We spent most of today in Skopje, Macedonia.
Getting to Skopje takes about two hours, including the border crossing. It's not a very good road, and it's actually getting worse. Two reasons. One, there's a ridiculous amount of sprawl going south from Pristina, so you have about forty miles of bad two-lane road with pretty constant traffic. And two, they're just about to start work on a fancy new highway connecting Skopje to Pristina. When it's done, the trip time will drop by half -- but in the meantime, there's no incentive to fix the potholes or add passing lines or shoulders, since the road is going to be obsolete soon.
Anyway. Skopje itself is an interesting small city with a pleasantly busy downtown. We visited the one shopping mall with the toy shop and bought a bunch of Legos and My Little Pony stuff. (Alan was owed a major toy purchase because he had a birthday recently, and younger sister Leah because she'd just finished her Headsprout reading lessons.) Ate chicken nuggets and pide in the food court... yes, Macedonia has a shopping mall with a food court, complete with Burger King. (Food courts are everywhere now. There was a shopping mall with a food court in Ramallah.) But you can also get pide and Turkish coffee -- in fact, it's pretty much only Turkish coffee -- and that Turkish lentil soup that comes with the puffy flatbread.
After that, we headed for an English-language bookstore that was mentioned in the guidebook. This turned out to be a pretty large bookstore selling mostly remaindered academic books. You know how textbooks are constantly coming out with new editions every couple of years, so you have to plunk down $120 for the new edition of Cell Biology instead of paying a third of that for a secondhand copy? Well, the unsold older editions in the warehouse have to go somewhere, and one of those somewheres is Eastern Europe. Same thing for five-year-old coffee table picture books that didn't sell, and mass market paperbacks that were overproduced. Not to sneer; we ended up finding a lot of interesting things (Robert Chambers' King in Yellow: two bucks. Collected Solomon Kane stories of Robert E. Howard, same. A "best of Woody Guthrie" CD, like four bucks.) and dropping about a hundred dollars.
One peculiarity: this bookstore has several large shelves of science fiction mass-media tie-in books. Hundreds and hundreds of Star Wars and Star Trek novels, plus a fair number of Battlestar Galactica, World of Warcraft, and others. What the market is for these in the lower-central Balkans, I can't begin to guess. But there they all are. About $3 each. We found the Star Trek Novel Graveyard, and it's in Macedonia.
So then we walked around the central plaza for a while, with its crazy statuary -- Alexander the Great, woo -- and looked at sunspots through a telescope set up by a very nice man who was with the Macedonian Astronomical Society. (I had never seen sunspots directly through a scope before! They're, dang, spots on the Sun. Crazy.) (Yes, the scope had a filter so our eyes were not destroyed.)
Then we went for a walk through the "bazaar", which is what they're calling the Albanian Quarter these days. And therein lies a tale.
So way back in 2002 -- not long after the Ohrid Agreement was signed, if you follow this sort of thing -- I visited Skopje for a day or two for work. And I happened to walk north across the Vardar River into the Albanian Quarter. It was kinda scenic, with cobbled streets and lots of Turkish-style houses, but also obviously pretty poor. There were few people on the streets, everything was somewhat run-down, and most of the shops seemed to be just-barely-scraping-by subsistence businesses... little one-man tailor shops, coffee places where the locals would nurse a thirty cent cup of Turkish coffee for hours, and so forth. And when I walked back across the river, my Macedonian colleagues gave me serious side-eye: you went over to *that* side, where *they* live? Crazy foreigner, you're lucky to have come back alive...
So 2014, back again for the first time in twelve years. And holy socknozzles, the Albanian quarter is jumping. It is, I kid you not, Skopje's yuppie quarter. Restaurants, souvenir shops, antique stores, ice cream stands. The streets were packed solid with middle-class Macedonians and curious foreigners.
I know that an area a few blocks square doesn't represent a whole city, never mind a whole country. But... wow, what a difference. It was just really encouraging.
Oh, and also the ice cream shop was run by a couple of English-speaking Gorani. I had never met any Gorani before! Well, not knowingly.
And then we walked back and had coffee and salads in a place by the Vardar (near the skateboarders park... none of the skateboarders wear pads or helmets and honestly they're not very good, but they seemed to be enjoying themselves and the boys enjoyed watching them) and the three younger kids rode on the carousel that's right there for some reason, and then we went home. Came into south Pristina with the moon rising out of southern Serbia on our right, boys building Lego constructions in the back of the car, and Leah falling asleep to Woody Guthrie explaining why he had to keep on organizing, keep on organizing, won't the boss be surprised, when he finds us organized.