Tag Archive for 'Macedonia'

You need to be persistently adaptable

Tim Bull has recently written an interesting discussion point on when is the right time to innovate. In a post titled “Steam engine time“, he asks:

If innovation is a process of the right idea, in the right place and at the right time, how do we judge what the right time is and measure what is going on around us to hit the right spot?

Some would say luck has something to do with it, although I believe that is the perception from an outsiders point of view. In my eyes, a core set of attributes are required for innovation.

Consider this quote from Calvin Coolidge, 30th president of USA:

Nothing in the world can take the place of Persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan ‘Press On’ has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.

I think Tim is wrong to ask when is the right time, because innovators understand their environment, adapt to it – and then push until they get there. Persistence and adaptability, in my eyes, are two crucial aspects needed in a person or even a country or company, for it to successfully move forward. However whilst persistence is key – you need determination to push forward despite the barriers you are going to encounter – adaptability is the real secret to successfully innovating.

A case-study: multiculturalism in a flat world
Although I was born and bred in Australia, I have been brought up under a very strong Greek influence. With an Australian-born father, and a fresh-off-the-boat Greek mother – I have lived a life straddled in two cultures. Going to an Anglo-Saxon school, yet at the same time doing Greek classes at 9am Saturday (but leaving early for my schools footy games) – I grew to resent Australia’s multiculturalism policy. Without going into too much detail because this will turn it into a political discussion and detract from the point I wish to make – I disliked the fact that Greeks in Australia refused to integrate into the local culture. The Australian government’s stance of officially supporting Multiculturalism, which does things like pay for that Saturday morning tuition, was to me a stupid policy.

Fast forward to 2005, when I visited the Balkans as part of my nine months traveling around Europe. Serbia’s story is one of the saddest stories in Europe. Walking around the city of Belgrade, interacting with its inhabitants, and just generally experiencing Serbia – you realise you have come across a hidden gem in Europe. Yet once you look at the statistics and talk to some of the educated, you understand otherwise: a basket case situation that has little hope.

Serbia, like a lot of other countries I discovered in my travels, have a cultural problem: they can’t let go of the past. Millions of people have died over differing interpretations of history. The Republic of Macedonia’s identity is entirely staked on the fact they are situated on the lands of Alexander the Great. Identity to the nation states of Europe, is in history. And challenges to that history, and their identity, has led to some stupid wars affecting millions of innocent lives.

So guess what? I now think multiculturalism is the best thing my country could ever do, for the simple fact we can never have a fixed identity – what it meant to be Australian 50 years ago looks very different from what it looks like now. In Europe, identity is based on ethnicity with a fixed identity tied to history, language and a religion. In Australia, our identity isn’t allowed to be based on a certain ethnicity, and forces us to find common ground on what really matters like our way of life. If it wasn’t for the policy of Multiculturalism, we would be turning into one of these static nation states within Europe who become fixed as a certain point of time. The Greeks are still mourning over the Turks capturing the Great City of Constantinople from them in 1453 (which is why Tuesday is the unlucky day of the week for them). Yet for the countries like Australia, who don’t have much of a history – they are not locked – and consequently look forward, rather than back. Multiculturalism is a crucial ingredient to our success, because with all that diversity, it means we are constantly evolving our culture to the times without any one group fixing it. And with a globalised word, Australia’s ability to adapt to circumstances will be a key competitive advantage we have over countries.

If you don’t agree with me, have a read of Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat – a book a entrepreneur/intrapreneur suggested I read. This guy who told me about the book was a German from Argentina, working for an Indian company to set up the company’s presence in Turkey! He told me that after he read that book, he quit his job and got himself into his current role. He faced the facts, and adapted his career.

Adaptability as success
You’re probably wondering what I am trying to get at, but to tie it back to my point about adaptability, successfully innovators need to constantly adapt to their environment. What happens with people once they get an idea, is that they spend all their time trying to fit it into a world that once existed, only for the world to be a entirely new place. Successful innovators need to constantly evolve their ideas, to the changing circumstances.

In October last year, I made a proposal at my firm to implement a new technology. For the months leading up to that point, people had to some extent talked down my idea and some even flat out rejected it. October however had me find the right person to hear my idea. And yet if I look at what I originally had thought, and what it is now – it is almost a completely different thing. Because when I pitched my idea, I was asked “why” it works and “how” is it different from anything else. It was that ‘why’ question that had me spend countless hours researching and understanding – adapting – my idea to the scenario being presented to me. I successfully made my business case, because I was given the opportunity to reframe my idea and adapt it to the circumstrances I was presented. Had I not adapted my original idea and vision, I wouldn’t be doing what I am doing now.

Of course, I could have summed up the above by mentioning Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. Survival of the fittest, right? Adapt to the Green forest like that Green lizard that looks like a leaf, and you’ll find some food (rather than being the food yourself). Adaptability in life is a key critical success factor; and with innovation, it is the hidden factor that on the outside and in retrospect by others, gets attributed as luck.

Update 20/6/07: Catching up on some reading, I just came across a great posting by Marc Andreessen, an internet pioneer, who talks about the four types of luck and which nicely complements my thoughts above.

Bulgaria

Having checked the map, I’ve realised that my trip-to-be isn’t really Eastern Europe in as much as it is Central Europe. And the term ex-Eastern Bloc is so passe. So let me start again: Greetings from the ex-commie bastard countries, before they turn into capitalist prick countries! Oh, I am excited!
The doctor ordered I stay in Greece another 10 days to recover, since my last blog posting. She could feel my anger, and did not charge for the session. The next visit, although better, she said I needed another month to fully recover – on top of the previous 25 days I had, locked up in Athens with rare glimpses with the outside world. Fearing for her life, she said it should be okay for me to leave. The next day, I was on a train north.

St Alexander Nevskis cathedral

Orthodox Christian iconography, at the big mother of a church in Sofia. Love them. And so does the Vatican, which sells them – the churches may disagree on doctrine, but they both know what sells well

So what to say about Bulgaria? The women are ridiculously hot (even the store mannequins looked good); the country is ridiculously cheap (and apparently, those two facts are not mutually exclusive, as I explain below). And I have never said the word “ridiculous” so many times, to describe a country.
I spent two days in Bulgaria’s capital – Sofia – and four in a former capital – Veliko Tarnovo. Sofia was pleasant; VT was great but could have been 10 times better if it wasn’t raining. We spent two nights hoping it would clear up, and I had to spend another night there because my bus to my next country broke down on the way. Unfortunately the day I left was also when it started clearing up, but I figure I will explore the country another time.

P1030883

Managed to get some pictures on my last day. The castle at Veliko is built on one of the three hills that the city sits on.

I enjoyed Sofia because it was bustling with people, had chic areas to hang out, and I had trouble trying to spend my money – always a good sign! In VT, despite the rain, I had some good company. I had met two British kids – Lydia and James – in Sofia, and said to meet them in VT. Although they left the day before me, they arrived at the same time and found me as I was walking to the hostel in VT, with a taxi driver that had no idea where they wanted to go. ?Ѭ? was wondering why it took them an entire day to get here, and they explained. In Bulgaria, like in Albania, they shake their heads sideways for ‘yes’ and up-down for ‘no’. Put simpler, the opposite to the rest of the world. So when on the bus the previous day, they asked the bus driver if the current stop was VT. He shook his head sideways, to indicate yes. The kids read it as a no. And so they spent the night on the Black Sea resort of Varna, a few hours from where they had originally planned to be.

Although it was raining, Lydia and James – who had met one week earlier but looked like a married couple together (something I think a lot of travelers can relate to when traveling alone) helped pass the rainy days with me. Lydia with her slapstick humour and James with his political incorrectness, wit, and political incorrectness. We found this amazing restaurant and we would eat there all day whilst laughing. On more serious discussions, James and I would reminisce the good old days of the British Empire, and how good the times were with slavery. James and I realised we are also a compatible writing team, as we discovered when writing an entry in the guest-book, and we are currently brainstorming a book we promise to write for the growing travel market. The book is called “Islamic Jihad on a shoe-string” or how to blow shit up on the cheap, for the budget traveler. I think we may have cornered a niche market here.

P1030826

The food was unbelievable. And ridiculously cheap: this dish cost about Five Lev or Three Euros. Also, they iron the tables with table-cloths when re-setting. Maybe that is what Sydney restaurants are missing?

Bulgarians look different from the rest of the people that inhabit the Balkan peninsula. Like the Serbs, there is a hint of Slavonic blood in them, but their unique look is obviously more dominated by other tribes. There is obviously some Thracian blood in them, but there is also a Turkic central-Asian look, from the Bulgar tribes that migrated in the 7th century AD. They have this characteristic round look, as in round face – like a teddy bear face. Having said that, there is also the sharp nose, sharp face look. Either way, they look different. And on the highly charged issue of Macedonia, I have to say the Macedonians do look a little different.

Sofia is located near the Republic of Macedonia’s border. It was picked as capital, because of the wishful thinking that one day Bulgaria would be reunited with “Western Bulgaria”, with Sofia as the capital in the middle of the country. Bulgarians claim the neighbouring Macedonians are actually Bulgarians, that speak a dialect of Bulgarian. I personaly find the Macedonians to be a little more Slavic in appearance. Either way, it’s a hotly contested issue. Maybe if the Bulgarians learnt how to move their heads for yes and no like the rest of the world, there wouldn’t be such a communication problem when discussing senstive issues like these? I was very confused when talking about the subject.

P1030850

Veliko is bu?Ѭ±lt on these hills. It was a strategic city, as it lay on the Rome-Constantinople road.

Bulgarians are very pro-Russia. In fact, when most of the commie bloc countries in the north where trying to get out of the Warshaw Pact, the Bulgarians voluntarily asked to be a part of the USSR in 1973. Whilst cheap Vodka may have something to do with it, the “we love Mother Russia” view is probably also due to the historic relationship with the Russians, where the Russians liberated the Bulgarians from the Ottoman Empire in 1878.

Russian church St Nikolay

Russian Church, built by the Russian Ambassador in the 1800s. They reckon he thought the Bulgarian Orthodox Churches spooked him, so he needed some Real McCoy Russian spritual protection

Squashed by the Byzantine Empire, supressed by the Ottoman Empire, and ‘liberated’ by the Russians – the Bulgarians are slated for joining the European Union in 2007. People don’t seem to understand why, nor care. The owner of the hostel at Sofia that I stayed at, reckons Bulgarians don’t have a deeply rooted culture of democracy. The concept of being an independent state isn’t a concept they understand. Whilst they are very proud of their culture, they are not so proud about their country. He reckons Bulgaria needs to be ruled by someone, because they don’t know better themselves.

P1030772

Sofia city centre.

Turbo folk music seems to be popular, music that has swept the Balkan states. I was told in Serbia, everyone hates it but it seems to be popular in Bulgaria. The girl at the VT hostel hates it as well, saying it is a bit like American R’n’B music with cars, naked girls, and sex. My Serbian friends claim it is nationalistic propaganda music. With short skirts and girls, I think I now understand how propaganda works.

And finally, a funny story. Was taking pictures.

St Alexander Nevskis cathedral

Actually, this picture to be exact

And a young man in a business suit asked me for the time. Then, he gave me his business card. It was too funny to refuse the card.

Medical control!

"non stop"

The card he gave me. Notice “non-stop”, ” medical control” and the generous discount.

Unfortunately, that is all I have to say. Blame the rain. Currently in Turkey and lovin’ it.

Serbia

Zdravo!

Some background first: A few days before I left for my Balkan Bash of a trip, whilst I was still in Greece, I posted a question on Lonely Planet‘s website, on a thing called the ThornTree. Basically I posted my itinerary, and asked people to recomend how I can improve it. And that they did!

I arrived in the city of Ni?° in Serbia in the late afternoon from Skopje (Macedonia), which was a city I was told to visit by one of the ThornTreers. It was raining buckets of water. Every person I asked for help at the bus station didn’t speak English. I knew absolutely nothing about this city, other than it was a semi-major city in Serbia. Heck, I didn’t even know how to pronounce Ni?°! (It is pronounced, and spelt ‘Nish’ in Latin script). And with only ten Euros in my wallet, and a bladder that was about to explode, I had a bit of a problem. I suppose, it is one of those situations when you pull out a cigarette, and have a puff with the look on your face that says “Yeah shit, what now?”. Except I don’t smoke. And I didn’t want to say shit, because any reference to the excretionary system of my body, only reminded me how badly I needed to go to the toilet.

Anyone to cut a long story short, I checked into this over-priced classic communist hotel near the centre of the town (luckily, the bus station was a five minute walk from the centre). And at 6pm, I crashed on my bed, sleeping for well over 16 hours.

I woke up the next morning at about 10.30, and as I was about to enter the shower, my hotel phone rang. “Hello this is Marko”. Um, hi I replied, thinking who the hell is Marko. It turned out Marko was the guy who insisted I visit Nish on the ThornTree! He was in the foyer, and asked if I wanted to join him for a beer! And the 10 minutes between that phone-call and when I reached the foyer, I was wondering how the f..k did this guy find me! It turns out, he had read my post about Macedonia on my blog, and he logically assumed I would be in Nish by now. He also assumed I would check into the Hotel Ambassador, because most taxi drivers take tourists there. He asked the hotel reception if his Australian friend Elias had checked in (he knew my name from the website), and if he could call me because he didn’t have my number or something like that. So in other words, I got stalked!!!!

However Marko wasn’t some weird person, and his intention of a quick chat over a beer ended up turning into a two day fully-guided tour. I think he felt a little obliged to help me out, as he was the reason I was in Nish. But nevertheless, what is a fairly freaky story, turned into an absolute God send as I was able to learn about Yugoslav and Serbian history, politics and culture. We got along so well, that I even had dinner with his family, and they insisted I stay the night to save money! (Which I didn’t, but only because I couldn’t get a refund on the hotel Marko helped me find earlier that day). I was lucky because Marko has an intimate knowledge of history, so that he was able to tell me things that even the average Serbian didn’t know (like a hidden, old building, where the concept of Yugoslavia was created).

Nish is a bustling city, with a smart looking crowd, and a powerful history that if you know what you are looking for, will blow you away. Had it not been for Marko, I doubt I would have such a favourable opinion of the city. For example, my second hotel that Marko help me find was in the hot springs that were famous even in Roman times. And between my hotel on the edge of the city and the city-centre, was Mediana and the Skull Tower. The city also has an impressive fortress.

Skull Tower

I spent two days in Nish, and about a week in Belgrade, which included a day trip to Novi Sad. Most of the travellers I met in Belgrade were there as a transit point for the more exotic Bulgaria, or the scenic Croatia. However everyone seemed to love the city ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú it is one of the best cities I have even been too, and some very experienced travellers at the hostel agreed with that claim. The city lies on the outfall of the Sava river to the Danube river, which in itself is impressive. The city is built on several hills, and every day you stayed, you would find a new reason to stay. Whether it was the nightlife, or the friendly people, the beach or the archaeology ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú Belgrade is a hidden gem. Probably what makes Belgrade so impressive, is that it has been was under some form of attack 54 times since AD 1. And with each battle, a new conqueror has added a fresh aspect to the cities culture, giving the city a very unique character, not just in architecture, but in spirit that you feel.

Children playing music in the middle of Belgrade?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s Pedestrian walk

Novi Sad, which is the capital of the autonomous province of Vojvodina, was a different place yet again. The architecture was completely different, which is due to the fact that that part of Serbia was never controlled by the Ottoman Empire and was saved from their uncreative building works and graced with the more stately Austro-Hungarian. The people, however is what struck me, as they looked different from the rest of the Serbia I had seen. They looked a lot more Hungarian, and the Slavic look which is clearly evident in Nish and Belgrade, was almost non-existent.

In Belgrade, I met this girl Irena, whom I went for a coffee or three with. She also introduced me to her friends ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú girls whom were drop dead gorgeous, and guys who were super friendly, and well educated (all of them). Actually, it turns out these friends of hers are heavily involved in the Democratic Party in the country, a centrist party that has a lot of influence in the Coalition government. I also met countless other people, but the point I am getting to is that despite all these conversations I had with different people, I found a remarkably similar attitude to a lot of subjects.

The biggest thing to mention, is the nationalism of the Serbs. Marko summed this attitude best when he said that the Croatians, Bosnians, Macedonians and Serbians are basically one race, with the only difference being the Croats are Catholic, the Bosnians Muslim, and the Serbs Orthodox. It was a view I heard several times. Having heard what the Macedonians think, as well as the Bosnians (where I am now), I must say, it is very interesting to hear this. I never knew much about the Balkans conflicts before my trip, but I definitely feel I have learnt a lot, with an extra dimension you wouldn?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t get from reading a text book.

Belgrade Fortress

Most young people, especially the English-speaking ones, want to leave the country (Irena reckons). But it is this intense nationalism and patriotism, that makes them want to do it only temporarily ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú as opposed to Macedonia for example, where people just want to to leave permanently! There is a strong sense of identity in Serbia, but perhaps, a little too strong.

The economy seems to be a real sticking point. Mitcho, a middle aged man I met in the street when I was trying to find a landmark, said religion and the economy were the root of all the problems in the region. What he said about the economy though is what was interesting. The average Serbian makes peanuts, much like the surrounding countries. However I would argue, the cost of living was super cheap, and so it didn?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t matter. But the problem is that when you hear your neighbour, like Hungary, has workers being paid twice as much for the same job type in Serbia, with a similar cost of living, you get annoyed. Or as Mitcho said, you feel used.

The owner of the hostel, a mammoth of a guy who served in the military, and was fairly intelligent, told me the unemployment rate in Serbia is 34%, which I thought was a little far fetched. However I heard from a fellow traveller today that it is something like 50%, so it possibly is true, given she must of heard it from a different source.

Marko reckons Serbia should join the European Union, but not for a while. The economy is just too weak, that if it were, the Serbs would just be economically raped and become slaves to the more developed industries and companies in Germany and the UK. And yet whenever I would get into a political discussion with my friend Irena, she would passionately moan at how the Serbs just cant seem to move forward and work together. So on the one hand, you have this strong sense of Nationalism and superiority as a country, but an inability to move forward because the Serbs just cant work together. There is this feeling of being stuck.

The passport thing seems to annoy Serbs. A guy that helped me find my hostel for example, was making some small chit chat until we found it. After a few questions about my trip, he immediately launched into a whinge at how he cant do what I can do ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú a lament I heard several times over by others. Serbians need to have a visa for every country they visit, with the exception of the former Yugoslav countries. This points to a bigger attitude at how annoyed they are about their country. At the hostel I was staying at, one of the guys working there told us all that there simply isn?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t any hope in the country. One of the Americans at the hostel mentioned it after, when we were on our own, and said how sad that was.

Nationalism and economics aside though, hearing about the Kosovo war was very interesting. Whilst I would join the conversations the hostel workers would have with the other travellers, I think I had the most in depth conversation about this with Marko. He showed me the military headquarters in Nish, which was the last part of Nish to be reconstructed. What was cool though, was how the smart bombs that hit it, didn?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t even touch the neighbouring building!

Tanks

However the most striking thing I heard from Marko, was how NATO used cluster bombs. Cluster bombs don?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t damage buildings. They are purely used to kill enemy soldiers, well technically anyway. Marko?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s parents, whom work at the university, were on their way home one day, and five minutes earlier, a street they had to walk though, was hit by cluster bombs, in the middle of the city. I met Marko?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s parents. They didn?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t look like soldiers to me.

As an electronic university student, Marko would also explain to me the electrical bomb, whose purpose is purely to burn fuses. When they bombed the electricity plant, it was in the middle of the night, and for a full five minutes the explosion created such a strong light that it was like a sunny summer day!

From the time I landed in Athens, I was told by every male I spoke to, that Serbian women are the most beautiful women in the world. Serbian men trumpet this fact as well (its not opinion, I came and saw ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú it is fact!). Anyway, I just felt like I had to mention that because it is such a hot topic.

It is Saturday night, and I am in Sarajevo in Bosnia, which is a whole story in itself (I arrived two nights ago). Last night I taught the Americans in the hostel some drinking games, and three Irish girls arrived today and based on our conversation this morning, tonight will be trouble. So I better fill myself up with food. Ciao!

Belgrade in the evening

Macedonia

This is driving me nuts. I have just spent the last hour or two going through my e-mail, and my Internet-cafe neighbour is having cybersex with some Arab. Actually, I think he is in Turkey, but she has been showcasing some Arabic words. She started with teaching him Macedonian – yelling “da! da! da! (yes! yes yes!) – and now she has mellowed, calling him her ‘lotus’ and asking “why has this happened to us, I want to be near you. Honey” whilst smoking a cigarette. Think of a phone-sex line, where there is a fat woman on the other end moaning and groaning. Except this girl isn’t fat – just ugly. And really loud. Really fucking loud. Damn it, I did it. I tried to not swear in case any kiddies are reading this, but I feel some much better now. FUCKING SHUT UP.

Okay, much better.

Ohrid. Pictureresque.

Macedonia has been quite delightful (Greece get over it – I am not calling them Skopje, or the (Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia). I got in Friday night, and tomorrow morning (Wednesday) I will be leaving my temporary home for the last few days, in Ohrid. Ohrid is described as the tourist Mecca of Macedonia. Lots of Churches here as well, which goes back to Ohrid’s historical importance. It is right beside Lake Ohrid, which is approximately 2-3 million years old, and is one of the world’s oldest lakes and the Balkans biggest. Given its age, there are a lot of unique biological aspects, like that freakin’ animal that sounds like a baby laughing. It took me half an hour to work out it came from the lake.

“I love you honey. I. Love. You” Can someone please get this girl a vibrator?

Ohrid is a great tourist destination. The Old Town looks like any modern cosmopolitan city’s shopping arcade, with the latest fashion, jewellery stores, and cafes and restaurants abound (although funnily, about 90 per cent of these restaurants either have ‘Pizza’ in their name or make it a focal point of their menu). It is very scenic with the surrounding hills, and the lake. But the best thing is the cost of living: my first two nights were in a fully equipped private apartment, which cost the equivalent of 10 Euros a night. My remaining three nights were in a private room in the Old Town, for about six Euros.

And then there was the food. You could eat yourself silly and not want to think about food and drink for another 24 hours, with just 10 Euros. A main meal, like lets say – Pizza – costs about 100 Denars. My Hungarian Goulash tonight cost 150 Denars (60 Denars to the Euro). Add a few drinks, and a salad, and you could pay 300 Denars (five Euros) and be very satisfied. There are high-speed internet cafes all over the place, asking for one Euro an hour. Why I am so surprised, is that although the cost of living is comparable to Albania, the place looks every part like a modern European city (unlike Albania, which is a permanent pile of rubble and construction). And minus the foreign tourists; whilst plenty of Australians come, they are all ethnic Macedonians. I stood out like a sore thumb with the locals. I would like to think it’s because I am a good looking guy, but I think it’s just because I looked so different to everyone. Although I must admit, the women did tease a lot…

Yes, it is true. The women here are beautiful. And they definitely know how to shake that arse. Apologies to all you feminists out there, but if you are wondering why you are 35 and still can’t find a husband, maybe you should learn from your Slavic sisters when it comes to style. Unfortunately I have been told that I missed out this year – the fashion this year is tight jeans with stomach showing. Last year it was mini-skirts with g-strings showing. Just as well I came this year – I had enough trouble trying to conceal my grunting at the glamour?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s walking past me.

Chruches. Everywhere in Ohrid.

However for every positive, there is a downside: the men. Absolute scum bags. Not all, but a lot of con artists. I was seen as a walking money bag. You would as well, if you worked a minimum wage job in any developed country! The problem, as everyone would complain to me, was the economy – which I suppose is why Eastern European countries and the Balkans are famous for these con-artists, as their economies are still a mess. Half the people I spoke too dreamt of one day leaving – however the other half were very proud of the country. I think my second landlord, was the most eloquent in explaining this to me.

Nikola is a 38-year old university graduate (in economics), working for the police as an investigator. Actually, he was in a team of six that was selected by the US state Department for anti-terrorism training, so this guy is no monkey. He has three kids, and a modest house in the Old Town, where he rents the top rooms for some extra cash. He, like everyone else, said the economy was very weak, with no developed export markets and no opportunities for work. The wages are super low – Natasha, a girl from a tourist office, was telling me she gets paid 200 Euros a month. Eljah, a pimple-faced 18-year-old tax driver whom I used several times as my personal chauffeur, says 200 Euros is a lot – he said he averages about five Euros a day.

However unlike Natasha and Eljah, Nikola realises this is just temporary and is willing to sit it out. “Every country has problems at different stages. In this age for Macedonia, it is the economy”. He sees it as a temporary phase as the country develops itself. However what we both agreed on was that Macedonia desperately needed to be part of the European Union (EU) for that ‘phase’ to ever pass. However with the French and Dutch rejecting the new EU constitution these last few weeks, it might mean it will take longer than hoped. (It will happen – as Nikola said, the EU has become too strong to just disappear now.)

I become very fond of my afternoon chats with Nikola. Despite the fact he hasn’t used English since primary school, I could feel his English improving by the minute, as we used sign language to have conversations about global imperialism and the rise of India and China (and America?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s future), as well as what Macedonia needed to do to get ahead. If anyone was watching the time when I was saying Macedonia needed to look at emerging industries, not old economy industries such as biotechnology against agriculture – I think they would have died laughing. How do you explain biotechnology to someone who doesn’t speak English?

Macedonia is a fairly small country, with about two million inhabitants. The country gets bullied around by its neighbours because of its size, and its economic dependence on countries like Greece. However the economy is the only bad thing about this place, and it is only bad if you want to live here. If you want a holiday, I highly recommend Ohrid. It is four hours from Thessalonica in Greece.

As for my experience in the country, it has been okay. I went to a nightclub on Saturday on my own, which was a little weird, because I have never been to a nightclub on my own. I had to pay five times the normal cover charge (like I cared, it was only five euros). I met some girls there who were very playful until the drunk mafia guy came. He was a Melbourne-based Macedonian, and he had a gun on him. He got me free drinks, so I wasn’t complaining. However, I wasn’t arguing with him either.

Macedonian flag

But I have had enough being the rich tourist amongst all the other tourists, I have to get out of here. I better go and pack my bags – my bus to Nish in Serbia leaves in just over three hours!

Update:Who would have thought, that a 5am bus trip to Skopje (transit point for Nish), would have me sitting next to a tall, blue-eyed, blonde-haired, beautiful woman who was super intelligent and from a wealthy family (a rare thing in itself in Macedonia)? We got cosy on the bus and spent three hours talking non-stop! But the reason I am including this update is because she was able to explain something to me which finally helped me understand a major issue, and which I think deserves to be included on my posting about the country.

Macedonia is now being divided into two versions – traditional Macedonia, and the Albanian Macedonia, whom refuse to integrate into the local population, and adopt the country’s traditions and culture. There was a big war in North Macedonia in 2001, and a treaty was signed. We are not talking about some petty differences here. There are some huge tensions, which I sensed, but didn’t understand. The war is still recent memory, and it doesn’t seem like the issue is resolved. Something bad is brewing.

There is a a lot of racism in the country over Albanians. Why you may ask? Well it is not the Albanians that have settled and adopted Macedonian life, but the refugees and illegal immigrants that flooded the country during the Kosovo war. Ethnic Albanians now constitute about 20 per cent of the population, and have become such an influential group, that the country has to accommodate for them. The Albanian language just recently became an official language of the country, and various other measures have been put in place, which quite rightly, are making the population quite angry. As Karolina lamented, she feels like she doesn?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t know what her identity is. To get a pubic sector job, she is required to learn an entirely new language! It is a bit like the Hispanic situation in America, where all these illegal immigrants that crossed the border from Mexico, have become such a powerful minority, that the politicians are scared of them. And like the Spanish kids, they refuse to speak Macedonian and speak only Albanian.

To cut a long story short: we haven’t seen the last of the Balkan wars. The South of Serbia, and the North of Macedonia will be on our television screens in the near future.

As for Macedonia’s economy, she was also able to explain a few things to me as she is an economics student. It appears the country is trying too hard to satisfy EU requirements to become a European Union member – rather than actually make any efforts to develop the country itself. It seems like pretty much all of Macedonia’s problems, stem from the former Yugoslavia. With respects to the economy, what she meant was that all the industries and factories were in other parts of Yugoslavia – not present-day Macedonia. The result was that the disunion left the country with an inheritance of nothing.

Albania

Benjamin Franklin once said: “Certainty? In this world nothing is certain but death and taxes”. Well, I have another two certainty’s to add to the list: Japanese tourists are everywhere, and cab drivers are scum bags worldwide. But rather than complain, I want to tell you the stories I heard for this enigmatic country.

I have just spent three days (and two nights) visiting Albania. Whilst I was only there for a short time, I was satisfied in what I learnt, and absolutely fascinated. I stayed in Saranda, which is a port-city at the south of the country, near the Greek border. It is opposite the Greek island of Corfu. I stayed in an area called “exsamilia” which means ‘six miles’ – the six mile stretch of land under Saranda, which ends where Corfu starts. Deep rural territory! The south of the country is very Greek influenced, and I had to rely on my Greek for the entire time of my trip. Not only has Greek always been popular in the South, but some one-million plus Albanians (and that is a conservative estimate) have lived in Greece for some period of time. The people I stayed with, fled the country when the Iron curtain finally fell in 1990, and like so many others, recently returned to begin a new life.

Albania is one of the world’s most misunderstood countries – and I emphasis the mis-understanding of its people. Until 1990, it was a communist country run by the iron-fist of Hoxha (pronounced”Hodja”), as first-secretary (pronounced “dictator”). Access to the outside world was completely shut off, and Hoxha created a country that was so similar to George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four that it sent a shiver up my spine. His death in 1985, which is still being lamented, led to the country becoming the last domino to tumble in Eastern Europe’s communist downfall.

Under Hoxha’s rule, organised religion was banned. The entire population was spread out into small villages, with freedom of movement prohibited, even to the next town. Agriculture was collectivised. People were paid a daily wage of 200 Lekke, with no one in the country receiving more than 500. Young men served in the military, for I think three-years, and had to do nine-days annually again to retrain them with new weapons and methods. The country was turned literally into a military state, as there was a constant fear that Albania’s neighbours would invade. Cinema’s were available, but forget about love stories: the only movies shown were ones that where with the party line, namely being war. Television was first introduced in 1970, as an outlet for the governments propaganda. The 'bunkers', which served As entry points into the nations underground tunnel network
A tunnel Network connects the entire country, with small-domed bunkers dotting the country side for entry/exit into the tunnel networks. You would see these bunkers in the most remote, unpredictable areas.

If you criticised the regime, you were done for. If you forcefully pushed a woman in any sort of form, good-bye you. There was no crime, no criticism. Everyone lived like one big family. People felt safe; however they would wet their pants when I would ask about the Secret Police. It seems old habits die hard – such was the fear in the country.

Despite what people think, there was democracy. Polling booths opened at 6 and closed at 6.30. You could vote for anyone you wanted, as long as they were a legally recognised political party: which for all that time, was only the communist party. Election results for the communists always turned out to support it 99.98 per cent of the time. The other 0.02% were grandmothers who dropped their glasses. Although even if there were opposition candidates, I would not be surprised if, by their own free will, a majority would vote communist. They had been convinced to be happy with what they had.

As I said earlier, a daily wage consisted of 200 Leke. With 300 Lekke, you could buy 15 kg of bread, to give you an idea of the cost of living. To pay off your debt to the government for living in an apartment, you simply had to work one day a month. Theoretically people worked eight hours a day, starting at 7am, although most would doze off, clocking a few hours and spending the rest of the day chatting. They worked seven days a week. There were opportunities for entertainment, and there were no restrictions on procreation! But with such work hours, no one stayed out late. In fact, if you were seen out past 12am, you were in trouble. You would be criticised as being lazy and against the country, and you would be put in the prisons. To this day, no one knows what happened in those prisons.

When foreigners would come into the country, or Albanians studied abroad to help with a skill shortage, they had to get their story right before they came in. They were told to tell everyone that the outside world is a mess. There is no electricity, clean water, pure lawlessness. They were told to say Albania was one of the luckiest countries in the world. Given that Albanians had no contact with the outside world, is it any surprise Hoxha is treated like a god?

In 1990, the communists were ousted. The country basically turned into a barbaric society of lawlessness. In 1997, over 70 per cent of the population lost their savings in pyramid schemes, which resulted in nationwide uproar. Groups broke into the military barracks, and guns were stolen. There was open street warfare on the roads. People would shoot at someone, just for the sake of target practice. As such, in 1990 and 1997, you saw a large majority of the population spread to neighbouring countries. One guy I met left with his friends in the winter, and trekked through the mountains to get to Greece. It snows a lot in winter in Northern Greece. But they were desperate.

Having been to Greece several times since 1990, I grew up with the Greek racism. That they were cunning, thieves, and no-good people. I believed that to the day I got into Albania. Even though I don’t like to think of people as unequal, I just always had this perception that Albanians were scum. How wrong was I! And how wrong is racial tension in the rest of the Balkans, where Albanians are shunned. I have never in my life been treated with more respect and hospitality. Although I had a negative experience with a taxi driver when the bus dropped me off at the border, that was only because he over-charged me – but this was more a case of my inexperience as a first time traveller rather than him being a bad person.

Everywhere I went, people would shout me drinks. Even my taxi drivers! On my way out of the country, I had to catch a bus for Corca to Progradec. During that one hour or so, I sat next to a middle aged Albanian man. He did not speak English or Greek; I did not speak Albanian. So we had a conversation purely with sign language. He knew ten words in English which helped, however four of those consisted of “I don’t speak English”. Once we got off the bus, he insisted I go to his house for a coffee. There his son, who spoke English, could translate. They then told me, after ten minutes in the house, that they would drive me to the Macedonian border in the wife’s brother?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s taxi, free of charge!! I saved about 10 Euros, as well as the hassle of trying to find transport to the border. Who would do that in Sydney?

At no stage, did I ever feel unsafe, or disrespected. In fact, everyone took a genuine interest in looking after me. The people I stayed with literally treated me like their son. The people I met along the way, were extremely worried about the next stage of my journey without their help. They would go out of their way to help me. The only thing I was worried about, was trying to work out the right-fare for a cab fare, but I only had to worry about that once, at the beginning. The cost of living is incredibly cheap there – I was told I was ‘ripped off’ by this restaurant at Saranda: I paid the equivalent to five euros, and was absolutely stuffed!

A lot of the young hate communism. But the old, or rather people 35+, think of the old days with nostalgia. There are two reasons for this: poverty, and security.

For people born in the communist state, that knew of a country with complete security, harmony, and equality. When capitalism and democracy came in, they saw lawlessness and inequality. Young girls who previously could walk around the country in perfect security, have been poached for prostitution around the Balkans. People are living in extreme poverty, and are being forced to fend for themselves. We may find it absurd how people like them prefer communism and totalitarianism over capitalism and democracy, and yet we need to see it though their eyes: their experience in being ‘free’ has turned their country in an anarchy. What so free about not being able to feed and protect your family?
The inland landscape during my bus trip

Albania has got the cleanest water I have ever swum in. It also has the most beautiful inland landscape I have ever seen. My bus trip took me along roads I didn’t think roads could go, along mountains. Imagine two mountain ranges, separated by a valley 100 metres wide. And in that valley, a stream and sometimes river would run, with the ground completely covered in farm land. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to take great pictures because the bus was moving, and when I realised I should take a picture, we had already passed the best bits. It really was breathtaking.

I think Albania has got massive potential. Not just as a tourist destination however. During communism, religion was banned. Organised religion is one of the biggest set backs of modern society, because it was a form of control imposed by empires 2000 years ago. The traditions, hatred and history constrain us to this day. As an Orthodox Christian, if I was to marry a Catholic Christian, my family would despair. In Albania however, if you are a Muslim, and you find a person you are happy with who is Christian, you have the full blessings of everyone. Whilst spirituality is an important part of the human dimension, organised religion should not be separating us. Despite Albanian’s economic problems, and inexperience in democracy, I think they are an advanced society, whereby all citizens are genuinely equal. In fifty years time, we will be seeing them as a model.
A mosque and Church, recently built as they were all demolished during communist days, standing near each other in perfect harmony

The elections next month are on everyone?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s minds. Whoever wins, people are predicting that it will be a hung parliament. The feeling with people is that the centre-right New Democracy party needs to win, to give the country stop steps forward, rather than backwards, as the communist party is doing. These elections will be the crucial thing to see whether it take 5 or 50 years for Albania to get itself together.

I am currently in Ohrid in (the Former Yugoslav Republic of) Macedonia, the tourist Mecca of the country. It really is beautiful here, and I am still experiencing, so I better get off this computer and find some English speaking locals. And as they would say in Macedonian, “ayde ciao!”.