Statues, Selfies, & Skopje

ambedo n. A kind of melancholic trance in which you become completely absorbed in vivid sensory details- raindrops skittering down a window, tall trees leaning in the wind, cloud of cream swirling in your coffee- briefly soaking in the experience of being alive; as act that is done purely for its own sake.

Because I had had four days of blissful relaxation in Podgorica, the universe felt the need to balance out the state of my life and give me a rather less than blissful sendoff into Macedonia.  Busses from Podgorica to Skope don’t run very often.  In fact, only three busses go out a week, every Monday, Wednesday, and Saturday, or so it was written on the website.  After bidding and sad and fond farewell to Marco, Danielle, and my broken tripod (a bipod just isn’t quite the same), I set off to catch the 8pm bus to Skopje only to arrive at the station and be told the bus to Skopje ran the previous night, Friday, contrary to what the website said.  Just as I was about to sputter into a major panic attack, the ticket attendant told me I could still get to Skopje, I would just need to go to Pristine, Kosovo then buy another ticket to Skopje from there.  It wasn’t ideal, but my options were looking fairly limited unless I wanted to stay in Podgorica from another three days. 

I bought the ticket and settled onto the bus station floor since this bus didn’t leave for another hour and a half, during which time, I made the huge mistake of sipping on my water bottle until it was nearly empty.  By the time the bus pulled up at 9:30pm I was floating.  I dashed onto the bus only to find there was no bathroom on this one (surprise).  Going in the station meant I would have to pay, something I, on principle, had avoided doing up to that point.  I danced around the idea (literally) until finally deciding I absolutely could not wait and surrendered a few coins to use the bathroom.

Bathroom, I found out, was a generous term.  Outhouse was even too generous because at least outhouses have seats.  This was quite literally a little bowl funneling down to a hole in the ground you had to squat over to use.  In other words, I have paid half a euro to squat over a hole in the ground less sanitary than most (actually all) logs I’ve squatted over in my life.  Even better, there was no toilet paper.  Honestly, what was I even paying for?  Luckily enough, being sick with a perpetually runny nose for nearly two months had at least gotten me into the habit of squirrelling away toilet paper in my pockets at every possible opportunity and I was happy to find I still had some left.  These damn pay toilets were enough to drive me to drink, or stop drinking more appropriately, as I became afraid to drink anything within any vicinity of travel. 

Crabby about having had to pay for that experience and dreading the overnight bus ride, I settled onto the bus and said goodbye to both Podgorica and all the comforts it had brought.  Shortly into the ride, one of the drivers came back to check tickets and passports.  “Ah, an American,” he said when I handed over mine.  …Is that a good,  ‘Ah, an American, or a bad one?  I didn’t have the chance to ask because he handed me back my passport and scurried off to the next seat, but for the rest of the trip, he simply called me America, which is exactly the thing one wants when traveling through places that tends to look down on Americans.

The ride didn’t get better.  Most of the time I was freezing, huddled pathetically under my blue raincoat as if that would bring me any form of warmth.  I was amazed how I could have possibly gone from weather hot enough to fry my skin a couple days before to a white-out blizzard of snow as we passed through the mountains separating Kosovo and Montenegro.  Fun fact: Kosovo is only a partially recognized state, which is why on some maps it is outlined as its own country and sometimes its just lumped into Serbia.  It’s kind of like Puerto Rico, I suppose.  Hey, you have pay federal taxes but you don’t get representation in the government.  At 4:30am, an hour ahead of schedule, we pulled into Pristine.  Of course the single time on my travels when my transportation was actually ahead of schedule would have been the one time where my connecting bus didn’t leave until 6am, leaving me to sit in a cold forsaken bus station for an hour and a half.  Sometimes, I swear my life is straight out of a sitcom without the laugh track or general humor.  I set there reading my book about W.H. Auden, finally getting around to preparing from my tutorials next term that I suddenly realized were looming quite near on the horizon. 

When the first bus pulled in at 6am, I was so ready to be done travelling.  I was cold, I was hungry, and I was thirsty but I didn’t dare drink anything.  The bus to Skopje, Macedonia at least was not very long and a couple hours later, I was dumped at the Skopje bus station in the spitting rain.  Not wanting to look like a blue hunchback again, I simply tucked my sleeping back under my arm, using my raincoat to shield it, not really caring weather the rest of my pack got wet.

It was still incredibly early when I arrived at City Hostel and the first time I rang the buzzer no one answered.  I thought about waiting for a more reasonable hour when someone might be up but then I thought, “You know what?  No.  I’m going to be selfish.  I’m cold, I’m wet, and I have been waiting way too much in the last 24 hours so whoever is running this place can pry themselves out of bed to let me in.”  I was just entirely over the entire day, even though the day had technically just started.  Finally a man lumbered outside to let me in the gate and check me in. 

The rest of my day was essentially useless and passed in a series of naps and short trips into center city where I could buy myself some groceries to last the next two days (a dozen eggs and four huge grapefruit for 2€- man going back to England was going to be terrible after getting used to these cheap prices).  I went back to the hostel with the intent of making eggs for dinner only to realize there was no stove in the hostel kitchen, only the wood-burning fireplace used to heat to hostel.  If I had been smart, I would have checked this before hand but I blame my oversight on the fact that I had hardly slept at all in the past two days.  Necessity being the mother of invention, I decided I would hard boil them on top of the fireplace but after setting a pan of water up there for nearly an hour with not even the slightest hint of a boil starting, I gave up on that as well.  What was the point of having burners atop of fireplace if the flames couldn’t even heat the top panel? 

But being a poor college student has made me nothing if not resourceful.  I’ve spent the last three years drinking from mason jars, fashioning guitar capos from two hair ties and a pencil, making butter dishes out of Tupperware containers, and even going so far as to use whip cream for coffee creamer.  I could handle this.  The one thing this kitchen did have was a plug in water boiler, the kind you use to make tea and the like.  The light bulb clicked on in my head and pretty soon I was loading up the water boiler with four eggs.  I switched it on, brought it to a boil, left them sit for about ten minutes, then repeated the process two more times.  About an hour later, I peeled one of the eggs to see how well my invention had worked.  In the moment of truth, I took a bit and peered at the yolk to find it a perfect orange color without so much as the slightest hint of grey around the edges.  Now how is that for innovation?

Having eaten a sparse dinner of peanuts, eggs, and grapefruit, I settled down for the night in front of the blazing hearth to catch up on my writing.  There is nothing so perfectly contenting at the feel of wood head as it soaks into your bones and warms every single nerve in your body.  My plans were to sit there all night, catch up on my blog, be rather antisocial but just as I was about to launch into writing, two other young guys staying in the hostel walked in.  They sat down next to me, without invitation I might add, and started to talking to me.  While I was initially annoyed about having my peaceful hermitting disrupted, I soon got over my annoyance as I found out how cool these two guys were.  Ivan and Milosh had been traveling on business from their home in Belgrade, Serbia.  We sat there together for over an hour, exchanging music, Simon and Garfunkel and CCR from me and traditional Serbian bands from them.  It was a great meeting of cultures and before I knew it, they invited me out to a bar with them to meet some of their friends since I was “not like other Americans”.  I was “cool”.  Gee…. Thanks?  I decided to take it as a compliment.  I debated my options: I was exhausted from the night of travel before and all I really wanted was to go to sleep but I was also only in Skopje for a short time.  Travel is about seizing chances and not passing up experiences for comfort.  I could always sleep later.  So I said yes.

We went out to a nearby bar where a local band was playing traditional music and since I felt awkward around all the people I didn’t really know, I focused on it, appreciating the differences between the music and the types of American music that are so prominent everywhere.  American pop culture has unfortunately permeated every corner of the world.  Throughout my travels, I was constantly walking by stores to hear American pop and hip hop music blasting through the speakers.  I don’t even like listening to that kind of music when I’m actually in America let alone in another country.  This was one of the first opportunities since my night out with my mom in Malaga that I was able to really get a taste of another country’s traditional music.  And I liked it a lot.  Much of it resembled the indie folk and heavily acoustic stuff I usually listen to and I found myself wishing this kind of music was more popular and more easy to access.   So even though being the incredibly awkward person that I am made it strange to be around so many people I didn’t know, I was glad I had decided to come.  Travel is about stepping out of your comfort zone, doing things you might not normally.  I raised my glass and said, “Ziveli” (meaning “cheers”- one of two Serbian words I had been able to pick up on in my entire time in eastern Europe) to new cultural experiences.  Soon after, I found myself too tired to keep my eyes open and so I said goodbye to my news friends and went back to the hostel where I collapsed in bed.

Finally waking well-rested the next morning, I set off in Skopje to explore.  If I could pick one idiom to describe Skopje it would probably be, “Ignorance is bliss.”  While the language barrier had been difficult in the rest o Eastern Europe, everything was at least written in Latin and I could thus sometimes discern words on signs.  In Macedonia, only the Cyrillic alphabet is utilized and thus trying to read anything around the city became something like, “Ah yes, H-A- triangle.  Of course.  I know exactly what that says.”  Yet despite the fact that I couldn’t read a single sign to even be able to tell what anything was, expect for anything related to Mother Theresa (which were all in English as the city seems incredibly proud to be able to boast itself as being her birthplace) I was able to wander happily in my fog of misunderstanding for hours.  Skopje was different from any of the other cities I had encountered.  It was strange, not particularly exciting or beautiful, but interesting in how completely strange it was.  To start, everything is mismatched.  Over the years, Macedonia changed hands perhaps more than any Eastern European country.  Everyone wanted to get their hands on it, and they did… for a time.  But for each short stint different places held onto the country, they all left their mark on it.  Every building seems to be built in a different architecture style, from weird modernist grocery stores to Ottoman style banks making Skopje the biggest catch-all city I had ever seen. 

On top of that, it is filled with statues upon statues upon statues.  It should be called the City of Statues though that title rests with several other cities in Europe.  A few years ago, the city launched a huge campaign funded by the government to revamp Macedonia’s capital city in attempt to bring in more tourists.   Millions of dollars and thousands of statues later and the work still isn’t done.  Much of the center square is entirely torn up for continued renovation.  It will be interesting to see how much the city will continue to change over the next several years.  Of course, I had no idea what any of these statues were of outside the famous Alexander the Great in the center square considering all the signs were in Cyrillic.  Yet on an aesthetic level, the statues are still interesting and, especially when considered in context with the green parks and blossoming trees, beautiful.  Skopje is one of the greenest cities I have ever seen.  On the edge of spring, all the trees lining the streets were popping with pink and white blossoms and the parks were green masses speckled with bright red tulips.

As I wandered past countless bronze figures and blooming flower gardens, I found my mind wandering in odd directions.  My thoughts were not very profound or really even coherent but rather silly and fragmented.  Sometimes I was placing the statues in a scene and making a mental commentary in my head.  Others, I was just singing to coming up with catchy little tunes.  Maybe it was a product of the city, its general strangeness just permeating my thoughts, or maybe it was simply the fact that I had been travelling alone for too long.  Either way, I didn’t terribly mind.  On that note, I often get asked if I ever get bored travelling alone or what I do without someone to talk to.  That’s easy: I get lost in my mind.  As a writer, my head is always bursting with the nest line for a poem or my blog.  But even that was a bit different in Skopje as my thoughts eventually led me to entirely abandon any remaining dignity separating me from the typical tourist and start taking selfies with the statues, mimicking their poses.  In my head, I was doing it ironically and therefore it was okay. 

On the subject of selfies, I’d like to make a quick clarification of my views on them.  Our generation, the “selfie generation” gets a really bad rap for our supposed vanity and narcissism but like everything else older generations wrongly look down on us for, I think the judgmental attitudes toward selfies are complete bullshit.  First of all, as a solo traveller, I rely on selfies to get any sort of documentation that I actually visit these places.  I often have no other option.  But aside from the practicality of selfies, I think the general culture of them is very healthy.  Our generation was brought up in a world that constantly told us, and continues to tell us, that we’re not pretty enough, not skinny enough, not good enough.  Our self-esteem has been inherently and irreparably damaged by pop culture, celebrities, changing beauty standards, and unrealistic expectations.  And then selfies came along and suddenly people began posting pictures of themselves online for no other reason than they believed they felt pretty in them.  The pictures were deemed worthy enough to submit into the online universe where countless people could see them.  That is a huge step in the way of self-confidence.  So yes, maybe selfies are a bit vain but at the same time we have earned that degree of vanity and in fact we need it to combat the unhealthy body images and expectations that permeate everything else in this world.  So I say take those selfies, post them online, smile when people comment that you look pretty, and know that you do.  And if selfies are the biggest detriment we bring to the world then we’re doing a whole lot better than the generations before us.

Okay, rant over.  After the sun finally began to set, I wandered back through the maze of coinless fountains (what, don’t people makes wishes there?) and statues to my hostel where this night I did succeed in nestling in front of the fire of the now empty hostel for my last in Skopje.  My stay in Macadonia had been short but sweet.  I couldn’t have imagined spending any longer in Skopje without going a bit stir (or statue) crazy and I was happy to move on to more exciting things. I had only one more stop on my journey before returning to Oxford and I was ready to savor the final moments of my trip.