Balkan Summer 2022 Trip, Part VIII: Skopje & Demir Kapija, 20 Years Later

After returning from our 10-day, whirlwind 2,000 kilometer road trip around the former Yugoslavia last summer, we only had one full day remaining in Macedonia before our flight home to Virginia. My husband V and I decided it made no sense to return the rental car to the airport, only to turn around and take a taxi back to the airport for our early morning flight less than 36 hours later. Instead we skipped going to the airport twice and paying for taxis in favor of just keeping the car and leveraging it for a short visit to my former Peace Corps homestay family.

They lived a couple of hours south of the capital city, Skopje, in the town of Demir Kapija. We knew paying them a weekday morning visit was probably not ideal; we were on vacation but that didn’t mean anyone else was. Fortunately, (a) it’s Macedonia and (b) we had already been in touch with them to align schedules. We certainly couldn’t visit everyone we wanted on this trip because of time constraints; for the first time, I never made it to the far east, back to the site where I had served as a Peace Corps Volunteer. But as they had once opened their home to me, I did not want to leave without seeing them. It seemed apropos that 20 years after first coming to Macedonia I was returning to where it all began.

When we’d returned from Serbia the afternoon beforehand, we had a leisurely outdoor dinner with V’s visiting brother and three of his six kids. I was then able to capture some photos and video of one of my favorite moments of the trip: V with his mom and brother singing old Yugoslav folk songs on their mom’s front patio.

A widow for almost 24 years already, it was great to see her smiling, singing, and even dancing a little bit, and it was funny to hear how the three of them intertwined their melodies and occasionally engaged in jovial bickering over precise song lyrics.

One of my favorite moments of the trip: an evening of folk singing by the three Vs

The following morning, V and I left A in Skopje to spend her last day with cousins and friends. We departed the capital, driving the 75 miles south to Demir Kapija along the A4/E75 highway that forms the main north-to-south artery across the country.

The first time I’d ever been to Demir Kapija was back in November 2002 when I’d arrived in Macedonia along with 19 other Peace Corps Trainees. After three months of Pre-Service Training and homestay on the front end, I would serve two years volunteering in the environmental education and management sector. The 20 of us were broken out into four groups of five, and my group was assigned to families in Demir Kapija. The other three groups were in towns nearby; during the weeks we did language training separately in our towns and on the weekend we all met together at a central hub for cross-cultural and technical training. (Yes, we even had a little free time, too!)

Demir Kapija is Turkish for iron gate, the words a reminder of 500 years of Ottoman Empire rule in the Balkans. There are still so many legacies of that time sprinkled through both the culture and language. I remember sitting on the bus from the airport heading south along that same freeway, marveling at the imposing mountains rising up all around us against the backdrop of an early winter sky.

Skopje to Demir Kapija, around 75 miles.
Not a huge country, but 20 years ago when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer and restricted from having a car, using the bus system made everything seem more out of reach

After a few days in a hotel with the group, we’d all gone into homestay. I’d moved in with T, A, and their two-year old son N and stayed with them until our group’s official swearing in – unbeknownst to me, on my future stepdaughter A’s fourth birthday a world away. Then I moved to my official work site in February 2003 in the eastern, more remote part of the country, a stone’s throw from the Bulgarian border. There I lived alone, but T and another person from town drove me there and made sure I was safely ensconced in my new digs.

I had returned to see my homestay family once or twice once I was out on my own as a Volunteer. Then after I closed my Peace Corps service in 2004, I went back as a tourist in 2005, 2006, and 2011, visiting them each time. So a visit was now long overdue in 2022!

I’m pretty sure there are some PCVs who rarely visit their homestay families again after they move out; in some countries you live with a family for the duration of your training plus your following two years of service. It can be kind of an intense experience, and I was fortunate the family I lived with took care of me without being overbearing with food and customs as some PCVs experienced. I think the fact my “mom” and “dad” were only about four and six years older than me, respectively, helped.

We would miss their son N this visit. He had celebrated his second birthday while I lived in their home, but he was now studying in university in Germany. However, his sister M, six years younger and born after I’d lived with them, was already in high school and knew English. T suggested we meet for brunch at a local winery called Royal Winery “Queen Maria.” M was working at the winery and could give us a tour.

V with my homestay dad, T for brunch

In the last 15 years, Macedonia has developed its wine industry far beyond what I remember it being like in the early 2000s. When I lived in Demir Kapija, the Queen Maria was in a state of disrepair and closed to the public. Frankly I’m not sure I even knew it existed in any real way. I think A mentioned it once, but I thought, She’s kidding. A winery? Being from northern California, I was not impressed; I didn’t see so much as a vine anywhere. Now the estate features acres of vineyards, boutique hotel rooms, courtyard dining and wine bar, winery tours, and a fully-stocked gift shop.

The mountainous, central part of the country in the Vardar River valley near Negotino and Kavadarci – larger towns less than 20 miles from Demir Kapija – boasts the Povardarie wine region. Macedonia’s 75+ wineries across its three major wine regions produce varietals popular on the domestic market and throughout the Balkans, but the wines beloved to Macedonian wine aficionados (like a complex red Vranac or an intense white Temjanika) are not really household names abroad much beyond the diaspora.

#PostcardFlashback: Me and V in September 2011 at the Кавадарци Гроздобер (Kavadarci Wine Festival) hanging out with current and former PCVs and Macedonian friends and enjoying wine and food from the Popova Kula Winery

With that said, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce, as of August 2022, wine production and viticulture (grapevine cultivation) contributed up to 20 percent of Macedonia’s gross agricultural product. Macedonia also exports more wine than any other type of alcohol with close to two-thirds of its total wine production going abroad. And although most Macedonian wine is exported to the European Union and western Balkan countries, some also goes to markets in China, Japan, Canada, and the United States. As of 2022, wine is only second to tobacco in overall value amongst Macedonia’s agricultural exports – a total market of somewhere around $700 million USD (2021).

[If you are so inclined, you can read more about foreign trade, labor, and the business climate in Macedonia via the State Department’s 2022 Investment Climate Statement, here.]

Royal Winery “Queen Maria”

The Queen Maria winery was founded in 1928 by King of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes Aleksandar Karadjordjevic (beginning in 1929 his title changed to King of Yugoslavia). The king named the winery for his wife, Maria of Romania.

Walking around the serene grounds, I got the sense the royal couple had a true appreciation of the natural beauty and fertility of the area, choosing to spend time there over anywhere else in Europe they could have gone. King Karadjordjevic was later assassinated in 1934 at the age of 45 during a state visit to France. Maria herself died in the UK in the 1960s; her mother had been born into the British Royal family.

Royal Winery “Queen Marija” ~ Demir Kapija, Macedonia, August 2022

Today, the winery produces around a dozen different wines, mostly reds and whites but also a rosé and a “blue” wine. The parking is a bit far from the hotel/apartment accommodations, and a few of the menu items we tried to order during our brunch were not available. This reminded me of my prior life in Macedonia, in which many times the appearance of something is more important than the reality. The standard of service is still not often commensurate with the expectations of foreign guests they hope to attract. But in the end, we didn’t go there to be impressed by the facilities – which were lovely in any case – but to visit with a family I enjoy staying in touch with.

Bottom: Living with my homestay family in Demir Kapija in 2002.
Top: Coming back to visit them with V in 2011.

With V and my homestay parents A and T, and their daughter M. Their son N joined via FaceTime from his university studies in Germany, and he spoke English too! (August 2022)

It was great to spend a few hours catching up, hearing how the family was doing, and how environmental work – an arena A had worked in at the municipal level for some years – was going. I was surprised to learn T had been hospitalized for months in Skopje with COVID-19 earlier in 2022. Despite being a little weaker afterwards, he was feeling much better. Unlike many of his peers, he had never been a drinker or smoker, had no major health issues, and maintained a healthy weight. So I was startled as he recounted how very seriously ill he had been, and we were all relieved he had pulled through. It was a good reminder that even healthy people with few risk factors continue to be knocked down by this virus.

They presented us with a homemade bottle of grape rakija (Balkan moonshine brandy) and eventually we made our way back to Skopje. V and I went for an afternoon walk in the neighborhood before he left to run some final errands with A, and I made more than a half dozen bottles of wine and liquor we had accumulated during the trip disappear into my suitcases.

Finding the sweetest kitten on our walk around V’s childhood neighborhood – too young to be separated from its mother, we were relieved to learn although it had been abandoned, it was being cared for around the clock by a nearby shopkeeper

We enjoyed our last dinner with family and rose shortly after midnight to take turns showering and getting ready to leave to the airport. In particular I had gone to bed early; A and V have no trouble sleeping on planes, whereas I struggle mightily to sleep in a chair (or anywhere else I cannot lay flat).

Both the ungodly hour and the possibility we wouldn’t return for a year or more made it hard to say goodbye, especially to V’s mom at her age. But that’s part of the hardship of this globally-mobile life. She does not want to come and live with us wherever we are, preferring to stay in her own home, surrounded by her friends, her memories, her language, and her culture. As most of us would. It is understandable. And we prefer to keep on the move, experiencing new places and lifestyles in new countries. Our reasons for wanting this life have little to do with our family, but there are times our choices feel “in conflict” with what really matters and I momentarily wonder if we are doing the right thing, like when I look at the photo below.

V saying goodbye to his mom as his eldest niece D looks on

V and daughter A headed into the Skopje International Airport in the wee hours of the morning

We drove to the airport, and after a brief tactical error on my part in which I actually exited the airport before managing to loop back and find the entrance to the rental car return lot, we managed to sweep all of our items out of the Toyota without forgetting so much as a phone charger, bid it farewell, and make our way to the check-in counter.

As I had purchased my plane ticket at a different time than V and the kids, not sure exactly for how long I’d be joining them on the trip, I’d actually paid more to fly in premium economy on a fully refundable ticket. Part of my reasoning was around having a member of my family ill with cancer on the west coast; I didn’t want to lose a lot of money on plane tickets if I needed to change my plans and return home rather than go on vacation. And part of it was just wanting to maximize my comfort during the trip. As it turned out, this was smart for two reasons.

First, since I had my two suitcases pre-paid as part of my ticket price, I did not have to go to multiple counters in the airport to pay fees as V and A did. I don’t know why they couldn’t just do it quickly when dropping the bags. It was all very confusing and we never got to the bottom of it. I think it was less their fault than just airport personnel ineptitude, but nevertheless the genesis of it was their ticket class because I didn’t have to do the same thing.

They took their papers to another counter where we waited almost a half hour, even though no one else was there. Nothing was really wrong, but we hadn’t made it through security yet, and at 04:00 before two connecting international flights, every unexplained delay is anxiety-producing. As a poker-faced airline representative typed endlessly on a computer terminal while not telling us what was happening, A and I exchanged looks over our newly-donned paper masks that alternatively signaled, “I’m so glad we were this early,” and “I kind of want to stab someone.”

Finally almost our turn!

And second, once we made our connecting flight in Vienna for the big hop over the ocean, I was in for a surprise. Almost as soon as I was seated in the first row of premium economy next to one other gentleman, and V and A had found their seats further back in coach, the senior flight attendant approached my seatmate and I to confirm we were not traveling together. The flight attendant then indicated premium economy had been inadvertently overbooked, but that he had two open first class seats he would be happy to reseat us into.

I almost opened my mouth to say I was fine, as I had just settled in and already felt lucky to have such a nice arrangement, when I looked beyond the curtain to where he was gesturing and realized – the food, the films, the unlimited champagne. I could lay flat! (Really, doesn’t it seem when it rains it pours? It’s the times you can already swing your legs out and hardly touch the wall when you get an empty seat beside you, and then get upgraded to boot, whereas when you’ve put on a couple extra pounds, the person next to you is spilling into your space and the jerk in front of you decides to recline.)

My seatmate and I grinned at one another and got the hell up to first class before someone else did. As I settled into a terrific multi-course dinner, it occurred to me that the overbooked passengers, who also appeared not to be traveling together, had likely been rude to the flight attendants, thereby eliminating themselves from consideration for this special treat. I made a mental note to never commit this error in a similar situation, no matter how an airline had wronged me! Not that I’ve probably ever been rude to a flight attendant; you catch more bees with honey, and there’s a reason I always have enough water, blankies, and treats when I fly.

It was my lucky day! I told V and A: “When you can swing it, always buy the better ticket!!”

It was a terrific flight and I arrived at Dulles feeling much less terrible than I ever have after so little sleep the night before a long flight. It was a real effort to get all our suitcases and carry-ons rammed into the Volkswagen along with the three of us, but we managed and unloaded everything at the house right before the overcast sky cracked open and unleashed a furious rainstorm. Soon another mid-Atlantic summer would come to an end.

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Sarah W Gaer

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