First Impressions – Lasting Memories

Posted on February 1st, 2016 by

Blog written by Bailey Hilgren

The Gustavus Symphony Orchestra, Ruth Lin, conductor, at the Macedonia Opera & Ballet House in Skopje

The Gustavus Symphony Orchestra, Ruth Lin, conductor, at the Macedonia Opera & Ballet House in Skopje

On our long drive from Volos across the border on January 28, we were surprised with an announcement that our performance in the Skopje Opera House the next day was actually going to be broadcast live all throughout Macedonia. Further, the Macedonian pop star Laura Krliu was going to be performing with the jazz band. And on top of all of that, the students at the university in Skopje were throwing parties and after-parties for us both nights we were in the city. There was excitement on the bus as we drove the last stretch through the mountains into the valley where Skopje is located.

We finally arrived in Skopje after the very full day of traveling. Coming from Volos, a beautiful city nestled between the mountains and the Aegean Sea, Skopje seemed like another world. A thick fog (smog?) hung in the air, the pollution-stained former Yugoslavia style concrete facades loomed above us, the streets were crowded with too many cars, and cigarette butts, bottles, and discarded food wrappers littered the streets around us. I’m from a small town and love forests and trees and open spaces – after an exploratory walk through the city when we arrived, I did not have a great first impression.

On Friday morning, we went on tours with guides from Skopje. The guide for my group was an interesting guy who really knew a lot about his city. The morning was very cold, and he was a bit of a stickler, reprimanding students for side conversations and cell phone usage. At first, I was a bit taken aback (our normal guide from Greece is immediately warm). As the tour went on though, it became very obvious to me that this man cared deeply for his city and for his people’s history. His earlier bluntness made much more sense in this context. He showed and told us stories of the old bazaar, the 5th century Tvrdina Kale Fortress, 15th century Kameni Stone Bridge, project 2014 monuments, government buildings, churches, and mosques – both old and new parts of town. There are parts of the city that are very beautiful. My first impression began to unravel.

The Gustavus Jazz Lab Band, Dave Stamps, director, with Macedonia recording star Laura Krliu in Skopje's Macedonia Opera & Ballet House

The Gustavus Jazz Lab Band, Dave Stamps, director, with Macedonia recording star Laura Krliu in Skopje’s Macedonia Opera & Ballet House

After a delicious lunch of Macedonian hamburgers (expectations were exceeded) and a walk around the bazaar, along with a few glimpses of blue sky through the smog, my mood was lifting. We walked into the opera house through the back doors and into the stage area. The stage was huge, with room for us to take as much space as we needed, and the acoustics were very good. I could hear myself and the other players well for the first time on this tour! We quickly got ready back at the hotel where our first course of dinner was set out for us. The food was delicious. We headed back to the opera house and prepared for the concert. The stage was super hot because of the stage lights, but there was tangible excitement in the air. It’s not everyday you play a concert that is broadcast to an entire country or share a stage with a pop star. The concert went very well, and the audience was appreciative. We headed back to the hotel, and I think I can say with a fair amount of certainty that most of slept hard that night.

Much of our Greek adventure thus far has been very obviously wonderful. We’ve seen stunning mountain views, ancient ruins, oceanside sunsets, monasteries on natural rock pillars… The food has been fantastic, the sun has been shining, and our crowds at concerts have been incredibly enthusiastic. However, I think it’s a real test of a traveler to be able to appreciate the experience when things are less obvious than that. It’s important to remember that a destination on a trip like this is more than just the buildings, roads, and monuments physically surrounding you. There is something that runs underneath all of that. The new Star Wars movie just came out – I’m talking about something along the lines of “the Force.” The city of Skopje is a great example of when this underlying “Force” becomes important to notice. Without all of the gorgeous views and ancient ruins, you might have to look a little deeper to really appreciate the place. Despite initial impressions, we were met with nothing but hospitality and gratitude, and were given an incredible opportunity to perform at the Macedonian Opera with a famous musician. The students were kind and the food was good. And I have to admit, there’s something very mysterious about a little fog in the air.


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