Skopje, Macedonia

We had a choice this week: Spend the long weekend at home here in Sofia, or see a new country?

How easy it used to be when the kids were little, to convince them to go on a weekend trip just by promising we’d stay in a hotel! Now there are questions: “Why? What is there to do there? Does the hotel have a key card?”

The hotel never has a key card, which they should know by now because their Mom never books hotels with key cards! But the real reason why? BECAUSE! We’ll see something new and have dinner in a restaurant, and listen to music in the car! You can eat the whole bag of gummy bears!

There was a little bit of grumbling but I think the weekend in Macedonia turned out okay. The hotel had a dumbwaiter to bring up breakfast, and where else would you find all these giant statues?? There were a lot of bridges too, lit by what seemed like an enormous number of street lamps….

Skopje is only a few hours away from Sofia, but very different in its religion, history, and economic development. Officially it’s North Macedonia, because the Greeks claim true Macedonia is located in Greece. Fair enough. North Macedonia and Greece share a typical neighborly dislike, but Macedonia and Turkey are pretty good friends. They are both Muslim descendants of the Ottoman Empire, with calls to prayer and carpets and giant trays of baklava.

Oddly though, Skopje’s biggest statue is a giant Orthodox Cross overlooking the city from the top of the hill. It is huge, at 217 ft tall! Symbolic of the controversy surrounding the city’s aggressive “modernization through statues,” it’s also not super friendly toward the Catholics and Muslims that call Skopje Home.

Analyzing the architecture aside, it was nice to walk along the river, dip into side streets, have lunch, and wander through the Old Town. The Corn Guy was selling hot corn on the cob, a beer festival filled the main square with music, and there were tons of outdoor cafes and little shops selling normal life things.

On the opposite side of the river is the Ottoman part, reminiscent of Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar. Since the 12th century, its labyrinth of narrow alleys have sold jewelry, carpets, dresses, and served as a gathering place for an afternoon of shopping and smoking. There are carts selling ice cream, men playing cards, and families sitting at tables under the trees, feeding their children grilled meat and french fries.

A castle looks over the city, crumbling now, but with a huge footprint that suggests past grandeur. We ran around the ramparts and just barely beat a wicked thunderstorm, before tucking into a restaurant that was blasting 80’s music and selling Home Brew. The food was pretty bad and the beer was the worst Mike or I have ever tasted (?), but it was still a perfect night to sit beneath ancient castle walls and watch the rain.

Can you find Jake and Eli in this picture? Note the giant statues… these things are really everywhere….

The beer festival blew up a few giant beers for shade. These ladies took shelter beneath the beer when the afternoon got hot.

The biggest surprise of the trip was realizing Mother Teresa was from Macedonia. Small and unassuming but full of power and energy, it was a blessing to visit her museum, see the story of her life, and feel her spirit. That probably sounds weird to some people but it was uplifting and warm to me, and I’m so grateful we made time to go.

I know in the back of mind that we don’t have too many of these trips left. Long road trips, on a destination to somewhere or the middle of nowhere, have been the threads of our life these last 14 years. Now I feel like I’m counting them. Each one is precious, each one is an opportunity to add something good or something bad to the string of memory. Sometimes I think if we made fewer memories, we’d have fewer bad ones too. The fighting in the car and the grumbling about packing and missing friends… those would not happen. Maybe I’m the fool for making them do things?

Or maybe one day they’ll remember Mother Teresa and think twice as they decide what matters in life. How will this experience show up down the road? Is what I’m doing right or a big mistake?

Or maybe, all of that is overthinking. Because that outcome is not up to me.