Software Freedom for Macedonia?
When I first heard that I would be visiting to speak in Macedonia, my initial thoughts were of a small isolated Eastern European nation. I had spoken in many other countries recently, usually about GNU Bayonne. The people who organized this event, however, wanted to use it to help launch a national free software movement in Macedonia, and so I thought for a long time, so I agreed and decided I would go and speak there primarily about software freedom, an issue of deep importance to me.
I first received the offer to speak in Macedonia while I was traveling abroad. In fact, I was attending the Bristol Software Conference at the time, and then a week later visiting France for what has now become the annual Libre Software Meeting. It was on my return to the US, and a family tragedy, that initially made me cancel all my immediate travel plans, however, including this event.
A week before the event, I was contacted, and, considering the importance of being able to reach and speak with hackers in that part of the world, I did finally consent to go. It was not until the day before that we were able to get airline tickets booked, however, so this trip was already very much in doubt before it happened, and seemed at best precarious. This led me to have even lower expectations.
What is "officially" called the "Former Yugoslav" Republic of Macedonia is a landlocked nation of 2 million people surrounded by the Kosovo region of Serbia in the north, Albania in the west, Greece in the south, and Bulgaria in the east. In that they were having national elections and a national holiday around the time I would be there, it was impossible for them to make travel arrangements for me to fly into the one major airport in the country. I was also reminded that Macedonia is not considered "safe" for air travel, in that the nation is not considered to have air traffic safety up to western European standards. Finally, my own State Department suggested American citizens should not travel to this country. With such overwhelming negative comments, my expectations had reached a very low point indeed, but I had agreed to go, and, at the last minute, the flight arrangements came through.
To visit Macedonia, I was flown to Sofia, in Bulgaria. Bulgaria is perhaps the most friendly of Macedonia's neighbors, and perhaps the easiest approach into the country. From there it is only a two or three hour drive to Skopje (pronounced Scopia), with, as I later learned, anywhere from a 1 to 12 hour delay at the border crossing being possible.
While I had many negative expectations about the country, I found that many of these expectations were very true, but of Bulgaria. The drive to the border was perhaps the most depressing drive I ever took. Everywhere one looked in Bulgaria there were large buildings falling apart. This was a very consistent theme. This trip reached a very low point when the car I was in had an accident about 20km for the border in some nameless Bulgarian town. The car was undrivable, and we were too far from the border for anyone's cell phone to work, so we were stranded, until the police would allow themselves to be paid, and we could arrange to get the car towed to the border.
Unlike most borders, there are checkpoints at both ends, and a kind of 1km no-man's land in between where time can stand still for many hours depending on the mood and circumstances of the border police. My entry into Macedonia consisted of helping to push an old Russian-made car with a smashed front end over this border with a short (under two hour) delay in "no-mans" land fairly late in the evening of my first day in the Balkans. This was clearly the most challenging nation I had ever visited. Little did I expect then that it would be very much worth all these difficulties to do so.
Even from the very first village we passed through after getting a cab at the border, it was immediately clear Macedonia was place very different, and much more alive than Bulgaria. Skopje itself has perhaps from 1/3 up to 1/2 of the entire population of the country in it, making it a fairly large and dynamic city.
I was staying next door to the Russian embassy, and the humour of this was not lost upon me. However, Skopje is very much a 24 hour city, and, even as an American, I felt and found I was perfectly safe wherever in the city I went. In fact, I felt safer in Skopje than many other foreign cities I have visited, and even than in some American ones at night. It also helped that English was a fairly common second language, and, unlike in some European countries, people that know English are quite willing to use it. I suppose trying to speak Macedonian is likely to break one's tongue, so it is no doubt out of politeness that they do not expect one to!
I could describe the extensive night life of Skopje, but I did not visit there for that purpose. I also learned much about Macedonian culture and history while I was there and visited their national museum. I found that to be equally interesting. Certainly, in the place that gave the world the Cyrillic alphabet, there is a long and deep understanding of the need to share knowledge for the benefit of society.