Thursday, July 31, 2008

Notes from Skopje, part2 – taxi drivers, ethnic etiquette, and a lost camera

Then there are the taxi drivers who wait in front of the hospital. Since our car is in storage in Kosovo right now we use their services several times a day, and some of them now count us as friends. In fact, a number of them have really taken to heart our hunt for a house. Every time they see me, they shout out: “So have you found anything yet? I just heard about a place over in Gazi Baba. Do you want me to take you to see it?” One of them ran up to me yesterday with an advertiser newspaper. “Hey, I bought this just for you. Look, it’s got lots of good houses!”

It’s hard to explain to them why we would prefer to live on the north side of the Vardar River where Albanians predominate. The streets tend to be dirtier, steeper, and more twisted over there. There are spots where one could be awakened at the crack of dawn by the call to prayer ringing out from three or four different mosques at once. Even Albanians have quietly expressed reservations. “You’d be better off on the south side of the river. They’re more cultured than we are.”

I shouldn’t give the impression that the river is some kind of solid barrier between the ethnicities. There are plenty of mosques on "the Orthodox side" and churches on "the Muslim side". There have always been Macedonian families among the Albanians on the north side; and as the Albanian population grows, upwardly mobile Albanian families are increasingly buying houses on the south side. It would be nearly impossible to find an ethnically pure neighborhood in Skopje anymore.

Those of you who keep up with me on flickr or facebook will know by now that I lost my camera. We went out on Saturday morning to meet a friend, and there were only a couple of taxis in the usual spot. I didn’t see anyone familiar, so we got in the first one we came to. As always I looked up at the rearview mirror to try and determine the ethnicity of the driver. Most Macedonians display a cross or an icon, whereas Albanians often hang prayer beads or Koranic verses. In this case, there was nothing. That would tend to suggest that he was Albanian since Albanian drivers often avoid overt religious symbols when working on the south side of the river so as not to warn away Macedonian customers. He looked a little bit Albanian – to me at least – but I’m not that good at telling them apart. However, the radio was tuned to a Macedonian station. Mixed signals.

I greeted him and told him our destination in Macedonian, which is always the safe thing to do when you don’t know. If it turned out that he was Albanian, and I switched to speaking in Albanian, he would be delighted. But if he was Macedonian and I started in Albanian, he might be offended. After a minute Mary asked him outright, “Are you Macedonian?” But she used the feminine form of the word, so it came out like, “Are you a Macedonian woman?” He didn’t seem to mind much. He chuckled a bit and said, “Yes, I’m a Macedonian”, using the same word she had used. After that I didn’t bother to try to make conversation since my Macedonian is very limited. I kept my head down and fiddled with my new mobile phone. When we arrived at our destination, I was concentrating on the phone so much that I forgot all about the camera sitting at my feet on the floorboard. I didn’t even miss it till a half hour later.

Since then I scan the faces of the drivers in front of the hospital every time I step outside hoping to see him again. Apparently he isn’t one of the regulars here. To tell the truth, I’m not sure that I would recognize him now if I saw him. If the driver had been Albanian, I’m pretty sure that I would have gotten my camera back by now. We would have chatted along the way, and he would have known where I’m staying so that if he were honest he could have brought it to me. And even if he weren’t honest, I would have known where he lives, how many kids he has, etc. – enough information to track him down.

Of course I tried to enlist the help of the other taxi drivers. “What was the name of the company?” they asked me. “What kind of car was it?” Unfortunately, I didn’t remember anything useful. “Well that’s what you get for just hopping in the car with just anybody!” one of them finally said in exasperation. “You need to learn to ride with your friends!”

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