As I’ve mentioned previously, growing up with friends of different backgrounds at times left me feeling on the outer. However, a stronger emotion I felt, (and continue to feel) is one of wonder & intrigue rather than isolation. Essentially, I’ve been very lucky to grow up with a mixture of cultures surrounding me. It has made me want to explore these cultures and learn more.
Back then, my Friends’ Fathers stories about swimming in the Adriatic and diving off some bridge into a cold river did not hold my interest. I didn’t know it then, but these stories, the cevapi offered from lunchboxes & sandwiches filled with Ajvar in the playground were just the beginnings of a life of cultural & culinary intrigue for me.
Most of my friends were born in Australia, their parents had traveled here from Macedonia and Croatia to begin new lives. Although my friends weren’t actually born in these countries, they join their parents in continuing the traditions of their homelands here in Sydney.
I have been to many Macedonian & Croatian Weddings, Christenings, Name Days. I’ve eaten truck loads of food from these places & I’ve learned some Macedonian & Croatian words, (i’ve also learned quite a few more bad words too!). I’ve danced in circles and I now understand more about the countries’ recent past, their different religions and their geography than I would by reading any text book. It seemed only natural to visit the two nations when I was in that part of the world.
My Husband and I were warned, “be careful, they can be a bit dodgy over there” and “don’t get ripped off.” With regards to Macedonia, other people whom we did not know so well could not understand why we would want to go there if we were not Macedonian ourselves – “but everyone only goes there to visit family!”
We had always been told that it was like going back in time, and in places, it was just like that. Macedonia had a surprising amount of Ottoman architecture and the market in Skopje felt more middle eastern than Balkan. The food was very seasonal. We wanted to try our favourite dish, Sarma, (cabbage rolls) but no restaurant we visited had them. The cabbages weren’t ready, not in season. After the initial disappointment, we realised that this was good to hear. They simply didn’t ship cabbages in, they used them when they were ready locally.
The other thing we knew about the region, (from experience with friends), was the fact that the people of the Balkans smoke a lot. This is an understatement. We have never been anywhere where we have noticed and been annoyed by people smoking as much as Macedonia. It was exceptionally cold so we were indoors, often in local joints that lacked ventilation and open windows so it was probably worse than ‘usual’ – we’ll give them the benefit of the doubt!
In the end, as is often the case, it was a happy experience that has left us with many stories to tell. Stories our Friends’ Fathers are happy to go over again and again in their suburban Sydney backyard with a shot glass of home made Rakia in hand, next to the chillies & barrels of pickled cabbages as Qantas flies loudly overhead.
Here are a few photos of our time in the region. For the Croatian leg, we traveled from Split, through Mostar (Bosnia & Hertz) and back into Dubrovnik. We entered Macedonia via Albania, first into Lake Orchid, then Bitola and finally Skopje. We averaged about $100AUD as a couple per day including all meals, private homestay-style accommodation and public transport during October.