Many of you probably know by now, whether in waking life or in social media life, that I’m a big ol’ fan of getting off the beaten track. While I do love seeing all the sites you’re ‘supposed’ to see, I’m also into seeing the abandoned and the rarely-tourist-drawing attractions of places I venture to. And, well, there was one such morning on my recent Balkans trip that took me to one of these places – which came as a must-see recommendation by the fantastic Frenchie hitchhikers I met in Thessaloniki.
Can you guess where on Earth I went?
I went to a town called Shutka, and it was vibrant, slummy, scary, exciting, and surely kept me on my toes and even more vigilant than I usually am when it comes to my surroundings (though one Greek man may say that is most certainly not true).
Shutka is a village in Macedonia just about 25 minutes outside of central Skopje, and is home to the largest concentration of gypsies in the world. They have a sitting Roma mayor, and their official language is Romani. Surely when I learned this I had to make the trip out there to see for myself. I’ve always been quite intrigued by gypsies, but even more so when I learned last year that two of my students in Spain are ‘middle class gypsies’, whatever that means.
In preparation for my gypsy venture, I sort of attempted to dress in a non-conspicuous way, but honestly, I think no matter how I dressed I’d have stood out, let’s be real. So, I still rocked my gold ‘LA’ earrings and golden slippers. However, I did plan my purse ahead of time and wore my new blue one rather than my bling bling silver one, I didn’t bring my entire wallet, only some cash and an ID, and just the bare minimum that I’d need for the afternoon.
I hopped aboard bus #19, which picked up just around the corner from my hostel, and took that all the way to the end of the line, when we arrived at a street filled with street vendors selling everything imaginable. Apparently, this street market, which is open daily and where most of the people have shops, is filled with people from central Skopje coming to do their shopping. I was actually quite surprised to see that the bus was so full when we arrived in Shutka, as I was expecting to be the only person heading out to that part of town. I definitely was not, but most definitely was the only non-Macedonian in those parts, so there’s that.
I walked for a ways on this main street until I got sick of it. It was too loud and just stall after stall, and I wanted to see the places these people live. I started weaving down random streets, and let me tell you, it was probably the closest to the slums of India I’d get outside of India. Some homes were mere shacks, while their neighbor(s) lived in mansions of 2 floors.
While walking around, I really wanted to take photos of the people; they were just so fascinating to observe, as people typically are to me. But, I was actually a bit nervous, especially after feeling a little heckled on a couple instances, and feeling like if I wanted a photo I’d better ask for one.
At one point, I was walking and saw these two guys completely staring at me. I mean, I was a solo girl so I knew I stood out, but I just kept walking. Then, like 2 minutes later, I heard shouting in my direction, but since I saw another guy on a bike heading in their direction I didn’t think too much of it, since I thought they were probably friends. Well, they weren’t! They were howling at me, and 2 seconds later their motorcycle pulled right up on my ass. I think they were asking if I was Italian, and all I could say was “I don’t understand! I’m sorry!” To which I got a friendly “Ahhh, English! American!” And they zipped off.
Wandering some more, I came up on a street lined with lots of crap for sale. At the end of the street, just up to the left and before the main market street, I was so intrigued by a huge lot filled with heaps of CRAP. It was like everyone and anyone who wanted to could come in, dump a bag of all the shit they could find or steal, and start selling it. I almost didn’t go in, but my curiosity won per the usual, and I entered to no shortage of stares.
I initially went in just wanting to take one souvenir photo and then bounce, but when I took said photo, an elderly gentleman burst out yelling something along the lines of NO PICTURES at me. He stormed over wagging his finger in my face, I apologized and said I was just curious. Within seconds the man who owned the heap of crap shop in front of me came over. Turns out he spoke quite decent English and started talking with me, and told his amigo to pipe down, that I was fine and not to worry. Homie still huffed and puffed relentlessly though.
Soon the English speaking man’s daughter came over and couldn’t stop smiling and staring at me. She also kept saying “nice to meet you too!” on repeat. It was so sweet and reminded me of my Koko babies still saying that to me after year 3. Soon enough this persuaded the feisty gentleman to come check me out. He tried, actually insisted, on getting me on his motorcycle for a ride – which I politely (and profusely) declined. Strike 2! I don’t think he liked me much. Huffy man aside, I spoke with the kind man and his daughter for a little about their lives in Shutka, how poor they are, but how happy they also are. The little girl was all smiles, and her father was so nice – but who knows, perhaps it was a rouse. I’d like to believe they were just good gypsy peeps.
Carrying on, this time on the opposite side of the market street, came the most interesting of my Shutka encounters. I walked past front yards filled with plastic bottles (for tax money collection?), an old television repair hole in the wall shop, and a friendly man who’s eye I caught.
The man was carrying his 2 year old son, and at first approached me speaking what I believe to be Macedonian, because clearly I didn’t look of the Roma type. I responded with the standard “I’m sorry! I don’t understand!” Low and behold, hombre was quite fluent in English, and was so excited when I opened my mouth and English poured out. We talked for a couple minutes on the street about how he learned English (mostly from watching American TV and films), and how he had lived in France for 1 year trying to make more money for his family, but nada. He asked what on earth I was doing there, and invited me to walk with him for a little while he went to grab his son an ice cream down the street. He had to get back to work, but really really wanted me to go to his house and hang out with his mom even though she spoke no English. “You can have a coffee” he said, but I really didn’t want a coffee, and thought it odd that he wanted me to meet his mom so badly.
Under normal circumstances, I wouldn’t have gone, for fear of being cut open and sold on the black market, but he seemed harmless, and had an adorable, flirtatious little son in his arms. Men and babies always seem more trustworthy. So, I obliged and went back to his home with him. I was quite curious to see what a gypsy home looked like and wanted to satisfy my curiosity as always.
When we got to his home, his wife was there waiting for him to bring their son so he could get back to work. She didn’t speak any English, but kept offering me everything to drink – coffee, juice, water. Her husband was telling me how their home is so modest (2 tiny rooms), but it’s what they can afford because they get no money from the government and barely make a living. How they want another child, but one is all they can financially support, and they want him to have the best life they can give him. I thought that was a rather responsible outlook, and a parenting tactic that should seriously be adopted by those who think because they can pop a kid out, they should.
The father went back to work, and I hung around for about 15 minutes playing in their kitchen/living room with the baby, taking selfies, and watching him climb up the couch and giggle and flirt with me. He was a little peach, but I was ready to bounce to the ounce and get out of Shutka.
And that about wrapped up my couple hours roaming around the biggest gypsy community in the world. As a whole, Skopje was a very strange city to me. I’m not entirely sure why, but it was, and Shutka definitely added to that feel. Weird feels aside, this wander was one of the major highlights of my Balkans bouncing, and I’d put it on your list of places to explore if you ever plan a trip to Skopje. It’s not to be missed! My only ‘regret’ is that I didn’t get to see actual wedding season in full swing. Gypsy weddings are supposed to be SOMETHING ELSE.
Perhaps the best part of my Shutka story didn’t even happen in Shutka, but upon returning back to wifi to tell Lambchops about my day and visit to a gypsy home. While he was most likely storming through his apartment with a heavy sweat and pace, telling me to come back down to Earth and that I should never ever trust a gypsy and that I’m lucky I’m still alive, I was all laughs, thought his concern was precious, and happy that I had an excellent, albeit strange day.
And voila! Have you ever visited Shutka, or any other gypsy villages on your travels? Do you think I’m a nut job like The Greek did, for going into the home of a gypsy? Tell me your woes in the comments.
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