…that is, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia for those of you grecophiles who aren’t aware that “Macedonia” refers to a country, not just a region of Greece.
While I was traveling in Macedonia with my trusty companion, Phil, and a British girl we picked up in Moldova (for very cheap, yes), we found ourselves in the capital city of Skopje with not even an inkling of an idea of what there was to see. As is apparently the custom for young Anglo/American tourists in most nations lying east of the West, our host suggested we hire a taxi driver for the day to be our personal chauffeur/servant. It was quite a deal; we each only had to pay 15 dollars. Apparently 45 USD is the daily rate of servitude in the FYRoM.*
The taxi picked us up from the hostel, and the driver, as per the recommendation of the host, drove us to a beautiful manmade lake outside town. He was a friendly man, and his English, though not perfect, was for the most part intelligible. He talked about his family and his roots (he was actually Montenegrin**) and seemed to be sincere and sentimental. He talked about how much he disliked Macedonia in spite of the scenic beauty because of the corruption problems in government. And he talked more and more, seeming almost afraid to allow silence, or rather afraid to allow us to escape him without befriending.
When we got to the lake, he joined us in walking around it. We went to sit at a riverbed and he sat with us. When we finished, he suggested a seafood restaurant in town, and so we all ate dinner as per his suggestion and merrily drank beers with the local. Because at this point, he was more than just our taxi driver, we paid for his meal, and he blushed in gratitude.
As it turned out, that day was his day off, but he was pulling in a favor for a friend. A really long, six-hour favor.
What made the biggest impression on me was a conversation he had with the girl we picked up in Moldova (very strong back, good hands, yes):
Him – “Where are you from?”
Her – “London.”
Him – “London! I have always wanted to go to London. It has been my dream to travel to London.”
Her – “Yeah? It’s a great city. I love living there.”
Him – “Unfortunately, I will never go. I will never get to see London. Not beyond a postcard in my life.”
Her – “Wait, why not?”
Him – “I am too poor. Too poor for London. All of Macedonia is too poor for London.”
Macedonia is a developed country. It’s in Europe and has long since entered the First World. Yet even then an employed middle-class Macedonian man is too poor to realize his lifelong dream of visiting London. Meanwhile, us Anglophones literally bought his day with 45 dollars without a second thought. There we were, from the West, running amok amongst those desperately trying to become the West, throwing cash at taxis, hostels, and food. We were but children, and the World was our playground. That is our lucky fortune of being born where we were. We have the privilege of being able to see the world and realize the dreamy fantasy of far-off mysterious places.
Most people can’t. That’s why it’s all the more important to be a gracious traveler and tourist. It is our birth privilege to be able to see places like London. Take advantage of your unique privileges, and don’t vomit all over them on the way back from the pub.
And to you, Mr. Taxi Driver, thank you for your service and friendship. May you find your way, against all supposed odds, to the land of the River Thames.
* FYRoM stands for “Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.” Greece and FYRoM continuously battle over the right to use the term “Macedonia.” Because ancient Macedonians spoke Ancient Greek, Greece feels that the slavic-speaking nation of FYRoM has absolutely no right to claim the Macedonian heritage, and thus can’t use the M-word. Little do they realize Ancient Greek is just as unintelligible to modern Greeks as is slavic Macedonian, Mandarin Chinese, and Navajo.
** A fake country. Having been to Montenegro, I’ve decided Montenegrins are just Serbs who like the beach.