skipping through skopje
Thursday at noon in Austin is the last time I saw my luggage. Between trips to the Pristina airport and countless hours my daddy has spent on the phone with American Airlines, it appears that my luggage has, alternately, been "going to meet [me] in Chicago," in Istanbul, in London, in Chicago, back in London, maybe going to Vienna, and still in London. They think.
The important thing is that I'm not bitter.
After being rerouted out on Friday through Des Moines (where they're selling "Bill Clinton for First Lady" shirts in the airport gift shop), Chicago O'Hell, Istanbul, and finally, finally into Pristina, Kosovo yesterday afternoon, I was pretty tired. Of both my clothes and in general. But the flight from Istanbul was fun; I had a window seat and got to see the Dardanelles and the Aegean Sea (gorgous) before passing out from exhaustion and waking up over the green fields of the world's newest country.
The sign that I can't get to load says it all; Kosovo is newly independent and proud of it, and they give Americans all the credit for being the first to recognize their independence from Serbia, all that's left of the former republic of Yugoslavia. If you're here, you're like a celebrity. It's totally surreal. One of the main roads is called "Avenue Bill Klinton."
After learning (to no surprise at all) that my luggage was not in Kosovo, I exited the chaotic airport to find Steve the Lawyer, who was waiting with his friend Nelly to whisk me off to Pristina to take a shower before we headed back to the airport to collect my luggage, which was supposed to be on the British Airways flight that arrives at 6pm on Saturdays.
It wasn't there.
So, naturally, we left the country. For Macedonia, to be specific. We were supposed to head there on Saturday morning, but my travel nightmare basically ruined weekend plans for five people. Oh, well. Anyway, we made it to Skopje, the capitol of Macedonia. But only after the Macedonian customs agent at the border "asked" us to give his friend Elijah the steel worker into town. Elijah the steel worker is a Serb, which was unfortunate in a sense, because Nelly is a Kosovar Albanian, and those two ethnic groups are the reason this region has so many wars. It didn't take him five minutes to say something insulting about Kosovo, but then it got wildly entertaining, as he told us about his Greek wife's uncle whose family lives in Austin, Texas of all places. "Have you heard of [name of an Austin strip club]?" he asked.
(After I coughed back up my tongue, Elijah the steel worker continued along as though nothing had happened, and told me that I should go to said club and ask for Mr. So-and-so and my friends and I would be treated like royalty.
I've never been so at a loss for words in my life.)
Elijah just kept on talking, though, and proceeded to insult everything in his country, from the nice hotel to the handball facility, before we dropped him off in central Skopje and headed off to check into our hotel and to have a very late dinner with some of Nelly's friends. I was so jet-lagged at this point that I don't remember much, except that the pesto pizza with feta cheese and black olives is one of the best things I have ever tasted anywhere. I went back to the hotel to sleep while everyone else stayed out dancing until all hours, and woke up feeling much better. Skopje is exactly what you think a Yugoslav city looks like. Most of the old city was destroyed in a 1963 earthquake, so the communists had free reign to rebuild the whole thing with their brand of bland, concrete-based architecture. There are lots of bland buildings in various states of disrepair, wide boulevards that were clearly intended for tank parades, and a big concrete plaza that is a major public space. There's a dirty river running through the city center, and lots of shopping malls and other signs that capitalism is here to stay.
There are also lots of Yugos.Skopje is also in the Balkans, which is the place where the east and west and Middle East all come crashing into one another. There are Muslim areas and Catholic areas, Serbian Orthodox Christians and offshoot Muslim sects. Macedonia is Serbian Orthodox, but there are also Turks and Roma and Albanians. You have to switch between languages all the time. And, yes, they all really do hate each other. Everyone you meet tells you a different version of the history. Take, for example, the birthplace of Mother Teresa, who was an Albanian Catholic:
All the official histories say that Mother Teresa was born in Skopje. But Nelly, a Kosovar Albanian-speaking Muslim, insists that she was not, that they are lying, and that she was from somewhere else.
But if you're an American, you can get away with not figuring out all of it. And it's really cool to be in a city where the cultures collide against one another, where an amazing woodcarved interstasis sits in an old orthodox monastary that's a block away from a huge mosque. After we had breakfast at a coffee shop on the big square, we stopped by a striking old Turkish bathhouse that's now a modern art gallery, then Nelly went to meet a friend while Steve and I went up to the Kale, a fortress that stands on a hill that has been fortified since 300BC.
We also saw the amazing, above-mentioned interstasis (the screen that separates the congregation from the altar) at Sveti Spa (Holy Savior) monastary, and tried to visit Mustafa Pasha mosque, which is closed for renovation. We then met up with Nelly at a mall for an excellent lunch (which featured pizza with yogurt on top), did some shopping, and then had a sunset coffee at a riverside cafe where there are hundreds of seats lined up for people watching and coffee drinking.
It was a great way to end my first day in the Balkans.
We drove back to Pristina under the stars, listening to Alison Krauss and the Dixie Chicks on Steve's ipod and talking about this crazy world he's come to live in. We met up for dinner with some of Steve's friends at Chalet Denis in Pristina, and then I got over to the house I'm staying at to WASH CLOTHES.
And who knows? Maybe my luggage will even make it tomorrow.
UPDATE: Corrections: 1. The bodybuilder was Danish, not Finnish. 2. Apparently it's the Macedonian Orthodox Church. All I know is that our Albanian Kosovar Muslim friend referred to it as "Serbian." I'm not getting in the middle of this argument, but am pretty sure that our anonymous commenter is right.