The Shopkeeper from Skopje, or, Travel in the Time of #MeToo

Yesterday, my roommate and I went to Skopje in Macedonia, our first trip out of Kosova since being here. As it was getting towards the end of the day, we wanted to get directions to a specific place we wanted to see, so we stopped and asked a shop owner we had spoken to earlier in the day. He was a very nice, energetic, younger guy who had asked us where we were from. When we answered, “Ohio,” he responded: “CLEVELAND!” and told us all about his opinions on basketball.

When we told him where we wanted to go, he said it was closed for the day because of weather, but that he would be closing up his shop soon and could show us around the city. We agreed, though reluctantly. This was the kind of situation we had always been warned about in travelling. Scenes from “Taken” flashed through our heads as Kelsie and I discussed our ground rules (no taxis, all public places) and code words (we’d claim we were sick or needed to go to the bathroom if things got uncomfortable).

Across the street, we noticed that people were walking into an open museum. We had been wanting to go to a museum anyways, and now it seemed like a good way to get out of a potentially hazardous situation. I told the man that we were very grateful for his offer to show us around, but that we had decided to go to the museum. He said, “ok” and tried not to look hurt, but it was obvious that he was. As we walked away, I had an awful feeling that I haven’t been able to shake since.

I keep imagining what our evening could have looked like. We could have seen some of the hidden gems of the city and had a firsthand account of life in Skopje. We could have made a wonderful new friend. Instead, we hurt the feelings of a man we hardly knew. Yes, I understand that the evening could have taken a much darker turn, but what if it wouldn’t have? What if we hurt the feelings of this man, who had been nothing but kind to us, for no reason whatsoever?

There’s only one reason that Kelsie and I didn’t go with the shop owner yesterday: he was a man, and we were not. More than that, we were vulnerable, being in a place we didn’t know, and vulnerable is something that a woman cannot be if she wants to get by. And that’s sad. That’s so sad.

I can’t tell you how many times I have wished that gender didn’t matter.

As a single woman, travelling is difficult sometimes. I have to either find places that are well known for safety, or travel with someone else. There are places I cannot go and things I cannot do because it is not safe for me. These are things that a man, or a woman travelling with a man, doesn’t have to think about as much.

And I’m certainly not saying that men are the victors and women the victims. Everyone suffers in the exchange. Both miss out on valuable exchanges and friendships. There are things I don’t feel comfortable saying to my friends who are men, and there are things that my friends who are men don’t feel comfortable saying to me. Everyone loses. No one is the victor.

There’s so much more I wish I could say, but I can’t find a way to put the words on a page. I will say this: I long for a world where I can have dinner with a male shop owner from Skopje, or Cleveland, or anywhere, and simply enjoy a nice meal and a new friend.

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