Those of you that I have pestered enough to read this blog on a regular basis (thanks mum) will know that after a recent trip to Krakow I swore off drinking in London – asserting that my money was better spent on holidays in poor Eastern European countries. Soon after making this pledge I booked a trip to Macedonia. It may seem an unusual choice for a holiday, but the beer averages at £0.73p a pint and I decided on a whim that it would be more interesting than Serbia, my close second choice. A small country in the middle of Greece, Serbia, Bulgaria and Albania can’t not be interesting: being in the firing line of the Ottoman empire and even founding it’s own under Alexander the Great, it must have something going on.
And that was all I had to go on when I convinced six of my friends to come with me. The exchange rate making the currency akin to Monopoly money was a big enough draw for most. However at one point I had to whip out Wikipedia and quick-fire some random Macedonian facts at one friend who wasn’t convinced: birthplace of Mother Theresa, same GDP as Jamaica, first province of the Roman Empire, and so on, ad nauseum, until he gave in. Before we left I read a couple of bits and pieces online, and asked someone I had met travelling in Croatia what bars/clubs were good (he had done an internship in Macedonia), but I didn’t bother with the guidebook. I like to travel under the assumption that the majority of what you read in the guidebook is irrelevant or better learned in a hostel or from a local. Too many times I have wasted hours staring into a guidebook and using it as a crutch; now I prefer just to wing it (much like my packing strategy).
Ditching the guidebook forces you to interact a bit more with the locals or fellow hostel guests, but it also brings another important benefit: freedom. What I mean by this is freedom from ticking every box, seeing every statue, every obscure museum and following every out of date restaurant tip. Ignorance really is bliss, and if I don’t know that this was the bench that Alexander the Great once sat on to tie his shoe, I doubt it makes my trip any less special. When I reach this point in a discussion, people usually ask me “aren’t you worried you are going to miss something?”. Yes, that is entirely possible, but it is also likely that stubbornly collecting landmarks like Pokémon will mean I miss a chance encounter, or that I am too exhausted to make conversation and learn something new the natural way. The truth is the vast majority of what you see isn’t going to be the highlight of your holiday anyway. If you hadn’t heard of it before you left, chances are it isn’t that important – and if it is, and you don’t walk into it by accident, people will guide you in the right direction. In my experience hostel staff are painfully friendly and will exhaustively list everything you should see in the city (given unlimited time) – fellow hostel guests are great for narrowing down that list and locals can lead you to the odd gem that isn’t even in the guidebook.
Now I have held these views for a while but hadn’t properly tested them – either myself or a friend would research what to do or see long in advance of the trip, and take a guidebook along ‘just in case’. Question: so how did this no guidebook tour work out? Answer: surprisingly well. On the first night we managed to find the main square through pure serendipity, and wandered down a street to a bar. Upon sitting down, we saw what we eventually figured out to be Mother Theresa’s house! The next day, after wandering aimlessly through the Turksh bazaar, we randomly found a big Fortress, and after walking round the corner of it, happened upon an amazing view of the city. Back in the Turkish quarter, we chose somewhere that looked decent enough to sit and have a shisha. It was only when 3 days later we asked where a good shisha place was, that we were told that the best one in the city was (you guessed it) the one we had wandered into. We did the same thing with a nearby winery and the wine that we tried ended up being the nicest one in the duty-free as we were leaving.
This sort of thing happened the whole trip, and while it seems like blind luck, I think that it is actually bound to happen. Cities were designed by people, to make sense to other people: the culture may be different, but not that different. Now there are exceptions (London), but most cities can be navigated (minus the odd wrong turn) by wandering in the direction that ‘feels’ right. It sounds terrifying, especially in the age of smartphones, but I recommend you try it to liven up your brain cells a bit. You may start wandering into a dodgy area of town, but you can tell it’s dodgy and self-correct. I would argue that it is a way better method for exploring a new city than staring at a map – you stand out less as a tourist, you are forced to take in your surroundings and nothing is more rewarding than finding something based on a combination of intuition and chance. At worst you can just take a taxi – we never paid more than a quid or two.
At this point you may be thinking – “ok, but even if the beer is cheap, why go to a country that you know nothing about, that isn’t famous for anything and has no landmarks?” Good question: I had no convincing answer before I left, but I do now. It all ties back to freedom, in this case from two sources:
The favourable exchange rate was one source of freedom - the feeling of being able to afford anything we wanted really energised the entire trip. We got to feel how I imagine rich London bankers must feel, without having to be wankers (although we did find that power corrupts). Ordering two meals each, two Jaeger bombs at a time and buying endless rounds of drinks without even worrying about the bill was a brilliant experience everyone should experience. In Krakow it was just as cheap, but I hadn’t quite let go of the ‘tab anxiety’ living in London had drilled into me – this time I just let go and went nuts. All it took was a cheap flight to a neglected Eastern European country to get a sense of how lucky we actually are having grown up in a stable Western economy. One of the running themes of the holiday was saying “first world problems” any time someone complained about something – whilst a funny meme (ousting “that’s what she said” as the easiest way to raise a laugh in our group), it also does point out how full of shit we all are when we complain about flies in the ointment of our privileged lives.
The other source of freedom was the relative lack of must-see landmarks: we were free from ticking off all the must-see places you would get elsewhere in Europe. This, catalysed by the cheap booze, shifted the focus of the holiday from where we were, to the people we were there with. An intelligent bunch consisting of Mathematicians, Economists and even a Theoretical Physicist (geek alert!), my friends are also colossal idiots – in the way that only really smart people can be. We would talk our way through a wide range of topics, solving all the big questions both philosophical and sordid. The juxtaposition of brains and heavy drinking reminds me of an Economist article I read on the history of drinking societies amongst the educated in England; particularly the following quote sums up the nature of our conversations nicely:
“One story unearthed by Mr Withington involves a cleric and two lawyers in Yorkshire. Sitting in an alehouse, the trio “began to be merry” in a manner that started with a faux-Latin competition and ended with the cleric’s penis hanging out of his trousers while one of the lawyers burned it with his pipe.”
Much like the Cleric and Lawyers quoted above, our conversation often quickly degraded from civilized to debauched – at one point I remember arriving at a conclusion in a heated discussion about the economic rise of China, only to turn to my right and hear one of my friends conclude his conversation with “…and that’s how masturbation starts” – leaving us all in tears. Much of what was discussed can’t possibly repeated in this blog post (or remembered clearly), but judge the success of the trip by this: by the time we left Macedonia, my face was hurting from laughing too hard…