You Can’t Go Home Again

When I moved to Skopje, Macedonia in November 2002, it looked like this:

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And this:

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And this:

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It was a real city.

Orwell said that by the time you’re 40 you have the face you deserve. Skopje’s face was almost exactly that old when I arrived in 2002. In July 1963 an earthquake had destroyed 80 percent of Skopje’s buildings and killed more than 1,000 people. Famously, the clock at the railway station, which cracked in two, stayed fixed at the precise time of the quake, 5:17.

So the Skopje I landed in in 2002 consistedly mostly of what had been built up since 1963 by Tito’s socialist government, when Macedonia was still part of Yugoslavia. Except for some of the city’s UNESCO-worthy old bones, like the Stone Bridge, built in the 14th century by a Serbian Czar, the Skopje that presented itself to the eye in 2002 was a utilitarian but not quite brutalist downscale provincial capital—lots of rectangular midrise apartment blocks fitted out in plain red brick or weathered, no-color plaster. As I took it all in, the gray November sky hung low with clouds, coal smoke, and car fumes.

I didn’t care. I had come to meet a girl.

You don’t need the long version of the lead-in, but I was 36, just coming off the most depressing year of my life—really the only depressing year of my life. I had been mobilized as a reservist after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, but instead of contributing anything useful to the national cause, I was relegated to shuffling papers and pulling guard duty in the middle of the night in Stuttgart, Germany. Necessary things, I suppose, but I rankled at being ordered away from my fulltime job, where I believed I actually was making a difference using my brain.

Other things made that year a trying one too, but I need not go into them. To summarize the feel of the time: listen to “Stop Crying Your Heart Out” by Oasis four times straight through. That was me in a good mood.

But the old, familiar love of life started to peek through a crack in the clouds a few months before my year-long mobilization was up. My civilian employer rang me up in Stuttgart and offered me my choice of jobs to return to, and I took one in Kosovo. I had struck up an online conversation with a girl in Skopje, which was only an hour away from the U.S. base in Kosovo where my new job would be. Instead of just flying into Skopje for a weekend to get to know this creature in the usual way, I figured I would go big and just move there.  So that’s what I did.

The day I arrived, I caught a taxi to the big parking lot across from the Holiday Inn. It was the one landmark in Skopje that an inexperienced foreigner could be expected to find. The girl was there, right on time, in front of the Gradski Trgovski  Centar, or City Shopping Center. I would find out later that Skopje had a couple other shopping centers with the kind of focus-grouped, commercial-sounding names you would expect them to have—”Pearl,” “Beverly Hills,”—but standing in front of the eponymous Trgovski Centar that day, my first wry impression was of the old socialist mindset that simply named a thing exactly what it was, no matter how simple or unlovely—Shoe Factory Number Five, Central Police Station, that sort of thing.

The girl, though, was a work of art. She had cut-diamond ice blue eyes and was dressed from about two shelves above me. As we sat down to coffee, she began to pre-empt me in a discussion of Balkans politics, a move that sort of back-footed me. First those eyes seemed to guard something unattainable, then she was starting to beat me at my own game conversation-wise. A studious type, the only way I could ever impress a foreigner, especially one from south or east of the Danube, was to flash some pieces of expert knowledge about their country. It didn’t really work that day, at least as far as I could tell.

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The City Shopping Center

Well, even in a gleaming new airplane, takeoff can be the choppiest part. So I just decided to relax a little and be guided around Skopje by this beautiful, shining creature. We walked through the city for about six hours that day. After lunch, we saw the Macedonian Parliament building, a thoroughly socialist, utilitarian hulk with a massive brown marble facade and a blocky portico like a slightly oversized carport.

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Macedonian Parliament Building

Crossing the Vardar River, we were accosted by Roma, or what we used to call Gypsies before political correctness squelched the word. After a time we arrived at the cracked, blinding-white concrete and marble quad of my future love’s old university. Her father professed economics there. The university was named for Cyrill and Methodius, two Macedonian saints who fashioned the Cyrillic alphabet, which I had been studying diligently before my arrival.

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The quad at St. Cyrill and Methodius University

As the day went gloriously on, the slogging physical effort of our long urban tour began to wear down the inhibitions of a first date. I loosened up a little, and a few of my jokes got through, or at least I thought they did. Although I couldn’t quite read this sparkling thing—now pointing out the Old Turkish Castle, now the Macedonian Meteorological Station—I reached the vague judgment at the end of the day that she would not have joined me in so long a march had she found me entirely despicable. That was something.

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Front of the “old” Government

We ended the day by strolling past the offices of the central government, from where the prime minister and his cabinet ran Macedonia. The small cluster of buildings was modest, shading toward shabby, randomly placed air conditioners jutting from windows on the backside, trailing rusty streaks down the sides of the buildings. I took that humble appearance as a virtue, a sign that Macedonia’s most powerful politicians could go about their business without having to plume it in finery. Governments usually took appearances over the top, and I liked it that Macedonia’s masters didn’t.

Just past the Government, with dusk coming on, the sparkling thing deposited me chastely outside my hotel, a rustic, wooden affair on the edge of Skopje’s large city park (yes, Gradski Park—what else?).

Later, in the years after the sparkling thing and I married, in a fairytale ceremony in an old Orthodox Church heavily perfumed with incense, we would frequently walk two new beautiful creatures through Skopje City Park, in baby carriages. I had no premonition on that cold November day that I would become a part of the landscape and indeed add to the inhabitants that brought it delightfully to life.

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Skopje City Park

With massive old shade trees towering 60 feet into the sky, the City Park was at its quiet best in August, I thought, when folks who could afford a vacation were away and everyone staying home in Skopje simply found it too hot to be outside. We would walk, the three of us (then the four of us), under the trees, almost always making our way to the Luna Park. The Luna Park was a chintzy old collection of children’s rides that cost 50 cents. It was a Skopje institution. A few of its rides were too old to work anymore, but the ones that still did were a kids’ paradise. There was also a cafe for parents. If you went often enough to the Luna Park, you would eventually run into everyone you knew in Skopje, and we did.

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The Luna Park

Friends and comrades, if you’re enjoying the gooeyness of my love story—and I know I am—it is with regret that I will revert somewhat to form now. You’ve seen just enough of my heart to understand what comes next—politics and my usual carping about failures of the human spirit.

As I fell in love in Skopje and became part of a family there, I also fell in love with Skopje and, in a certain sense, I became part of its family. A nomad, I don’t have a single place I can call home, but Skopje is undoubtedly one of them. A part of me will always belong to the place. I bought its shoes, used its shoes to walk its streets, walked its streets to buy its vegetables, and brought its vegetables home to big Sunday lunches, always commenced with glasses of rakia, usually concluded with three hours of television news. This cozy nesting happened in and around two mid-rise apartment blocks—ours and the beautiful thing’s parents’—one red brick, the other no-color plaster. No longer a mere observer of the cityscape, I felt very much at home there.

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Olive vendors at the main green market

One night early in our marriage when our first born woke up at two with a fever, hot as a potato, we didn’t know what to do. We called the sparkling thing’s mom two buildings away, and she told us where to find the all-night clinic. Away we went. As I sat in the clinic half an hour later, reassured by the doctor about what to do, actually able to understand her talk in Macedonian, I became convinced I was in a nice place. How good that one could pop down the street a mere five minutes away, walk up the steps of a drab old building and open the door to a brightly-lit all-night clinic dispensing well-being to one’s babies. To adapt Kingsley Amis’s droll understatement, I liked it there.

Indeed Skopje became my favorite city. It was perhaps the most useable place I have ever lived. No matter what you wanted—fresh greens, office supplies, coffee with a friend, flourescent light tube for the lamp above the stove—you could walk to get it. Skopje’s grittiness actually became part of its charm as I discovered the city offered comforts, quirks, and conveniences that no car-bound citizen of, say, greater Washington D.C. could even dream of. I really liked it there.

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Macedonian National Bank

In 2006, the year we left Macedonia for Germany, a young, center-right nationalist named Nikola Gruevski won the elections and became prime minister. At first he was a breath of fresh air. Gruevski’s predecessors, Macedonia’s Social Democrats, had governed the country since the denouement of a small but bloody ethnic insurgency in 2001. Although they hadn’t done a particularly bad job of governing, they had made no measurable progress on Macedonia’s main, and emotionally charged goal of being recognized by its consitutional name, the Republic of Macedonia.

(Although most countries recognize Macedonia by its chosen name, Greece claims all names”Macedonian” derive inviolably from Greek culture and may not be expropriated for foreign use. In clubs such as the EU and NATO, where Athens wields a veto vote, it continues to block Macedonia’s membership under its consitutional name.)

The young Gruevski’s predecessors, the Social Democrats, were a party that had simply been rebranded from Yugoslavia’s permanent governing class of Socialists. As such, they gave off the air of an established elite who thought they could stay in power just by marking time. They had nothing of what Mark Twain would call go. Gruevski’s election win in 2006 was a repudiation of their attitude.

As a politician, Gruevki has proven incredibly wily. He has taken the Macedonians’ very legitimate grievances about being poor, being kept out of clubs that would help them, and lacking a name they can use freely, and he has turned them into a durable support base. The support, though, is less for a concrete political agenda than for a grandiose spectacle of political theater. Gruevski has not given Macedonians their name, but he has channeled their frustrations into a nationalist delusion that would accept cheap substitutes.

Well, cheap is perhaps not the best word. In 2010, Gruevski decided to renovate Skopje—massively. He called his idea Skopje 2014. He would dress Macedonia’s capital out in the finery it deserved. By 2014, he said he would complete a series of behemoth building projects and public works of art that would magnify and pay proper tribute to Macedonia’s national roots. No one was quite sure where the project was headed, but it had plenty of go.

It began with a statue. No one knows how much it cost, but there now stands a 22-meter (80 ft) high bronze sculpture of a “Warrior on a Horse” in Skopje’s main square. It stares across the old Stone Bridge at an equally imposing statue of Phillip, King of Macedon. Macedonia’s Albanians, desireous of their own national idol, got a statue too: a smaller but still impressive statue of Skenderbeg, their ancient hero, which now stands in a revovated old market area just north of the city square.

There are many more statues in Skopje now. A city that was once dotted with a few modernist oddities and lifesized busts of Partisans now juts with so many sculptures of warriors on horses so large and so lifelike that debate had to be taken up at one point on how accurately to render a raring horse’s genitals.

But the statues were only the frills of Skopje 2014. The heart of the project was the construction of more than 20 new buildings, many of them gigantic, all of them grandiose. Macedonia’s palatial new Justice Ministry building appears capable of solemnly imposing

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The newer, grander Government

law on all the civilized world. The Foreign Ministry could house the overeseers of an empire larger than Spain’s and Britain’s at their height. (In fact, Macedonia has a modest 40 embassies abroad.) The central government buildings–whose modesty I admired back in 2002–got a multimillion dollar facelift as well, all incandescent white alabaster look-alike, with Grecian columns.

The overall effect of the dazzling new buildings is a pastiche of Hapsburgian solidity, Baroque finery, and themepark kitsch. It belies a loss—indeed an abdication—of all sense of history or proportion. Had aliens landed in Skopje with mad plans to mock man’s political sense of self through buildings, they could not have outdone Gruevski.

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Skopje today, a political theme park of kitsch

As the clamorous strains of a Wagner opera build, vaulting and threatening to burst the score, Skopje 2104 fed on its own grandisoity and grew far beyond its intended scope. Two years past its target completion date now, the number of buildings and monuments it envisioned has more than tripled. No one knows how much it has all cost, but well-informed journalists on the spot make their best estimate at €560 million, seven times the original estimate.

I need hardly say what comes next: it is a near certainty that much of this money has gone to fill the pockets of the politicians and dealmakers who have driven Skopje 2014. While I believe firmly and stoically that corruption is a normal, inevitable part of political pork, and can even be tolerated as a

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Skopje’s “Triumphal Arch”

transaction cost as long as it is minimized, the sheer scale of corruption enabled by Skopje 2014 is shameful in a country as poor as Macedonia. The people simply do not have the money to spare for a 100-foot marble “Triumphal Arch” and by the way, what fucking triumph?

In August of this year, 21 people died in flash floods on Skopje’s west side, which is graced with no towering monuments, no grand new buildings. Its cracked streets lacked proper drainage, and the water rose to one and a half meters high, drowning some of the victims in their cars. For months now, Macedonians have been protesting in Skopje at the mad injustice that has been foisted on their country, which helped kill those 21 people and which has slathered Macedonia’s international image over with a thick layer of kitsch.

My complaints are of a smaller scale, though. I no longer have the city to go back to where I met the dazzling thing and produced two beautiful new creatures with her.

The resulting aesthetic of Skopje 2014 is deeply undignified. No adult person would wish to have her city done up from top to bottom in the vainglorious baubles that predominate Skopje today. One or two well thought out statues might have been tolerable, but now to stroll through the city center is to be subjected to a garishly lit juvenile fantasy of Napoleonic grandeur transplanted to a place that shares none of its dimensions or history. Nothing about Skopje 2014 fits.

At the age of 40, Skopje had the face it deserved. I am not saying it was perfect, or deserved to be frozen in time. All things change. Skopjans themselves would be the first to say they needed better roads, sidewalks and drain pipes. And why not some nice new buildings?–all in good time. But the gaudy face they have been given is one carved up overnight by plastic surgery. It is not the face they would have grown into.

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Skopje-Kapistec, where we lived for four years

For me, the defacement of Skopje means that I cannot go home again. The core of familial love is still there, but my visual memories of the place, which I share with my wife and her family and our two daughters, have been robbed of the scenes that produced them. Deeper, the city itself has been robbed of authenticity. My Skopje was gritty and struggling, even glum in places, but comfortable in its own skin.

In the end, my melancholy does not matter. I am just a galivanting foreigner who came to town for four years and then left with one of the country’s more promising daughters.

But I do feel a measure of pity for the people of Macedonia, who worked their $300-a-month jobs for years and paid their taxes, only to see their money disappear down a deep well of corruption and then gush forth in the form of the baroque monstrosities that now tower over their public spaces. They did not ask for it.  Many of them must be thinking even they cannot go home again.

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