Jan Minno Rozendal
2018-09-21 10:15 — Bitola, Macedonia
As often in life, the journey becomes the goal itself. We, my Basque roommate Ainara and myself, are on our way to one of the highlights of Bitola: the remains of the antique city of Heraclea Lyncestis, which was founded in the 4th century BC by Philippus II, father of Alexander the Great. It’s a nice little walk, about 3 kilometers, from our apartment. We go in the morning, before it’s too hot.
On our way we come across a cemetery, which includes war graves from World War I. We hear sacred music coming from the chapel nearby, and since we’ve decided to try out everything that crosses our path, we are entering the holy place. Immediately a volunteer is coming towards us, and he introduces himself as Antonio, nicknamed ‘Little Tony’. He is clearly happy with the unexpected company and very welcoming, while he is constantly caressing his impressive beard. Meanwhile he apparently has made a (supernatural?) sign to someone outside, as a lady enters not much later with grapes and local cakes.
While we are eating, our host is working his way through the history of the Orthodox faith. Enthusiastically he tells his tales, until suddenly the G-word is mentioned. To be clear: that’s Greece. All of a sudden Tony stops his religious story mid-sentence, and switches to the local history and in particular the current political situation. On the 30th of september there’s going to be a referendum about changing the name of the country from ‘Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia’ to ‘North Macedonia’, as was arranged with the Greek government.
As in any referendum, there’s a yes-camp and a no-camp. But here in Macedonia, a third camp is forming: according to them, even asking the question is so absurd and such a humiliation, they will not be voting on that day. Macedonia is Macedonia, and that’s that: they’re not gonna be bullied by the Greeks!
I understand that it’s not a good idea to argue with Tony on this issue.
All of a sudden I am, unawarely, entering a role-play. ‘I am Greece,’ Tony explains in his broken English, ‘and you are Macedonia. And now I do this with you!’ Before I know what is going on exactly, Tony is spreading his 9 ½ fingers - a story for another day - around my neck. Just as I think it’s time to give Ainara a sign to call 112, he lets go. His face clears up again, and later on even agrees to be in a photograph.
That has to happen outside, though, as in the chapel it is forbidden to take pictures. With one exception: if I am converting to the Orthodox faith in the chapel during my two months’ stay here, Ainara may take pictures of that event, Tony says smiling while we say goodbye.