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.