Friday, April 19, 2019

FYROM no more : April 19, 2019

Macedonia is now officially named North Macedonia because of a name compromise accepted by FYROM and Greece. Greece objected to the use of Macedonia as a country name for several reasons, but also because Greece has a Macedonia of its own in northern part of Greece. Because Greece objected, Macedonia was officially known as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia or FYROM until February.

It's interesting being back in Skopje after being away for more than seven years. It took me a few days to familiarize myself with the city and its new landmarks.

The landmarks are the result of the Skopje 2014 project of new buildings, new facades, new sculptures, new bridges, new fountains. Skopje 2014 publicly initiated in 2010 continued far beyond 2014. It continued until the Prime Minister of the former ruling party (VMRO DPMNE) lost his position in the 2016 election for parliamentary seats. The VMRO DPMNE Prime Minister who lost his position, fearing a corruption prosecution or a murder plot, fled Macedonia and now resides in Hungary as a result of asylum granted by Viktor Orbán Prime Minister of Hungary.

Public demonstrations leading up to the 2016 parliamentary election were dubbed the "Colorful Revolution" because protestors lobbed pastel paint filled balloons at Skopje 2014 projects. The new Prime Minister from the SDSM political party is the result of a coalition of most political groups except VMRO DPMNE. The election for president is scheduled to be April 21.

When we lived in Skopje for one year beginning in January 2012, Skopje 2014 was well underway. People, press, critics were already snarking about the plethora of kitsch filling up the cityscape. Fast forward to today, and the city is even more crowded with someone's idea of how to manufacture a history by building new fake neoclassic/baroque buildings, renovating some old structures with fake neoclassic/baroque facades, and indiscriminately adorning buildings and littering squares with statues.

In 2010, the Skopje 2014 project proposed 40 structures; by 2017 it had grown to 137 structures consisting of 28 new buildings, 6 multi-story garages, 6+ facade makeovers, 34 monuments, 5 squares, 1 ferris wheel, 2 underground garages, 4 bridges, 39 sculptures, 1 triumphal arch, 2 fountains and 9 "other" categories (other includes a city beach) see The 2010 cost projection was €80 million; by 2017 the continuing Skopje 2014 Uncovered investigation shows that over €678 million has been committed.

Some of the 137 structures have either not been built or not completed. Work has been stopped and hulking half-finished structures line one side of Macedonia Square and elsewhere until a decision is made on how to free up public spaces and improve the aesthetics of Skopje architecture.

The structures discussed below are all within a few meters of each other. Some photos:

Archaeological Museum and Constitutional Court connected to the quay by the possibly structurally unsound "Historical Figures" bridge formerly known as the Eye Bridge.

The Public Prosecutor's Office and Directorate of Financial Police Building connected to the quay by the "Art" Bridge. Why?

"Lydia's Palace," is the thin building between the Archaeological Museum and the Public Prosecutor's Office buildings. While it doesn't have a connecting bridge, it does have a plaque explaining that "Saint Lydia from Macedonia was the first baptized person in Europe and the first Christian on the territory of Europe." Incongruously, this building is occupied by the Agency for Electronic Communications. Flanked by two statues and between the entrance doors are two plaques with the likeness of Mother Teresa and two of her quotes. Many of the Skopje 2014 structures have been slapped with Mother Teresa quotation plaques.

The structure "Independent Macedonia Colonnade" stretches between Lydia's Palace and the Public Prosecutor's Office and Directorate of Financial Police Building. It is populated with nine sculptures that are perhaps the nine muses from Greek/Roman mythology. There are no explainers on this structure. Behind the colonnade is the modernist Opera-Ballet building from the 1970s. The Opera-Ballet is so totally surrounded by Skopje 2014 projects, that one might conclude that the object was to hide its modernist architecture. 

Three stationary pirate ships now clutter the shallow Vardar River in this land-locked country. One is a restaurant, one is a restaurant hotel, and the one near the Holiday Inn is a party boat with a big-screen TV installed on the stern. One is closed and the other two don't seem very busy. 

The investigator in me emerged at seeing this nonsensical clutter, and I had to know more. North Macedonia is not a wealthy country, and more than one third of of Macedonians are unemployed. I will talk of this no more--maybe.

Saturday, April 13, 2019

The Ancient City of Stobi: April 13, 2019

Dan arrived in March and I joined him April 11. He agreed to a two-month volunteer assignment working with the American Bar Association here in Skopje. We will be here until May 9. 

Sitting inside our small apartment near the Bulgarian Embassy, I can hear birds chattering, the sounds of other apartment dwellers, ringing bells from the nearby Catholic Church ,and the calls to prayer from the mosques on the other side of the Vardar River.

My first weekend in North Macedonia found us retracing some of our travels from 2012. We rented a car and drove to the ancient city of Stobi to the south of Skopje. This time, it was late enough in the year that the mosaics were not covered with sand for protection. Also, technology has leapt ahead in the seven years since we last visited Stobi Archaeological Site. Now there is an downloadable app that explains in English each of the sites. We had the site to ourselves.

Mosaics and interior of the Episcopal Basilica late 4th C - 6th C
The Roman province of Macedonia which included the ancient of Stobi was established in 148 BCE. Stobi became an Episcopal seat in the 4th century AD. Stobi ceased to exist after incursions by the Huns and Goths in the 5th century, Avars and Slavs in the 6th century, and frequent earthquakes. Stobi was abandoned in the last decade of the 6th century.

The Theater building began at the end of the 1st century AD
The Baptistery - this version dates from the mid 5th C 
The mosaics in the Baptistery are original to the structure. They have been conserved but were intact upon discovery. Due to being conserved, the colors are as bright as when first laid. The inspiration for the design comes from verse one of the 41st Psalm of David, "Just as the deer longs for the water so  my soul longs for you oh God."

Mosaic floor of the Synagogue
Before getting to Stobi, we stopped in Veles to visit some of the old churches and monasteries. Our first stop was up a very narrow, steep street beyond the last house to St. Pantelimon built in 1837. Nice frescos, great view of Veles, no photos allowed, and a scary drive up. Fortunately, we didn't meet any cars on the way down.

The caretaker at the 14th century St. Dimitrij Monastery at a lower elevation was much more welcoming and helpful despite the fact that we didn't have a common language. He let us spend as much time as we wanted there and led us to nearby St. Nikolai and St. Petra Churches. He also cares for 3 kittens and a puppy.

View from St. Dimitrij looking north toward Skopje
The spring weather has been quite unsettled in North Macedonia. It has been alternately cool, cloud, sunny sometimes in the same day. The day we visited Stobi was beautiful.

To complete our fabulous outing after all the sightseeing, we stopped at Stobi Winery for a lovely, late lunch before heading back to Skopje. We shared a plate of slow-roasted lamb paired with one of their red wines.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

New York City and Surrounds: November 7-15, 2018

View of the Hudson River from the High Line
We took a short trip to New York City to catch up with friends and family. We arrived to beautiful, fall weather for strolling the High Line.

Between arriving and departing, we went to plays, shopped, ate at great restaurants, we visited with friends and Dan's daughter Tara.

We left Sacramento on the red eye arriving at the Hyatt Centric Hotel (Times Square) around 8:30am on Nov 7. Fortunately, our hotel allowed us to check in permitting us to get a few hours sleep before the absorbing matinee performance of "Mother of the Maid" with Glenn Close at Public Theater in Greenwich Village. Not only was the play wonderful, but this was the first time for me to be so close to a truly famous person since I was 16 and saw Manolito from the High Chaparral TV show ride his horse in the Rose Parade. Not the best comparison but that's all I've got.

On one evening we met up with our friend and Dan's former co-worker Medo (real name Medea) whom we met in Tbilisi, Georgia. Medo is presently working on her masters in law. Dinner was at a Georgian restaurant (Oda House at 76 Avenue B), where we savored some of our favorite Georgian specialties like khachapuri and khinkali.

Friday night we attended the musical "Once on This Island" with Tara and her significant other George. This wasn't my favorite play. Even though it has won lots of awards, I thought the music was too loud to hear the words that were being sung making it difficult to follow the storyline.

Saturday, we met George and Tara in Queens for lunch at a Nepali restaurant, HimalayanYak (72-20 Roosevelt Ave, Jackson Heights) and then she drove us to Connecticut for a weekend visit with Dan's cousin Gary Golding.

Another of Dan's cousins, Lance Golding, made a last minute trip to Connecticut so he could jam with Tara and George. Saturday night and Sunday morning, Gary and Jani's house was filled with music and wonderful food.

from l-r Lance, Tara, George

Also there Saturday evening were Gary and Jani's son Austin, his wife Sara, and their two boys. 

Sunday afternoon Tara and George dropped us at the train station for the trip back to NYC.

Monday we visited and lunched with our friend Ann whom Dan met many years ago when he worked for the ICC. She has made NYC her home since September 2001 and she is a great source of what's going on in the city. At her suggestion, we booked the early (7:30 pm) jazz show at Dizzy's Club Coca Cola at Columbus Circle. We sat at the bar, had dinner, and thoroughly enjoyed MELANIE CHARLES AND MAKE JAZZ TRILL AGAIN: THE DIASPORA. Something to remember for our next trip east.

Tuesday after a late lunch at Wolfgang's Steakhouse, we saw The Ferryman with our friends Lou and Cathi. The play was great, humorous, engrossing, and in the final scene, shocking. I'm so glad we were able to see this play.

Wednesday we trained to White Plains to meet Lou and Cathi at their friend Tony's restaurant for another wonderful meal. That evening back in the city, Dan and I saw the play Come From Away. It is a true story about the town of Gander in Newfoundland and how the population of 10,000 dealt with the sudden arrival of planes ordered to land at the nearest airport on September 11, 2001. A total of 38 planes carrying 6,579 passengers and crew landed in Gander. It is a heart warming story of Gander's generosity toward 6,579 bewildered strangers and the animals carried as cargo in those 38 planes. And, it is a musical. Another play that I'm so glad we had a chance to experience.

Between all the plays and visits with friends and family, Dan and I strolled through museums and galleries. My favorite stops were the International Center for Photography Museum in the Bowery where we saw the wonderful Eugene Richards show. Another interesting stop was Yossi Milo Gallery in Chelsea to see the Kyle Meyer show called Interwoven. Mr. Meyer photographed gay men in Swaziland where one third of the population is HIV positive and homosexuality is illegal. He asked each man to select a fabric to wear as a headdress for his portrait. Once back at his NY studio, Mr. Meyer weaved the textiles into the photographs to create his large format images.

The "city view" from our room at the Hyatt Centric.

While having our lunch at Pepe Giallo in Chelsea, winter suddenly arrived.

Chelsea neighborhood on Thursday afternoon outside of restaurant Pepe Giallo
Walkers on the High Line Nov 15, 2018
Despite the snow, we walked the High Line from Chelsea to the 34th St exit. When we got to 34th St, the gates to the High Line were being locked possibly because it was quite slippery up there. It was nice walking in the snow until it wasn't so nice. By the time we got back to our hotel, the accumulated snow sticking to us had soaked our gloves and everything else that wasn't waterproof.

We took the subway back to JFK for our Jet Blue flight home. Unfortunately, the snow, the first snow of the season, put a kink in our plans. Our flight was delayed twice and then canceled. We retrieved our checked bag and stood in line to check on alternatives. The only alternative was a 9:00 pm flight to San Francisco that finally took off around 1:30 am Friday morning. Fortunately, Jet Blue has free gate to gate Wifi so I booked a rental car and a motel room near SFO. We didn't get much sleep either on the plane or during our 3 hours or so at the motel. We waited for commute traffic to clear, headed east, dropped the rental car off, and retrieved our car at the Sacramento Airport. Home, finally around 3:30 pm Friday.

As usual, it's fun to go, but always good to return home.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Week 2, The Adventure Continues ...., Ikh Nart Nature Reserve, Mongolia: September 23-29, 2018

This Sunday morning, we were back at the site next to the Cinereous Vulture nest just in time to see the fledgling fledge while Demoiselle Cranes chortled overhead. Nets were raised and before lunch we had three Argali Sheep netted, collared, and released.

On the release, this Argali sheep turned left for a better look at Dan. Spry Dan, quick and light on his feet, stepped aside all the while keeping his camera trained on the charging sheep.

With that success, the nets were dropped, rolled, and packed into the Russian vans to be set up back on flat land in hopes of getting another Goitered Gazelle. While the nets were put closer to the lake allowing us to also be closer to the lake, it was a slow afternoon of waiting.

The herders gathered for a post-op discussion. The herders are paid for each animal that hits the net. So, with nothing coming in, they earned nothing.

The nets were dropped for the night and we went back to the camp.

The next day, we had much better luck.

The team netted and collared a three-year old goitered gazelle. We returned after lunch with hopes for another gazelle, but it was not to be.

During the second week, I joined two of my ger mates (Lena and Nancy) for early morning walks. We always started out when it was still quite dark. At the turn around point, with the full moon visible in the early dawn sky, we didn't need our headlamps any longer.

One day on the way back to the ger camp we watched a group of five Ibex running along the side of one of the rocky slopes. Another day, we saw three Argali on a distant slope.

Ibex profile
Argali profiles
Back to drive netting, the nets were installed on higher ground today and it proved to be more exciting.

While we were hanging out at the end of the net next to some rocks, the herders drove in about a dozen Argali sheep. Unfortunately, the sheep ran over the top of the rock we were hiding next to and missed the net.

The herders regrouped and brought four Ibex to the nets; two of those were collared.

We had once last chance to capture an Argali not for collaring but for the data. Just as the sun was setting, the herders brought one in.

In seven days of drive netting, 10 animals were collared. Those that were captured and not collared, had blood samples taken and their physical data recorded.

The last two days we assisted with line transect surveys to count Argali Sheep. The first survey was in the southern part of Ikh Nart. Each team was dropped off 5km from the prior team, and each team walked 5km. It felt like we were in the middle of nowhere. The start of the survey was coordinated as was the walk's end. When Argali were spotted either in front or to the side, the number of animals and the range and compass readings were recorded. On the first survey, Dan and I were with Serchee. He's the one that spotted all the Argali. Some were 1 kilometer away and just dots to us, but he could identify male, female, adults, young, baby Argali. In total he spotted 31. 

After the first line transect survey, we visited a hibernaculum. This is a place where snakes hibernate. It is an opening in the earth about 13 meters deep. It was discovered when shepherds noticed that in winter steam rose from the spot. So far, it is the only hibernaculum in Mongolia. Anyway, the two types of snakes in Mongolia, Central Asian Viper (venomous) and the Pallas’s coluber (not) winter in this vent. While we were there, small snakes were all around the vent. We were told that both snakes are brown and look very similar which was not very reassuring as I gingerly stepped my way toward the vent.

 Pallas’s coluber or maybe a Central Asian Viper

A survey was repeated the next day in the northern portion of the reserve not far from the camp. This time Dan and I were separated because more teams were needed. Baaska was my colleague on this one. Sadly, we didn't see any Argali until after the end of the survey. We weren't the only ones who came up empty on this survey.


The weather was rapidly changing at camp, and on the drive from Ikh Nart north to Ulaanbaator, it began to snow.

Petrol station at the Korean Restaurant near Ulaanbaator
Mother Nature was letting us know that the good weather window was closing and it was time to return to California. We left Ulaanbaator, Mongolia, the next day.