‘Koya boya?’  ‘What colour?’ I was having my toenails painted in Dina’s Beauty Salon on the shores of Lake Ohrid in the south-west corner of Macedonia. The lights of Pogradetz in Albania  were already glittering on the water.

I selected a pillar-box red lacquer. The beautician, the eponymous Dina, began working on my feet – regrettably the texture of wet flannel after bear-watching in the Macedonian woods for three days in non-waterproof trainers. I asked the 23-year-old if she ever visited Pogradetz. She explained that she travelled to the town often with her mother to buy the fabled Ohrid lake trout at the market: Macedonia has protected the species, but Albania hasn’t.

Sara Wheeler

Three or four other young people were sitting around in the small salon, doing nothing, and they chipped in on the trout topic. ‘The smart fish’, said one young man, ‘only swim on the Macedonian side’.

Mountainous and landlocked Macedonia  is about the size of Ohio, and has a population of 2,100,000, a quarter of whom are ethnic Albanians. It sits on a crossroads in the Balkan peninsula, buffeted by the swirling chaos of that region: for four hundred years under Ottoman rule; during the first Balkan war; in two World Wars; and of course post-1991, when the collapse of Yugoslavia ushered in independence at last.

Youth unemployment runs at  40 percent. ‘There’s just no work down here’, said a young man in a baseball cap.  The salon wallpaper depicted purple circles, 1970s style, and a series of framed certificates advertised Dina’s qualifications in a dizzying range of  beautification skills. A Wham! song wheezed from a radio. Something seedily provincial and Soviet lingered on the chipped formica table where Dina arranged her nail polish bottles. As it did on the street outside, which was lined with rusty little Yugo cars that looked like they could be prised apart with a can-opener.

‘My grandfather and father were fruit producers,’ said Dina, buffing away at my nails, ‘and in the communist era they always had work growing food for the processing plants in what is now Slovenia – those goods then went across the Soviet Bloc. Now Slovenia grows its own food. My generation don’t know what it was like to live under communism, but at least people had jobs.’

The collapse of industry had fostered a remittance economy: both Dina’s elder brothers worked in Germany and sent money home. The country has applied to join the EU, but Greece has blocked its entry, out of sheer spite, it seems. My young interlocutors were all pro-EU, on the basis that joining might provide some jobs and infrastructure investment, but they said their parents were against it: ‘They reckon’, said Dina, ‘that we’d end up giving all our money to Brussels.’ How wearingly familiar it all sounds.

Both Bulgaria and Greece still believe Macedonia is part of their territory: Greece even forced the country to take, as its  official  name, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) in order to distinguish it from the northern Greek region of Macedonia.  It’s unsurprising that nationalism and national identity feature prominently in the consciousness of this small country. When the subject of Greece (we could almost see its mountains, from the salon) came up, much vitriol came up with it. ‘They lord it over us’, said a young woman, ‘yet love to come here and gamble’. I had noticed a proliferation of small casinos.

Red-roofed Ohrid itself – the town is named after the 21-mile // 34-kilometre long lake – benefits from a gentle tourist industry, but otherwise is a fairly somnolent community.

Dina put my feet into the nail drier, and snapped it into whirring action. A plate of bread came out smeared with ajvar, a delicious red pepper spread ubiquitous throughout Macedonia. Outside the window, the water of the lake darkened