Skopje, Macedonia Report of what it's like to live there - 09/15/16
Personal Experiences from Skopje, Macedonia
1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?
No. Buenos Aires, London, Baghdad.
2. What is your home city/country? How long is the trip to post from there, with what connections? How easy/difficult is it to travel to this city/country?
Virginia, USA. Travel time is around 14-16 hours with a connection through Vienna or Istanbul.
3. How long have you lived here?
4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
Housing is generally nice, and it rarely takes more than 15 minutes to commute anywhere in the city.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
Generally good, with a few exceptions. The availability of fresh produce is very seasonal and gets quite thin in the winter. Certain products are not regularly supplied and you can go months without seeing them, such as Greek yogurt or cheddar cheese. The cost is generally cheaper for food products. However, durable goods such as electronics and children's toys are much more expensive.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
Chocolate chips, any kind of baking mixes (cake, brownie, waffle), peanut butter, black beans, condensed milk, non-sugary cereals, spices.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
One Burger King in City Mall and a few Dominos franchises. There are no McDonalds or Starbucks here.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
Via the USPS at the U.S. Embassy. I do not use the local post office.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
Household help (nannies, housekeepers, gardeners) are widely available. Prices range from $3-6 an hour.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
There are gyms available, but I do not know the prices. There is a small gym at the US Embassy.
4. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?
Yes and yes.
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
There is the International Church of Skopje, which is an evangelical Christian Church. There is also a Catholic church in English and a Mormon church.
6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
It helps but is not necessary. You can find private tutors relatively cheaply.
7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
Definitely. The city is not very well designed for able bodied pedestrians, and even worse for anyone with mobility issues.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
Taxis are widely available and relatively cheap. Buses tend to be very crowded. There is no tram system and the train system is very limited and not widely used for passenger transport.
2. What kind of car do you recommend bringing to post, given the terrain, availability of parts, burglary/carjacking risks, etc.? What kind of car do you advise not to bring?
Small SUVs are the way to go. There are a lot of major car dealerships here (Toyota, Honda, Ford, BMW), but it's best to bring things like replacement windshield wipers, oil filters, etc if you ship your own cat as those parts cab be difficult to find specific to your model of car.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
Yes - a few days.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
T-Mobile is relatively inexpensive and reliable.
Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:
1. What types of jobs do most expatriate spouses/partners have? Locally based or telecommuting? Full-time or part-time? Can you comment on local salary scales?
Teaching in the international schools or telecommuting are the two most popular jobs for spouses.
2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?
Not very many outside of the religiously based organizations.
3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Business and business casual. Formal wear seems to be reserved for the Marine Corps ball.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
Some petty crime, especially in areas around the center with Roma populations.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
There is one good private hospital here, Sistana, that is generally good if they have the specialists you need. The local government-run hospitals are in bad shape, though, and I would recommend avoiding them based on various bad experiences that both colleagues and Macedonian friends have had there. Any serious medical procedures would require leaving the country.
3. What is the air quality like at post (good/moderate/bad)? Are there seasonal air quality issues? Does the air quality have an impact on health?
The air pollution in Skopje is TERRIBLE. It is regularly on par with Beijing and Delhi. From at least late October to late March, you don't want to spend any more time outside than absolutely necessary. Skopje is situated in a topographical bowl, and there is no natural gas for heating. Almost everyone relies on burning wood (amd plastic and other miscellaneous items) for heat during the cold months. The PM 2.5 levels during these months are regularly above 200 and on occasion can get over 500. The air is literally toxic and you cannot see from one side of the city to the other. Even in the summer, the PM 2.5 measurements rarely get into the "healthy" range (below 50).
4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?
The air pollution is going to make you more susceptible to respiratory infections and other problems.
5. Are there any particular mental health issues that tend to crop up at post, such as Seasonal Affective Disorder (winter blues)?
Yes, due to the incredibly high levels of air pollution in the winter, it is difficult to spend time outside for 4-5 months out of the year.
6. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
Very seasonal, similar to Washington, DC but a bit warmer and drier.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
There are several international schools here that teach in English, including QSI and NOVA, as well as a French school.
2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?
QSI will provide aides for some special needs students. The main pre-school, the International Playschool of Skopje has a child with Downs Syndrome mainstreamed in the classroom.
3. Are preschools available? Day care? Are these expensive? What has been your experience with them, if any? Do the schools provide before- and/or after-school care?
There are a few pre-school options. The International Playschool of Skopje is fantastic and QSI also takes preschoolers. They are inexpensive compared to Costa for preschools and daycare in the Washington, DC area.
4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
Very limited ones, including local Macedonian soccer teams, tennis lessons, karate classes, and a kids rock climbing club. Private swim lessons are also available.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
It's a small community of mostly friendly people.
2. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
It's probably best for couples without children because they can take full advantage of traveling around the region, which can prove challenging on bad roads with limited rest stop options. Families might have a harder time with adjusting to the lack of play areas and green space in the city for children, as well as the air pollution issues that will force kids to be indoors most of the time in the fall and winter.
3. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
The LGBT community is still very discriminated against here.
4. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
Greece is a short drive away and has a wide variety of offerings, from beautiful beaches to historic sites, to shopping.
5. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
Matka Canyon is pretty, as is Mavrovo National Park, but as with everything else in Macedonia they suffer from poor infrastructure and a huge litter problem. Lake Ohrid is really beautiful and worth the trip from Skopje.
6. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
Not really. There is delicious wine and some silver filigree art.
7. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
The cost of living is cheap and the commute to anywhere in the city is usually easy.
Words of Wisdom:
1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?
I wish I had known how terrible the air pollution was. I never would have come here if I had known about it.
2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
Nice car, expectation of any kind of efficiency in the public arena
4. But don't forget your:
Air purifiers, air filtering face masks, indoor exercise equipment, children's playground equipment for your backyard.