The State Department warns American citizens traveling abroad to avoid local political manifestations and any place where Americans or Westerners are known to congregate. I broke both of these rules last week.
My transgressions – well, at least one of my transgressions – were not on purpose, mind you. The first was in Struga, a resort town on the border with Albania, where the ruling Albanian party named its new party president. I didn’t find out about the changeover until I was actually in Struga and saw Albanian flags everywhere. It’s hard to explain the experience of watching NATO helicopters land on the beach as locals carry out the business of ordinary resort life, the sounds of vendors selling ice cream and kids splashing around in the water interrupted by the earthquake-like tremors of military helicopters just yards away. It was a strange scene. If it weren’t for the rocky beaches, the men in Speedos, and the NATO helicopters, I could easily have mistaken Lake Ohrid for Lake Michigan.
To add to the bizarre events, later on in the evening both outgoing and incoming party presidents marched through our hotel in a large procession. In effect, the political event came to me as I sat on the hotel terrace and played cards with the members of our executive board.
The second of my transgressions took place on the 4th of July. My colleagues at the office had been teasing me about how I would spend the holiday, to which I responded, “I’ll camp outside the American Corner all day.” (The American Corner is the section of Bitola where the town’s movie theater and jazz café are located. There’s also a booth where locals can find information about study abroad programs in the United States.) We then decided to attend a jazz concert later on in the evening.
If my decision to attend a jazz concert on the 4th seems careless, especially at a time when Americans are warned to keep a low profile while traveling abroad, it is incredibly difficult not to be comfortable in Bitola. Most Macedonians have at least one relative in the States (or in Canada), and it’s not uncommon for these relatives to travel back to Macedonia for the summer. Once, while wearing a University of Michigan t-shirt, a teen working at one of the local internet cafes asked me if I had ever been to Petoskey. She explained to me that she had visited northern Michigan while on vacation with an uncle who lives in Detroit. She then rattled off six or seven recommendations for ice cream parlors in Traverse City and on Mackinac Island. Small world, indeed.
The jazz concert was good, although the 4th of July celebration was likely sparked by a desire to have a fun time rather than a desire to commemorate American independence. I came to this conclusion after the owner of the venue explained to me that he would much rather see Macedonia join a federation with the Latin American states than the European Union. When I asked why, he answered, “Because Latin America knows how to party.”
That’s exactly how Bitolans are: they like to party. The main street in town, named in honor of Tito, was once described to me as a river that carries locals from café to café. It’s an accurate description. Bitolans, young and old alike, spend the evenings walking from one end of the street to the other, only stopping for the occasional beer, coffee, or conversation. This ritual takes place every night, except for maybe Mondays. As I have been informed, “only the real alcoholics go out on Mondays.”
So, there I was, on July 4th, on Josip Broz Tito Street, listening to jazz and celebrating American independence. Tito would be proud.
Posted By Katie Wroblewski (Macedonia)
Posted Jul 9th, 2014