What is Skopje?
Skopje has nothing to do with the Italian verb scopare, which technically means “to sweep,” but just as “to screw” has a bit more oomph than inserting a light bulb, scopare is that favorite vulgar verb of the angry, horny, or adolescent.
And they don’t speak Dutch in Macedonia, so Skopje has nothing to do with the diminutive -je in that language, which makes things smaller, cuter, cuddlier. If you have a dog in Holland, you have a hond. If you have a puppy-wuppy, you have a hondje.
So while Skopje might sound like a quick little lusty interlude to me, and now to you (you’re welcome), no one will have any idea what you’re talking about when you try to explain why you’re giggling in front of the heroic statues. (But feel free to try anyway.)
So that’s what Skopje is not. But what Skopje is?
It’s a neolithic settlement already 4000 years old when the Romans got there a bit before 0. Then centuries of chaos calming to empires that crumbled back to chaos, Byzantine, Bulgarian, Serbian, and Ottoman all getting to fancy themselves eternal on the banks of the Vardar River. After six millennia, Skopje is a powerhouse arena of history, culture, and pride…that currently hosts a Las Vegas style showroom of propaganda mayhem like I had never seen. It’s bizarre. Surreal. Kinda hideous. And I loved it!
Statues of scholars in robes, kings in crowns, and the odd barbarian looking perplexed and aggressive over a big lumpy club line every bridge, lurk in arcades, and loom like suicidal squadrons on the edges of prominent buildings. Don’t jump, toga-clad men! We’ll get you some modern fashion!
I gave some background here (click to open), but why all the classical imagery?
Macedonia declared independence in 1991, and 27 seconds later was feuding with Greece over ownership of the name and Alexander the Great’s legacy. The quandary continues, as Macedonia struggles between Classical or Slavic origin, bashing out an identity for its ethnically diverse population in a region where such questions have been soaked in blood for centuries.
So some say the classical theme is anti-Greek, part of that dispute. Others say anti-Bulgarian for much the same ethnic reasons. But a former adviser to the Prime Minister reassures us on both those counts.
“No! It’s not anti-Greek or anti-Bulgarian!” Says Shmuel Ben David Vaknin. And we pause for a quick sigh of relief before he adds “Antiquisation has a double goal, which is to marginalize the Albanians and create an identity that will not allow Albanians to become Macedonians.“
Something of the Romans must have lingered in Skopje, because it doesn’t take an Australian playing a Spaniard in an American movie about Ancient Rome to tell me that if you win the crowd, they won’t ask questions. Bread and circus, man, bread and circus. (Except without the bread.)
So is it working? Are the people placated? Blood-red handprints on shiny new marble say no, but we’ll talk about that next time.
Because even though the towering statue of a warrior on a horse is the centerpiece of an international dispute, it is also a great fountain, spraying water from a variety of jets, at unpredictable moments from unexpected places, shifting colors as grandiloquent music piped into the square on pigeon-pooped speakers.
And the kids loved it.
And I loved that.
Small-minded men have been picking fights since we climbed out of the trees, but as July heat emanated from the stones after dark on a calm Macedonian evening, the laughter of happiness was enough.
And that’s what Skopje is.