Dispatches from Macedonia
My first experience with Macedonia
has started with catastrophe. Which is not the fault of Macedonia, really. It didn't even participate. Rather, the journey there turned up the worst problems.
I was supposed to fly to Skopje
, the capital, through Amsterdam
. Somewhat complicated, but manageable, and I made absolutely sure that there was enough of a lag between each flight to cushion any delay. But my well-laid plans were ruined from the very start when they canceled my flight to Amsterdam.
The ticket agent for KLM
promised me that I would still make it to Skopje around when I'd planned to. He also promised my baggage would arrive there with me. Promises worth the paper he totally failed to write them on.
He routed me through Milan
, then to Vienna, and finally to Skopje. This made me nervous. I had no problem going through Holland
, where everyone seems to speak my native language
better than I do, but I don't know a single word of Italian
that doesn't involve pasta
. I have a pathological fear of visiting countries whose languages I know nothing of, probably exacerbated by the stereotype of the blundering, loud, ignorant American traveler
enunciating rude demands in English as if that will help people understand him better. About 110% not the sort of person I want to be. But I went with the plan anyway. I didn't care as long as it got me to Macedonia.
It didn't. My record disappeared from the Italian ticket agent's computer when I arrived in Milan, my baggage was routed to Vienna, I held up a flight sprinting to the terminal with my new ticket, and arrived in Vienna to find that they had lost my baggage. By the time they found it, I had missed the last flight to Skopje for the day. So I was stranded in Vienna.
There was no need for any of this to happen. None of it would have happened without the generous offices of that dick at KLM
I got a hotel room in Vienna, ate dinner, and passed out from stress and sleep deprivation (barring one or two obscenity-laden phone calls home). When I woke up, it was midnight, and my body was convinced there was no more sleep to be had. The neverending wonders of Circadian rhythms
With nothing else to do, and knowing the breast-jiggling vapidness of late-night German TV
from experience, I decided to explore Vienna. Even if it was the early morning.
There were some revelers out enjoying their buzz, but otherwise the city center was empty. I meandered down alleyways and across boulevards randomly, turning whenever I saw something that caught my attention. Eventually, I found an automated bike rental station and took one out to cruise the near-deserted streets. I passed a few Gothic churches, cast in spotlights and looming over the squares that surrounded them. I saw plenty of stately buildings that seemed a little smug in their grandiosity. If one were to turn the tables and switch from Orientalism
, one might say that I was riding through the center of traditional Western culture.
But I don't listen to classical music, I rarely survey classical art, and overall, I wasn't really moved by this monument to European achievement. It was nice, but it was stuffy. With all its stiff and starched glory, it was a little sterile. Sterile may be safe, but it also means the absence of life
As it turned out, Macedonia offered the perfect antidote. As soon as I left the Skopje airport the next day, a taxi driver approached me. He offered me a price for my ride about 40% higher than he would have to a native Macedonian, but I was ready for the foreigner tax. And it could have gone higher had I spoken no Macedonian
We went for a two hour drive through the mountains of northern Macedonia. We exchanged words in Macedonian occasionally, to the limits of my ability with the language. He would point out aspects of the landscape or things that people were doing. We would pass through cities filled with white and brown sided buildings with red tile rooves, their crumbling architecture some surreal combination of old, dirty, old, and totally invulnerable. Lanes seemed to be mere suggestions by the way everyone drove, and donkeys or sheep occasionally blocked the road. Everything was sunbaked and frenzied, with a constant buzz of human presence throughout the streets. The very opposite of sterile: alive.
As we moved into the countryside, we passed villages with large mosques sending minarets sky high. This area of the country is Albanian
. The driver, who had an icon of the Virgin Mary
on his dashboard suggesting he was Orthdox
, stopped pointing out landmarks and fell silent. The advertisements began to show more Albanian language than Macedonian. The signs along the highway began to show graffiti. Where there should have been Cyrillic
versions of each placename, the Cyrillic had been struck through with spray paint. Rock walls along the road showed hundreds of tags declaring the names of political parties. "VMRO." "PDSH." "SDMK." I wanted to know what my driver thought about all this political debate among the vandals, but I didn't ask.
Six years ago, people were shooting each other in this part of the country
Still, the somber mood was scattered by the last bursts of sunlight. They came through the clouds and fell on the villages likes spotlights against a backdrop of mountain forest. I fell asleep from jetlag and the driver bought me something to drink. As we arrived in Ohrid
, my destination, the activity picked up again, with Macedonians on holiday in this resort town walking home from the beach in wet swimsuits, wrapped with towels, gesticulating and laughing with enough energy to last them well into the night.
I arrived at the center where the seminar is being held as the sun was about to set. I could see it over Lake Ohrid
, impossibly clear, a deep, crystaline blue that went on and on. I smell the fresh water. Friends who'd already arrived at the center already greeted me and invited me to eat. I met my roommate for the next two week, an earnest and austere Russian
, and made friends with him despite our divergence in personalities. We played tetris with the furniture in our tiny room so we could separate the beds. Then we talked about each other's stereotypes of the other's country until we both felt exhaustion setting in. Just before going to bed, he placed an Orthdox icon in the windowsill beside his pillow. For my part, I placed me laptop on the nightstand to be charged.
I set my mind on automatic reimagining the landscape of Macedonia as my head hit the pillow, and opened my eyes to find it was morning.
Which was just enough contentment for me to get cracking. Just enough to handle the stress of this new foreign language I've taken on.
Hiking through Horseville
Invited in for coffee
A short rundown that's not short