I wrote the following while in Skopje this summer:
"Skopje is a façade of a city: it’s lovely but also a tad sketchy, the people are young and friendly but also confused about why you’re there- and there are these giant statues that look like something out of Gladiator: nobody seems to like them all that much. Now, if there’s one thing I never thought I’d say it’s that I’ve spent a night in Macedonia. That said, my night in Skopje was an interesting one.
Our walking tour, though perhaps poorly timed and a bit like pulling teeth after we’d all sat on a cramped non-air conditioned bus all day, was fascinating. I appreciated that the very first thing we did upon arriving was go to the fortress- something we’ve seen in every city we’ve visited. At one point someone asked why all of these cities had fortresses to which someone else dryly responded “because they’re always at war”.
Eventually our tour guide brought us to a mosque which we were told we could enter as is. Had I been alone I would have stayed outside- I always cover my hair when I visit a mosque, and while I was dressed appropriately I was by no means dressed respectfully, nor were any of the other women in our group. Despite the hesitation of many, our group was ushered inside and asked to sit down around our tour guide, a Macedonian, who proceeded to quietly give us the history of the mosque. A father and his three sons prayed on the other side of the room. I wanted to leave.
That experience made me feel more uncomfortable and guilty than anything else has this trip. I’ve had people glare at me on the street and try to overcharge me at bars because I’m American but I had never given them a reason to disrespect me. Walking into that mosque made me disrespectful. Many places are more relaxed about the state of dress inside a mosque but walking inside with my tangled sweaty hair falling down my shoulders felt rude and intrusive- as though I was treating the mosque like some kind of spectacle. Like I was at a fish tank tapping on the glass.
The city as a whole feels somewhat like a movie set- I expected to look out and break the fourth wall every time we turned a corner. The statues of Skopje are something else; they unapologetically loom over the city with an imposing sense of royalty and nationalism. Though I suppose they’re doing their job then, since instilling a sense of national pride is their intended purpose. The statues and the overall atmosphere of the city made me feel like our group was in one of those short films where nothing really happens- like we were doomed to wander the streets of Skopje until the director yelled ‘cut’."
Skopje remains the most quietly fascinating place I've ever been. The city is in the midst of a 'colorful revolution' following a series of protests against the current president. This means that the statues and buildings I mention above are all splattered with various paint blotches as instead of resorting to violent action protestors are defacing the patriotic symbols that have been imposed on them. Read more about it here