Macedonia is a country that most folk don’t know about, let alone can locate on a world map. It’s the kind of destination that Barry from the pub down the road once claimed he visited on a 1980s football world tour, back when he had hair and an entirely misplaced sense of patriotism (cunningly disguised as racism).
And, in fairness, visiting Macedonia is a little like going back in time several decades; especially when it comes to the more rural parts of the country. Driving from the capital city of Skopje to the lakeside tourist destination of Lake Ohrid was certainly an experience*. Despite taking a holiday on the set from ‘Life on Mars’, myself, level-headed Molly, international spokesman Angus and trusted navigator Gord, all rapidly fell in love with the place. The scenery was stunningly beautiful, the way of life was relaxed and exceptionally tolerant, and the people… well the people were the most interesting part**.
To get around the country we had hired a rental car, and had been parking said car in the carpark of a local supermarket***. Each day we’d pick it up in the morning and go off on some adventures, parking it back up in the evening or late afternoon when we returned back to the lakeside settlement. One day, when we attempted to get the car we found that it was totally blocked in by other cars – one in particular. This had put a rather large spanner in the works as our plan for the day was to drive around the lake to a place that we could go scuba diving at.
We had a quick conference in front of the blocked car and decided that we would call our airbnb host, Vladimiro. He’d been very helpful in directing us to both the airbnb flat and the parking space, so we figured he may know the locals at the supermarket and be able to do some translations. To our surprise not only was he very helpful, he dropped everything to come over to the carpark himself and stage an intervention.
Vlad rocked up in a full grey tracksuit, sporting a man-bag, some worn out trainers, and stare that said “if you fuck with me your body might not ever be found”.
Having never met him face to face before we impolitely stared at him, worrying about the consequences of our call. In a deep and rasping voice, with a thick and heavy accent he asked us about our plans and how long we had been waiting. Politely we replied, and made it very clear that it really wasn’t much bother, we could go diving another day. He nodded thoughtfully with a 1000 yard stare before wandering off into the supermarket to recruit some of the staff to his head-hunting team without saying a word to us. We remained by the blocked car, awkwardly waiting like stereotypical British colonials waiting for a goddamn tea shipment.
A short while later Vlad came out of the supermarket and informed us that he had not been able to find the car owners. He pulled out an ancient nokia phone and got to work ringing apparently everyone he knew in the city****. We stood and waited for a while before trying to politely reiterate that we were happy to wait and go on an adventure another day instead. He silenced our protests with a slow shake of his head, and explained that he was going “get some contacts in”.
At this point we felt that we were officially in a mafia film.
Our patient and ever so slightly nervous waiting shifted into anxious pacing, occasionally throwing one another uneasy glances. At any point we were expecting to be thrown into the midst of an interrogation. And, being British, we were not well equipped for that level of directness with a stranger. After a few intense minutes Vlad hung up the phone and fixed us with a penetrating stare. Expressionless, he told us that “it was being taken care of”. Fucking hell.
…And then the police show up.
This was a little too much for us and before we knew it we were spouting clear and forceful protests such as “well, you know…”, and “honestly, it’s not a big deal…” to Vlad and the police, hoping that the sheer passive strength of our protests – that had as much structural integrity as a damp piece of toilet paper – would somehow convince them to take pity on us and let us go home for a sit down and a cup of tea. But, they were having none of it. Vlad told us to wait, and so in fear of waking up to a horse’s head in the back of the car the next day we feebly agreed to stay put.
Five or so minutes later a black car rolls up with tinted windows and specialised hub caps. The carpark becomes deadly silent. The supermarket staff pause their tasks and watch the car. Vlad waits in silence with a jaw that would make a setsquare jealous. Two huge, tattooed tracksuited-up guys get out of the car and slowly begin swaggering up to our car in a motion that put john wayne to shame. We look up at them like rabbits caught in headlights.
They speak in Macedonian. We reply in English, telling them that we’re sorry, we don’t know the language.
They pause, frown. A scowl appears across their colossal brows. Fuck, we think collectively.
Vlad stares on in silence. The tension in the carpark could be cut with a knife…
And then one of them blurts out “We are SO sorry! Goodness, you must think so badly of us!”
We briefly exchange looks with one another, baffled. What on earth was going on…
The Macedonian man continued flamboyantly “Idiot here (camply gesturing to his partner) wasn’t supposed to park the car like this. We are so SO sorry to ruin your day!”
We immediately apologise as well, being British. Honestly, it wasn’t a big deal. No day ruined. Projecting big smiles around the carpark and especially at Vlad in a desperate effort to make the situation end quickly and with no bad blood.
“No, no no. I will not hear it.” The man continues, “We have ruined your day. Stupid is as stupid does, eh?” He playfully punched Angus in the shoulder, knocking him back several feet across the carpark.
We profusely agree. Honestly, we’ll get out of your way now. Vlad slowly nods towards them. They notice Vlad’s signal and one of the men gets into the car and removes it from blocking ours, while the other leaves the car park in the other pimped up car that they arrived in. Vlad remains motionless by the side, expressionless. We leap into the car and start up the engine, Angus manoeuvres us out more quickly than I’ve ever seen him drive before. As we leave the carpark we wind one window down to say thank you to Vlad on our way out. He nods and says, “When you get to the lake, you find a man called Yohan.” –
Fuck. Were we expected to do him a favour now that he had done one for us? Were we officially in the mafia too? How were we going to tell our mothers that we had ended up murdering someone on holiday because we couldn’t leave a carpark?
-“You tell him that Vladimiro of the lake police sent you. He will give you a good price for scuba diving.”
Utterly dumbfounded we couldn’t even muster a response. The police? This is the Macedonian police? Molly took the initiative and leaned out of the window and said a final thank you before whispering to Angus to “start fucking driving”. And so, after the carpark saga and the plot twist of the century we rocked up to the scuba diving centre in the nick of time and had an utterly amazing, adventure-filled day.
*The kind of experience where you wonder if you kept on driving to the other side of the country would you eventually end up in the dark ages, foraging for berries while your family died of the plague.
**The people were unbelievably friendly and welcoming. Unfortunately this did mean that upon meeting one of our airbnb hosts we were unable to get her to stop talking about her cat – Zorro – for several hours while she made us continual rounds of thick, black coffee.
**We had been assured by our airbnb hosts that this was in fact the allocated parking spot that was included with the flat. It was definitely just a supermarket car park.
*** Although Ohrid is technically counted as a city, it is definitely the size of a small town in the UK.