I’ve never met so many nice people who have so many enemies.
I’m not talking about the Albanians anymore, now I’m talking about the Macedonians. They’re tied with the Albanians for being the nicest and warmest people in Eastern Europe. Yet their four neighbors each have a reason to hate the Macedonians.
1) ALBANIANS dislike that Macedonians don’t let them setup Albanians schools in the Macedonian towns where Albanian is the dominant language. They feel like second class citizens and started a mini war over it August 2001.
2) KOSOVARS don't like Macedonians who resent them for being refugees in their country.
3) BULGARIANS refuse to recognize the Macedonian language. They claim it’s basically Bulgarian.
4) GREEKS despise that Macedonians call their country “Macedonia.” They say it implies territorial claims on northern Greece.
It’s amazing that this tiny country of two million nice people hasn’t been crushed yet.
The Bulgarian issue is stupid. Bulgarians should be happy that at least one other country on the planet speaks something they can understand.
But the Greek point is hilarious. Greece forced Macedonia to call their country FYROM (Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia) so they could get in the UN. After the USA and some EU countries recognized FYROM, Greece imposed an economic embargo against Macedonia a closed its Thessaloniki port to trade.
When one American was crossing the border to Greece, the belligerent border asked her where she was coming from.
She said, “Macedonia.”
“No!” he shouted, “You’re coming from Skopje and NOW you’re in Macedonia!”
All this wasted energy because the Greeks don’t like the name of the Macedonian country. Don’t these guys have anything better to do?
Where is Macedonia?
That’s a tricky question and that’s exactly what the Greeks and Macedonians are bickering about like a bunch of 6 year olds.
Today Macedonia is an independent country. But Macedonia is also in Greece. Greece’s northernmost state is called Macedonia, just like America’s is called Alaska.
So will the real Macedonia please stand up?
They’re both right. As usual in the Balkans you have to go a few thousand years back to get to the root of the problem.
Alexander the Great was really called Alexander of Macedon, because he was from the nation of Macedonia. When Alex was a teenager Macedonia was both in today’s Macedonia and Greece’s Macedonia. That’s right, ancient Macedonia is now split in two, with one part in Greece and the other in Macedonia.
Of course, by the time Alexander of Macedon was in his late 20s he managed to stretch Macedonia deep into Persia. But luckily today nobody in the Middle East is calling their country Macedonia.
Greece contends that since Alexander of Macedon was born in the 4th century BC in Pella and Pella is today in Greece’s Macedonia, then they are the true Macedonia.
But does that mean the Greeks are right? What if leaders before and after Alexander were born in towns that are in today’s Macedonia? Does that make the Greeks claim wrong?
The answer is: WHO CARES?! THIS IS ALL SO STUPID AND CHILDISH!
It’s incredible that grown men waste their time on such idiocies.
A close analogy is if the state of California decided to cede from USA and become an independent country. They would probably call the country California. Logical, right?
But then imagine if Mexico flipped out because they have a state called Baja California (which they do). Imagine Mexico refusing to let California into the UN and forcing us to call ourselves the FUSSC (Former United States State of California)? And then placing a trade embargo against us? And lecturing peaceful tourists who cross the border about where the “real California” is?
That's what's happening here. And I know it's funny, but believe it or not, it's a BIG DEAL here.
So who is the bigger baby in this fight? The Greeks. Why?
First of all, they started it. OK, that’s a pretty childish thing to say, but it’s true.
I wonder if the Greeks would have had such a big problem with the Macedonian name, if Macedonia was packed with 50 million hot-tempered Serbs? The trigger-happy Serbs love having an excuse to punch anybody's face in. But it's not fair to blame the Greeks completely.
Macedonia shares a tiny bit of blame for being stubborn. They could have given in and just changed their damn name. After all, it’s just a name. I told this to my tour guide in Macedonia’s National Museum in Skopje (the capital). He bristled and said, “But we can’t, it’s who we are.”
“I got a better name for you,” I told him. “Roman Empire. Change it from Macedonia to Roman Empire. After all the Romans were here too.”
He smiled, “But then we might get Italy angry at us.”
“Well then, how about calling your country ‘Greece Sucks’?”
Macedonia sliced and diced
I asked my thoughtful and patient tour guide, “Macedonia was much bigger just 100 years ago, so what happened? Who let out the air?”
The Turks ruled the Balkans for 500 years (except for Montenegro). In 1912 the natives had enough. Generals from Bulgaria, Serbia, Montenegro, and Greece conspired to overthrow the Turks. Weak and poor Macedonia wasn’t invited to the secret party.
The four generals succeeded and the Turks were out. Now they needed to divvy up the spoils of war: Macedonia. Only Montenegro didn’t a chunk because it didn’t share a border with Macedonia. Even weak Albania got a piece of Lake Ohrid because they struck a deal.
Although the Macedonians fought hard in the Balkan War thinking that they would get their independence and original borders, they were bummed to find out that the greater powers had sliced and diced their country into less than half of its original size.
Today, Macedonia’s neighbors would love to have another bite. Here's what is left.
Lonely Planet puts Macedonia’s Lake Ohrid in its Top 10 list of things to see in Eastern Europe. UNESCO has it on its World Heritage List. It’s the deepest lake in the Balkans (294 meters/yards) and one of the world’s oldest. Clearly a must-see site if you’re near.
I had ultra high expectations and was slightly disappointed. Without a doubt, it’s a large and spectacular lake. Maybe I was expecting to see waterfalls flowing with milk and honey.
I rented a bike and almost got to the top of Galicica National Park which touches the lake. I rode down on an awesome dirt path all the way down and practically destroyed the bike.
The old town of Ohrid is precious with its narrow, steep cobble stoned streets, and many churches set on the edge of the lake. It's pretty awesome.
I stopped Bitola to see the impressive Heraclea ruins (Macedonians founded it in 4th century and Romans took it over later).
Hanging out with teenagers
A friend in San Francisco introduced me to Audrey, an American living in Macedonia. Audrey then introduced me to Zlatka, a 16-year girl living in the mountain town of Krushevo, Macedonia. Zlatka’s family loves having visitors and Zlatka offered to let me stay with her family a couple of days.
Zlatka spoke excellent English, although the rest of the family couldn’t. They were incredibly hospitable and warm. As I mentioned, Macedonians are tied with the Albanians for being the friendliest people in Eastern Europe.
That statement would perturb the Macedonians, because they hate the Albanians. What’s truly sad is that they’re taught to blindly hate the Albanians at such a young age. I went on a field trip with Zlatka’s school and spoke with many of her teenage classmates. Their utter loathing of Albanians was so absolute that it was scary.
Up until now I assumed that most of the Balkans equated Albanians with desperate immigrants. But these teenagers argued the opposite. They said that all Albanians are very rich.
One claimed, “They have at least 10 children. Two to send foreign countries to make money and send it home, three to send to wars, three to stay home and help with family, and two to be criminals.”
Another chimed in, “They have the best jobs in Macedonia and favor other Albanians. They are buying our land. They want to take part of Macedonia. They’re rich. And they all wear white hats.”
I asked him, “Have you been to Albania?”
He looked down to the ground, indicating no.
I told him, “I just was there a few days ago. Trust me, Macedonia is richer than Albania. You guys all need to go to Albania and learn a bit about their culture and country.”
The response was intense, “Albanians HATE Macedonians! They would KILL me there! I never ever want to go to Albania! I have absolutely no interest!”
Feeling the Albanians
While Zlatka and I were waiting for my bus to Skopje, I saw a hansome man with sandy blonde hair and hypnotic blue eyes. "There you go, Zlatka, there's the man of your dreams." She had told me she dreams of finding her perfect Macedonian man. I thought I had a good candidate.
She choked. "He's Albanian," she said.
I was stunned. "How do you know?"
"He's done some work for my family. He's a carpenter."
"So if you didn't know that," I asked, "Would you have been able to tell he was an Albanian just by looking at him?"
"Oh yes, of course!"
She looked at me intensely, "You can just feel them."
Really? I had to try. I closed my eyes. Relaxed my mind. I listened to my feelings.
However, all I could feel was Zlatka's stubborn and senseless hate.
Once again, the paradoxes in the Balkans sent my head spinning. My brain got completely mixed up in Macedonia. How could such lovely, friendly, and intelligent teenagers hate so blindly and absolutely?
Audrey later told me that the kids throughout the Balkans are taught to hate certain people from an early age. For example, Albanians are taught to blindly hate the Serbs and vice versa. These kids learn to hate from their parents and grandparents. They pass down the prejudices just like white Americans a hundred years ago taught their kids that blacks are the scum of the earth. Of course, even today some Americans still haven’t read the memo that African Americans are good people too.
Tragically, the Balkans can’t shake the vicious cycle of violence and hate. And the future looks bleak as long as today’s teenagers have such burning and senseless hatred in their hearts. They inability to forgive and move on hampers their future.
The Balkan time bomb
The first Macedonian I met was a wise, yet young archeologist who had lived in England for a couple of years. He ominously told me, “Since I’ve been back, I feel the tension rising here.”
The Macedonian government finally gave into Albanian pressure to have public Albanian schools in Macedonian cities where Albanians dominate (like Tetovo and Gostivar). But now the Albanians want Albanian Universities in Macedonia.
One politician offered a sensible solution of giving Albania the areas of Macedonia with over 85% Albanian presence in exchange for the territory around Lake Ohrid that used to be part of Macedonia. The politician’s career is now over.
People in the Balkans are so entrenched in their views, their tolerance for difference is so low, their nationalism (and ethnic pride) is so high, their view of history so skewed, their ability to forgive so low that it’s clear why they’re always fighting each other.
What’s the solution?
The archeologist told me, “What we need are jobs and a good economy. When people are working and making money, they don’t have time to think about the past. We’ll start looking forward instead of backward.”
He’s right. Tito ruled Yugoslavia for 40 years and was the most beloved dictator I’ve ever seen. Everyone in Yugoslavia prospered under his rule. Ethnic tensions were replaced with cooperation as Yugoslavia traded vigorously between the Communist East and Capitalist West. He played the delicate game so brilliantly that the people thrived under him.
However, the vast majority of people I talked with in the Balkans (especially the young people) said the future is bleak and they just want out.
A humble church in Skopje
I left southern Macedonia via Prilep and arrived at Skopje, the capital. A massive earthquake in 1963 leveled most of Skopje. They did a lousy job rebuilding it, but they have some nice mosques and churches.
The Church of Sveti Spas isn’t a spa, but it’s the most interesting building around. In the 17th century the Muslim dominated town had a law that no building could be taller than a mosque. These enterprising Christians wanted a nice high vaulted ceiling so they came up with a sensible solution: put half the church underground!
That’s right, it’s a half-buried church. The steeple isn’t high so they didn’t get in trouble with the ruling Turks and the Christians were happy to have a high ceiling.
What’s ironic is that today a massive cross, complete with bright lights, is perched at the summit of the mountain that overlooks Skopje (and all its mosques).
Teaching three classes in Macedonia
Audrey, Assistant Head of Nova Schools, invited me to teach three high school classes. As you can tell from my emails, I have an ability to talk forever, so I agreed.
The first class was a writing class. I focused on how to do travel writing. I gave them a few hints, but told them if they wanted some real tips they should sign up for my $295 workshop in San Francisco. No takers.
The next two classes were geography classes. They asked me questions about the 60 countries I've visited. I told them that everybody in America is extremely rich, everyone in Africa is hungry, and all the men in Albania wear white hats.
I really enjoyed teaching the classes. I suppose it helps that cute teenage girls were listening to my every word.
Audrey invited me to join her 190 high school students on a field trip to eastern Macedonia. Packed in four buses, we visited a few churches, small towns, and a waterfall.
The highlight was tossing a football with Audrey in a small town square. Macedonian girls stood in awe seeing a woman toss a perfect spiral.
When we left a group of boys followed me all the way to the bus. They couldn't believe a Californian was visiting their small town. I had to show them my CA driver's license to prove it.
Setting my sight to Kosovo
I didn’t want to go to Kosovo, because the region is still unstable. But the Balkan puzzle was incomplete without that crucial piece.
Macedonians told me that the worst of the Albanians were in Kosovo. That made me curious. I had heard the Serbs give their two cents about the war and it was only fair to hear what the Kosovars had to say. Moreover it would be just cool to camp in Kosovo.
September 30, 2004