Guide to SKOPJE

Where did our part of town go?


It’s Sunday morning. The radio’s on, this year’s last rays of beautiful sunshine are coming through the windows, and the colours…? The colours are a different story, starting with the yellow linden trees in Guro Gakovik Street, the red chestnut trees in Naum Naumovski Street and even golden in the line of trees in Leninova and Orce Nikolov Street. Yes, it’s me and my part of town alone on a Sunday morning. It’s the only day of the seven given to us that I can enjoy it. I say part of town, not neighbourhood. I have too much respect for this part of Skopje, our Skopje not theirs, to just call it a neighbourhood, because Bunjakovec and Debar Maalo are much more than that. They keep the stories of our growing up in a place where there wasn’t any traffic between 2 – 5 pm to disturb the afternoon nap, where people gathered for a chat in the evening at the legendary bench, where in October the smell of ajvar peppers filled the air, where it was odd to keep your door locked, where we lived in the centre of the city yet so far from it.

I’m alone with it, well, it is Sunday after all. It’s nice to evoke memories, ‘cause they are all I have left now, memories mixed with feelings, smells and events from another time, a time that seems so distant now, fading away, soon to be gone forever. I remember Tomce the tailor and his portable shop. They had been around for 40 years shaping the character of these parts. The shop’s called Champion, a name that made us feel like champions at the end of the 80s with the river just across Ilindenska Street. Uncle Tomce, dressed up in a smart suit, would greet us, put on his hat and leave, just to repeat the routine the next day. When I see the man with the hat, I feel as if I’m holding the figs stolen from the garden across the street from the Evil Aegean man as we used to call him, ‘cause he would get furious although his figs would rot anyway. Then there was the roundabout where we had our bike races. We would ride in circles ‘till it was spinning in our heads.

The City Park as they called it was ours only, from early morning until late in the evening we explored every corner of it to brag that we knew it better than anyone else. Later we turned to exploring the neighbourhood. Starting from Stop, the dog that always barked at us ‘cause it could sense what we were up to, near Idadija restaurant, we would climb the garage, and from there on we went through every shed, little kitchen, yard, over the fences, past smiling faces, grumpy faces, to the other end of the neighbourhood. The more they yelled at us the happier we were with our mission. The smells and aromas were unparalleled. Winter stores being prepared in autumn, honeysuckle and linden trees in spring – a sign that school was almost over, and summer was reserved for the backyard cherries, the juiciest cherries in the world. The best way to start the summer holiday was to climb up the cherry tree and look onto the red roof shingles of the neighbours’ houses.

And the people. Ah, the people. They were no ordinary characters, but legends, good and bad as the word spread. What can you expect from people known only by their nicknames. It’s been too long, too many leaves have fallen, too much snow has covered the memories, it’s hard to remember everyone. Take Kiro the Bulgarian for example, and his eyebrows hanging like canopy, spreading fear among younger generations. Or Sexy Laze, a nickname that has remained a mystery to all. There are a few unconfirmed versions – yet, their explicitness does not allow me to tell any of them. Ha, ha, and the jokes and pranks the adults played on each other. We saw it every day, though we could not understand it properly. Once, the local jokers managed to persuade a mechanic to blow through the spark plugs of his Lada every week, so that this top achievement of Soviet automobile industry wouldn’t break down. As if it wasn’t enough, they made him change the air in the tyres every day. I can still see the poor man deflating and pumping up all four tyres for three days. Did they have mercy on him? Did he react in any way? Well, just a little, and the friendship went on.

The more I write about it, the more memories come back to me, like an old film running through an even older projector, worn, yellow, even torn at places, but the story is good. Similar to the kung-fu films we watched with carefree happiness at the Karpos cinema every Saturday. Yes, you’re right, the present cafè is standing on the foundations of the cinema – it is good to see somebody decided to pay respect to the Skopje Odeon. It was the sweetest joy  in the winter, Skopje winter with freezing cold temperatures and ice, and inside the cinema it was cold again, there was no heating, but we warmed our hearts with shaolin monks with bad English dubbing, running on the old projector with hair stuck to the sides. And they fought and fought, leaving no survivors. Naturally, we followed the trends when a few years later the Japanese killers in black became global icons, and we watched American Ninja. I don’t know whether it was the influence of the former state or the fact that the titles were in Serbo-Croatian but we started using Serbian words. Reading back what I’ve written I’m beginning to think that those days were so carefree. You know what, they really were. It was the golden period of Yugoslav economy. Or at least it seemed so to us. We realized that there were other chocolates besides the ones made by Kras and Evropa. I believe it was then when one of us saw kiwi in the market thinking it was some new kind of hairy potatoes. Those were the golden days for the neighbourhood too, although we didn’t know they would end soon after. We kept our peace and quiet despite the turbulent transition. There were no cars between 2-5pm, Idadija, still united, roasted its kebabs and pork ribs, undisturbed by any competitors. The Singer sewing machine kept buzzing in Champion tailor shop, vacuum cleaners and washing machines kept being serviced in Sloboda Cacak. The football club Vardar seemed to be doing quite well in the new ambience, the old men kept rambling on the bench, the neighbours still hammered and tightened their old “fico” and “stojadin” cars, the cherry tree in the back was doing just fine, and the figs kept rotting. We could still sit in front of the Central Committee building, lighting our first cigarettes. And they say there was no democratic change. Oh, yes there was. And it was big, tectonic change that came very soon. Some guys came up with an idea that these parts were suitable for some beautification. It wasn’t corrective surgery they had in mind, it was plastic surgery that changed the face of it, and the people. Let’s knock down one or two small houses and build a small building.   Nothing big, just some thirty apartments. You know, for the close family, my son and daughter. It wasn’t just one or two buildings, it became a trend. It was all new, more beautiful, they said. Why have all those old, rundown, brick houses when you can have modern ones made of concrete and glass.

New spaces open for new people to move in, and we come to the moment when not only the face of it but also the population changed. We, the original inhabitants became a minority, giving way to newcomers from everywhere and from nowhere. It’s strange how all those who come to the city wish to live in the center. Maybe they all lived in the centre of their towns. Then came another phenomenon – on the ground floor they didn’t open a grocery store, they opened a coffee bar, not one, they opened a zillion bars. Every little space was turned into a bar – not the “Cheers” type of bar. Deafening noise comes out of every corner, cars roar speeding through the narrow streets and are parked on the pavements blocking the gate to your house, so called singers scream out of the bars, their visitors find manners an abstract notion or have forgotten them at home. That is what it looks like now. The bench is gone, the tailor shop was swallowed by a gigantic monster and the buzz of the Singer sewing machine along with it. Tomce and his hat can only be found in our thoughts. Sloboda – Cacak is gone together with the vacuum cleaners and washing machines. I can’t hear the Bulgarian nor see his thick eyebrows, Sexy has left too. They cut down the cherry tree. Figs didn’t even live long enough to rot, they pulled the fig tree out of the ground. Nobody repairs their old cars anymore. They replaced them with Porsches, BMWs, Jaguars, Mercedes that don’t require any hammering or tightening.

We miss the Shaolin films and Karpos cinema. It was among to first to go. There’s a really nice garrison-like building standing there now. We’ve had some divisions, too. Two Idadija restaurants now to be able to deal with the growing competition. Restaurants grow like mushrooms to the amusement of the locals who are now a dying sort. It has become a haven for alcoholics they say, and they seem to be growing in number now the times have changed. Vardar started losing matches, and they took the City Stadium and gave us Philip II – a truly important name in the history of the park and the city. As I’m writing these lines a quote comes to my mind – Gary Oldman in State of Grace says – Can you believe how much our neighbourhood has changed? They don’t even want to call it “Hell’s Kitchen” no more. Renamed it “Clinton”. So, we are left with nothing more but memories. Memories evoked on a Sunday morning with the sunshine coming through the windows, memories of those unforgettable times, so dear to us, yet times that will never come back.

The process of populating the area on the outskirts of Skopje of that time, which is now known as Debar Maalo and Bunjakovec, began in the 1920s. According to available information the land belonged to two men, Varon and Bunjak, and to banks and companies. The population of these two neighbourhoods mostly moved here from Debar and the surroundings, because of the poverty. What is characteristic about them is that they are a hardworking and honest people, traits that are deeply ingrained in their work and life. The city grew and expanded over the years and these two neighbourhoods were incorporated in it. They were considered to be the best-preserved parts of pre-war Skopje that survived the earthquake in 1963 and the years of transition, but not the neo-colonialism trend that started in the beginning of 21st century.

Vladimir Mirchevski