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Twenty Years
read in Macedonian


This next may not make any sense if you are a native of the Balkan countries, but I was recently in Macedonia and traveled through Zagreb (among too many other cities) to get to Macedonia.  If you’ve flown through Zagreb, you know their airport is –  shall we be kind? – a bit outdated.  The planes park on the tarmac, passengers stumble off and step into a bus, and the bus transports said passengers a few hundred meters to the terminal.  Why we can’t walk the short distance, I don’t know, but there you go.  It used to be this way in Skopje, too, but Macedonia smartly modernized.  I love Aleksandar the Great airport.

But I digress; back to my first point.  When I stepped off that plane in Zagreb, into the night air, the scent struck my olfactory senses: there is a particular aroma to the Balkan countries, all Balkan countries.  I can’t quite place what it is exactly, but it is there and greets me every time I land in any of the countries that make up this peninsula.  Don’t get me wrong – it is not a bad smell at all.  In fact, it is rather pleasing, at least to me.  After 20 years of working in and with the Balkans, I have come to expect it and it is a reassuring smell to me.  The moment I smell it, I am taken back 20 years and then forward through each of those 20 years of many, many memories.  Mostly good, some bad, some frightening, many absolutely joyous.  All of them I cherish.

It was 20 years ago that I started working for a public relations firm in Washington, DC that, at the time, was representing some of the countries that had jettisoned Yugoslavia. I had no idea what I was getting into and I did not have some burning desire to get involved with the Balkans.  The countries were just in the news, some having declared independence the year before, and I was just becoming aware of the countries and peoples.  Until that time, I had been making a number of trips to Central America, including Nicaragua and El Salvador. You may recall that the Communist government of Nicaragua was trying to export its brand of government to neighboring El Salvador.  And I’ll leave it at that.  So the Balkans weren’t really on my radar screen.

My first trip to the Balkans was in February of 1992, to Athens, but that was a political visit and not work-related; my first work-related visit was to Croatia in May of 1994 and I would make several trips there – all promoting tourism throughout the country.  Here I was in my 20s, taking groups of American journalists up and down the Dalmatia Coast of Croatia, twice on a week-long yachting excursion.  It was a pretty good gig, but it merely opened the door to learning about the often complicated history of the Balkan countries.  That introduction would come soon enough.

This is also my 20th anniversary of spending time with another region that begins with “B” but that is the Baltic region.  In October of 1992 I met an Estonian at a youth conference in Madrid and we became fast friends.  Estonia had just regained their independence the year before and they were still finding their way in the world.  I visited Estonia for the first time in the summer of 1993 but have been going there on average, once a year for 20 years.  The similarities between Estonia and Macedonia are several and the differences are as well and I think both countries could learn something from each other….look for an article on that in the future.

But back to the Balkans.

Twenty years is a long time when you think about it.  Not quite half of my life, but pretty close. I’ve learned much; how to better practice hospitality and giving, the importance of patience, learning not to worry about the little things in life, learning how to really appreciate a nice slow day and long meal with family and friends…and how to drive defensively.  Sorry about that last one, but it’s true.

I’m hoping I’ve been able to give something back to my friends as well – mostly those in Macedonia, but in other countries too.  It’s been a great pleasure to host friends from Macedonia when they visit the United States.  Seeing their eyes light up when they first experience the grandeur and magnificence of the Grand Canyon in Arizona is a particular favorite of mine.  My only regret in all of this is that I cannot spend more time in Macedonia and the Balkans and that my friends cannot spend more time in the United States and Arizona with me.

So for me, here is to – Lord willing –  another 20 years or more of spending time in Macedonia and the Balkan countries (and Estonia), with a little travel to see the rest of the world.  I’m looking forward to this continuing journey because that journey really is the destination.

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Jason Miko
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