Monday, March 21, 2011

Mace-where? A Quick Geography Lesson on Former Yugoslavia

For years I’ve been working on an article concerning the complex and surprisingly hostile relationship between American and Canadian backpackers.  The Ugly Canadians is its working title, and it’s based on some unpleasant run-ins I’ve had throughout my travels with some of our so-called friends to the north.  Sometimes I say forget it; maybe I’m just letting some bad apples spoil the bunch.  But then I cross paths with another loudmouth, America-bashing Canadian, and it opens up the wounds all over again.

The most recent encounter was in my hostel in Warsaw.  A Canadian kid from somewhere in Ontario turned up one evening and joined a discussion in progress in the common room.  A few countries were represented, including Australia, America, Poland, and now Canada.  We made our new round of introductions and it wasn’t too long before this Canadian guy started spouting off about America—right in front of me—talking smack about how dumb we are, particularly in the geography department.  I can’t remember now the precise insults, but he definitely mentioned Jerry Springer and something about Americans not being able to tell their asses from holes in the ground.  “Most of you can’t even locate the countries you invade on a map,” he said, or something to that effect.

A McDonald's-loving Canadian
backpacker in Lima airport
sporting his Maple Leaf.
I was steaming mad, of course, and tried to say a thing or two in our defense without using a string of profanities.  (I thought that would have been too Jerry-Springer like; just what he would expect.)  But each time I tried to speak, this Canadian clown would talk over me and get progressively more obnoxious.  At one point, my little Australian friend joined in the ribbing, and that just about broke my heart.  I don’t like confrontation, especially in my living space, and I was also tired, so eventually I just retreated to my dorm room.  But the whole thing left me completely aggravated and to this day I think, the nerve of that guy.

I was thinking about that Canadian this morning when I was looking at a map to figure out an itinerary over the next weeks.  And now that he’s well out of earshot (hopefully freezing his ass off somewhere back in Ontario), I want to pose a question to my American friends.  Was that guy really that far off base with respect to the geography thing?   I mean, let’s be honest, how many of us can name all the Balkan countries?  I know I couldn’t without the help of Wikipedia, and I’m swinging through them as we speak.  In fact, I looked them up about an hour ago in writing this post, and I think I’ve already forgotten a few.

And when we’re really being honest, isn’t it true that a lot of us couldn’t find Macedonia on a blank map of Europe even if our very lives depended on it?  I mean, right now I’m sitting in Macedonia, and I still have to pull out the map in the front of my journal to figure out where the hell I am in relation to the next country over. 

The new Macedonian flag.
Let’s also be fair though.  The last time a lot of us sat in a geography class, this place was still part of a country formerly known as Yugoslavia.  In fact, it was first admitted to the UN in 1993 under the provisional reference of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, sometimes abbreviated as FYROM.  It is now called The Republic of Macedonia, or just Macedonia, for short; not to be confused with the other Macedonia, which is a region of northern Greece.  

And we thought The Artist Formerly Known As Prince was confusing.

Remember the Yugo?
And now, especially for the Americans reading, here’s a quick-and-dirty political geography lesson regarding the former Yugoslavia.  Beginning in the early 1990s, what was once one country—formally, the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia—eventually became six, including Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Serbia, and Macedonia.  That number rises to seven if you recognize Kosovo’s declaration of independence in 2008, as the United States has.  This, by the way has prompted some Serbians to get in line with certain Canadians in the America-hating department.  Just what I need when I'm in these parts alone.

Okay, lesson over.  Wake up!

I’m sure the newfound independence of all these former Yugoslavian countries is a good thing that made a lot of people happy.  But when it comes to knowing our places around the world, it really hasn’t done Americans any favors.  I mean, we can barely keep up with our own 50 states, let alone their capitals (Missouri?  Jefferson City?) and now we have seven more countries to learn!  Really, between the Final Four and American Idol, who has the time?

Speaking of which, Macedonian Idol is playing in the other room as I write this.  The last contestant sang a Lady Gaga song, and the current one is singing I'm So Excited by the Pointer Sisters.  They sound really good.