It doesn’t cost anything to be nice to people. Smiles are cheap. Manners are the same price. Yes, we all have our bad days when wallowing in self-pity or bemoaning the state of our world is all we can bring ourselves to do. That’s a given. But for the most part, it is nicer to be nice, trite and all as it sounds.
Mind you, a happy, clappy state of relentless good humour can be a tad annoying. I am uncomfortable with unwavering positive outlooks – I immediately think inhuman. The negativity in us all has to come out somewhere.
Budapestans are often referred to as a dour people. Personally, I don’t find that to be true. Yes, some of those in public service jobs might benefit from a dose of cheeriness, but compared to their Bratislavan neighbours, they’re positively exuberant.
I got into conversation with a woman in Skopje who’d been to Budapest and was commenting favourably on the city’s collective personality wishing that people in Skopje could be as pleasant. I countered with my experience in Skopje where everyone, without exception, was helpful, pleasant, and good-humoured (especially those without a word of English whose efforts to understand and be understood were inspiring). I can’t think of a time or place where I’ve felt so at ease.
Walking through the Old Bazaar area one morning, I felt as if I’d stepped into another world. Cobble-stones and dilapidated houses lined the narrow streets. Sellers plied their trade. Café tables were full of men in conversation, the women notable by their absence. The jewellers on Gold Street were doing a hefty trade while the Albanian presence was obvious in the colourful and somewhat garish wedding dresses on display. The food market was one of the largest I’ve ever seen. It seemed to go on for miles, selling stuff I’d never seen before alongside the usual staples.
There was a buzz about the place that was timeless. It could have been any century, any decade. People seemed lost in their own individual worlds as life proceeded at its own pace, unfettered by modernity or progress. Built in fifteenth century, the bezisten (covered market) hasn’t changed since its renovation in 1899.
Everyone had a wave or a smile or a comment or even all three. There was no pressure to purchase, none of that hawker harassment that takes from the whole market experience. No one tried to drag me into their shop and sell me something. I didn’t have to dodge eye contact or ignore those sitting outside taking tea. It was all rather lovely. Movie-like. You know, when the expat has been living there so long and speaks the language and they go to the market and everyone knows them as they’re the only foreigner in town? It was that sort of feeling, only I didn’t speak the language and I wasn’t the only foreigner in town.
Barbers, cobblers, and tailors still work their trades. And in the newer section, the usual ubiquitous tat has taken root. I am sure that if you were in the know and spoke the language, cheap cigarettes wouldn’t be all that was on offer. It seemed like a place where you could buy anything from a tractor to a teaspoon.
I loved it. Стара Чаршија is the biggest bazaar in the Balkans this side of Istanbul. Dating back to the twelfth century, it’s home to more than 30 mosques and the Ottoman influence is visible. I spent a lovely few hours wandering the streets, nosing around places, people-watching. It reminded me a little of Sarajevo – just a little.
It’s a place for talkers. Idle conversations sprang up randomly. Walking up ul. Sevastopolska, I met Tair. He pointed to his shop and said I was welcome to look inside. I told him I was at the mercy of the airlines pitiful baggage allowance. He pointed to a small restaurant – his sister’s. Food …that I could do. He came with me. He introduced me to his sister and I ordered some lentil soup.He sat. And we chatted. He’d spent 15 years in Turkey and had many Irish friends – he’d even sold his leather jackets at house parties in Kilkenny. People came and went to our table, asking him this or that and all the time he kept an eye on his shop. He told me of his time in the army, when he was conscripted. He spoke of life in Turkey, in Macedonia. He talked a lot about life – and getting old – getting to that point when the freedom of being on your own starts to pall. He spoke of wanting a family. Of wanting to settle. He’d come back to Skopje last year and set up shop. He was doing well. Twice a week he’d take his motorbike and ride in the hills. Business had started to pick up so I left him to it, promising to drop by again to take tea with him before I left to cross to river back into Disneyland.
In the hours that I was gone, he’d sold quite a bit. He reckoned I’d brought the luck of the Irish with me. As we sat in his shop later that afternoon, I was struck by how much we miss in not taking the time to chat, in not trusting a little more. As we swapped our stories and shared our perspectives on relationships, on marriage, on parenting, on politics, on tolerance, on life in general, sipping hot Turkish tea amidst the leather jackets in his shop, some of my faith in human nature was restored. Tair’s is an uncomplicated life that I found myself envying. He lives it based on openness and trust and honesty. No agenda. No judgment. I learned a lot that day – and was reminded of what Scottish poet George MacDonald had to say: ‘To be trusted is a greater compliment than being loved.’