Following my usual habit of taking to the hills in case of temperatures above 25 C for long persids of time, come August and sick and tired of temperatures which resemble the outer reaches of the Sahara, I retreated for a long weekend to Albania.
Macedonia had a lot of hype to live up to, but I knew things were going to be all right when I heard about the miracle. Inside the church of St Demtrius in the old town of Skopje, the frescoes of the saints and martyrs, darkened by decades of candle-smoke, had suddenly brightened over the weekend of Palm Sunday, the haloes of the saints shining as brightly as the day they were painted. Squeezed into the back of the church behind hundreds of the devout and the curious, I can attest that the haloes were certainly very shiny, although not having any basis for comparison I couldn’t really say as to whether they were any brighter than usual. Nonetheless, I couldn’t help approving of the thoroughly practical nature of this miracle, so much less messy than statues weeping blood and more useful than pictures in your toast, which is the kind of thing my church tends to turn up. If even the unpreposessing building site of central Skopje could muster up a bona fide miracle, then surely Ohrid would be able to provide something spectacular for Easter.
Today and tomorrow are holidays here, but deadlines wait for no woman so I am sitting at home gloomily drinking coffee and researching national energy policies in the Balkans, wishing that I had remembered to go shopping yesterday (current food supplies for the next two days consist of a bag of sunflower seeds and some dried apricots). To cheer myself up, I am sharing one of the best pictures I found when digging up information about natural disasters in these parts:
This is from 2010 when a private zoo in Montenegro was flooded and Nikica the hippo went AWOL. She spent several weeks lurking around the village looking baleful before being lured back into her enclosure when the floods subsided. According to her keeper she is “very peaceful and friendly”. I’m not sure I’d be entirely convinced of that if she was hanging out in my garden.
Just stating for the record that Macedonia has not disappointed, what with peacocks and monasteries and bona fide miracles and coffee and Roman bits and pieces and ten whole minutes of sunshine. There was a bit of minor excitement in Skopje this afternoon which I hope for everybody’s sake does not get any more exciting, but it has otherwise been a gorgeous weekend of which more anon.
No cavemen though, and no sheet-folding lakeside ladies, although in fairness the weather was not terribly conducive to laundry, so I am prepared to let it go for the moment; I may have to come back in the summer to check.
When I was living in Uzbekistan,the only English TV channel available was BBC World News. This was a little surprising given that BBC journalists had been banned from the country for several years at that point, but I was grateful for it. When watching Russian dubs of Mamma Mia palled (hard to believe, I know, but it happens), the BBC was my background noise of choice. Since they can’t use commercial advertising, the breaks between the updates on the antics of minor members of the royal family, studio audiences in Qatar arguing over US foreign policy, and interviews with African Union delegates which constitute most of BBC World’s output were filled with promotional shorts from the tourist boards of various countries. You know the kind: spectacular scenery/wildlife/ruins interspersed with shots of an attractive tourist couple being hugged by local children all improbably wearing national costume, learning traditional dances from nice young ladies in spiffy hats, and buying each other necklaces in the shiny new shopping malls, all set to an exciting soundtrack (cliché-filled narration optional) and finished off with a slogan of superb banality and/or incomprehensibility.
In the absence of any other TV, I became quite the connoisseur of these little promos. Back then, BBC World was dominated by Incredible India (I actually quite like this one) and Malaysia Truly Asia (snooooresville) with a sprinkling of South Africa: It’s Possible (the narration wins a prize for the most clichés packed into a minute, and believe me, the competition is stiff in this genre), all countries with well-funded tourist boards that could afford to get these commercials run multiple times a day. However, like all the best trainspotters, I was much more excited by the more elusive appearances from countries with slightly less generous marketing budgets; quite a few, now that I look back on it, came from the corner of the world I’m currently exploring. Kosovo: The Young Europeans (not so much a tourism promo as a political statement), Montenegro: Wild Beauty (featuring a flying mermaid) and Croatia: The Mediterranean As It Once Was (what happens when a advertising company decides it can’t be bothered and just throws a bunch of random clips together) all showed up only once a month or so and were savoured accordingly. But how ever frequently they aired, they are all pretty similar. Mostly they are pretty uninspired. Sometimes they are hilarious (see above re: flying mermaids). Very rarely do they actually pique my interest in a particular country.
The one exception was one I only ever saw a couple of times, but it really stuck with me. It covers all the standard ground (scenery! ruins! dancing!) but you can tell that some genuine thought has gone into it (it even has a framing device!). There are some ill-advised costuming decisions (why is there even a caveman in the first place?), but also some really tasty-looking watermelon. There is a small child involved, but she somehow manages to avoid murderous levels of annoyance. They do not stint on the icons and archaeology. Congratulations, Macedonia, you have my attention.
All of which is an incredibly long-winded way of saying that this evening I’m flying to Macedonia for a week and I cannot wait. If there aren’t lakeside ladies folding sheets on their heads (what?) I’m going to be terribly disappointed.