I say this about nearly every country, but I was particularly excited to go to Macedonia. For one, this would be both my first Slavic country, and my first country that uses the Cyrillic alphabet. For the previous year and a half, I had been learning Russian, and daily study had made it so that Cyrillic was second nature to me. Not only that, but I was anxious to see if my Russian would help me understand some other Slavic languages, or at least if I would be able to converse with some locals who knew Russian as a second language.
First, we headed to our hostel, about halfway between the bus station and the downtown, and were able to lock our bags in provided lockers before heading off to dinner. Phillip, the receptionist at the hostel, gave us very in-depth directions on what we should see in the morning, and where to get dinner. He pointed us to the street north of the bus station, where many restaurants would (hopefully) be open. We left the hostel and chose to eat at the chalet-modeled “Gostilnica La Tana” in the neighborhood Phillip suggested.
We order drinks and appetizers. A cat wanders in as we sip our Ckopcko beer, and eat our deep-fried olives, feta, and bread. This is a lovely country and everyone is happy to talk. As we eat our appetizers, a band with an accordion and acoustic guitar play polka versions of 80s hits. The waiter, a friendly heavyset man, takes our orders for the main course.
“What is the most Macedonian thing you sell?”
“Everything. Everything on this menu Macedonian.”
“Ok, then what’s your favorite thing on the menu?” I inquired curiously.
“I really like the cheeseburger.”
We order a sausage, and a piece of chicken with some cheese on it, but nothing lives up to the appetizer course. As we leave, we tell the waiter that we’re bringing deep-fried olives back home. He writes in his notepad a bill for 200 Euro, and tells us to pay him if the trend every catches on. We shiver on the short walk to the hostel, and I sit down to do my evening work in the common area. I am writing a thoroughly half-assed blog post about “the importance of music” for the second class I am taking, “Intro to Mass Communications,” when my father steps in from the hall, and we begin talking about the day’s observations. Phillip, the same hostel worker from earlier, begins telling us just about everything about Macedonia, its recent history and politics. He is 20 years old, like me, and studying international relations in college. He tells us that the reason Macedonia is officially called the “Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia” is due to Greece’s persistence in claiming the name Macedonia.
“Everything is politics,”he says. “A lot of people agreed, but because they said no, we could not be Macedonia.”
The following morning was a blur of monuments and statues. At one point, we walked to a statue in the north side of town, realized we were trying to get to another statue only to find that the actual statue we were looking for was on the opposite corner, but was an almost exact statue as the one we were at. The historical highlights of the morning were the Kale fortress, which still looms high over the city of Skopje, and the Old Bazaar neighborhood where a hungry backpacker can get a piece of baklava for 40 cents.
After a lunch of a mixed grill and salad in a quiet-but-warm restaurant, we walked along the city’s river, stopping at a couple of the city’s bridges, and several pirate ship-modeled buildings before stopping at a string of book-stands before going to the bus station to buy tickets for our 5 o’clock jaunt to Thessaloniki. When we got there around 2:30, they told us we would not be able to buy tickets until 4, and so we found a coffee shop in the neighborhood we ate dinner at the night before, where I wrote out some quick blog posts before going to catch our bus.
At the station, for the third time in 24 hours, we were able to purchase our tickets a hair after 4pm. With an hour to kill, we went into a mini market, where I was greeted with a sight that had eluded me for several years: the prized foodie trophy of Fanta Shokata. Several years ago, I was browsing an r/snackexchange thread about a particular type of Fanta soda that was not sold anywhere but Eastern Europe. It piqued my interest. Elsewhere on the internet, I was able to find a handful of people who also loved this elderflower-lemon soda, and I wondered: what does elderflower taste like? I looked to see if maybe a market in New York imported it. The closest I could find was an international foods market in Chicago. Perhaps one could buy it on Amazon? To buy it in the United States, it would cost over $20. My search was without a feasible option, so I put the idea away until I just at that moment: bam! Fanta Shokata. It pretty much just tasted like lemon, but there was definitely something else going on there. People seem to be militant about this soda online though, so if you happen to be in Eastern Europe, try it yourself! But don’t be one of those weird people who spends $25 to get less than 2 liters of soda shipped to your door in Texas. You’re better than that.
We boarded the bus to Thessaloniki, and met a mother-daughter pair from Kansas who were making a weekend Greece trip from Skopje, where the daughter taught as an educator for the Fulbright program.
Victor Bernabei is just another millenial travel blogger. But here's the twist: He isn't a millenial! His goal is to see as many countries as he can, and spread the message that the world is not as scary as the news wants you to believe, and that there is beauty in all people, places and things.