Anybody who has ever met somebody from Bitola knows that we hold our city on a pedestal unlike many others. Seldom can any warm-blooded Bitola native hear “Bitola Moj Roden Kraj” and not shed a tear. 500 other recorded songs alone attest to the fact that the city has had a particular prestige in the hearts and memories of its natives and all those who found warmth in its hospitality. Part of our folklore, like elsewhere in Macedonia, talks about the heartache of pechalbari* leaving their homes, and Bitola waiting for their return that would never come. As an emigre who never returned home, I know this separation first hand. I know the pain of being torn from one’s home. However, I also know the pain of watching the life of your city slowly drained.
Part of growing up in the diaspora is coming to terms with the fact that our beloved homeland, so adored in our songs and hearts, is not what currently exists. Having gone to Bitola more times than I can recall over the years, I have seen this first hand. Every year I noticed more and more of my family and friends having gone to stranstvo**. Just on my street alone, friends I knew have moved to Switzerland, Belgium, Denmark—and sadly, even Bulgaria. Out of a scene from Atlas Shrugged, I drive by and see the abandoned factories—vestigial remnants of a once proud and industrious city. Ironically, in a Shakespearean twist, the biggest employer of the city is also slowly suffocating it.
Now, the disease has spread to the very heart of the city, the famed Sirok Sokak. Not only is it a shell of its former self, with no youthful exuberance and carefree idleness to stroll through its street, but it is has become anemic for businesses. Recent reports show that some 12 stores in a row have closed their doors. With uncertainty about the future, and less overall consumer spending, stores and restaurants that once served to distract us from the coming storm have now also abandoned us. Now, reality has set in.
The prime movers and intelligentsia of the city have fled. For a city of the arts that once boasted 1,200 private pianos that filled the air with Mozart, Bitola in 2017 does not even have a proper bookstore to showcase its proud history. For a city which boldly and unapologetically pushed into the future with its first film footage in the Balkans shot by the Manaki brothers, it now does not even have an official theater. In its past, Bitola had running water and electricity before Skopje even did. Now, the city is dotted with abandoned construction sites for shopping centers, garages, and houses—a painful reminder of the hopes and dreams we shared as a city.
Between our love of our homeland and a good vacation, the diaspora often come across a negative stigma when at home. We may shout our love of Macedonia to the world, but we are often asked if our patriotism would remain true if we were to live the lives of our brethren back home. I don’t know how many of us, myself included, can answer in the affirmative. As Bitolchani, we may be sustained by images of our former glory—a veritable European cosmopolitan and City of Consuls– but the truth is, our city is not the city we remember.
Many decades ago, we waited with sorrow and disillusionment for our pechalbari to return. Now, we are waiting for our city to return. Statistics on GDP growth and official unemployment may be used to paint a different picture, but no numbers can cover up the fact that life is pouring out of Bitola. The current system is unsustainable and will inevitably lead to a loss of not just Bitola, but many parts of Macedonia. No party platform can fix this. As the diaspora, our dollars can only go so far in the summer months, before the cold reality of winter sets in. The first step in solving a problem is realizing there is one. As the diaspora, we cannot live on just singing songs about our home and then returning for vacation as more foreigners than actual Macedonians back home. The only way to stop the bleeding is to re-build. We must support our communities, support worthy causes, and develop a true connection to our land and the struggles of its people. Most importantly, we must restore the confidence in Macedonia that is depleted every single day from another person having gone abroad. We have been blessed to call America, Canada, and Australia our homes, and we cannot stand by while the life is drained from the cities that gave us form. We cannot be the disillusioned lost generation that parties aimlessly to drown out the moans of our city. We cannot, and will not, be the pechalbari that did not return.
*pechalbari is the name for Macedonian migrants that sought to temporarily work abroad to save up money and eventually return home
**stranstvo is the catch-all word denoting abroad, but usually referring to the West.
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The views and opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of UMD