As one of the 9,000 or so Macedonians living in England, I have long been aware of the contrast between the unselfconscious patriotism that is the norm in Macedonia, and the awkward evasion that accompanies the national identity question in England.
Having been in England since the age of 11, I have a foot in both camps – or, more accurately, find myself foreign in both places. I used to speak no English, then accented English, then accented Macedonian, and now I struggle to remember Macedonian words. This duality is no hardship to me – I'm equally happy to apologise when someone steps on my foot as I am to go around the house closing windows to avoid promaja.
One of the most instantly recognisable Macedonian traits across class boundaries is a fierce devotion to the idea of being "Macedonian". You will not find many in the Macedonian mainstream asking what nationality means because enough questions surround the Macedonian nationality already – and they all come from neighbouring countries. The most persistent of these is a typically Balkan diplomatic deadlock – the 19-year-old name dispute with Greece.
Accession to the EU is among the Macedonian government's top priorities, a process hindered by the veto Greece has on any accessions. Greek objections also mean that Macedonia is referred to in official UN or Nato documents as FYROM (Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia), to much consternation in Skopje. Athens disputes Macedonia's constitutional name (Republic of Macedonia) because they see the term "Macedonia" and the identity it designates as part of their ancient cultural heritage. Some on the Macedonian side argue that, on the contrary, it is the Macedonian people who can claim cultural and ethnic continuity with the ancient kingdom of Alexander the Great, on the basis that those people never went away from the region.
Both Greek and Macedonian claims to continuity with the ancient kingdom are tenuous at best. Though a Hellenic culture, the ancient Macedonians were not "Greek" in any sense we would understand today, and they certainly weren't Slavic.
Macedonia's Eastern neighbour Bulgaria was among the first countries to officially recognise the Macedonian state. However, they still refuse to recognise it as a nation, seeing the country and its people as prodigal Bulgarians. Many in Bulgaria consider the Macedonian language to be a regional Bulgarian dialect. As with Greece, the Bulgarian ambivalence is rooted in the region's convoluted history – in this case a more recent episode.
In the 19th century, regional revolutionaries such as Goce Delčev andJane Sandanski fought the Ottomans, making little headway politically, but attaining near-mythical status among the locals. Both Macedonia and Bulgaria are fiercely possessive of these figures, but cannot agree about their nationality. Both states have towns named after Delčev, and statues of him watch over Macedonian and Bulgarian town squares. A portrait of Delčev hung in my primary school classroom, and both he and Sandanski are name-checked in the Macedonian national anthem.
The Bulgarians, like Greece, feel that they would lose a cherished part of their historical narrative if they ceded a separate Macedonian identity. The confusion is not helped by the fact that the Ottoman bureaucrats who carried out every census in the region before the 20th century did not see the need to differentiate between regional identities – "Christian Slavs" generally sufficed. Later studies are not much more helpful – the anthropologist Robert Newman, travelling through the Macedonian part of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia in 1935, found that many locals were happy to be known as Bulgarians, Serbs, Macedonians or Turks – whichever identity seemed appropriate for whatever situation they found themselves in.
In Macedonia today, conversations about politics are ubiquitous and heated – the frustration with the diplomatic disputes is palpable, because everyone knows what and who they are and are impatient for everyone else to acknowledge what already exists.
Macedonians drink Turkish coffee, a tar-like espresso; the elderly watch subtitled Argentinian soap operas, while teenagers listen to American pop, and everyone takes Eurovision seriously. Byzantine ruins, Ottoman souks, medieval Orthodox churches and Yugoslav-era concrete sprawls are scattered across the country. As with any nation, the essence is impossible to convey but easy to understand when you're part of it; it is an aggregate of many different things, some good and some bad (as the Roma minority will attest), but all of them inherently Macedonian.
I have had conversations with Greek and Bulgarian people along the lines of "why do you deny you're Greek/Bulgarian?" I can't remember what my reply was, probably something uninspiring like "erm … not sure?"
What I wish I had said to them is this: it makes no difference if Goce Delčev was Bulgarian or if Alexander was Greek and my 19th century ancestors considered themselves Serbs or Turks – I'm not any of those things. To be FYROM-ian is meaningless, and to be Bulgarian is out of the question. Perhaps it is the case that we have taken Greek terms and symbols, added a variant of the Bulgarian language, and fused them to create a nation and people that reflect the region's mixed heritage. None of that alters the fact that the Macedonians living today have never been anything other than Macedonians, and should have the right to be known as such.