What makes a good city? What traits does it need to hold to become attractive? What qualities does it need to entail to charm outsider within its walls? What is it in them that fascinates us to the point of, sometimes literally, falling in love with them? As Charles Baudelaire put it: “What strange phenomena we find in a great city”. Essentially, cities are a concentration of people, forming a community of convenience, which, throughout tiny incremental step, turns into a culture of its own. Various interactions among individual actors eventually forms into a heterogenous society with a homogenous spirit. This process has somewhat of a romantic —in the literate sense of the word—tenet. A soulless arrangement of convenience, brought about by masses of individualistic pursuit of interests, becoming overtime a character of its own. Cities are not mere urban concentrations of humans. They are living entities, entitled with soul and personality. It is, somewhat, the nemesis of Intelligent Design. There, the heavens and earth are covered in steel and asphalt. Light and darkness are banded, and their creators are earthly men, subconsciously creating their city in their image. Yet, like children owing recognition to their parents, long-time residents feel beholden to their city. Loving it or hating it, they are part of their city and their city is part of them. Ultimately, they are gods worshipping their creation.
Raj, a French personal development trainer and owner of the YouTube channel ‘AUTODISCIPLE’ briefly theorized on the message that cities convey. Every city, he explains, every town, every neighborhood, every village even, conveys its own message, and requires certain values. Los Angeles might encourage the pursuit of fame and glory, while Paris elevates the intellectuals and the heralds. According to Raj, the soul of a city isn’t transmitted through its inhabitants, but ‘through its wall and through its dead’. Hence, the city’s past transpires on its inhabitants. Most importantly, newcomers need to fit in the city’s mantra, if they wish to succeed within its walls. If they do fit, the spirit of its walls will multiply their talents. However, if they don’t, they might need to pack and seek one where they truly belong. Had Leonardo da Vinci not lived in Florence, would we even know who Leonardo da Vinci was nowadays, asks Raj. How many da Vincis did the world miss out on because they couldn’t meld into their city, because they accommodated like oil and water, despite all the efforts they would put in?
This rationale put to words what, to various degrees, everybody feels. Since then, every time I have visited, or settled to, another city, I would always try and unearth its mantra. Whatever action I would take, it will always be motivated by the will to be permeated by its atmosphere. Hence, when I landed in Skopje to move in my very first Balkan city, I immediately activated my mindset in such a way that I could assimilate its message. Skopje was an obscure city to me. I only knew it was the capital of a country I knew very little about. I just knew that almost half of the Macedonian population was crammed in its capital. What I found, though, was beyond anything I could have imagined.
There is much to say about Skopje, as it is, truly, a unique city. If I would have been asked how I would picture it before my moving, its center would have been very different from what it really is. The first time I had a glimpse of it, I was nothing short of amazed. Here I was, strolling among humongous statues of glorified heroes from a distant past. Looking right, the ministry of foreign affairs was proudly dominating the center with its enormous, clear white buildings. Next to it, a series of expressive bronze figures were encircling me, showing the path to the national theatre. Here, in the south of the Balkans, was I standing in a real-sized model of the typical ancient Greek city. At first glance, I was blown away by this commitment to ancient heritage. Yet, as the days went by, something felt off. The more time I spent in the city center, the more I felt something unsettling. Despite the grand and imposing architecture, something was lacking, I couldn’t get the grip of it.
It became clear once I crossed the Vardar and stepped into the Old Bazar. Strolling through its maze of squeezed street, I felt transported in another country. I was walking next to mosques and tiny cafes. Terraces were sneaking a scent of nargile through my nostrils, while open markets fluttered the energy of the neighborhoods through veiled passages and interior stalls alike. The vitality of the district greatly differed from what I experienced in the city center. As opposed to the latter, there was no ambiguity towards the atmosphere of the place, one could feel its spirit with the very first step. The striking feat of the Old Bazar is exactly what is lacking in the city center: authenticity. Despite the neat façade, the imposing monuments and domineering building, the center rings hollow. The walls of this majestic architecture do not speak for the dead. They do not bear the historic weight of the city’s past.
Outside of the realm of the its center, the city cries its message. The vivid and dynamic market of Sutka, the open vegetable stalls of Kisela Voda or the singing kafanas all contribute to convey its mantra. The bordering mount Vdno and canyon Matka are much more genuine monuments than the archeological museum or the Rotunda. The center appears to impose its own message, in an upstream attempt to bend the natural spirit of the city, which had slowly built up over the centuries. Hence, for the unaware short-term visitor, the city’s message is misleadingly twisted. It expresses less the Skopjan character than a wish to transform it. With two competing messages, the soul of the city appears conflicted, which, incidentally, also emphasizes its unique feat.
There is, however, one defining trait that sketches the Skopjan spirit, and it is found in the Skopjans themselves. Indeed, what truly makes the city unique is its inhabitants. The warmth of their greeting, their passion to dance or their jovial laughter are one of the many quirks that unequivocally represent their city. The love of leisure and the appreciation of the joys of life make up the message of Skopje. Through its people, the city tells us, laugh, dance, eat and keep being curious, all despite the many hardships that life may throw at us. Raj certainly had a point in stating that the walls and the dead form the spirit of a city, but he obviously hasn’t been to Skopje. Here, the living convey the essence of their city. They carry the message. The people are the soul of Skopje.
By Antoine Lomba