Doviduvanje Macedonia!

Our wonderful time in Macedonia is coming to an end, just in time I suppose as Paloma is now on two packets of cigarettes a day. Ben has been out most days and working late nights in a last chance to uncover some golden moments for his project. Natasa, Paloma and I traipse around the city like the ladies of leisure that we are. It’s great being taken to cool little back street tea houses that I don’t even find in Sydney. The ‘New Age’ bar is behind an old paint peeling wooden door, revealing a bubbling pond with small seating areas built above it, lounging on cushions sipping turkish coffee and watching the chiffon curtains flow in the breeze. Its moments like this I feel I’m living 1001 Arabian Nights.

The hospitality of Natasa’s family is unrivaled as we are plied with many delicious Macedonian dishes for lunch in their cosy house. Paloma is offered Rakia, and considering her good manners, never declines. In reference to a glass bottle of Rakia in the shape of a lady, Natasa’s dad Peco shouts ‘Naked! Naked!! Get her Naked!’ while Ben and I do our best….ahhh too silly.


Macedonia is the ‘cradle of civilization’, though the Greeks would suggest it’s all a little more complicated. The earth here is filled with Archeological sights.Every where you walk there are centuries old walls crumbling around you and only last year 17 tombs from the Hellenistic Period of the 5th Century BC were uncovered not far from the city. Climbing over the Kale Fortress walls and jumping over chips of  ancient crockery and scattered plastic water bottles, the proud legacy our own generation is leaving behind, we find out selves in the midst of a current archeological dig. Ben, his inner child coming out, takes a stick and runs it along the wall and as the dirt falls away huge bones emerge, embedded amongst the layers of history. ‘Look! A human verterbrae!!’ he peers around with a sneaky face, ‘No way! It’s a whole spine!’ We stare in amazement wondering where and when this relic is from. Surrounding us foundations of a city are laid out, but city upon city. The blood-red poppies and other wild flowers grow in patches under gorgeous archways and carved stone.

I am constantly in awe of the historical structures and remains around which people in this part of the world live normal modern lives. Historical wonders of Europe and these Eastern European countries remind me of how young inhabited Australia is, the Aboriginals being a nomadic culture left their rock carvings and ochre paintings as their permant legacy, in lieu of artifacts and built cities. Spectacular!

Not wanting to miss out on the sights of the country side we set off for the Matka Gorge with Natasa and Igor. The weather is crazy around the world and here it is no different. Temperatures reaching 30 degrees two days ago have dropped to 19 and the spring air is fresh as it flows through the open roof of the car, cleansing us of the city air. Paloma is all rugged up and tucked into the ergo as we wind our way up the lovely mountain side stopping at a monestary for a Rakia. The Monestary looks out to all of Skopje, of simple desigh the pattern in the brick work is beautiful but the frescos and painted saints inside are impressive with their worn golden wings soaring heavenwards for eternity, or at least until the paint wears off. Soon the countryside changes and dramatic shale rockfaces rise with knife-like sharpness out of the forest. The river is rushing so fast that small white-tipped waves crash into the rocks and tree trunks rising along the sides. Walking up worn paving steps on a very narrow path, nature is held back by a high dam wall and the noise from the river is deafening as it gushes from the tunnel. Above the dam the river is peaceful and calm, reflecting the jagged faces of the mountains from which many a rockclimber has fallen to their death. Creamy hot chocolate warms us as we sit in a tavern from the 16th Century and contemplate a glorious view, speculating just how delicious those who built this place would have found a mug of steaming chocolate.

Feeling like locals, we navigate the streets as though we have lived here forever, meeting friends, drinking coffee in the cafes and loving our little apartment. Its a perfect start to our adventure, but we’re not getting too comfy! The next chapter is around the corner…Istanbul…the city of Turkish delight awaits us as we rise early one morning to catch the train from Skopje’s old Yougoslav station and we are off once again.

Skopje and the Adidas Gypsies

Leaving the airport we were greeted by a swarm of Macedonians gathered round the exit with expectant faces… but no one holding up our name or ready to hug us. In a miniature taxi we were driven at high speed on the wrong side of the road by a chain smoking driver, steering the wheel with his pinky finger alone. Swerving out of the way of huge lorries and beaten-up red-and-white buses the landscape flicked by giving way to the city of Skopje. Old Yugoslav era buildings crumbled away on the outskirts, like teeth in the mouth of the 90 year old granny we met in the Bit Bazar days later. Plumes of dust and exhaust rose in thick clouds from the footpaths, volcanic spews of cigarette smoke mushroomed forth from every mouth. On the street all was lit from behind casting long black shadows and menacing figures looming towards us as we stepped from the taxi to the entrance of Hotel Square, inventively named, considering it was situated, on the square. A surrealist dream view was evoked from our hotel room window and in my jet-lagged state I declared Skopje ‘the ugliest city I have ever seen!’ before crashing out face down on the fresh bed, fully clothed.

Waking two hours later, I could feel the small particles of dirt and sand in my eyes. ‘Rakia!’ Ben yelled in my ear, dragging Paloma and I out into the late evening’s dusk. As we always do in these new and undiscovered cities we embark to, we headed to the ‘Old City’. Quiet cobblestone streets with tiny shop fronts lined the alley ways as we soaked in the atmosphere created by the cast iron lamps emitting a golden glow onto the world.

The delicious scent of kebab’s cooking, warm late spring air and the blurred edges of jet lag all lent to that special feeling of excitement for the unknown and the feeling ‘anything can happen’ and that Skopje was perhaps, after all, not so ugly. Settling into the worn benches of a tavern in the centre of the Old City we were plied with a huge greek salad, small fried river fish and an enormous plate of meat, de rigueur in Macedonia, oh and large pint glasses of Skopsko beer. The ‘Rakia’ however is the preferred drink, found throughout The Balkans. It singed our eyebrows off and Ben became a madman screaming ‘100% full power!’ and downing more and more. From shades of grey the true colours of Macedonia started to emerge. The cracked and yellow teeth of the proprietor shined in the glare of the kitchen as he threw Paloma into the air shouting ‘Sonce!!’ the word for ‘cute’ which we would hear many more times. The ruddy red cheeks of the mamma bent over the hot fire cooking our dinner looked like cherries as she broke into a gaping smile. Little green eyes flashed in the dark as I fed salty fish to milling cats meowing at my feet. Aaaahhh yes…we could get used to this!

Our friend Natasa Petkoska we met on the ancient stone bridge over the grey rushing water of the Vardar River the next day was a highlight. Having become internet friends we were excited to finally meet face to face. ‘ Heeeehhhlllooooo’ she boomed in her husky voice, thanks to hard partying she later told us. Full of boundless energy she walked the streets with us imparting valuable local inside information, the best cafes, markets and fun things to do. I of course immediately found the Antique shop, stocked full of embroidered dresses and wonderful costumes, jewellery, headpieces and wool loomed rugs. Ben, on the other hand, immediately sniffed out the local record seller’s stall under the eaves by the side of the river, picking up an LP of Esme Redzepova, the Gypsy Queen from 1979! Paloma, so content being carried around in a new place just kept on smiling and laughing with her imaginary friends and faeries, now inhabiting a different land.

By the second day we were in our own cute apartment situated in the heart of the city overlooking the ramparts of the Kale Fort  and quaint old rooftops surrounded by cafes filled with trendy Skopjeans drinking coffees and smoking cigarettes as they watched each other watching each other. It’s the best part of town and I begin to think Skopje has, after all, some architectural beauty left after its devastating earthquake of 1963.

The huge city park is a stones throw away and we wander the overgrown paths and benches disappearing into tall grass. Ben marvels that it somehow feels like we are walking through his parents youth. The eastern european light with its thin hazy quality is so different to the bright Australian light and everything looks like a Hipstamatic photograph. Patches of white and yellow daisies crop up here and there, birds twitter in romance, little children run through a hedged maze and fluffy things spin through the air like snow. Ben cannot stop sneezing. Past the 1970s kiosks and peanut vendors with their striped awnings and the man selling ruby-red toffee apples we come across a dilapidated and fading ‘Luna Park’ Straight out of some Socialist-era brochure for fun, we are amazed at the flaking ferris wheel, the fairy floss maker, the octopus rocket ship ride spinning up and down, the children squealing with glee. It is waiting to be photographed. It is so weird. Ben stands in the same spot for 30 minutes, ready for an interesting subject to fall into frame.

Waking up after a disturbed sleep by Paloma who, prior to our trip slept through the night from 10pm to 8am, now needs to have a little party with me at 3am. Every night. She is so gorgeous to us that I really don’t mind when I see her little face brighten up when she looks at me in the dark for a feed. At 7am Ben brings me a coffee and we have breakfast on the balcony overlooking the broken roofs of the houses below and the rugged mountains which ring Skopje. In the near distance Reggae is booming from the park. The annual Bob Marley Festival is on and we join the throngs of Skopje youth on this beautiful hot summery Tuesday for beer, hacky sack and joints! Having felt much trepidation at letting anyone else hold Paloma, as my Polish born mother and Ben’s German mother have both passed on to us, the old european fear about ‘gypsies running off with your baby’, I am forced to give in as she is practically snatched from us anyway and into the arms of Natasha and her friends, dancing and swirling around me, like hippies returned from Woodstock.

‘Golupka! Golupka! Golupka!!!’ a chanting chorus of her new Macedonian name, meaning ‘dove’ or more accurately ‘pigeon’. It is also the most famous brand of tissue, so common that hay-fever-striken people here frequently ask one another to ‘pass me a Paloma’. Toilet paper has also already been named after our child, proving she is a hit.

Within a few days of being in this country, she is interviewed for A1 Skopje, the biggest T.V station in Macedonia by a camera crew taking opinions on Bob Marley. All afternoon she is offered beer and passed round like a new toy. For a time I sit on the red painted wrought iron park bench to feed her, that little expectant mouth trusting that I will provide all she needs, breastfeeding is a beautiful thing, a bond so strong I feel we are constantly communicating telepathically, as I did when I was pregnant with her. Young mothers stop and speak to me expecting me to understand them, I wonder if I look Macedonian, we play charades to understand each other, smile and nod.

Ben, after many meetings with officials and even a session with the Health Minister for Macedonia, is finally ‘working’ and riding along on the ambulances here. The start of his project, Mondo Ambo, his experiences working on ambulances around the world. His intention is to write a book but also make a documentary about his adventures. The manager for the Ambulances here in Skopje is the same age as him and has been working on them since she was 19 years old, her reservations being that he may show the ‘true colours’ of Macedonian health system, a worry shared by her board of directors. It seems to be a very private, conservative and closed culture in many ways, despite the efforts of the youth to oppose these things. But Ben somehow charms every official he meets in pursuit of his inside view.

Before we left Sydney, Ben tried to make contacts and find out information about this Gypsy festival, Ederlezi, which our friend Garth Cartwright told us about and had detailed in his book about Romany music. We were expecting an occasion starting in Gypsy peoples houses and ending in a huge street festival filled with bonfires, trumpet playing, geese running and roasting meat. Like an Emir Kusturicia film, or so we hoped. Natasa, Peco her father, Ben, Paloma and I set off to Shutka in high spirits to find this long-awaited festival. Oh the disappointment. The streets we filled with cavorting Roma youths wearing denim jeans, boy band tee shirts, with bleached mohicans and chain necklaces! Asking about Ederlezi on each street corner, Peco would shake his head, Natasha would translate ‘It’s not on this year.’ WHAT!! ‘Yes, they don’t really make a fuss about St. George anymore, come back wedding season.’ Damn! We wandered the dusty streets, looking into the faces of the ever curious Roma that did not evoke the colourful nomads of old with their head-scarfed mammas in layers of long skirts surrounded by geese or the bowler-hatted trumpet-playing men. Instead it was all long fake nails, cheap fluro printed dresses and bootlegged Adidas costumes.

We left to drown our disappointment in Rakia. To raise our spirits again Natasa and Peco took us to a little church, perched high up on a hill above the city. Wild roses grew here and there, gnarled ladies puffed up the hill clutching tapered candles wrapped in paper. A long line wound down out from the small church room covered wall to wall with byzantine icons of Jesus, Mary and many saints. Dusty chandileres hung haphazardly from the ceiling, a faint scent of frankincense permeated the walls. Lighting my posy of candles, I send up prayers for Paloma, my family and the world, I sunk the ends into the box of sand and water, glistening with many prayers and hopes from other people. Outside a circle had formed, the oldest grannies and grandpas linked arms and danced round and round to the warble of the Gypsy song and the wistful melody of the clarinet. Waving bunches of flowers and herbs in the air, they all knew their place in the world on St Georges Day.

‘Come, come SIT!’ beckoned another toothless lady, shoving a plate of grated cabbage and cucumber salad in front of me, she whipped Paloma out of my arms and forced a shot of Rakia down my throat. ‘Cheers!!!’ cried the drunk, slipping down the hill-side next to the old table we were seated round, splashing us with beef soup. Mountains of bread and home-made soup were placed in front of us and we all ate from the same bowl, sharing the Rakia round and dancing in our seats to the wonderful sounds and crazy atmosphere of the celebration. It did cheer us up and brought us a little closer to what we expected. ‘Boring!’ Natasa cried ‘Let’s go, I’m sick of these old people!!’

Over the last few weeks Ben has had some exciting and some ordinary experiences working on the ambulances. Just like at home, after each shift here I beg him to reveal the in’s and out’s of the job’s he goes to each day. ‘And then what happened, and then what happened!’ I’m always eager. ‘Well not much. Everyone just wants an injection for some simple complaint’. ‘No car crashes?’ I ask, surely there are many each day going by the chaotic way the ‘road rules’ are played out here. ‘Um no, there are no car crashes, they must be used to way everyone drives.’ Poor Ben, it’s a little tamer than he expected. Making the best of a bad situation is one of Ben’s wonderful qualities. ‘Come on!’ he rouses us awake ‘We’re going cherry picking!!’

One of Ben’s patients complained that she and her husband were too old to pick the cherries from her 10-foot cherry tree hanging over her home and so he packs Paloma and I off and into a taxi. Back we go to Shutka, the biggest Gypsy ghetto in the world. We arrive at a Roma house complete with lace curtains, crazy wall paper and life-size pictures of their children adorning the walls. The mamma looks like a younger version of Mother Teresa, who by the way, was born in Skopje. Ben bounds up the old rickety steel ladder and an hour later emerges from the fronds, covered in purple juice and with four huge bags of delicious sweet cherries.

Having adopted Paloma as her own and for the last 2 hours fussing over her and singing funny Gypsy songs to her it was time for us to leave. We were taken aback once again as our old lady friend began spitting on Paloma’s head, three times she did it, ‘Pttttf ptttttf pttttf’. It was not the first time this had occurred. In fact every where we go the old people spit on her head. Later we found out later it is a Balkan tradition to ward off the ‘evil eye’ and bless her for the future. She may smell pretty bad now, but at least she will always safe.

Adventure Macedonia!

A 48 hour journey door-to-door? The adventure begins!

The beautiful family all came to Sydney airport for coffee and Bon Voyages. The real deal of travel with a baby starts immediately. Ben got in line with our shiny new Alstermo-Bruk suitcases – mine Rio Red and his Bermuda Green – our huge pram bag, the camera bag and a few more on top. Seeing baby Paloma, a lovely Singapore Airlines lady beckoned us to the front of the ‘special queue’ and we were checked in and off for lunch before we knew it.

After the craziness of weeks leading up to our journey, all I could think about was getting comfy on the plane, headphones on, a Singapore Sling cocktail in hand and hours of movies ahead. Flying over our home and off to far away places was the best feeling of this much anticipated adventure with Paloma. All the dreams were in motion and the wondrous new year unfolding with the unexpected.

After countless hours flying halfway across the world via Singapore and Dubai, we stopped for a few at Istanbul. The Bosporus winding through the ancient city glistened below as we swooped in to touch down. The grand city beckoned us through the little window, the ultimate destination in conjuring up exotic escapades. “Let’s live here!” we cried in unison without even exiting the airport. No doubt the enormous platters of a thousand Turkish Delight varieties laid out to sample in the Airport’s “Old Bazaar’ tourist shop had something to do with it. Paloma with her little turtle head poking out of the baby carrier added an extra element of delight to the curious looks we were given. Adding to the appeal of our caravan we propped her up in the complimentary baggage trolley and wheeled her around. The airport photographer rushed over, snapping pictures like he was her personal paparazzi, other tourists stopped us for photos and once again, as so often has been the case with us, we ended up feeling like a tourist attraction in the place we were touring.

Immediately the faces of our fellow travelers changed as we waited for the bus to transport us to the plane bound for Skopje, Macedonia. The ancient complexion of a Macedonian priest peered out from under his tall felt hat as he too waited, cloaked in black shiny robes a golden necklace hung with an enormous cross bearing a painted porcelain portrait of Mary, in one hand an iphone and the other a cup of Gloria Jean’s iced coffee. A young man in a spray-on white tee shirt printed with a picture of a denim waist coat over another tee shirt lounged in acid-wash denim jeans. Our gate opened and with it a tide of people surged forth reminicent of the queuing system in India. The oldest couple, who moments before had been sitting peacefully next to the man with a face like a side of ham had now become wild and pushing younger passengers out of the way in a bid get on the bus first. Never mind the Aussie lass strapped up with baby and two pieces of hand luggage!

From the air we followed the coast line of Turkey on our big map, imagining returning to the little secluded beaches dotting the Black Sea. Tall mountains peaked with snow rose out of the clouds as we turned in land towards Macedonia. Lush thick fields of green patchworked across the land until the plane decended low enough to see farm houses with broken tiled roofs, a man crossing a field with a large flat carton of fresh eggs and blood-red poppies contrasting brightly with the grass. Like the good old days we crossed the tarmac on foot to the dilapidated terminal of Alexander the Great Airport. Once again, our fellow passengers practically ran off the plane tripping down the stairs and over to immigration. A hot and stuffy room filled with people, smoke and fluro lights greeted us. Feeling entirely dishevled at the 46th hour of our trip we took a place in the ‘queue’ and waited. Paloma, like most babies, picked up on the tension wafting through the room. She started to cry, rather rare for her, and all heads turned. Men with mafia faces looked like they wanted to silence us for good. Old grannies covered their ears. Young Russian models rolled their eyes, happy they were single. And magically, appearing out of nowhere, our guardian angel immigration official in fake Ray Bans whisked us to through and into the land of Macedonia.