Day 1: Pick Pocketed By Gypsy’s In Skopje
Wow, that trip took forever! Houston to Washington to Vienna to Skopje, I thought it would never end, and I actually felt a little queasy between Vienna and Skopje (more tips on what to do in a flight coming soon).
I’ve never flown Austrian Air, and probably would never have if it wasn’t for this trip, but the food was pretty good and the stewardesses were really nice about letting me pray in the back of the plane for however long I needed to. Go Austrian Air!
Along the way, I had some wonderful conversations with a Rabbi and Priest. I know it sounds like the beginning of a comical joke, but… no. We talked about the role of the seminary, different ‘callings’ (aka pastoral community assignments), inside jokes, and the differences between some of the denominations. All in all, I’ve learned the most about Christianity and Judaism today than I have my entire life. Getting it straight from faith leaders is a completely different experience, and it has really enhanced my understanding of these other Abrahamic faiths.
How about this:
- Did you know Lutherans are sent around the country after seminary much like the military? As soon as they graduate they get their first calling at some random church and like Reverend Chris Lake from Conroe, it could be as far away as Nebraska.
- How about the different groups within Judaism? Reform Judaism is more about seeking the spirit of the law whereas; Orthodox Judaism is about the literal law itself.
Ignorant is the word I would use to describe myself after listening to these faith leaders. I kept asking myself, how could I have not known these simple facts about groups of people that make such a large impact in the city? Throughout this trip, I’m sure I’ll learn a great deal about these various faith traditions as well as about my fellow travelers, and I’ll continue to write about these not-so-random-facts as well.
When we landed in Macedonia, we exited off a stair ramp and walked into a bus which took us to the border checkpoint. After waiting in a long line inside a tiny airport we grabbed our bags and walked out into the streets of Skopje, which were set against a backdrop of looming snowcapped mountains.
We got to the Holiday Inn, freshened up, and agreed to meet in the lobby at 3:30 p.m. to go out for a stroll as a group.
Pastor Chris and I decided to take a stroll in lieu of a ‘group outing’ to find a coffee shop. The jet lag was getting to us pretty bad. A 7 hour difference may not seem so much, but our heads and eyelids kept dropping.
When we got to the city mall, about two minutes from the hotel, we were confronted by three Gypsy children who looked like they hadn’t washed in weeks (more to come on the status of the Roma aka Gypsy people in the Balkans). Apparently, he and I stood out like a sore thumb as obvious tourists.
As these children huddled around us asking for money holding their hands up together and saying incoherent things in a desperate manner, one of the kids cleverly reached into my pockets and grabbed my wallet. I noticed it right away and grabbed it back, but without any shame he kept asking me for money. He just pick pocketed me, and he kept asking for more money! Ridiculous.
That would have been a horrible start to a promising trip.
We eventually got away from them, but the experience still lingered. Amongst Gucci, Prada, and other high-end stores set in an almost archaic ex-Communist era mall, these unkempt children were roaming around begging for money and looting tourists.
My moment of the day: Even though some may annoy you, disrupt your plans, and even try to steal from you… instead of looking at what they are doing… reflect on WHY they are doing it. It truly helped keep me calm and I know, as the kids continued to hound Pastor Chris, reflecting on their situation kept him patient as well.
When Chris and I got back to the hotel, we all left together towards the city center and Mother Theresa’s birth place. After which we went to the offices of Zaman Newspaper, a Turkish publication with a satellite office in Skopje. There we learned about the ethnic conflicts between the Albanian and Turk population on one side of the river and the Macedonian population on the other side (literally divided by a river). What it boiled down to was the Albanian and the Turks didn’t have access to higher education, jobs, or even had a voice in parliament, which beginning in 2001 has led to some serious ethnic conflicts in Macedonia, especially in the capital city of Skopje. More analysis on these tensions to come, as we learn more in the coming days.
I went back to the hotel for dinner, and then I heard the adhaan (Muslim call to prayer) from my hotel room. I didn’t originally plan on praying in the masjid, but after hearing the adhaan called in a 85% Christian city I had to see what the community here was like.
Passing through the old city looking for the masjid was quite an experience. Streets paved with cobblestone from the Ottoman days and several Turkish restaurants and bakeries everywhere, made my Chicken Medallion dinner look extremely insignificant. Nice wrap to a long day.
Tomorrow: Tour the old city with a guide, meet faith leaders from Skopje, and hopefully grab some Iskendar Kabab!