REVISITING
SKOPJE

DIGITAL ESSAY
by Alexander Shpato


REVISITING SKOPJE

DIGITAL ESSAY
by Alexander Shpatov

 

My first memory from Skopje is of a paralyzing toothache. Some friends and I had hopped over for Taksirat 2012, but we got held up on the border, so we had to go directly from the hostel to the concert. On our way back from the venue, we got “megaburgers” at the all-night fast-food joint at the train station (with an unprecedented three pleskavitsi or meat patties, instead of the usual one). I had to open my mouth so wide to bite into it that an hour later my wisdom tooth was aching. I couldn’t sleep at all. At sunrise I left the hostel and started searching for a pharmacy to get painkillers.

On that wintry Sunday morning, nothing was open yet, there was nobody on the streets I could ask, so I killed the next three hours wandering around the various sights of Skopje, or least those along the Vardar—my only point of reference in that city, which I had just set foot in for the first time. Around nine, a few shops started opening. I recall that I bought a bottle of water, but my tooth was already hurting so badly that I couldn’t even open my mouth to take a sip. So when I saw a working pharmacy next to a church on the other side of the Stone Bridge, it seemed like a little Christmas miracle to me.

The pharmacist told me that she had studied in Bulgaria, so she was able to understand me no problem. I poured Aulin in the bottle and somehow managed to drink it. I immediately felt relief. In the meantime I saw a sign with the name of the church and remembered that on Easter I had watched a video on Facebook about the miraculous glow of all saints’ halos. I went into St. Dimitar’s church, Sunday mass was in full swing. Of all the people there, I was the only one paying attention to the “old news” of the glowing halos on the otherwise smoke-darkened frescoes. The mass was in Church Slavic and on the whole was pretty much the same as in Bulgaria. Right then, however, they started reading the gospel. In pure literary Macedonian.

I’m not going to touch on the debate about the Bulgarian and Macedonian language, let’s leave that to the realm of diplomacy. I will simply admit the obvious—to the ear accustomed to Bulgarian, everything in Macedonian sounds terribly funny. Even a serious book like the Bible. But the opposite is also true—perhaps for the first time I realized this there in St. Dimitar’s. There was no way the gospel could be read in standard Bulgarian (even though little more than a century ago, the Skopjians themselves were fighting with the Grecophiles precisely over this). For everyone besides me, it would have sounded absurd and ridiculous. To the ear accustomed to Macedonian, everything in Bulgarian sounds terribly funny as well.

Incidentally, when I was little, my father taught me fractions with the following problem—he would quiz me about my grandparents’ family trees and then would make me calculate what percentage Macedonian I actually am. The answer—my paternal grandfather’s parents (from a village near Kostur, now Kastoria in Greece) and my maternal grandmother’s mother (from Resen). One fourth plus one eighth. 25% + 12.5%, or 37.5% in total.

So it was completely natural that when in 2019, the opportunity arose to go on a writer’s residence in North Macedonia, I didn’t hesitate for an instant. I wanted to feel that 37.5% more fully, to get acquainted with Macedonian language a little better, and at the end of the day—to try living in Skopje, the nearest European capital to my Sofia.

I arrived during an unimaginable heat that stuck to my clothes the second I poked my nose outside. For that reason, I more or less only went out to go to the store, and the rest of the time I watched Macedonian television, tried to grasp the logic of the Macedonian alphabet and spelling (at a certain point I got used to the absence of Ъ, the Bulgarian schwa, even in words without a single vowel, such as tvrd “hard” or tsvrst “firm,” and streamed the show “Prespa,” which I found funnier and funnier, now not only because of the language itself. It took me some time, of course, to figure out that in Macedonian vreden actually means “useful” (and not “harmful” as in Bulgarian), which struck me as one of the best metaphors for all of the arguments between Bulgaria and North Macedonia.

One of the first Skopje natives I met over a beer was Duško Krstevski—the translator of almost all contemporary Bulgarian writers. And again because of the language dispute, the more precise word when it comes to poetry, he explains to me, is not prevodach “translator,” but prepeyuvach “re-singer or transposer”—not someone who translates, but rather who sings something in a new key, at least that’s how I understood this “transposition” or re-singing from Bulgarian into Macedonian. An elegant way for the world of literature to escape from the world of diplomacy. Our Skopsko beer went down very smoothly.

On a quick evening walk I made the rounds of the sites around the Vardar and the so-called Antique Disneyland, which in any case I had already seen on that winter Sunday with my paralyzing toothache. From then on, the real enjoyment for me began—the unfolding of the city. First, I got to know Debar Maalo, the neighborhood where my apartment was. With its pubs and bars, it turned out to be the true heart of the city.

Duško also clued me in to Silbo—every city has such an all-night place where you can always go for a quick bite. In #LiveFromSofia, my collection of short stories about Sofia, I had paid special attention to the sandwiches on Slaveykov Square, especially the legendary “princess toasts.” Well, for sure their equivalent in Skopje were the sandwiches at Silbo in Debar Maalo, in my one-month stay I must have eaten at least two dozen of them. By the way, right across from Silbo is the most Sofian spot in Skopje—the so-called Universal Hall, donated by Bulgaria after the big earthquake in 1963. It is an exact copy of the Sofia Circus, which burned down before I was born. (Its place at the Salt Market has long since been built over, yet traces of it still remain. In another city and another country.)

Soon I also reached Knizhevenia or “Literary” Boulevard. I had already met the writer Frosina Parmakovska at the book fair in Leipzig, and we had agreed to meet up at one of the bookstores there. She, Petar Andonovski and I sat down at one of the tables outside, and in a little over an hour I had the feeling that at least half the writers and publishers in North Macedonia had walked past us. This boulevard truly was literary!

From Petar I learned that the grave of the real Zorba the Greek was actually in Skopje. He promised to take me there, and on one of the following days of my residency we really did go to the local cemetery, which had been moved grave by grave and headstone by headstone after the big earthquake. I strolled through the graveyard—what better way for the city to unfold before you? You can get as much of a sense of the city there as from its biggest tourist attractions.

In the meantime, I had started to become something of a Skopje tour guide myself. All sorts of people had decided to visit me from Sofia, which in the end is only three hours away by car. First—a coworker who really wanted to see Mother Theresa’s house and pay homage to her (even while very young Adrian had chosen to become a Catholic).  Then, a Canadian guy I had met a bit earlier in Sofia. Daniel was traveling around the world and read one book from every country he visited. For Bulgaria, he had chosen the English translation of #LiveFromSofia, had gotten in touch with me for an autograph, and we became friends as I showed him around the better Sofia bars. He had already been to North Macedonia once, but he wanted to go again. I assumed that his choice of book would be one of the most famous Macedonian authors like Lidija Dimkovska or Goce Smilevski, but it turned out to be Spectator by Žarko Kujundžiski, whose publishing house was right across the street from my apartment. When I arrived, of course my host Vlado Yankovski had introduced me to Žarko as well, who in turn had given me a copy of Spectator in Macedonian (my personal primer in the language). Then I, in turn, hooked Daniel up for an autograph.

My girlfriend also came to visit. I already had my favorite spots, both in Debar Maalo, as well as in the Old Bazaar, and I finally had someone to share them with. On Friday of that same week, two carloads of friends also arrived so we could discover the nightlife of Skopje together (along with the crazy taxi drivers, of course). At the end of the night, I, in turn, introduced them to Silbo and began to truly feel like a local guide.

The time came for my public reading as part of the writer’s residency. I spent a long time wondering how to approach it; after all, my stories are about Sofia, and I didn’t think that topic would be particularly interesting to anyone in Skopje. Then the idea struck me: #LiveFromSofia starts with an introduction that lists all the everyday things, about a hundred in all, that a person can do to really experience the city. The link still shows up here and there around September 17—the city’s holiday, when Sofianites are most proud of their hometown. Why not do something similar for Skopje? At the end of the day, I already felt almost local, I had even become a guide for my friends; besides, a month-long residency is not such a short time at all (as much as I love to travel, before Skopje in 2019, I had never been absent from my home city for such a long time). With a little help from Duško, Frosina and Petar, here’s what we read at my presentation at the bookstore Antolog on Literary Boulevard, I think it is still valid even today:

Experience Skopje:

Cross the Vardar on the Stone Bridge,

stand on a balcony at night with a view of the neon cross on the peak,

climb Vodno the next day on foot, and as a reward—drink a can of Skopsko on the peak and then take a selfie with Skopje (as well as a counter-selfie from the towers of the Kale Fortress),

absorb the shock that is the Skopje 2014 building project, especially the flotilla of Alexander the Great in the river,

then have the requisite argument about neo-antique vs. brutalist architecture,

take a boat through the Matka Canyon,

stroll around the Old Bazaar by day,

bar crawl through Debar Maalo after 9 and as a finale—

go to an open-air disco in the City Park after midnight,

pay your respects at Gotse’s grave, then at Mother Theresa’s house, and finally at Zorba’s grave,

cheer for FC Vardar,  

at MZT vs Rabotnicki

or for your favorite bands at Taksirat every year,

see the clock at the old train station, frozen exactly at 5:17,

make a date at Rekord or on Macedonia Square,

celebrate Easter at St. Kliment,

take a Sunday stroll to St. Pantaleymon,

see the golden halos of the saints in St. Dimitar,

listen to the muezzins from the stereo-minarets on the north bank,

roller skate on the quay or bike everywhere,

buy a book from Literary Boulevard (the safest bet is from Ili Ili or Antolog),

enjoy morning tripe soup at Chamo, sausages at Tourist, a Debarmaalian sandwich at Silbo, boza at Apche, krofne at Krofnara Hrom, a drink at Long Play,

find friends here (not acquaintances)—this alone is more than enough, actually.

Translated into English by Angela Rodel.

Alexander Shpatov was born in 1985 in Sofia. He is a graduate of the American College of Sofia and the Sofia University Law School. Since 2019, he is a PhD student in Theory of Reading (again in Sofia University). He is the author of two short story collections: #LiveFromSofia (2014), available in both English and Bulgarian, and Volume 2.0 (2015), an updated joint reprint of his early works Footnotes (2005), Footnote Stories (2008, published also in German in 2011), and Calendar of Stories (2011). He has been awarded the National Best Fiction Debut Prize in 2005 and the Sofia Award for Literature in 2015. In 2020, Shpatov edited The First 20, an anthology of the best Bulgarian short stories of the new millennium. Currently, Shpatov is chairman of the Association for Small Urban Libraries, which aims to promote and encourage reading through various projects, such as Chitalnyata (a small independent library in the city garden of Sofia), campaigns for support of public libraries across Bulgaria, and guided literary tours. 

Photos: © Alexander Shpatov
Photo: Skopje City Museum © Diego Delso, delso.photo, License CC-BY-SA

Project Manager: Barbara Anderlič

Design: Beri

© 2022 Traduki