Monday, November 4, 2013

Going Back to Skopje

Worldwide and I spent 1997-1999 in Skopje, our first experience in international development and a harbinger of what would follow over the next fifteen years. I was eager to return, to see my dear friend Nena, who is now running the judiciary strengthening project that was nurtured by my office, but also to see the changes to the cityscape. I had read about these efforts in the Economist last year, and I was curious to see for myself. "You won't believe it," more than one of my colleagues told me.

I looked into a bus trip, but the length of the trip, along with a cheap fare available on Air Serbia (The airline formally known as Jat) persuaded me that plan was the preferred method of transportation.

I took the always reliable A1 bus from Slavija Square to the airport on Friday afternoon, and by 3:30 I was on the tarmac at Alexander the Great Airport. Nena met me, and we stopped at a new hotel for lunch, the first in a never-ending series of meals and snacks. The restaurant was decked out like a hunting lodge, with various animal skins, and it also featured an impressive selection of local wines, the results of privatization efforts in the industry.

But I was thirsty for a Skopsko, and, because I had eaten the ham and cucumber sandwich provided on the flight, I wasn't hungry for anything more than some appetizers.

After lunch, we stopped at the Ramstore, a slick new supermarket and shopping mall. I remember how thrilled we were when the Greek Supermarket opened in 1998. You've come a long way, baby.

Then it was back to Nena's new apartment, for conversation, and a lovely dinner of salmon and salad. I learned about the status of friends and colleagues, of which a surprising number had moved on to new lives or locations.

I was still a little jet lagged from my whirlwind trip to Gananoque, so it was early to bed. The following morning, we went out for chocolate croissants and espresso at a local cafe, which, like virtually everything i saw, had not been there in 1999.

After that, we parked in the Trgovski Centar in the main square, and from the first floor, I rode the escalator that had not worked for one day during my two prior years there. Then it was out into the main square, where the small plaque in the pavement that commemorated Mother Teresa's birth, has been replaced with something a little more grandiose, a gigantic statue of, who else, Alexander the Great. But it did not end there; not hardly. The national hero was flanked by huge statues of his mother and father, as well as just about everyone who could be deemed a hero of the Republic.

Many of the government buildings in the area have also been replaced with garish, baroque edifices, and a walk across the old stone bridge afforded an excellent view of the new Stonebridge hotel (note the picture of the hard working businessman, and his, um, assistant on the home page), as well as one of  the three replicas of Noah's Ark that have been placed along the Vardar River.

From there, we visited the National Museum of Macedonia, a museum consisting almost entirely of huge paintings and mannequins detailing the struggle against the Ottomans, and, to a lesser extent, its time as part of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. One would think, after visiting, that the Krucevo republic, 10 days of short lived independence from the Ottomans in 1903, was the most important thing in the history of the region. The mannequins, despite the struggles they were embroiled in, were all extremely well dressed and good looking.

From the museum we walked through the old town, which looked more or less the same, and I bought some Parachute Cookies to bring to lunch at Nena's mother's later. We also stopped at the Green Market to pick up a few things that Olivera had asked her
daughter to get.

After that, it was up to Vodno, the mountain we had hiked so many Saturdays. The rustic trail has been paved over, and you can now take a funicular from the parking lot up to the Millenium cross, which seems to
have been built to remind Albanians that they remain a minority.

We had a cup of tea at the hiker's hut  and walked around a little, noting the trail to Matka, a monastery a few miles away that we had visited many times.

Then we took the funicula back down and drove to Olivera's apartment, the place that Nena had originally moved to in the early 2000s. She laid out a spread of stuffed grape leaves, pindzhur, salad and roast pork, complemented by Rakia and local red wine.

After lunch, we walked around Skopje some more, admiring the new pedestrian zone, the monument to
Mother Teresa and the many new cafes and restaurants. The new buildings, including the huge arch, were ablaze with light. We enjoyed a cup of Spanish-style cocoa in the Caffe di Roma, and finished off the evening with a whiskey at the Irish pub, which every major city in the region now seems to have.

The following day we drove out to Matka in the morning, and I noticed that a restaurant and hotel has now been added to the facility, and that it was hosting a wedding party. From
there it was back to Skopje for a lunch of delicious grilled beef liver and pork, washed down with a cold Lasko, which is apparently angling to become the country's most popular beer.

Then back to the airport and home, buoyed by the warmth of good friends and by the information that Nena's daughter, who we knew as a 13 year-old lover of Gran Prix racing and the Backstreet Boys, but now a Harvard graduate and London-based World Bank economist, will be coming to Belgrade in December to begin a consultancy with the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.

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