Monday, March 30, 2009


I think most Americans are cheap at the margins - that's not to say we don't spend a good deal on clothes, electronics, and other consumer items, because we obviously do. But being frugal at the margins means that, looking at the menu in Olive Garden, we're more likely to pick the giant plate of fake-Italian pasta for $12.95 over the slightly better looking plate of fake-Italian pasta for $14.99. We're already spending more than $10 on a meal better made at home for $2, but if we can save $2 somewhere else. . . we do. It's irrational, but it's a habit.

And in a place like Macedonia, it becomes a very bad habit. Looking at a menu in a restaurant here in Skopje, you might see that a huge basket of grilled bread is 50 denari, while bread-with-cheese comes in at a whopping 90 denari. The marginal frugality kicks in unconsciously, and you go without cheese. You have saved less than a dollar on an appetizer that could be split between five people.

When traveling through the country, I'll often grumble about 'Skopje Prices'. An espresso in, say, Strumica will be about 40 denari, while the average price in Skopje is 70 denari. The 30 denari price difference is about $.60 (give or take), and I dare you to find a $1.40 Italian espresso anywhere in America. The same rule holds for most other food and drink prices.

So, rather than complain, I've been trying to keep things in perspective. And here's some perspective: In Macedonia, 10 dollars = about 450 denarii =

1. about 3 gallons of good beer

2. about 4 or 5 gallons of decent wine

3. A light dinner for two at a kafana, including appetizers, wine or beer, and Turkish coffee for desert

4. A train ticket from one end of the country to the other (Skopje-Gevgelija)

5. A long night out anywhere but Skopje

6. Basic groceries for a week (giant loaf of bread = $.50, potatoes and onions might as well be free, see above for beverages)

7. Two espressos after I walk to the center and pay my monthly water bill.

8. A taxi ride from one end of Skopje to the other - and back.

9. Eight packs of cheap cigarettes.

10. Ten hours online at the Internet cafe in the basement of my apartment building.

It also equals 40 frozen pizza crusts, 25 bunches of fresh parsley, and a block of cheese the size of my head. And so on . . .

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