1. The Lisboeta girl who was waiting for the Skopje flight at Zagreb Airport

I kept watching her with curiosity while she tried different seats in the waiting room. When finally she sat next to me, I wondered if I should talk to her or not. Something about her told me she was a local, and I assumed she was going home to Skopje, Macedonia. She was a short and good-looking girl with black hair, green eyes, and cool jeans. She reminded me of a good friend I had in Catalonia, and I decided to at least say hello.

After sharing a few words, I was already in love with her smile, and I discovered that she was from Lisbon, Portugal. She told me she was going to stay in Skopje for five months, which made me feel less lonely and a little happier. Once we arrived at Skopje Airport, it was time to say goodbye but only after she gave me her email. Smooth.

2. The local taxi driver who told me some things about the Balkans

“We were too powerful, you know. When we all were the former Yugoslavia, we had everything. We loved it, being all the Balkans countries together. But power sometimes brings problems. So stronger nations than us began to whisper, and that was everything. And now here we are, Macedonia and the rest, just a bunch of small powerless countries easy to control.”

3. The lovely reggae-style Macedonian girl who worked afternoon shifts at the coolest hostel in Skopje

She studied Anthropology at Skopje University, and she had just started working in the newest, biggest, coolest hostel in town, the Lounge Hostel. It was a cozy place for real travelers just near City Park and the Vardar River. It was a sunny day in the middle of August.

She took me on a walk around the city and showed me some genuine local spots that ‘Lonely Planet’ tourists would have no idea about. We ate lahmacun and ayran in a hidden place called Gallery 7 in the Old Bazaar for 120 denars each. She told me that there was a Picasso I should see in the Contemporary Art Museum. And we finished the afternoon gazing at the Skopje sunset from the Kale Fortress while drinking Macedonian Skopsko beers.

4. The Malaysian workawayer who was traveling around Europe and wanted to try paragliding in Kruševo

He lived in Singapore for seven years before he decided to travel a bit around Europe. He had already visited London, Munich, Ljubljana, Belgrade, Pristine, and Ohrid. By the time I met him, he had been living in Skopje for more than a month working as a volunteer in a hostel.

When we met for the first time, he was cooking some pasta with tomatoes, tuna, and white cheese. “I’m just learning how to cook, man,” he told me. “In Malaysia, I buy everything to eat in the streets. It’s cheaper than cooking.” The next day, he told me he was going to try paragliding in Krusevo. “You in?” he asked. I didn’t have to think about it much: “Damn! Paragliding eh? Sure.”

5. The vegetarian blonde girl from Antwerp who lived with two cats and loved Wittgenstein

She already had a degree in philosophy and next year would begin studying literature. I was reading The Old Man and the Sea the first time I saw her. The next morning we shared breakfast at the hostel and I offered her an unsuccessful Turkish coffee. We both visited Matka Canyon, and traveled almost one hour by boat to see a wonderful cave full of bats. In the afternoon we had a few beers at Bistro London in downtown Skopje. A day later she traveled to Kosovo. I quickly forgot the names of her two cats but I ate a delicious sandwich with the Gouda cheese she left in the hostel’s communal fridge.

6. The traveler woman from the Netherlands who wanted to improve her Spanish before going to South America

She took a year off from her white-collar job just to travel. She had spent the past three months teaching English in Cambodia. We met when she was traveling around the Balkans. After a month at home in Rotterdam, she would go to South America to search for some new experiences.

I met her while looking for travelers in Skopje on Couchsurfing; we went for a coffee. She was talkative and funny and interesting. And before saying hasta la vista y buen viaje to each other, she told me to check out the Workaway opportunities in the Netherlands. I did and saw “Looking for a native Spanish speaker to help me to improve my Spanish in Rotterdam.” Rotterdam, eh?. That sounded cool enough.

7. The Albanian waiter who served me a really good 20-denar blackberry juice

It was my first time walking alone around the Old Bazaar of Skopje. I felt everyone was staring at me. All the locals were probably thinking, “Look at the tourist.” My Spanish-looking face, and my yellow flashy t-shirt fingered me easily among all the Macedonian, Albanian, and Turkish locals who were wandering around. But then I went down a tiny street and I saw this cool coffee-tea place where I instantly knew I would feel at home — in the middle of that strange neighborhood with so many cultures wonderfully mixed. The waiter came, smiled, and offered me a blackberry juice. “It’s delicious,” I told him. And I ordered one more, and another, and another…

8, 9, 10, and 11. The four young girls who were interrailing Europe for three weeks, and couldn’t hold their rakia

They were from Barcelona. And their plan was to visit Athens, Thessaloniki, Skopje, Belgrade, Zagreb, Florence, Torino, Marseille, and Tolouse. They had just arrived to Skopje, and the hostel owner was telling them where to find the best restaurants and about traditional Macedonian drinks. “Skopsko is the most popular beer, Stobi is a really good wine, and rakia is, well, you definitely should try rakia before you leave. You can buy Lozova Rakija in the supermarket.” They said happily that they would. Then I asked them if they had drunk whiskey before, and they said no. Ufff, it’s going to be painfully funny then, I thought and laughed.

12. The Turkish hotel chef who taught me how to play backgammon

I met this Turkish guy who was killing everyone playing backgammon. After all the matches I asked him to teach me some tricks. I learned about the game, and also discovered that he was a professional cook working in a hotel in Anatolia. “Come to Turkey, man. You’ll love it,” he said. On his last night at the hostel, he cooked a typical Balkans dinner with pickles, cheese, yogurt, hummus, watermelon, parsley, eggplant, onion, yellow and red peppers, garlic, lettuce, and a fantastic pink fish cream with a very complicated Macedonian name. It was awesome.