When I read the news about the controversy over the name change of Macedonia to North Macedonia it brought back a Christmas Day memory.
I worked in Kosovo for eighteen months as a police advisor with the State Department, seconded to the United Nations in its effort to rebuild the provincial government following the war in the Balkans. I arrived in July 2002 and was stationed in Priština. If you are unfamiliar with the geography, Kosovo is the southernmost province of Serbia. The next country to the south is Macedonia.
The driving time from Priština to the Macedonian border was about 45 minutes, and from there it was approximately a thirty minute taxi ride into Skopje, the capital. UN vehicles were not allowed to leave Kosovo, so after being dropped off at the border by a colleague it was necessary to take a cab. They were plentiful, and would even transport UN personnel through Macedonia to Greece for nominal fares.
It was Christmas 2002 and four of us assigned to the Regional Serious Crimes Squad in Priština decided to venture out to Skopje for the day. Even though Kosovo is ninety percent Muslim, the holiday was being celebrated and all businesses were closed. We (UN police) were still required to be on duty, but it was under relaxed conditions.
It was my second visit to Macedonia and my first and only visit as a tourist. Six months earlier a group of us had made the long journey from the states, the last leg of it being a flight on Austrian Air from Vienna to Skopje. For some reason the airport in Priština was closed and we had to land in Macedonia and take a bus into Kosovo. It was culture shock for three women in our group, who discovered that the toilets in the airport were nothing more than holes in the ground.
Prior to our excursion on that Christmas Day, other cops who had been to Skopje warned us about the gypsies, especially the children, and how they would swarm foreigners and try to steal anything they could get their hands on. I wasn't concerned. I was 47 years of age, in great physical condition and would be in the company of three other international cops in good shape. What could possibly go wrong?
We arranged for a taxi to meet us at the border and enjoyed the scenery after clearing the border checkpoint. It is mountainous with forest and quite beautiful. The driver took us to Skopje's premier shopping mall, a three-story outdoor complex. It was cold, as it normally is during a winter in the Balkans, so the only way to warm up was to enter a store.
I had just come out from a store and my friends were nowhere to be found. They were still shopping and I looked around for something hot to drink. Not finding a vendor selling coffee, tea or hot chocolate (dream on, Lonsway) I decided to just stand and wait for my colleagues to come out.
I suspect that my blue jeans and other clothing identified me as American, or at least not being from those parts. That made me a target, and the little gypsy hoodlums picked up on it. They were well versed in the act of thievery and blatantly and shamelessly exercised it.
Their method of attack was three-prong. Two little brats, maybe about nine or ten years of age approached me from the front. They simultaneously dug their grubby little mitts into my front pockets while a third thief came from behind, reaching into my hip and coat pockets.
I never envisioned myself smacking kids around on Christmas morning, a la Ebeneezer Scrooge, but the only way to get the little shits to stop was to give them a couple of quick smacks to the head. I tried to remove their hands from my pockets but they wouldn't let go! Smack, smack, forehand, backhand. They didn't get anything, my wallet was in an inside coat pocket.
They ran off, but within a few moments were assaulting a woman and trying to steal her purse. I yelled and charged at them and they ran off. My friends came out of stores and asked me what was going on. I explained it to them and we laughed it off. By late that afternoon we were back across the border into Kosovo no worse for the wear.