After numerous near-death experiences on the roads, highways, and sidewalks of Macedonia, I was inclined to believe that Macedonian drivers were the most dangerous and reckless people I had ever seen behind the wheel. Cars park and drive on sidewalks, form extra lanes on highways where there shouldn't be, and regard stop lights, signs, and other traffic signals as vague suggestions, at best. Traffic police on the highway are a rather pathetic sight; they wave a sign at you to pull over for random checks, but most cars tend to blow right past them.
But lately, as I've grown used to Skopje traffic, I've developed a new respect for Macedonian drivers. It's my Ameri-centrism acting up again. Our country was built for cars. Our spaces are clearly defined: ROADS ARE FOR CARS. NO PEOPLE ALLOWED. We happily buzz along at 60, 70, 80 miles an hour, fairly secure in the knowledge that there's probably not going to be a herd of cattle or a family of seven wandering across I-75. We just throw the transmission into 'drive', put on the cruise control, and attempt to stay awake in the air-conditioned bliss. Let's face it - in our strip-malled, box store and gas station suburbs, if there actually is a pedestrian at a cross walk, and we are forced to wait two seconds longer to make that right turn, we get angry. Why are you walking here? This is a road! Get a car!
European countries - especially urban areas - were not built for cars. Most interstate highways in Eastern Europe are relatively recent affairs - Skopje's ring road isn't even complete yet, while Belgrade's was finished only recently. Roads are constructed on a human scale, and the spaces aren't clearly defined. Cars park all over the sidewalks, people walk down the middle of the road. Cars share the highways with scooters, motorcycles, donkeys, wagons, tractors, and other Road Warrior-style contraptions cobbled together by the Roma. The cars are much smaller - a decent size car here would be a Honda Civic hatchback, and there are older Zastavas, Yugos, and Fiats that are so tiny they could be featured in a Shriner parade in America, should a portly older gentlemen be able to fit inside.
The benefit of all this - and the hardest thing for an American to grasp, I think - is that this personalizes traffic. At 60 miles an hour in a tinted-window SUV, you are completely isolated, oblivious. If you run over something smaller than a beagle, you won't notice it. And other drivers? You might see them at stoplights. But when you're at a light-less intersection in an oversized Hot Wheels car, you interact. You wave to the driver on the left to go on, and the driver on the right sees this and uses the opportunity to turn himself. You ask for a cigarette from the passenger in the next car at a stop light. You can talk, wave, point, and other drivers acknowledge and react. It's like pushing a shopping cart through the aisles of a grocery store.
We view cars as giant speeding metal death boxes, with which you can only interact if you are in your own giant speeding metal death box. That's just how it is in the States. I carried this mentality with me to a traffic culture that is vastly different, which is why it all seemed so chaotic and frightening. And, honestly, it still is pretty chaotic and frightening, and it would take a lot for me to drive here. But at least I can acknowledge my own bias.