Sunday, July 16, 2017

Travel to Macedonia

This post has been sitting in the draft folder since January.  I am not sure why it has been stuck there for so long.  I think after we arrived we were so keen to jump in and to get started -- learning our way around, starting new school and meeting new friends, and for me, getting to know my colleagues in 3 Departments at 2 universities, and getting my courses underway -- that -- once we arrived -- we were just ready to get started.  And, ready to put the "issues" that we had encountered on our way to Skopje behind us.

Now that I am back in America, I am trying to "catch up" on the blog, so that there is a more  complete picture of our journey during our incredible Fulbright opportunity.

I think I did manage to get a few posts written while we were in Florida -- getting materials about Macedonia, deciding what to pack, etc. But in this post I will describe the actual journey from Madeira Beach, FL to Skopje, MK.

As much as I tried to be conservative while packing for this trip -- the reality is that we needed clothes for my daughter and for me for winter, spring, and summer (and this included bulky items like sweaters and turtlenecks and snow boots and snow pants).  (At one point we had a medium-sized suitcase that had only my daughter's coats, snow pants and snow boots -- and that pretty much filled the suitcase!)  We also wanted to pack supplies, like over-the-counter medicines that we might need.  And, even though I was allowed to ship a certain number of boxes to the US Embassy for my teaching materials (which I did!) I wanted to be sure that I had the lecture notes and texts that I needed for my classes -  the minute we arrived. I did not want to take the risk that the boxes took too long to arrive (or, worse, didn't arrive at all). More so than the sweaters and the advil, I wanted to have those lecture notes with me!  That meant packing them in the suitcases - trying to spread out the weight of the papers and the books across the several suitcases that we had packed.

(And, a special shout out to Nannie and Grampie who let us borrow 3 (!) suitcases to bring with us.  We do have several pieces of luggage, but not enough big bags for this 5-month trip.)

All of this luggage also meant that we would not be able to make it to the Tampa International Airport in just my husband's car. A friend of ours helped out (THANKS, Heba!!) and brought her SUV - so we could get all of us and our luggage to the airport on time.

(When it was time to pick us up in June, my husband rented an SUV from a car rental place here at the beach -- which was large enough for the 3 of us and our luggage. Just in case something happened to us and we were delayed -- which did happen. First, the flights had changed and so we came back on Saturday instead of Friday. And then on the Saturday we missed our connecting flight in Newark due to delays, so we ended up coming home several hours later than planned. Instead of lining up a volunteer to help us on the way back, my husband decided it would be best just to rent the car.  Which turned out to be the best idea, since we were, in fact, delayed by several hours.)

In any case, we had our bags packed, our friend came to help us get to the airport. We unloaded all the bags at curbside.  Managed to get in to the ticket counter.

But the agent would not print our boarding cards. And she was not going to let us on the plane.

Why, you ask?  Well, we (Americans) are allowed to visit Macedonia for up to 90 days. If our stay would be longer, then we need special documents.  What kind of documents did we have to show the agent that we would be allowed to stay in Skopje until the June date of our return ticket home??

Well, that was an excellent question. I had nothing. Well, I had my Fulbright grant paperwork. And I tried explaining that I was on a US State Department Program, that I had been working with the US Embassy in Skopje on all of the arrangements for my fellowship. That I was absolutely supposed to be in Skopje until June.  This was all very interesting to the agent, but there was absolutely no way she was going to issue my boarding pass.  She said that she and United Airlines were going to be issued steep fines if they were going to let me get on that plane when I had no documentation about this trip planned in excess of the 90 days.

Fortunately, we had gotten to the Tampa airport in plenty of time.  And fortunately, I have the skype application on my iPhone.  I have a pre-paid plan that lets me place calls to hard lines in Skopje. I had my contact at the US Embassy's direct line handy. And I was able to call him from phone while standing at the ticket counter.  And, he is the MOST RESPONSIVE staffer I have ever met.  So I had complete confidence that I would be able to reach him (if not immediately, then soon after). GAZMEND is simply the best.

I was able to reach Gazmend. I explained what was happening to me. And he sent me an email of a document from the Ministry that gave permission to scholars like me to enter Macedonia as a part of the Fulbright Program.  I was able to open this attachment from the email on my smartphone.

And the tickets were issued.


For a time there it seemed like our journey was over before it began!

We still had time to enjoy breakfast with my husband before heading over to the airside terminal for our domestic flight to Washington Dulles.

Our nearest airport is Tampa. Which we love. It is actually my favorite airport. BUT, when flying overseas, we must first fly from Tampa to a "US Gateway" airport -- like DC, New York, Chicago, even Charlotte -- and then continue to Europe. And when we are flying to places like Skopje and Chisinau, we need to fly to a hub in Europe, and then on to Skopje.  This means we need to take at least 3 flights to get to our final destination.

Because we are flying as a part of a US Government program, our flights need to be compliant with the Fly America Act - and we need to fly on a US Flag Carrier. This means that we can't necessarily chose the shortest itinerary or the cheapest itinerary.  In this case, that meant that we were flying United, through Dulles and then Vienna, to go on to Skopje.

We had a delay in Dulles due to bad storms.  And this meant that we were going to be cutting it close in Vienna to make our connecting flight to Skopje. At one point they were looking at alternate itineraries for us that would have pushed back our arrival in Skopje by at least a day.

(This would have thrown off our meetings with our landlord, the rental agency, our first meetings with the US Embassy and events/meetings at my daughter's new school -- and all the other things we had planned for our first 12 hours after our arrival in Skopje)

We were trying not to panic that our arrival into Skopje (and all of the arrangements for our housing and for my daughter's school) was going to fall completely apart.

As it turned out, thanks to our running (with our rolling carry-on bags and our laptop cases) through the airport in Vienna, we managed to make it to our plane to Skopje before it took off.

We landed safely at the Skopje airport (about mid-day Friday), where our contact was waiting for us in a minivan - big enough to carry all of the luggage that I (sheepishly) said that we would have with us.

As it turned out - WE made the connecting flight in Vienna. But our luggage did not.  Our luggage was going to be enjoying a little holiday in Austria. 

I was trying not to freak out that some of my lecture notes/books might go missing if one of our bags got lost.

After I filled out paperwork in an office at the airport to describe our missing bags, we left, and just carried on with our busy agenda.  Meeting  with the landlord, visiting the apartment, going to the rental agency to sign the lease, stopping in the corner store in our building to buy supplies (like toothpaste and toothbrushes -- which were in our checked bags) for breakfast the next morning, etc.

Speaking of the next morning.  We had plans to leave around 7:15 am - so that we could arrive at my daughter's school by 7:45 am - for the monthly Community Time event.  At this event, my daughter would be introduced to the entire student body, would meet her new teachers. I would meet with the principal and her new teachers, take care of the tuition payments and all of the remaining paperwork items.

My daughter started panicking that she was going to be meeting everyone for the first time in her outfit that she had been wearing throughout the 3 plane rides and the 24-hour plus journey.  All she wanted to do was to take a shower and get changed.  (Me, too)  She was horrified thinking about going to her new school to make a first impression in that outfit.

I tried to calm her down.  It really was not dirty. No one but she and I knew how long she had been wearing it. It really wasn't so bad?! (But at the same time I understood completely how she felt, because all I wanted to do was to shower and get changed - and I didn't want to go to that meeting in jeans and a sweatshirt, either)

Still, this was all part of the learning process.  Part of the reason I wanted to take her with me to live overseas (again). Things don't always go as planned.  Things aren't always as you would hope they would be. But you have to IMPROVISE. ADAPT. OVERCOME.

We needed to be at those meetings the next morning (before we could do laundry, before stores would be open for us to purchase new clothes) and we were just going to have to make the best of this situation.

Meanwhile, we had made friends with Aneta and Toni - through my friend Julie - who were so helpful to us (we got to know each other via facebook and skype) as we were preparing to head to Macedonia (giving advice about schools for my daughter and answering all manner of questions) - had offered to take us to dinner when we arrived in Skopje.  We were so very tired from our journey. But we had to resist the urge to collapse in our beds.  Instead, we wanted to push ourselves to stay up until a normal bedtime. And, of course, we needed to eat dinner.  (We had arrived at lunchtime - but we were running around all afternoon without stopping to eat.) We were tired and hungry. And worried about our luggage and our meetings the next day.  I am not sure what kind of dinner companions we were -- but we had such a lovely time with Aneta and Toni. Sampling Macedonian cuisine for the first time. Sitting by a crackling fire. Enjoying the conversation. And so excited to be in Skopje and ready for our adventure to begin.

There are many things to love and to admire about Aneta and about Toni.  One of the things that we most appreciated that night - in addition to Toni's sense of humor and contagious laugh - was their talent for problem-solving.

Not content to see us miserable that we were going to have to go to those meetings tomorrow in the same clothes (!) and wondering if/when/how we were going to see our luggage again (that we had so carefully packed over many weeks to be sure we had just what we needed!), Toni, a former Minister of Transportation - knew just what to do.

He called the airport, found out when the next plane would arrive from Vienna (after midnight) and when/how we could insure that my luggage arrived in Skopje.

Aneta and Toni invited us back to their home - to rest and visit until the plane arrived after midnight. And, after confirming that the luggage arrived, they would take us to the airport to retrieve it!?! Can you even imagine this offer?!?! Part of us felt that we should decline. How could we possibly ask someone to take us back to the airport in the middle of the night to retrieve our luggage?!? (or even to host us for hours in their home until it arrived??!) What an imposition!!  And it was a work day the next day.   But we were so desperate. And Aneta and Toni's offer was so sincere, genuine, and generous - that we took them up on this extraordinary kindness.

We went back with them to their beautiful home on the side of the mountain, with lovely views of Skopje.  We visited for a bit - but  then they let us rest in the guest room until it was time to head back to the airport.  They have an SUV big enough for all the luggage.  We drove back to the airport. Whizzed back to the carousel. Retrieved our bags from the appropriate staffer. And off we went. The whole process took less than 5 minutes.  Then they dropped us off at our new apartment.

Since the driver was coming to get us at 7:15 am -- it would have been prudent to go right to bed. (It was probably about 1-2 am at this point)

But I could not help myself. I stayed up another few hours, unpacking as much as I could. In fact, I finished unpacking.  I went to bed around 4-5 am, knowing I needed to get up by 6:15 am. But I was determined to get things unpacked (and store all of the suitcases), so we could jump right in and begin our adventure. We were ready to roll up our proverbial sleeves and get to work. (And thanks to Aneta and Toni, we were able to get up the next morning, shower, get dressed (in clean clothes!), and get to all those meetings, ready to take on all of our new challenges and opportunities.)

I don't know how we can ever thank Aneta and Toni for what they did for us that night. In our evening together they transformed what would have been a difficult/blunt arrival into a smooth transition into our new life in Skopje.
about to board our first (of three) planes, wearing our down jackets to save room in our suitcases (and so that we would have them handy once we arrived in Skopje)

on the first leg of our journey - so excited!

Thanks, Heba, for the thoughtful gift! we ended up taking these colored pencils on every excursion during our fellowship

running, running, running to catch our plane in Vienna.  we made it, but our luggage did not

2 of our 3 flight were Austrian daughter is a big fan of the airplane gummies..."air jetties"

look at the mountains peeking out above the clouds... nothing like this in Florida!


we were impressed by this mountainous terrain

about to land in Skopje

you can hardly tell we were traveling more than 24 hours at this point

watching American television in German (we later learned how to use the language button on the remote, so that we could watch American shows in English (rather than in German, Spanish, or French) in our new apartment

meeting our friends Aneta and Toni in person  for the first time....they introduced us to Macedonian cuisine...and I must say that a fire never felt so warm and cozy as it did that night

we had been traveling for more than 24 hours at this point - not sure how we were still awake at this point? or what kind of dinner companions we made? but this could not have been a more delicious dinner - or a more generous and warm welcome to Macedonia
my daughter played with this game on my phone during dinner...and made this image of her and Aneta

the view of Skopje from Aneta and Toni's verandah

and the view from the guest room

we felt right at home...THANK YOU SO MUCH Aneta and Toni for your Macedonian Hospitality!!

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