A Balkan Distraction

baris-100x100by Baris Celik

I won’t be surprised to see this month’s debate on thePriori focusing on the UK’s EU referendum results. I don’t call it ‘the Brexit referendum’, since I think such a phrase contains a bias towards leave. Last year, when the referendum became certain to be held, authorities decided to change the answers on the ballot paper from yes or no (‘yes’ representing the remain camp) to short sentences on remain or leave. I thought this was fair enough, but I’m uneasy with calling the whole process a ‘Brexit referendum’. The term ‘Brexit’ has so widely spread across the campaigning process that it became the ‘normal word’ of the entire campaigning period. Just another instigator of the June 24 result.

But these will be all I write about the referendum. From here, I will carry on by reflecting on my observations from my first trip to Balkans two weeks ago. But still, the Balkans, a region that is surrounded and even shaped by the debates about coexistence and isolation of different identities, is more or less related to what Europe discusses today. There are various communities in the region – be them ethnic, economic or religious. Over the course of history, they grew less willing to live together than the rest of Europe. The concept of ‘integration’ influenced them in a different way: They did not establish an outright political entity that can potentially end the years-long conflicts. Because those conflicts in the Balkans were not purely wars between states. Rather, they were conflicts that permeated into the daily life of the people: to their homes, their workplaces, their communal relations. In this sense, they may not be as destructive as a ‘world war’, but the impacts were surely deeper: A world war ends with internationally-held conferences, whereas the likes of ‘little wars’ in the Balkans don’t. Although the violence ends at one point, they persist. You feel them in the silence of daily life. You feel the ‘agreement to disagree’ on many aspects of life. As you walk through the streets of Pristina, you see an Orthodox church few meters away from a mosque, but worshippers silently and calmly leave these places as if they do not want to let the other know what he/she has just done. When I, as a Muslim, wanted to visit a church in Pristina, it took me a few minutes to convince the policeman guarding the building to let me in. In a highly-touristic place like the Cologne Cathedral, you may think that the guards waiting there are just symbols – they don’t really care who comes in and out. But here, you feel that it is not quite the same.

Central Pristina.JPG

Central Pristina

My next stop from Pristina was Skopje, the capital of Macedonia. The border controls as I pass from Kosovo to Macedonia was not too strict. I was traveling on a bus, and a policeman came in, collected our passports, checked and stamped them, and it was done. In Skopje, I saw that the city is far more ‘European’ than Pristina in the sense that the heart of the city is decorated with many statues. And two of them were massive – like, literally, massive. On the one end of the city centre, there is the statue of the Philip II, father of Alexander the Great, saluting his son. And right at the opposite, his glorious son raises his sword on his ramping-up horse. In between you see a depiction of little Alexander’s birth, this time with huge statues of his mother holding him with care. The statues are impressive, but the one of Alexander is termed by Greece ‘the man on the horse’, since the country does not recognise Macedonia because of a naming dispute. The Greek argument is that country should be named ‘Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia’, rather than merely ‘Macedonia’ as the latter has past imperial connotations.


Statues in Skopje. left: Alexander the Great, and right: Philip II

The life in Skopje is ‘livelier’ than Pristina. It is more vibrant, and the scenery in the city includes more attractions. The main difference I discerned between the two cities is that Pristina is like a town that is strictly tied to its traditional and old structure – its narrow streets and years-old shops. In Skopje, on the other hand, is a more modern type of scenery which gives you the impression that you are in an Eastern European capital – bigger coffee shops, luxury bistros, and a big shopping mall. Economically, both these two countries are highly affordable for European tourists. In Pristina, Euro is used as the main currency, but the price levels are so low: an espresso, a fairly big cup of ice cream and a bottle of water costs less than €5 at the city centre. In Skopje, the currency is called ‘denar’, and the price levels in the city are relatively high, but still very much affordable for a European tourist. The Skopjen equivalent of the menu I had in Pristina costs around 7€. When you compare these prices with, for example, places like Brussels or Rome, you see that these two cities are very economic options for a short trip for many Europeans.

From Skopje onwards I passed to Ohrid, a city named after the lake at the edge of which it is located. Unfortunately I couldn’t spend as much time as I would like in this place. ‘Unfortunately’, because I am one of those who prefers a silent, chilling holiday in a place at the heart of nature with some touristic ‘busy-ness’. Ohrid is just that type of a place: The villa-type houses facing the massive and beautiful lake (foreigners tend to call it a sea rather than a like), a quiet town centre built as a short road leading to the lakeside, and the silent spot at the highest end of the city. I am definitely planning to visit beautiful Ohrid once more, but this time for at least for a three-day visit. I feel amazed when I think of the idea of reading my books with a cup of nicely-brewed coffee at the edge of the lake…

Sİlent spot.jpg

The Silent Spot in Ohrid – Church of St John at Kaneo

Speaking of coffee, I have to say that I am very surprised with the demand for coffee since I started my trip. I expected the people to consume either tea or cold drinks at their gatherings, but I saw that espresso and filter coffee are very popular. Even in the small convenience stores it is possible to find a fairly wide selection of coffee by different local brands. This will be a bonus for the coffee-manics like myself.

The last stop of my route was Thessaloniki, the one and only European Union city I visited throughout my one-week trip. Similar to the crossing from Kosovo to Macedonia, the border controls were not so tight at the time I was crossing. This was particularly surprising for me, because the Greek-Macedonian border is so close to the refugee camps, and you expect hours-long queuing times for crossing the border. But the Greek desire to boost tourism, I think, prevails over their desire to curb down migration (this was confirmed during my trip at a speech delivered by the mayor of Thessaloniki, where he said tourism is the main and most profitable source of income of the city). You see this at the casinos at the Macedonian side of the border: The Greek cross the border for casinos in the afternoon, they spend the whole night and chunks of money there, and turn back home at the early hours of the following day.

Thessaloniki has a huge resemblance to Izmir, an Aegean city in Western Turkey. My friends residing in Izmir even said that you can easily convince someone by showing an image of Thessaloniki coast that it is a photo of Izmir. Despite the resemblance though, after Pristina and Skopje, I clearly felt that I am in ‘Europe’ in the first minute I stepped on the Thessalonikian soil: At the edge of the coast appears a Starbucks spot, which I couldn’t see in any of my previous destinations. As you wander into the inner parts of the city, you see streets parallel to each other, closed to car traffic, surrounded by the shops of some well-known brands. So you have access to much more things in Thessaloniki. For example, before the trip I was thinking of buying a bottle of an American-brand multivitamin pills that are not being imported into Turkey anymore, and I found them at the very first pharmacy I popped in in Thessaloniki. But at the flip side, the service sector in the city left a bad taste in my mouth. The hotel I stayed was an utter misery, with its stairs ‘outside the building’ and you are forced to use the elevator (and naturally queue for it) even when you want to go to the second floor. Moreover, when I entered the room I was given, I was greeted by a half-full bottle of red wine, an unfinished bar of Snickers, and many used towels on the untidy bed. I barely managed to change to a new room although the staff tried to convince me to ‘wait until the room is cleaned’. Then I decided to have some traditional Greek food for dinner at a restaurant near the sea to get away from all this fuss at the hotel lobby. I waited around half an hour for my meal, which I think is fairly easy to prepare and serve: A nicely-dressed Greek salad with cheese and extra virgin olive oil. I have to admit that it was one of the best salads I’ve ever had, but the serving time was so long that at one point I thought they are still harvesting the veggies for the salad.

So, that was it from my Balkans trip. I am not sure how much attraction this post can draw in such a turbulent time in Europe. Understandably, the first thing on many people’s mind is this week’s referendum in the UK, but to indulge yourself with a short distraction, I highly recommend the Pristina-Skopje-Ohrid-Thessaloniki route. It is cheap, relaxing, and enlightening.

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