Wednesday, May 4, 2011

(Just) Ukraine, And Other Musings On Country Names

Before I went to Ukraine during this journey, I used to call it “The Ukraine.”  I am sure that is because everyone I know calls it The Ukraine.  Even respectable news outlets are guilty.  But the country’s name is not, in fact, The Ukraine.  It’s (Just) Ukraine.  It took me some time to break myself of this, but finally I did.
A street in (Just) Ukraine

This did make me wonder a lot why everyone seems to say “The Ukraine” in the first place.  I performed some limited research on the topic, and have yet to pinpoint a reliable answer.  Perhaps, some speculate, it is because (Just) Ukraine was once part of “The” Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, or the USSR, and the “The” somehow stuck after Ukraine broke free.

This got me to thinking in general about what I call “The” countries as opposed to (Just) countries.  For example, there are countries like (Just) Canada and (Just) Australia.  No one would ever say The Canada or The Australia, like they do The Ukraine.  But then there are countries where “The” is actually in the title, as in “The Netherlands,” or a country in West Africa called “The Gabon.”  I have no idea what a Gabon is, but apparently it sometimes merits a definite article.

One day it dawned on me that I live in a “The” Country.  I live in The United States of America.  When someone asks me where I am from, I say “the United States.”  I would never say, “I’m from United States” or “I live in U.S.”  I would, however, say I’m from America, for short.

Many countries shorten things up this way; for ease, I guess.  On this trip I thought most of the countries I visited were (Just) countries, like (Just):  Russia, Poland, Belgium, Luxembourg, Bulgaria, and Albania.  But—it turns out—these are mostly shortened names.  The full names include the definite article and other words, as in:  The Russian Federation, The Republic of Poland, The Kingdom of Belgium, The Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, The Republic of Bulgaria, and The Republic of Albania.  I’ve since learned that I’ve been in only three (Just) countries during this trip, including Ukraine, Kosovo, and Montenegro. 

Teacups for sale at a flea market in The Republic of Poland.
Train Station in The Grand Duchy of Luxembourg

Guards near home of The Republic of Bulgaria President

Beyonce billboard in (Just) Kosovo
This brings me to the fascinating Macedonia-Name-Dispute that I recently learned about during my swing through the Balkans.  Macedonia’s official UN-designated name is the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, or FYROM.  But Macedonia wants to be called The Republic of Macedonia, or (Just) Macedonia, for short.  Greece, on the other hand, vehemently opposes this, partly to do with the fact that the northern region of Greece is also called Macedonia, and the Greeks feel like this would cause confusion surrounding which country can properly claim ancient Macedonian heritage, among other concerns.

I heard about the name problem from a new friend in Macedonia.  I had started to suspect there was some kind of tension between Macedonia and Greece after I ran across some graffiti on an upturned canoe in Macedonia that said “Greece – Fuck You!”  I soon discovered this name thing isn’t just a little squabble.  Apparently Greece has vetoed Macedonia’s inclusion in NATO based on the name dispute, and Macedonia’s entry into the EU hangs upon an agreeable name-issue resolution as well. 

The fight also extends to which country can properly claim Alexander the Great as its descendent.  As one might guess, the Macedonians say he is Macedonian, while the Greeks claim he is Greek.  The Macedonians—perhaps in an effort to bust Greece’s balls, though that is just speculation on my part—recently renamed the airport in Skopje after Alexander the Great.  I can only assume that won’t help relations.

Of course, I don’t have a dog in this fight.  Mostly I feel like The Balkans will be The Balkans, and it’s probably best not to stick my nose in something that’s not my business.  I will confess that I’m partial to the Macedonians, simply by virtue of the fact that I loved it there so much.  I’m heading to Greece next, and do plan to keep an open mind.  

A sweet Macedonian man who sold me some nuts.

In any event, soon I’ll have a job again (or so I hope), and no longer will I be able to ponder at length such fascinating things.  Meanwhile, it’s been raining every day here in Tirana, which has kept me inside more than I've liked.  I saw that The Green Hornet (or is it (Just) Green Hornet?) is playing down at the local cinema, in English with Albanian subtitles.  Seems like a good way to pass the time considering I'm running out of good material here.