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To hunt or not to hunt…

Many years ago, in another life, I won a lottery. My prize? The opportunity to shoot a moose. I borrowed a 30.06 rifle and practised. And to my surprise, I could hit the target. Moose hunting in Alaska is controlled. Herds are culled. The rules are very strict. All the meat is put to use. I had no qualms about the process or the whys and wherefores in that part of the world – it’s  way of life and many people depend on the meat to get through the winter. But when I saw my moose, I couldn’t pull the trigger. Those eyes… It was a waste of a tag and certainly earned me no favours. It was the one and only time I entered the draw.

I have nothing against subsistence hunting. I can’t say the same for hunting for glory though. The thought of saving the head to stick on a wall and wasting the rest is beyond reason. So when we visited Kamnik, outside of Skopje, I was a little surprised.

IMG_2095 (800x600)IMG_2079 (600x800)The Lakavica reserve is about 7000 hectares in total, 2500 which is fenced. Guided hunts (4/5 days) for wild boar, mouflon, deer and more are led by experts. You can then ship the meat home, have some of it cooked at the restaurant that night or leave it with them to serve to regular customers. The Hunting Lodge itself has 16 rooms, 5 suites, conference facilities, gym,  and a restaurant open to the public. The furniture suggests that everything is put to use. If you have to hunt, then don’t waste anything. But the question is – in this part of the world, do we have to hunt?Recreational hunting comes at a price that excludes the majority, making it a sport for those who have a healthy disposable income. It becomes entertainment. It’s not a fight against a marauding wild boar or a rabid wolf or an effort to stock your freezer to get through the winter – it’s a sport – and that I struggle with.

IMG_2092 (800x600) IMG_2090 (800x600)A visit some years ago to South Africa taught me the value of culling. Of course there are two, if not three or four sides to every argument  and while you might choose to pick up your gun and head to the wilds for a week’s stress relief, in search of a trophy for your living room wall, I already know that it’s not something I could do.

But where there’s a demand, there’ll be a supplier and Kamnik seems to have a handle on it all. The added attraction is that there’s a vineyard next door producing some of the best wine in Macedonia. Definitely worth a visit.

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Ethnicity vs nationality

I’m Irish. I was born in Ireland. I might, if the occasion called for it, qualify that descriptive by stating that I’m Catholic Irish. I was born in Ireland and raised Catholic, as were my parents, my grandparents, my great-grandparents… Seems a simple enough logic to me: place of birth dictates nationality.

It used to drive me mad in pre-9/11 America to hear people say they were Irish when they’d been born in North Carolina or South Dakota. Irish-American I could just about handle but I couldn’t for the life of me understand why plain old American didn’t suffice.

When I first discovered the Balkans a whole other level of confusion arose. But the relatively simple statement – I was born in Croatia and I’m Serb – accompanied by a 20-minute history lesson was enough for the penny to finally drop. Ethnicity and nationality – two different things entirely.

IMG_1777 (600x800)This also cleared up the mystery around Mother Teresa, an Albanian born in Macedonia. The site of the house she was born in is marked by four brass L-shapes set into the footpath. Nothing else remains. Inside the nearby memorial house there’s a model of what her home place looked like. Born on 26 August 1910 in Uskup (now Skopje),  this tiny woman had a huge impact on the world. In 1928, as the 18-year-old Agnes Bojaxhiu, she decided to become a nun and left for Ireland to join the Loretto Sisters in Dublin. She took the name Sister Mary Teresa after St Thérèse of Lisieux (a particular favourite of mine). From Ireland she was sent to India – first to Darjeeling for her novitiate period, and then to Calcutta, where she taught at St Mary’s High School for Girls. She learned to speak both Bengali and Hindi fluently.  In January 1948, she finally got approval to leave the order and set up on her own, working as a medical missionary in the slums of Calcutta.IMG_1791 (800x600)

IMG_1788 (800x600) (2)IMG_1799 (614x800) (614x800)With little more than six months’ of medical training she went to the slums in Calcutta to fulfill her mission: to aid the unwanted, the unloved, the uncared for. Two years later, in 1950, she set up a new order with just 12 members – The Missionaries of Charity. Over the course of the next 20 years, this tiny woman established ‘a leper colony, an orphanage, a nursing home, a family clinic and a string of mobile health clinics’. No matter what your religious beliefs, that sort of drive has to be admired.  Starting out with just 12, by the time she died in 1997, ‘the Missionaries of Charity numbered over 4,000—in addition to thousands more lay volunteers—with 610 foundations in 123 countries on all seven continents’.

IMG_1800 (800x600) (2)The Memorial House of Mother Teresa opened in Skopje in January 2009. It is built on the site where the old Sacred Heart of Jesus Catholic church once stood – the church in which she was baptised. Designed by Vangel Božinovski, it is said to be a modern version of her original birthplace. It did nothing for me. It’s busyness contrasts sharply with the simplicity I associate with Mother Teresa and her way of life. But then again, I’m not an architect. And when I read what he had to say: It’s not only an architectural project, it’s a result of my admiration for the work of Mother Teresa as a citizen of Skopje. Here you have her non-religous life and her spiritual life mixed together. This house is not only a house, it represents the city as a whole, I wondered some more.

IMG_1796 (800x600)There’s a chapel on the top floor, which is quite unusual. The mesh of metal outside the glass reminded me so much of barbed wire that I felt as if I were in a prison of sorts. The only clear view to the outside is through the cross. Perhaps that was intentional. I don’t know.

And I didn’t now that she was born in Macedonia. And I didn’t know that she began her nunning in Dublin. And to my shame, I have for all these years thought that she founded the Little Sisters of the Poor and not the Missionaries of Charity. What I did know though  was that she was plagued with doubts. [Christopher Hitchens wrote an interesting piece about her in Newsweek back in 2007 which he titled The Dogmatic Doubter.]

So many unanswered questions live within me afraid to uncover them—because of the blasphemy—If there be God—please forgive me—When I try to raise my thoughts to Heaven—there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives and hurt my very soul.—I am told God loves me—and yet the reality of darkness and coldness and emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul. Did I make a mistake in surrendering blindly to the Call of the Sacred Heart?

In her Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in 1979 she gave one piece of advice: Smile at each other, make time for each other in your family. Not exactly rocket science but imagine how different the world might be were we all to do just that.

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7144

A chandelier made from 7144 individual Swarovski crystal beads strung on strands falling from the ceiling would be at home in a ballroom in just about any part of the world. To see it hanging through three floors of a museum though is quite something. My illicit photo certainly doesn’t do it justice.

20140509_102354_resized-1I was in the Holocaust Memorial Centre in Skopje. Signs everywhere said no cameras. There was only me and the security guard. The centre opened in March 2011, some 68 years after 7144 Jews were deported from Skopje to Treblinka by the occupying Bulgarian forces. Fewer than 100 survived.

IMG_2005 (800x600)Shepherded in the Monopol building (a tobacco factory) before deportation, conditions, while horrendous, were nothing like what was in store.

We were in a terrible mood. The youngsters tried to sing every so often, but the adults and the elderly people were in deep depression. We did not know what awaited us, but the dreadful treatment we received from the Bulgarians showed the value of the promises given us that we would only be taken to a Bulgarian work camp. Here and there youngsters whispered of the possibility of an uprising and a mass escape, but they never materialized. There was no prospect of it succeeding. The yard was surrounded by a wooden fence and behind that a barbed wire fence. At each of the four corners there was a sentry with a machine gun and other armed guards would patrol the yard. Also, the belief that the worst possible fate did not await us prevented such suicidal acts from taking place.

When I stopped to photograph the building that housed Skopje’s Jews before they were deported, the security guard was none too impressed. When we told him that it was a memorial, an important building, he said he didn’t know.

And that’s what frightens me most. That we’ll forget. That we’ll forget that 11 million died in the holocaust, 6 million of them Jews. Places like the Monopol building should be recognised. And remembered. On 21 June 1944, all Jews in Budapest were required to move into one of 2000 special houses – the yellow star houses. This year, on 21 June, people will stand in vigil outside each of these houses – to be sure that we don’t forget.

 

 

Yes in my back yard

There’s a tradition in Skopje that is dying out. There are probably lots of these, but this particular one speaks to the stomach. For the last 30 years, Vase (pronounced Vassy) has had a restaurant in his back yard. There are about half a dozen tables and some inside, too. There’s no menu. No choice. You get whatever it is he has decided to cook that day. He’s not listed in any tour guide. He doesn’t have an online presence. And the only way to find him is to know someone who knows someone who knows someone. I know someone.

IMG_2047 (800x600)One of very few Macedonians in an Albanian part of town, Vase reigns supreme. Cigarette hanging from his mouth, he trades jibes with this guests, most of whom seem to be quite familiar with this attitude – and some seem to be in better favour than others. You can tell by who gets the last of this season’s kajmak cheese. We were honoured. When one young girl asked for French fries, he told her that she needed a prescription. The only choice you have is to eat or not to eat.

IMG_2044 (800x382)Vase buys all his veg localIMG_2045 (800x600)ly and specialises in what’s in season. It’s been a while since I had an onion that was really, well, oniony. The beets and radishes, the pickled cabbage, the fried courgettes, and grilled peppers – all to die for. As for the kajmak…. well… I IMG_2046 (800x600)was in heaven.

And then the meat came – randomly. Chicken, pork, and sausage, and liver that was probably the best I’ve had in years. The wine was unpretentious and local, too. There was no pressure to go anywhere, no pressure to do anything buIMG_2048 (600x800)t eat and enjoy. I had my doubts that we would do it justice and, truth be told, wasn’t looking forward to Vase’s reaction if we didn’t clear our plates. But I needn’t have worried.

There are only two such places left in Skopje. Vase’s kids are not interested in carrying on the family business. It will die with him. Not because someone else couldn’t do the job or cook the food or serve it up, but because he is the restaurant. People come to see him – to talk to him – to eat whatever it is he’s cooked that day. You never know who might be at the table beside you. It’s classless and it’s fun. And he runs it his way. When the food runs out, he closes up. If you don’t like it, you leave. And if Vase doesn’t like the look of you, you won’t get a table. For him, it’s not a business. It’s a vocation, a way of life. So best find someone in the know.

 

 

 

 

Gained in translation

Just four days in Skopje taught me the value of suspending disbelief and just going with the flow. After a while, nothing seems too fantastical. Within two hours I’d stopped asking how old anything was because it was all new. The carousel on the river bank opposite the yet-to-be-opened Museum of Archaeology didn’t seem out-of-place. But I have to admit a little incredulity when I saw the boats.

Skopje doesn’t have a riverboat history. The Vadar is not Old Miss. It’s not the Danube. It doesn’t have cruise ships or steamers. And yet someone, with a great imagination, thought up the idea of having boat restaurants.

IMG_1862 (800x600)Built to look like brothels (my opinion: I’m doubt that was the intention but it was the first thing that came to mind) they actually look like old wooden ships. But like everything else in Skopje, looks can be deceiving. Strip away the veneer and you find a massive metal structure, built atop foundations on a makeshift island of gravel which looks for all the world like an old battleship. An illusion shattered.

IMG_2062 (800x600) But when you strip away the metal, you get a steel frame, just like any old building. Is this really how ships are built? When  I Googled, I found an article in Macedonian and it would seem that the name of the company responsible translates to Dim Phalanx. How appropriate. Something lost (or gained) in translation.

IMG_2054 (800x600)Some who are concerned reckoned that the boats, built to look like galleons, would add a new dimension to a city that is gaining a reputation as a new Disneyland. They’re thinking Pirates of the Caribbean. And I feel their pain. Somethings are better left imagined.

 

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Voltaire reckoned that originality is nothing but judicious imitation. I wondered a little at that when I looked up to see something rather odd in the distance. A roof that stood out amongst the roofs of Skopje. Closer investigation revealed something that would be at home in Gaudí’s Barcelona but with an address on Luj Paster Str in Skopje.

IMG_1801 (800x600)IMG_1809 (800x600)The architect, who is known in Skopje simply as Roger, seems a tad eccentric. He has a fondness for vintage cars and likes a little bling – at least in his decor. Apparently he inherited the family home and he lives in the top floor flat while his sister lives underneath. An outside lift gets him home. A inscription above the door asserts his creative rights and claims responsibility and ownership for all the work involved. Quite amazing.

IMG_2101 (800x600)Then I heard that he also had a restaurant outside the city and that, of course, had to be seen as well. It stands in a field by the side of the road, its isolation adding to its oddness. The security guard was kind enough to show us around. And though the outside should well have prepared me for what lay inside, it didn’t. Mad garish colours, Swaroksvi crystals, intricate wrought iron, black and white marble all meshed together in a riot of something that brought a whole new meaning to the word fantastic.

IMG_2105 (800x582)IMG_2113 (800x600)IMG_2114 (800x600)The top table was set up for a wedding. A massive chandelier with individual crystals set the cash register in my mind into overdrive. Everywhere I looked shapes and colours and forms vied for attention. I wavered between hating it and loving it. I started to wonder what type of people got married here – those who were flash to the point of being ostentatious? Perhaps brides who belonged in a Disney movie? Or those who favoured the Catalan artists Gaudí and Dalí? I wasn’t quite sure.

IMG_2112 (800x600)IMG_2138 (600x800)The outside is just as curious. Statues pops their heads out of the hedgerow at measured intervals. The walls are set with mosaic portraits of famous musicians, presumably those for whom Roger has a fondness. It’s all quite strange, quite peculiar, and in an odd way, quite refreshing. In a world where sameness has become the norm, where mass production and globalisation ensure that our high street shops are the faithfully reproduced no matter what city in Europe we’re in,  where conformity is the password to survival, I’m grateful that there are people like Roger who insist on leaving their individual mark on the world. I’m grateful that some people still dare to be different, regardless of what Joe Public has to say. And that confident in their own likes and taste, they stay true to who they are.

English poet, Dame Edith Sitwell, put it so: ‘Eccentricity is not, as dull people would have us believe, a form of madness. It is often a kind of innocent pride, and the man of genius and the aristocrat are frequently regarded as eccentrics because genius and aristocrat are entirely unafraid of an uninfluenced by the opinions and vagaries of the crowd.’

Here’s to you, Roger. ви благодариме.

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Redefining kitsch

I’m old enough to fess up to a number of obsessions, one of which is statues. They fascinate me on two levels: what they represent and what they’re supposed to represent. In this regard, spending a few days in Skopje was like spending a few days touring with Dara O’Briain – it was one jaw-dropping surprise after another.

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I was particularly amused by the statue of Prometheus that sits in a park across from the Parliament building. It’s part of a ‘statue complex‘ that has three parts representing the world of the living and a passage to the world of the gods. Prometheus, the god who brought us fire, stands in the middle of an agora representing heroic sacrifice. On top of the doorway to eternity stand four horses. And atop a marble pillar stands a winged goddess of victory.  Somewhere in there is what was intended to be an eternal flame, but it was doused when the park’s young visitors started to use it to barbeque their sausages. What amused me was the fact that Prometheus was first erected in all his glory but politicians caved to public indignation and had him clothed. Mind you, the story I heard was that the politicians themselves didn’t like looking out the windows of Parliament at a god in all his golden glory. Whether it was unidentified women’s organisations that lobbied for the loin cloth, or the politicians themselves that had the god clothed, the mind boggles at such inanity.
Next on my liIMG_1844 (600x800)st is a statue of someone whose name escapes me. It caught my attention because of the controversy the project has ignited. The public is a tad upset at the millions of euro  being spent on these statues and there are murmurs that not all the money might be going where it should have gone. This chap, putting away what might be a wallet, screamed corruption at me. Apparently, the night of the mayoral election in the Centar municipality, the incumbent was defeated. At 3am he got to work. By 8 am the next morning, the two boys had taken up their positions on either side of the Porta Macedonia, a triumphal arch that stands 21 meters tall and itself cost €4.4 million. Apparently, the defeated Mayor promptly sent the bill to his successor. Payback’s a bitch alright.

IMG_1985 (600x800) (2)IMG_1983 (800x600)Across the Stone Bridge sits Karpoš’s Rebellion Square. In one of three fountains sit four statues of four women in various stages of motherhood. Titled the Fountain of the Mothers of Macedonia, it depicts a pregnant woman, a woman breastfeeding,  a woman playing with her son, and another of what seems to be her protecting him. In the background stands the Warrior monument, generally believed to be a statue of Philip II of Macedon – Alexander the Great’s father. At this stage, the penny dropped. Macedonia is really hammering it home to Greece that its claim on the name Macedonia is greater – but subtly, of course. Not surprisingly, the mothers of Macedonia are thought by some to depict one mother – and represent the early stages of Alexander’s life.

IMG_1776 (800x600) Sitting in the centre of Macedonia Square is the statue of the Warrior on a Horse, generally believed to be that of Alexander the Great. The relatively unknown sculptor is said to have received €650 000 while the whole fountain cost about €9 million. It lights up at night and it plays music, too. Apparently the people cried with joy when it was raised… but the tears I heard were more of despair. It would seem that this statue frenzy has divided the city more so that the River Vardar already does.

IMG_1915 (600x800)IMG_1987 (600x800)While I was thinking of this despair, I happened across this sculpture which at first I took to be a lifesaving in motion. But then I realised it was a diving platform. I liked it. Clever I thought. And a break from the greatness of the other monuments with their innocuous titles and their subtle implications.

And then I found some light relief down by the National Theatre. Not unlike Budapest’s National Theatre, it too has a series of statues of great actors but even they seem to be enjoying a certain amount of self-deprecation. This one was my favourite. Sass and style and a dare-to-be-different attitude that might well sum up Skopje. The jury is out.

Is Macedonia’s capital being turned in to a theme park, as the CNN article ran? Or it is a ploy to distract the nation from its real problems: high unemployment, poverty and stalled progress towards EU and NATO membership.  New-York-based Macedonian architect Robert Dandarov reckons that Skopje has turned into ‘an encyclopedia of kitsch’. Me, I’m just glad I got to see it all and marvel.

 

Another Disneyland?

What I knew about Macedonia (as in the Republic of Macedonia and not the region in Greece) this time last week could have been written on the back of a wine-bottle label. Not the fat one with details of the winery, the sulfites, the alcohol content, but the narrow one around the neck. Slightly bigger than a postage stamp but a long way shy of anything substantial. Four days in-country hardly qualifies me as an expert but when has that ever stopped me from holding forth?

IMG_1784 (800x600)Macedonians say that Skopje (the capital which sits half-way between Belgrade and Athens) is the Disneyland of Eastern Europe. Personally, I think it’s more like a movie set at Universal Studios. The mass of new buildings that have gone up in the last couple of years is quite something. Likewise the new bridges that span the River Vardar and the myriad statues that are popping up left, right, and centre. My comment that the Baroque facades were remarkably well preserved and very clean was met with a derisive snort – they’d been ‘added’ in the last year. The government is a fan of that architectural period apparently. After the first few hours, I gave up asking how old anything was. The answer was always 2013 (give or take a couple of years).

IMG_1815 (800x600)IMG_1850 (800x600)The city’s defining moment came on July 26, 1963, when an earthquake killed more than a 1000 people, injured thousands more, and left 200 000+ homeless. It destroyed 80% of the city. Since then, people measure time in two halves: pre- and post-1963. One woman I was told of went to Ohrid – a lakeside resort in the south of the country) on her holidays in July 1963 when she was about 17. When she returned a week later, she was homeless and orphaned with no living relatives. This same woman never saw her father: he was murdered for his part in the resistance before she was born. Stories such as these bring home to me how blessed my life has been.

IMG_1781 (800x600)Throughout the city, lest anyone forget, plaques mark the event and serve as a constant reminder that Skopje, despite being inhabited since 4000 BC, is a city that is in the process of being reborn. The official population is about 500 000. Unofficially, some reckon that about one million people live in the eight municipalities, of which two-thirds are Macedonians and more than a fifth are Albanian. In those municipalities where Albanians number 25% or more, Albanian is an official language.

IMG_1996 (800x600)As you cross the Goce Delcev bridge from the new town to the Old Bazaar, you meet a pair of contentious lions, which along with their counterparts on the far side of the Vardar, cost an estimated €1.2 million, despite the sculptors being paid less than 10% of that.

IMG_1992 (800x600)When they went up in August 2010, lots of people had lots to say about them. Mind you, I quite like the idea that the old traditional lions stand guard on the road to the Old Bazaar while the newer, modern animals pave the way to the new, far more modern (?) town. These are among the few statues in the city that actually made any sense to me. But more on that later.

Like Universal Studios (or Disneyland, whichever you prefer), Skopje is veritable vineyard of pictorial tastes suitable for all palettes.   Love it or hate it, it won’t leave you unmoved. At night the buildings and the fountains come alive and while the whole effect is rather other-worldy, I can’t help but cringe at the thoughts of the electricity bill that sits alongside an ‘official’ unemployment rate of 30%+, chronic organised and exploitative child begging, and a homeless problem that has only surfaced in the last decade or so.

Where best to spend the euro? Is this a chicken and egg thing? Spend the money to attract the tourists whose spending will in turn fund social programmes and infrastructure development or simply spend the money on these programmes from the outset? A universal question…

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Apparently there was a storm in Budapest tonight. A big storm. A storm so big that the plane I was on from Belgrade had to turn back. Weather happens.

In Belgrade, we had a choice. Wait until 10.3opm tonight and catch a bus for a 5-hour trip (minimum) to Budapest Airport. Or stay overnight and catch the evening flight back to Budapest tomorrow evening. Or be rescheduled to anywhere else we wanted to fly  – tomorrow.

cancWe had a choice. A choice. And to hear some of my fellow passengers go on, you’d swear that choice was between having teeth or toenails pulled. Perhaps I was mellower than usual because I was so tired. In Skopje last night, I lost my apartment key and couldn’t get old of the booking agent so I had to check into a youth hostel across from an outdoor concert that went on until 3am. I’d just gotten to sleep when the agent called me back putting paid to any more sleep that morning. So I was tired.

A sleepless me can go one of two ways – I can be obnoxiously cranky or mellow to the point of it seeming brownie-induced. Tonight I was mellow. So when Mr Austria started mouthing off at the airline official and calling her a liar and asking her if she had a pilot’s licence, I had to interject and point out that no matter how talented the girl was, even she couldn’t make storms disappear. Get a grip mate; it’s not her fault.

Then Miss America started demanding a full refund and saying that her dad would take care of these morons (the pilots) as she’d seen the airspace over Budapest and it wasn’t as if it was San Francisco – I mean, what could the plane smack in to? Duh. She ended up renting a car to drive back to BP. Patience dear.

Then others stepped forth with their plans and their meetings and their needs, demanding satisfaction. We had three choices …. what part of that didn’t they get?

It’s been a long week. A good week. A week that didn’t exactly go to plan. And at the end of it all, I’m so very grateful that I was too tired to get worked up about cancelled flights and unscheduled changes. I’m grateful, too, for the realisation that I always have a choice, even if it’s simply choosing an attitude. Of course, it helps that I can work from the office here in Belgrade tomorrow so all that changes with my day is where I’ll have breakfast 🙂