This story was originally published by Meta.mk. An edited version is republished here via a content-sharing agreement between Global Voices and Metamorphosis Foundation.
Justyna Mleczak is a travel blogger from Poland who runs Do Macedonii, a blog in Polish about her travels in North Macedonia and Albania.
Since 2016, she has spent all summers in Albania working as a tour guide, and visiting North Macedonia often. Recently, she visited North Macedonia in cooperation with European Union-supported Smart Tourism Enhancement Project (STEP).
She is currently finishing an e-book about North Macedonia, and in the meantime organizes lectures about the Balkans in schools, universities and travel clubs in her home base in Poland.
Mleczak spoke via email with Metamorphosis’ Violeta Jonchevska about how she first fell in love with the North Macedonia — and how she uses digital technologies to connect people from different cultures.
Violeta Jonchevska (VJ): Why did you decide to become a professional tourist guide in North Macedonia and the broader region?
Justyna Mleczak (JM): It has never been an idea for living and truth be told, it is still not. I mean, legally I cannot even be a professional tour guide in Macedonia as to take the exam you firstly need to get a citizenship. On the other hand, I always thought I would become a non fiction journalist or a war/social correspondent. I was reading cover to cover books written by Tiziano Terzani, Egon Kisch, Joseph Kessel, Ernest Hemingway and lots of our famous Polish reporters. I have been also always intrigued and fascinated by history – with a great inner belief that there are thousands of voices which we cannot hear or somebody does not want us to listen to them.
However, until 2015/2016 I did not have even a slightest idea about modern history of North Macedonia or Albania and maybe a little bit about the Balkans. I have just finished my Bachelor on Central European Studies and I was going to go deeper on Caucasus or at least Hungary-Romania. This year, summer 2015, I was responsible for our family holidays. Frankly, I did not remember, why I chose Vlore in Albania. A few weeks later we started the journey which changed everything.
VJ: How was your first visit to North Macedonia?
JM: My first visit in Skopje was just ridiculous. We arrived to the capital quite early and with hope for a bit of sightseeing. Instead, we were circling the city trying to find non-existent street or just reach the owner of our rented apartment. After a few hours the only thing we wanted was something to eat. Believe me or not, we were not able to find any open restaurant. And I am laughing at us even in this moment, because… we gave up one hundred meters from the Stone Bridge and Old Bazaar. One hundred meters separated us from the heart of Skopje!
Anyway, of course I was astonished by all the statutes but mostly – the secret story behind them. Next day we stopped for a coffee in Ohrid. I mean, my family were drinking coffee, I was wandering around. At that moment, I started to consider another field of study.
Two months after our return home, my article about Albania was published in Poznaj Świat, one of the most famous travel magazines in Poland. I got the invitation for an internship in Albania by a Polish woman who I worked with in her travel agency in Albania for the next four years and I started my Balkan Studies. I fell in love with Macedonian language immediately and I decided to write a Master Thesis which will connect my passions. On September 2016 I came for a 6 months’ research. I was writing about the potential of tourism in solving conflicts.
I started a blog. It was a bit of a journal, a bit of a practice to publish a non-fiction book about Macedonia one day. And after four years… here we are. I did not publish a book, I did not go on Ph.D. studies. I am, accidentally, in love with Macedonia.
Quite a long story, huh? I should have probably said: I have been dreaming about it since I was 5!
VJ: What are your favourite destinations in North Macedonia and why?
JM: I do not have favorite destinations in Macedonia. I love places where I can meet interesting, smiling people willing to sit and talk, and here there are dozens of them. I stayed in Macedonia because I really feel like home here.
Kratovo reminds me of Stevce Donevski who have already arranged me a meeting with half of Slow Food Macedonia community. If I were a singer and he was my manager, I would have won MTV Award in a year from now!
I have a great sentiment towards Prilep, for me it is an energetic and magical place. It is not a coincidence that Prilep is a hometown of my Macedonian language teacher, Zvonko Dimovski, whose contribution to the popularization of Macedonia among Polish students deserves special recognition.
Another order of recognition should be awarded to Malezan family from Ohrid, the owners of the most famous terrace among Polish professors, students and tourists. Trajanka Malezan is the person who believed in me from the very beginning and does not stop even when I no longer believe in myself. Recently Ramne village became a special place to me – but only thanks to Natasa Nedanovska. She has a hands, brain and heart from gold.
VJ: North Macedonia has a lot of Polish tourists. Why do you think they are interested in this destination?
JM: Not sure. It is a bit of a fashion, a bit of fascination with the Balkans, a bit of looking for a cheaper alternative for holidays. Macedonia was famous among Poles long before the Polish crowds arrived here. We as a nation are known for “being everywhere” and the current pandemic situation perfectly confirms that.
I am not interested in these crowds. There are a few most common reasons for Poles to visit Ohrid: one day trip from Albania, transit or a few days stop on the way to Albania or during the Balkan trip and, especially since we have charters, relax with sunbathing by the Ohrid lake.
For a long time I cannot get over the fact that for our market and most Polish tourists Macedonia is only Ohrid and sometimes Skopje, perceived as sad, boring and chaotic. I slowly begin to understand that this kind of tourism is also needed – it is just not for me. I am focusing on people who want to slow down, sit, talk and experience. These people are true Macedonian lovers. They are coming back over and over again, delighted with food, culture, tradition, and top of the top – Macedonian people.
VJ: What are the positive and negative sides that Polish tourists point out after visiting North Macedonia?
JM: Well, it is a very difficult and general question. The average stereotypical Polish tourist complains about breakfast and lack of black tea… Jokes aside, hundreds of Polish tourists come to Macedonia, especially Ohrid. These are people with different experiences, expectations and needs.
I will answer differently – the biggest advantage and power I see is in people with passion, vision and idea. They form associations, work in non-governmental projects, devote themselves to protect what they recognize as a treasure. On the other hand, the biggest disadvantage is ignorance of authorities who not only does not help but make the work harder and complicate things.
VJ: COVID-19 harmed tourism globally. How do you deal with the challenges and what are your expectations for the future?
JM: Tourism is a meeting place. It is communing with culture, with the past, present and future, broadening horizons and being able to see yourself in others. It has an unbelievable power both to build and destroy.
I do not expect anything. I am trying to work hard, hoping to establish a cooperation with two fantastic women, Jasmina Popovska and Katerina Vasileska, founders of Genuine Experiences platform, as I feel we are looking in the same direction. And I am going to continue to convince Poles that the Balkans is not a powder keg. It is a barrel of wine. To share and drink with others, no matter who they are.