossing this time, and once across the border we made up plenty of time, and I got to airport with almost an hour to spare.

My time in California didn’t go quite as expected. I’d arranged to stay around an extra few weeks to do some on-site customer research, but that ended up falling through (my long rant about this can wait for another day). I did get a lot of useful work done with Liz, though, and got to explore some more of California at the weekends (including stumbling across the rather bizarre Pescadero Apple Festival).

As per my plan to chase the light by flying south for the winter, I’d booked a round-the-world ticket onwards, rather than returning to Europe. As part of the crazy conditions attached to that, I was able to fly into San Francisco, but had to depart from Los Angeles. Thankfully it was a night-time departure, so rather than the hassle of arranging a connecting flight, I decided to drive down the coast instead.

Other than a wrong turn at Oxnard that cost me about 30 minutes heading back in the wrong direction, everything was going smoothly and I would arrive at LAX in plenty of time. Until I joined the 10 at Santa Monica, that is, and found myself in a crazy traffic jam. Apparently two different crashes had caused near-gridlock, so the four miles to the 405 took just over an hour, and then it was another hour for the next five. If the final few miles had been at the same speed I was running a significant risk of missing my flight, but thankfully the jam just suddenly disappeared in the that really strange way that sometimes happens, and I had open roads the whole way to the rental car drop-off.

And thus I find myself in the departure lounge, with several large glasses of Baileys and my last net connection for a while. Next stop Samoa, where I deliberately chose somewhere to stay with no internet service. Detox, here I come.

Drinking in L.A.X.

One of the most common questions I’ve been asked about living in Macedonia was how I coped with everything being written in Cyrillic. Well, actually, more often that not people asked me about things being written in Russian, or complained, when I wrote place names in the local language in email or IM, that they can’t read Russian – which is kind of like noting that in California all the signs are in French.

In Macedonia, of course, it’s even more egregious to call it Russian, as the alphabet actually originated here. I actually didn’t know that prior to this year, but it certainly helps explain why it’s so close to Greek.

Having studied both Mathematics and Theology at university level, I had enough Greek background to find Cyrillic relatively easy to pick up, but anyone who has picked up a smattering of the Greek alphabet is already 50% of the way to being about to transliterate effectively.

НОВОFor me the hardest parts are glyphs that look the same in Cyrillic and Latin, but represent different letters. It’s much easier to learn what the unfamiliar characters look like than to train your brain to understand why so many shop windows and advertising hoardings are proudly proclaiming “НОВО!”

So here’s the 5 minute guide that’ll get you 90% of the way:

  • Р: This is not a P – it’s an R, from the Greek rho. A ‘P’ is actually П (pi).
  • С: This is actually an S. It apparently evolved from a Sigma, but it’s much easier to remember that the old СССР isn’t “CCCP”, but “SSSR”, which makes a lot more sense, really.
  • В: This is a V. This is fairly common in other languages too, including Hebrew: lots of the names in the Bible aren’t really pronounced the way you were probably taught in Sunday School…
  • Н: This is an N. I used to get confused between it and И, which is an I, but now I just remember all those aforementioned НОВО signs.
  • У: This is a U. This one is easy for any fans of Тату.
  • Ј: This is a Y. Actually it’s not – it’s a J. But it’s a soft J, like in lots of European languages that tend to confuse English speakers anyway, so it’s easier to think of it as a Y.
  • Х: Again, thinking in Greek makes this easier. It’s a Chi. In practice it’s a little complicated as sometimes it’s a ‘CH’ and sometimes just an ‘H’. But it’s usually obvious from context, and even if you’re not sure you’ll be a lot closer than treating it as an X.

All the other characters that look like English (АKЕMOT) are all what you’d expect, so once you stop falsely transliterating the lookalikes, you’re well on your way.

  • Ф is like the greek Phi, and is usually just transliterated as ‘F’, although sometimes ‘PH’ might work slightly better.
  • Г is a G, but tricks people who only know Gamma as γ and aren’t familiar with its capital form.
  • Д, thanks to Borat, now confuses people. To me it’s always been obviously a D, just written a little differently. For my part I got confused when I first saw a movie poster for “300“, as I was living in Estonia at the time and assumed the poster was in Russian, where З is a Z (not to be mistaken for Э which is a short E, but they don’t have that character in Macedonian so it’s not so confusing here).
  • Л, according to my keyboard and most websites, is an L. But it’s hardly ever written like that (in Macedonia, anyway) usually it’s more like an upside-down V. Unicode doesn’t have such a symbol in the standard Cyrillic range, so I’m not sure what sign-makers use in its place (the closest I can find is U+2227: ∧, but it’s not quite right). A garage near my apartment is still proudly displaying an old ∧А∆А sign (which looks much more effective with proper typography).

Occasionally you’ll come across a few other strange characters that you’ll have to learn later, but this subset will get you remarkably far.

Curiously, Macedonian doesn’t include one of the iconic characters regularly used in faux-Russian: Я (ya). This is a very common letter in Russian as it’s also the word for the first person pronoun (“I”), but doesn’t exist in Macedonian at all. This is why the capital city is spelled Скопје whereas the neighbouring capital, which is pronounced very similarly, is written София.

Within a few weeks of moving to Скопје I was able to transliterate most street signs etc fairly quickly, which helped in finding my way around. And even without being able to translate, lots of words are rather obvious once you’ve converted the letters. This sometimes goes awry though: the first time I took a slug from a carton of Млеко to discover that even though it looked like a milk carton, and ‘mleko’ sounds close enough to ‘milk’, I was actually drinking yoghurt.

е-ВаучериAnd I still can’t see the T-Mobile ‘е-Ваучери’ signs without thinking that there’s some sort of hook-up with eBay…

St. Jovan Kaneo


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!

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…

My time in Estonia is sadly at an end for now. My personal circumstances have changed since moving to Tallinn last December, and for a variety of reasons I want to avoid triggering residency, which, allowing for all my travels over the year, would happen at the end of August. And so, after my trip to Vienna, I’m moving to Скопје, rather than returning to Tallinn.

It’s interesting how quickly I acclimatised to Estonian life – when I travel now I’m spending much more of my time comparing things Tallinn, rather than Belfast. Hopefully I can make it back soon…