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Macedonia: the show must go on – Part One

Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM)

Dedicated to Mustafa, Pasco, once again Alba, the Deutschmark, and MAD magazine

The Obligatory Introduction
(In no way related to the subject matter – what else did you expect?)

What’s all the fuss about? The virtual makeover, I mean. (Click here to see what I’m on about.) Imagine all the trouble: booking a flight to BE’s head office, queuing two days in front of Chez Kay beauty salon and spending £1,000 in the process, only to look like what you have always looked like: a dull computer nerd and internet addict who wastes his/her time reading online travel columns about places he/she won’t ever get to see anyway.

My favourite Star Trek: Voyager character, Seven of Nine, would call that “inefficient”.

You don’t have to be a Borg to practice efficiency, being German comes close enough. Thus your travel correspondent has opted for the German Virtual Makeover. It saves time and money, and is easy to do. It has cost me the lousy amount of 10 Deutschmarks and a mere twenty minutes. Here are the How-Tos:

Step 1: Find a cheap hairdresser. Mine is Kurdish, and he charges exactly DM10,-. Can’t really call that a haircut, it’s more like the obligatory razor application that volunteers to the Royal Marines encounter on their first day. Anyway, it does the job, my big ears stand out ready for their first pilot lesson. Maybe in Florida.

Step 2: Try to open a bottle of German Pilsener with your teeth and see what happens. If you’re as lucky as me, you will break off a front tooth.

Result: Thanks to the German Virtual Makeover, I can hold my head up again, now that no one recognises me any more. People keep stopping me in the street and asking if I’m Alfred E. Neuman from MAD magazine – I’ve lost count of the number of autographs I’ve signed!

The German Virtual Makeover has another great advantage over the version: it can easily be undone. The hair will grow back quickly. And thanks to not living in Britain, you won’t have to wait for half a year until the NHS allows you to see your dentist.

MAD magazine. During the difficult period of puberty, when my parents entered the awkward age at which they would no longer listen to my advice, there was always someone to give attention, understanding and appreciation. Alfred was there for me.

In December 2001 it is time to say goodbye to another companion of my youth and adolescence, the Deutschmark. As even you Brits know, on 1 January 2002 the Euro zone will see the introduction of coins and notes with the abstract € symbol in the twelve participating countries.

A frequent visitor to the Eastern hemisphere, I am already used to monetary union. For until the end of this year, we Germans have been enjoying the unofficial pan-European Deutschmark zone. Travel anywhere in Eastern Europe or the Caucasus and see how far you can get with your pound sterling. Until 31 December 2001, the Deutschmark is the official tender in Kosovo, and the unofficial currency throughout the Balkans. In Macedonia, nothing goes without Deutschmarks.

Macedonia: The Show Must Go On

Macedonia. Or Makedonia, as some people call it. I will have to call it FYROM, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. For in 1994, I was awarded the questionable title of “Goodwill Ambassador for Greek Macedonia” by the then prefect of Imathia Region, Greece. And my friend Thomas from the Byzantine City of Veria in (Greek) Macedonia would end our friendship if I called FYROM what it is: Macedonia.

I could give you a history lesson here on how the Hellenic Macedonians only held on to Lychnidos region, which comprises today’s Macedonian state, for less than a century after the reign of Alexander the Great, until it fell to Rome. And throughout the middle ages, the area was settled by the Berzites, a Slavic tribe, who integrated Ohrid into the Bulgarian empire. An Ottoman invasion and a short period of Byzantine rule aside, today’s FYROM remained part of the Slavic world, and the name Macedonia became widely spread across Europe, replacing the ancient Greek meaning of the word and the Hellenic tribe and area associated with it.

But I don’t want to bore you to death, and I don’t intend to enter into another endless historical discussion with my Greek friends. For nowadays Macedonia has other things to worry about than its Greek neighbours.

Since my visit to Macedonia in winter 2000/2001 – but I hope not as a result of that – we have been bombarded by CNN and the BBC World Service with pictures of atrocities by UCK/KLA rebels looking for new battlegrounds after Kosovo, subsequent civil war in north-western Macedonia, the shelling of the city of Tetovo, an eventual settlement, and the arms collection in NATO’s Essential Harvest operation.

Yet another Balkan country will be stigmatised for years to come. Which is the prime motivation for this month’s column. For despite the travel warnings issued by, among others, the British FCO, the US State Department and the German Foreign Office, Macedonia is again a beautiful and safe travel destination, if you only pick the right routes and practise a little bit of caution. This, for sure, is far off any tourist tracks.

If you aren’t too scared, you may follow me on a journey to scenic mountain ranges, deep blue lakes and ancient monasteries, and discover one of Europe’s most hospitable people. We are heading for the Balkans’ prime insider holiday resort, the city and lake of Ohrid – on the south-westernmost fringe of Macedonia, close to the borders with Albania and Greece.

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