The Old Bazaar

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Skopje, Macedonia – September 2014

I head toward the minarets and domes, and then follow the brick wall that encloses the Old Bazaar. A tall, thin man materializes. He marches along beside me.

He looks at my camera and smiles. “You tourist?”

I tense up and glance around for other people. “Yes.”

His smile broadens. He asks where I’m from, if I’m going to the Old Bazaar, do I like Skopje.

I allow myself to relax as I answer his questions. They don’t see a lot of tourists in Skopje, and maybe he’s genuinely curious. People are always telling me I’m too closed off to people, too paranoid. Maybe they’re right.

The man points at my wedding ring. “You have husband?”

“Yes.” I smile. Out of habit, I add, “He’s back at the hotel.”

“We go do sex now?”

I grit my teeth. “No.”

He curls his lip, spits on the ground, and stalks away.

I continue down the hill, keeping my pace even and my head held high. As if that last question was not voiced. I will not allow it to ruin my day. But my stomach churns and I feel like I’m covered in an invisible, vile slime. Pure curiosity is nearly extinct in today’s world. This was a friendly reminder, a gentle nudge. I must never let my guard down. Who cares if people criticize me.

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The main entrance to the bazaar appears. I step inside, keeping my eyes averted from other eyes and my demeanor nonchalant. No heads turn to stare, however. The dirty feeling ebbs away.

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Shop windows glitter with gold and silver and rich textiles. Sizzling meat and rich coffee perfume the humid air.

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I bite my cheek as I contemplate the various cafes. I’m not sure of the etiquette for women and cafes here. I pass one that’s empty, except for a young lady. A face of porcelain framed by austere cloth. Her attention is focused on a book.

The owner beckons me over with a warm smile. “Please, come. Sit down,” he says. “Welcome.”

I settle myself into a small chair on the terrace and order a Turkish coffee. A family of four sits at a table in front of a pastry shop across the alley. A young man passes by. He stops to chat with the young lady. Their tone is familiar. They both have large book bags. He beams as he speaks to the girl. She looks into his eyes with confidence. He stutters over his words and shifts his weight from one foot to the other. The conversation trails off. He raises his hand in a reluctant farewell and strides away.

This exchange has not gone unnoticed by the family across the way. The mother scowls at the young woman. She says something to the father. His eyes narrow. The children turn to look and then mimic their parents’ disapproval.

I drink my coffee, pay, and then stand up to leave. I hesitate for a moment, and then speak. “I want to take a photo of this place. Is it okay if you’re in it?”

The young woman smiles. “Sure, no problem.”

I step into the alley and raise my camera, ignoring the hot scorn emanating from the parents behind me.

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The coffee surges through my blood. I venture further into the maze of alleys.

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Old men commune over cups of coffee or at the barber shop.

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The deeper I get inside the labyrinth, the quieter it becomes. The only face that peers out at me from these windows is my own. The manager at my guesthouse told me that so many have closed because people now prefer to shop at malls. I can’t help but see potential in these deserted spaces.

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A large, crumbling structure stands at the very back of the bazaar. A hole in a wooden door is the only way in. I stand still for a moment, deciding if I want to venture inside. And then the sound of feminine giggling fills the silence. A plump, smiling face pops out of the entrance. The woman cradles her camera, stoops over, and steps out of the little portal. A man follows behind.

“What’s in there?” I ask.

She starts to giggle again. “A museum. Well, the Balkan interpretation of a museum.”

“It it worth going inside?”

“Oh, yes. It only takes a few minutes to look around. And it’s funny.” She shakes her heads and smiles. “Only in the Balkans.”

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I step through the door and into a small courtyard. Pieces of broken statues line the circular corridor. Some of them are on cement blocks. Others are simply leaned up against the wall. A group of men sits at the far back corner drinking the obligatory coffee. They give no sign that they are aware of my presence. As I move from piece to piece, one of the men begins to sing. A luminous, undulating melody that pirouettes through the courtyard and rises heavenward. There is such a thing as joyful melancholy. I catch my breath and freeze. The resonance moves through me. Knowing the words might break the spell. He could be singing an ancient hymn or an empty pop tune. It doesn’t matter. I soak it up until the last notes fade away.

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70 thoughts on “The Old Bazaar

  1. I understand you about being closed…it is a hard balance to achieve, to protect yourself and to be open to new experiences.

  2. Love the colours, Julie, and such places to be lost and found in and about. All weekend I’ve been pondering the coulors of lime along with those of red and black peppercorns.

  3. Thank you for this post! One of the things I really like about reading in your blog is that you don’t offer the typical rehash from what the tourist agencies like to put out. Your perspectives and your images are as real as they are good. I guess the difference is that a tourist agency usually likes to present a place in such a way so as to inspire people to go visit; where what I read and see from your blogging makes me feel sometimes as though I’m already there.

    The man who wanted to have sex with you makes me wonder whether or not he would be pleased if his wife would have responded differently from the way you did. I think it’s wrong to ignore your instincts, and at the same time wrong to close yourself off from others. A good guide to live by is: anticipate everything, expect nothing. You can keep your guard close without always keeping your guard up 🙂

    • Thank you for your lovely compliments. That’s what I strive to do. Travel is not all sunshine and rainbows. Your advice is exactly what I do, but it’s not foolproof. Also – women need to be extra vigilant. In many places, even returning a greeting, looking someone in the eye, or just walking around alone can be construed as an invitation. I bet that man’s wife isn’t even allowed to leave the house without his permission.

      • Regarding the necessity for extra vigilance that women have in some places, you are absolutely right – I was thinking from my own perspective, there.

        “Travel is not all sunshine and rainbows.” Overcoming the storms – as you seem quite capable of doing – is often what makes the journey really rewarding 🙂

  4. I felt like I lived that rather than read it…

    Beautifully captured in the pictures as well!

    Still… I can’t believe that pick-up line failed! 😉

    Who cares what others think, keep that guard up until you’re comfortable my dear!!

  5. Old Bazar in Skopje came magically to life in this little post of yours. The dome and minaret, though relatively small, bear some resemblance to the Hagia Sofia in Istanbul. Travelling alone is an adventure, it looks like even in a place like Skopje, where mother Teresa was born…best wishes, Julie..

  6. Great pictures ! My favorite is the picture of the young woman at the coffee shop. And of course the writing is great too – finding that balance is so difficult – between trust and wariness esp. when travelling alone as a woman.

  7. Great photos, great story. As a woman who frequently travels solo (and to some off-the-beaten-track places), I totally get the fine line that needs to be walked between friendliness and old-fashioned caution/suspicion. Your photos really reminded me of Sarajevo, not a surprise given the proximity of the two places. Thanks for sharing!

  8. Thanks for another great post! The pictures are wonderful and I love how you always tell the full story – wondrous and disgusting together. That needs to be done far more often.

  9. You always create such mysterious atmosphere in your writings of place dear Julie …and I dream of them thru you and I remain always gloriously grateful ! Hugs and love , megxxx

  10. I think your bravery is amazing. I wonder if I would travel to such a place alone today. The images are poignant, and beautiful. Honestly, there are many places I will not go alone today. Even where it seems safe and innocuous I’m hesitant to go alone. Be safe in all your journeys!

    • Thank you. I’ve also had lots of problems in so-called safe countries. I never take safety in any place for granted anymore. Strange men have said worse things to me (usually out of a car window) while I was walking down the road in America. The incident with the man was the only problem I had in Macedonia. It was very stress-free overall.

  11. I have just fallen in love with your very particular Skopje! It’s so different from our western cities, mysterious or even fear provoking but a challenge! Thank you very much for your impressions, which are as always outstanding.:)

  12. You have a wonderful ability to evoke the sense of a place. I have not been to Macedonia but you have touched on lots of my memories, the cafes with only men in them in Bosnia and Turkey and not being sure if I should enter.
    While being older means there are no sexual comments My first impression of arriving in Tangiers was completely ruined by the constant offers of ‘help’ and while I wasn’t afraid I was most irritated. If I was to be in a similar situation as a lone woman arriving I would attach myself to a fair family and try to blend in as ‘grandma’.

  13. Thanks for that great article Julie. The Old Bazaar is probably the only piece of Macedonian history left in Skopje. The gov is planing to “reconstruct” it and change the way it looks..

    • Oh no! The new look of Skopje is entertaining, but the idea of the government using that same decorating scheme on the Bazaar is absolutely horrifying! I’m happy I got to see it as it is now.

  14. It was a beautiful post, not only did I learn of a new place. I read, felt and imagined how my journey through it would be like. Thank You!

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