Skopje, Macedonia Report of what it's like to live there - 08/06/09

Personal Experiences from Skopje, Macedonia

Skopje, Macedonia 08/06/09

Background:

1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?

Doha, Qatar and Luxembourg.

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2. How long have you lived here?

13 months into a 2-year tour.

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3. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?

US Embassy spouse.

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4. Travel time and best routes to this city from Europe or the US:

A one and a half/2 hour flight to Vienna, long layover and then a 9 hour flight to Dulles. The flight from Dulles to Vienna is somewhat shorter, but the layover in Vienna is still unbearable, as it has to be the most uncomfortable airport I have experienced. Some folks drive to Serbia for additional airline options and cheaper flights.

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Housing, Groceries & Food:

1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?

Housing is wonderful!Very few complaints. I have been impressed by every home I have visited. There are definitely some power/plumbing issues, particularly in a small village where many expats live, but overall the housing is large, modern and comfortable.

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2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?

There are a few large grocery stores to shop in- Tinex, Vero, and Ramstor are the biggest. You can find European products easily but few American brands. A trip to Bondsteel allows you to stock up on favorites, including cheddar cheese, which is not available locally. Fresh produce is cheap and abundant. Beef is okay, but the cuts are different and it is hard to find a cut I like. Chicken, pork and veal are available and priced reasonably. We used our consummables allowance to stock up on canned soups and kid's favorites. APO is available for online ordering of must haves too.

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3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?

More kid's clothes and shoes....very expensive, very poor quality. More toys and gifts for the same reason. Larger sized clothing for women is virtually nonexistent as most Macedonians are very thin and fit (I was quite depressed about my weight for a long time here!!).

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4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?

Only US chain is McDonald's unless you go to Camp Bondsteel in Kosovo, they have a Taco Bell and Burger King there. There are plenty of good restaurants to choose from, though most seem to serve Italian food. Aladin has good Middle-Eastern cuisine. I like Gino's and Dal Met Fu for pizza. Molino's and Duomo have terrific salads and risotto. There are also lots of burek stands that offer quick and inexpensive bites. The only Indian restaurant closed this past year. Prices at most places are quite reasonable.

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5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?

We have had absolutly no issues with bugs here! Just a few spiders in our home and some bumblebees to deal with. One of my favorite things about this post!

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Daily Life:

1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?

APO and pouch.

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2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?

Readily available and reasonably priced. We pay our gardener about $30 for 5 hours of work per week and he provides his own tools. We pay our babysitter 250MKD (around 5.50 )an hour, but others pay slightly less or slightly more. Unemployment is rampant and people are eager to find work!

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3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?

Hotel Alexandar has very nice facilities and reasonably priced personal trainers available. The new Embassy compound has a well-equipped gym too. Numerous karate/judo type clubs are scattered around the city too.

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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?

I never use mine, but they seem to be widely accepted and ATMs are plentiful. We usely cash checks at the embassy and pay with cash to avoid overseas usage fees imposed by the card companies. Most small neighborhood businesses do not accept credit or even large bills!

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5. What English-language religious services are available locally?

There is a Catholic church, a large Episcopalian presence, and a prayer service weekly at QSI. I don't know specifics, but CLO has the details.

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6. English-language newspapers and TV available? Cost?

One publication in English, weekly I think. AFN decoders available through the embassy.

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7. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?

Macedonian is certainly appreciated and helpful, but not necessary. Most everyone knows English. There are many opportunities to learn the language locally through reasonably priced instructors.

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8. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?

I would not call Skopje a wheelchair-friendly city. Most of the time cars are parked on whatever sidewalks might be available, and elevators are not a guarantee in most buildings.

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Transportation:

1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?

Buses are safe, but very crowded and rundown. I can't imagine anyone choosing to use them. Taxis are abundant and cheap. No need for a second car unless you live outside town in the smaller villages.

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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?

There are some American dealerships here..Chevy and Ford for sure. No carjacking issues here, but parking large vehicles can be troublesome at times.

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Phone & Internet:

1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?

Not sure of speed, but it is fairly reliable for me and the cost is okay.

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2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?

There are a number of options and supposedly the embassy provides them to spouse, but they didn't to me!

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Pets:

1. Are qualified veterinarians and/or good kennel services available? Do animals need to be quarantined upon entry to the country? Are there other considerations regarding pets that are particular to this country?

No.

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2. Quality pet care available (vets & kennels)?

I haven't used the kennels or vets yet, but I hear there are good ones. We have left our dog with our babysitter during vacation/trips. Pet supplies can be very expensive here....ship lots of dog food in your consummable order. As noted by another writer, there is a large stray population and it is sad, but this is a big problem for a lot of other countries too. The government simply cannot afford to take care of these animals, and neither can the general population.

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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?

There are some teaching opportunities, plenty of NGOs, and USAID contractor positions that come available every once in a while, but I would assume other "local" positions are lacking or wouldn't pay very well. The embassy has lots of positions for spouses, and sometimes actually has trouble filling them.

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2. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?

Standard business attire at work. There are a lot of talented tailors available and many people have complete wardrobes created here.

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Health & Safety:

1. Pollution index (Good, Moderate, Unhealthy, or Very Unhealthy)?

Most say unhealthy, and it is very bad in the winter, but my child has mild asthsma and has had no problems. You definitely notice the air is dirty by the need to wash your car frequently.

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2. What immunizations are required each year?

Hep A is recommended for this post, along with the standard vaccinations.

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3. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.

If you take normal precautions i.e. locking doors, securing valuables, watching for pickpockets, etc. you will have no problems. There is very little crime threat here, other than opportunity thefts. There have been burglaries in the past, but none affecting the expat community recently that I am aware of. We try to avoid Roma youth, particularly in groups, as they can be very aggressive and invasive.

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4. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?

Medical care is not up to US standards, but there are some well-trained docs out there with good, modern equipment. The Embassy Health Unit is fantastic and serves most needs. There are regular visits from the PA in Kosovo too. Remedika is the private hospital of choice for expats. All local doctors seem to believe blood tests are necessary for all ailments, including sinus infections and earaches!Locals complain of corruption in the medical facilities, but that doesn't really impact our family. Medevac would be necessary for major problems/testing. Dental care is spectacular and outrageously cheap compared to US prices!I wish I had known that before spending thousands on the kid's dental care prior to our arrival.

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5. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?

Though there are four seasons, it is not exactly like in the DC area. It is considerably hotter in the summer, with temps in the high 90s not unusual and even reaching the 100s. There is some snow in the winter, but it is not too bad, although roads are not cleared as needed. Spring is lovely.

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Schools & Children:

1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?

There are two schools used by the Embassy community. QSI (http://qsiweb.org/mcn/)is a small, yet well established school providing a welcoming environment for the kids, which has small class sizes and a terrific music program. Through weekly community time events and montly "Open Stage" nights, they foster a close knit community for all. I have been very pleased with this little school! Not everyone finds it as challenging as they would like, but I find it more than adequate, and I like that the small environment allows for more individualized attention to each students needs/abilities. The other option isNOVA International School (http://www.nova.edu.mk/index.aspx) and though it is larger, it is not necessarily better. Most people choose to send their high school aged kids here due to the size of the school and it's proven record of graduates moving on to good universities. Many students/families have had terrific experiences there, but I have not been as impressed. Though there are some fantastic, caring teachers, the administration has left me disenchanted. I have had numerous problems with the record keeping and communication with directors. The campus atmosphere is laid-back and there seems to be little structure, which is not condusive to my child's needs. That being said, others thrive there. Basically, it depends on the kid!I am not very happy, specifically with the admin aspect and I am switching my child next year to QSI.He is somewhat disappointed as he did enjoy the school, but I found it to be incredibly frustrating!

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2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?

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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 reputable ones to choose from, with programs beginning at age 2.The International Playschool of Skopjeand the British Children's Academy ( http://www.tbcacademy.com/) seem to attract good reviews and many of my friends have their kids enrolled there. For care of younger toddlers/infants, most hire babysitters to come to their homes. There is a large pool of caring sitters available and the CLO can provide references. There are also a few playgroups operating within the expat community for those interested.

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4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?

Organized soccer, swim lessons, horse back riding,

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Expat Life:

1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?

There seems to be a large and varied expat community here.

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2. Morale among expats:

In my opinion, it's great!Some first time expats are down on the life here, but I honestly don't think they would be happy anywhere. Life is very comfortable, safe, and inexpensive here. Morale at the embassy seems to be quite good in most departments too.

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3. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?

Lots of choices. Restaurants, clubs, parties, BBQs, playgroups, etc. The International Women's Association is very active, with over 160 members, and is a great intro into society. I highly recommend joining! http://www.iwaskopje.org/

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4. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?

Wonderful for families! Couples and singles seem to be doing okay as well. There seems to be an active dating scene for singles, and lots of ways for couples to entertain themselves. There are many opportunities for socializing amongst all groups.

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5. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?

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6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?

Some tensions between Albanians and Macedonians. The Roma population are definitely frowned upon by others. It is a somewhat macho society, i.e. men expect to be waited on before women in the deli counter line, but not overly annoying.

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7. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?

Great hiking opportunities. Lots of beautiful churches and monasteries to visit. Lake Matka offers a scenic respite just outside the city. Vineyards offer tours and overnight stays. The usual sports facilities, but no golf. Bowling in Tetovo. Skiing in Mavrovo or nearby Bulgaria. You can be in Greece and some beautiful beaches in a few hours by car.

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8. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?

Beautiful icons, Mother Teresa statues, delicious Macedonian wines.

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9. Can you save money?

We certainly have.

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Words of Wisdom:

1. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?

If the high school situation were better, I would not leave! It is a lovely post with great people, easy lifestyle, and a safe atmsophere.

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2. If you move here, you can leave behind your:

Preconcieved imagery of a war-torn region.

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3. But don't forget your:

Dog food/pet supplies, toys/gifts, patience for insane drivers, all large and plus-sized clothing

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4. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?

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5. Recommended movies/DVDs related to this city:

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6. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?

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7. Do you have any other comments?

Come to Skopje with an open mind and it will capture your heart! Yes, there is obvious poverty and lots of stray dogs, but this is not America or England. A,nd if that is what you are expecting, maybe you shouldn't come here. Give Macedonia a chance and you just might come to love it as I have.

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