Wednesday, November 12, 2014


After bidding a fond farewell to Plovdiv, Will and I hitched a ride to Sofia to cross the border into Macedonia.  Once we made our way to the highway, it didn't take long to flag someone down; we were standing on the shoulder thumbing at cars for less than 15 minutes before one pulled over. The driver looked like a member of a 90's rock band; he had long, greasy hair, chainsmoked the whole way to Sofia, and played Metallica and System of a Down, much to Will's delight. I shared the back seat of the sedan with his cat, Max, who (I found out the hard way) was not declawed.

The Bulgarian countryside is beautiful.  The highway threaded through mountains that were aflame with changing leaves, the slopes a riot of yellow and red, striated with patches of evergreens.

Frolicking in the autumn leaves in Skopje
Skopje is an odd city.  Given Macedonia's contentious recent history, Skopje has become the site of a sort of reactionary, ultra-nationalist facelift, encouraged by the Macedonian government's 500 million euro investment project, "Skopje 2014".  It's as though Las Vegas and Walt Disney collaborated to create an urban space solely devoted to Macedonian national identity.  Buildings have been thrown up with plaster "neo-classical" facades, in an effort to lay claim to Greek architectural heritage; the effect is only slightly spoiled by the fact that the buildings are all so blatantly new, practically sparkling in their unspoiled whiteness. The project also funded the installation of hundreds and hundreds of statues. Bridges, buildings, rooftops, squares, street corners: no public space was safe.  Ancient heroes, modern revolutionaries, writers and poets even Macedonians haven't heard of: the government dredged the bottom of its own history to find figures to slap up everywhere (and I do mean everywhere).

Probably the boldest of these is the enormous statue of Alexander the Great that occupies Skopje's central city square.  A move of defiance vis-a-vis Greece (read more about that here), the statue definitively lays claim to Macedonia's link to ancient Macedon and the historical heritage that comes with this affiliation.

This sense of affronted national identity was reinforced by our visit to the Museum of the Macedonian Struggle, which was by far the weirdest and most propagandistic museum I have even been in.  A combination of wax museum and performance art, the museum leads the visitor on an hour-long guided tour through a one-sided version of history.  The rooms are walled with gigantic and meticulously detailed oil paintings showing the glorious and noble nature of Macedonian rebellions and uprisings over the last several hundred years, and the perfidy and unwonted violence perpetrated by pretty much everyone else: the Turks, the Serbs, the Albanians, the Great Powers, the Bulgarian Fascists, Tito's Yugoslavia.  One painting (to choose one example among dozens) showed a Macedonian Judas, labelled simply "traitor", presenting the head of a Comitadji freedom fighter, John the Baptist style, to a nefarious looking Greek Orthodox priest.  The Greek dangled a sack of blood money (presumably thirty pieces of silver).  The next room featured a display of life-size wax figurines: a Serbian torturing an old Macedonian peasant woman during the Ohrid Rebellion of 1913.  This went on and on, the guide endlessly reviewing the many ways in which Macedonia has continually received the short and brutal end of the stick.  Distractingly, he kept repeating a malapropism, saying "macerated" instead of "massacred", which gave the fleeting impression that Ottoman and Fascist victims had been soaked in alcohol and perhaps stuffed with cherries, rather than violently slaughtered.

One Greek man on our tour took issue with the (possibly revisionist) presentation of events, continually interrupting with pointed and sarcastic questions.  The guide drew himself up icily, smiling tightly and responding with steadfast refutations.  The Greek finally gave up trying to force nuance, instead contenting himself with rolling his eyes dramatically.

The takeaway of the museum was clear: Macedonia deserves full recognition, territorial integrity, and the right to call itself whatever it wants (our guide took particular exception to the "offensive" term Former Yugoslav Republic).  Although I ultimately agree, I'm not sure the museum takes the best approach to conveying this.  No conflict is ever black and white, and the entirely one-sided presentation inclined me to doubt everything the hundreds of wax figures urged me to believe.

Still, Skopje is a beautiful (if oddly fake-feeling) city, and I have enjoyed spending time with the Macedonians we have met, as well as our new friend and guide, Dan, a PCV serving his second year of service in Skopje.

Next up: Kosovo!

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