One more Greek Macedonian issue and a look at the former Yugoslavia
We were quiet for a while the past few days. Tessels father’s anticipated move to a nursing home demanded attention. Although we knew that and what was coming, it is still drastic when it comes. First practically the necessary hassle, but most of all emotionally it goes deeper and further than during preparation. Sadness and uncertainty for all involved. Even beeing so far away, we cannot escape it. ‘Grief stirs with relief and resistance with resignation’ I wrote to my sisters. And meanwhile, we all navigate through the bumps of each day. We consider ourselves lucky to be allowed to cycle which gives space in our heads. So last Tuesday, we arrived in Skopje (for those of you who are a bit out of focus: the capital of northern Macedonia) where we were allowed to spend 2 nights in Predrag’s warmshower / Predrag and Antonio’s office – ‘because it’s empty from 5-9pm anyway’ -. Predrag is absolutely crazy about cycling (technology) and thinks he is the first in northern Macedonia with a tricycle. Needless to say, this immediately led to a nice click.
We had a list of errands to do (something to do with an insulation mat and a replacement for our shower bag) and wanted to see the old Ottoman quarter of the city. We were given a super friendly welcome both at the Islamic tea shop and at the 14th-century Orthodox church that was at the heart of the resistance against the Ottomans.
We had seen covered markets several times in Macedonia, but in this Islamic quarter, the covered market gave us an association with the Middle East. Or maybe it is the other way around. Do we feel the Islamic influence in both places.
Either way, it does not create a very prosperous impression especially when you compare it with the city centre that, since the break-up of Yugoslavia in 1991-92, has been decorated with statues of contemporary writers and artists and, of course, an enórm statue of Alexander the Great. Reason for a nice conversation in the evening with our host, who doesn’t like the fact that so much (borrowed) money has been spent, burdening the generations of the future, while the quality leaves much to be desired.
Only the statue of Alexander the Great meets with his approval. After all, Alexander may have been born on present-day Greek territory, but that was part of Macedonia then. And Phillip II and his son Alexander were ethnically (white and blond) and culturally (focused on power and strength) true Macedonians; very different from the Hellenists (dark-skinned and hairy with the sophistication of Greek lycea/philosophy/democracy). Thus our host.
Alexander was apprenticed to Aristotle because the Macedonians’ ambition was to unite the two worlds – which eventually succeeded, of course.
There we have it again, the struggle for power around the Balkans, but this time illuminated from the Macedonian side. It may have taken place in the 3rd century BC, but it remains a hot topic. Afterwards, we realised that we did not talk about what the relationship is between the ethnic Macedonians of then and those of today that we call Slavic. Predrag did tell us about the typical Macedonian way of warfare with reflective shields meant to blind the enemy when attacking from the west in the bright early morning sun.
We gradually got to more recent history and what we saw in the old quarterh that afternoon. 25% of Macedonia’s population is Albanian (Muslim). Albanians speak a different language (as far as parliament), attend their own schools and have their own legal system. For them, liberation from the Ottomans means something very different then for the Orthodox. For the ordinary man in the street, living together nevertheless goes very well, but politics and external powers are entangling the differences (hey, we recognise that sound from Elbasan) and is the source of Yugoslavia’s disintegration. From him, it shouldn’t have been. ‘It is precisely cooperation that makes the Balkans strong.’ Here Pedrag refers to the Muslims in Bosnia who wanted independence ‘but yes, can you blame them? Precisely they were massacred on a large scale’. He also gives his picture of Yugoslavia under Tito. Tito navigated between Western Europe and the Soviet Union. Wasn’t so bad. Even now, there is more room in Serbia to look at both sides of the war in Ukraine than in countries seeking proximity to the EU (such as northern Macedonia). And when we noted that we had observed China’s influences along the way (in the construction of a new road) and referred to the so-called new Silk Road – now from east to west – he recognised that, but based on experience of a society under Tito, without worries.
So here too the perception of the present is coloured by past experience and the context in which you live.
The next day, we cycle through a typical Albanian village where recent history is still tangible. We see a large number of bullet holes in a few houses. It gives us an unsettled feeling.
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