This Polish journey blogger needs Poles to ‘fall in love’ with North Macedonia · International Voices
This story was originally published by Meta.mk. An edited version will be republished here via a content sharing agreement between Global Voices and the Metamorphosis Foundation.
Justyna Mleczak is a travel blogger from Poland who runs Do Macedonii, a Polish blog about her travels in North Macedonia and Albania.
She has been working as a tour guide in Albania every summer since 2016 and visits North Macedonia frequently. She recently visited North Macedonia in collaboration with the European Union-supported Project to Improve Smart Tourism (STEP).
She is currently finishing an e-book on North Macedonia and meanwhile organizing lectures on the Balkans in schools, universities and travel clubs in her home base in Poland.
Mleczak emailed Violeta Jonchevska from Metamorphosis about how she first fell in love with North Macedonia – and how she is using digital technology to connect people from different cultures.
Violeta Jonchevska (VJ): Why did you choose to become a professional tour guide in North Macedonia and the entire region?
Justyna Mleczak (JM): It was never an idea for life and to be honest it still isn’t. I mean, legally I can’t even be a professional tour guide in Macedonia to take the exam you need to get citizenship first. On the other hand, I always thought I was going to be a non-fiction journalist or a war / social correspondent. I read cover-to-cover books by Tiziano Terzani, Egon Kisch, Joseph Kessel, Ernest Hemingway and many of our famous Polish reporters. I have also always been intrigued and intrigued by the story – with a great inner belief that there are thousands of voices that we can’t hear or that someone doesn’t want us to hear.
Until 2015/2016, however, I didn’t have the slightest idea of the modern history of North Macedonia or Albania and maybe a little bit of the Balkans. I have just finished my Bachelor in Central European Studies and wanted to study the Caucasus, or at least Hungary-Romania, in more detail. That year, summer 2015, I was responsible for our family vacation. In all honesty, I didn’t remember why I chose Vlore in Albania. A few weeks later we started the journey that changed everything.
VJ: How was your first visit to North Macedonia?
JM: My first visit to Skopje was just ridiculous. We got to the capital pretty early, hoping for some sightseeing. Instead, we circled the city and tried to find a nonexistent street or just reach the owner of our rented apartment. After a couple of hours we just wanted to eat something. Believe it or not, we couldn’t find an open restaurant. And I’m laughing at each other right now because … we gave up a hundred meters from the stone bridge and the Old Bazaar. One hundred meters separated us from the heart of Skopje!
Anyway, of course I was amazed at all of the statutes, but mostly – the secret story behind them. The next day we made a coffee in Ohrid. I mean my family had coffee, I wandered around. At that moment I started thinking about another subject.
Two months after we returned home, my article about Albania was published in Poznaj Świat, one of the most famous travel magazines in Poland. I received an invitation to an internship in Albania from a Polish woman with whom I had worked for the next four years in her travel agency in Albania, and I began my studies in the Balkans. I immediately fell in love with the Macedonian language and decided to write a master’s thesis that combines my passions. In September 2016 I came for a 6 month research. I’ve written about the potential of tourism in conflict resolution.
I started a blog. It was a kind of diary, a kind of practice of one day publishing a non-fiction book about Macedonia. And after four years … here we are. I haven’t published a book, I haven’t done a PhD. Studies. I fell in love with Macedonia by accident.
Quite a long story, right? I probably should have said: I’ve dreamed about it since I was 5!
VJ: What are your favorite destinations in North Macedonia and why?
JM: I don’t have any favorite destinations in Macedonia. I love places to meet interesting, smiling people who are ready to sit and talk, and there are dozens of them here. I was in Macedonia because I really feel at home here.
Kratovo reminds me of Stevce Donevski, who has already arranged for me to meet half of the Slow Food Macedonia community. If I were a singer and he was my manager, I would have won the MTV Award in a year!
I have a great feeling for Prilep, for me it is an energetic and magical place. It is no coincidence that Prilep is a hometown of my Macedonian language teacher Zvonko Dimovski, whose contribution to popularizing Macedonia among Polish students deserves special recognition.
Another warrant of recognition should be given to the Malezan family from Ohrid, the owners of the most famous terrace among Polish professors, students and tourists. Trajanka Malezan is the person who believed me from the start and who doesn’t stop when I don’t believe in myself anymore. Recently the village of Ramne became a special place for me – but only thanks to Natasa Nedanovska. She has hands, brain and heart of gold.
VJ: North Macedonia has a lot of Polish tourists. Why do you think they are interested in this destination?
JM: Not sure. It’s a bit of fashion, a bit of fascination for the Balkans, a bit to look for a cheaper alternative for vacation. Macedonia was famous among Poles long before the Polish crowd came here. We as a nation are known to be “everywhere” and the current pandemic situation fully confirms this.
I don’t care about those crowds. There are some of the most common reasons for Poles to visit Ohrid: a day trip from Albania, transit or a few days break on the way to Albania or during the Balkans trip and most importantly, since we have charter flights, relax while sunbathing on Lake Ohrid.
For a long time I can’t get over the fact that for our market and most Polish tourists, Macedonia is just Ohrid and sometimes Skopje, which are perceived as sad, boring and chaotic. I’m slowly beginning to understand that this type of tourism is needed too – it’s just not for me. I focus on people who want to slow down, sit, talk and experience. These people are true Macedonian lovers. They keep coming back and are happy about the food, culture, tradition and the best Macedonians.
VJ: What positive and negative sides do Polish tourists point to after their visit to North Macedonia?
JM: Well, it’s a very difficult and general question. The average stereotypical Polish tourist complains about breakfast and the lack of black tea … Apart from jokes, hundreds of Polish tourists come to Macedonia, particularly Ohrid. These are people with different experiences, expectations and needs.
I will answer differently – the greatest advantage and strength I see are people with passion, vision and idea. They form associations, work in non-governmental projects, dedicate themselves to protecting what they recognize as treasure. On the other hand, the biggest disadvantage is the ignorance of the authorities, who not only do not help, but also complicate the work and complicate things.
VJ: COVID-19 has harmed tourism around the world. How do you deal with the challenges and what do you expect for the future?
JM: Tourism is a meeting point. It communicates with the culture, with the past, present and future, broadens the horizon and can see itself in others. It has an incredible power to build and destroy.
I expect nothing. I try to work hard and hope to build a collaboration with two amazing women, Jasmina Popovska and Katerina Vasileska, the founders of the Genuine Experiences platform, as I think we are looking in the same direction. And I will continue to convince the Poles that the Balkans are not a powder keg. It’s a barrel of wine. To share and drink with others no matter who they are.