I really don't know who reads my posts. If I can access some kind of tracking, I sure don't know it. Anyway, the reason I am posting this is that I have lost access to my firstname.lastname@example.org email account. I am figuring that AT&T is not withdrawing the money for my bills with them like I set up before I left two months ago. I have a gmail account, email@example.com. If anyone who reads this blog post could send me a message, that'd be great. I'd love to have your email address so I can contact you still. Everything else is locked up in my sbc account. I feel kind of lost and abandoned without it.
Monday, August 9, 2010
This piece is only a rough draft. I need a little more time and distance from my subject to put my thoughts together a little better. Here it is anyway.
1. There was a group of Gypsy women and children by the public drinking fountain. It was probably about 8pm and starting to get dark. They were between me and the pedestrian bridge across the river. They saw me and the women assumed the begging pose. One woman took the lead with her hand outstretched and the familiar routine began.
“Ay, good sir, give me ten denars, please for some bread for my children.”
“No thanks, sorry.” I had nothing rehearsed and that’s just what came out, “No thanks.”
The woman walked by my side.
“Please, sir, I am starving and I need food, twenty denars! Ten! Five!”
“Enough,” I said. That is what I have seen as second line etiquette in dealing with begging Gypsies, but she persisted and her tapping became pushing and yanking on the shoulder strap of my bag.
“Go away! Now!” I said, raising my voice and looking her in the face. I picked up my pace and did my best to ignore her. She finally fell away from me after a horribly long distance. I felt angry and mad. I didn’t like distrusting people and yelling at them.
2. Coming down the other side of the bridge I saw a second group. This time it was a trio of boys aged somewhere between nine and eleven. They had been playing, throwing things off of the bridge and pushing each other. Then they saw me. As I was already looking at them, it was as if I had signed a contract. One’s little hand went forth and out came the usual words, “Ay, good sir, give me ten denars, please for some bread.”
By now I have come to accept that I cannot hide. I will always be recognized as a foreigner here,and so instead of the regular protocol I spoke in English.
“Really? I can’t stand this anymore! I am so sick of this shit!”
He looked puzzled and his hand lost some of its confidence. I shook my head with exhaustion. He left me alone faster than I expected. I was glad it was over with, but I didn’t like cussing at another person.
3. Crossing the city’s main pedestrian square I saw a small band of very young Gypsy girls going from person to person. The girls were maybe five to seven years old. I watched as they tried to talk to two tall blond women walking along in big sunglasses, short miniskirts, and high heels. The girls couldn’t get their attention at all. The women acted as oblivious to the girls as if lost in a long distance cell phone conversation.
I skirted around the girls before they gave up on the women and before they selected me as their next target. I watched one of the little girls go to the entrance of a small boutique. I was ready to see a shopkeeper shoo the kid away. No one likes beggars and having one near your store or restaurant can hurt business. I watched for a minute as the woman in the store seemed to have a conversation with the child. The woman wasn’t mean or defensive. I don’t know what they talked about, but the woman seemed polite and not threatened by the intrusion. I thought maybe I should try talking and asking questions rather than blank refusals.
As I walked around I found a bench where an older man was playing an accordion. He had a shoe box at his feet for tips. I have been in the habit of giving money to as many street artists as I encounter. On one hand it seems prejudicial, favoring those privileged enough to know an instrument and well off enough to own one. But on the other hand, the Roma are also known for their musical talents. Wedding receptions and funeral processions are the exclusive domain of Gypsy bands.
As I sat I watched a young Roma boy flit from bench to bench asking people for money. His head would nod as if emphasizing the affirmative nature of his request. When he came to me he held out his hand and gave the same quick nod as he said, “Give me twenty denars.” No “Please” and no “Oh kind sir.” None of the usual act.
I asked him what he was going to do. He looked at me like he didn’t understand.
“For bread. Give me twenty denars for bread,” he replied.
“No, not what are you going to do with the money, what are you going to do for the money?” I asked. I felt like a heel, as if I wanted him to sing for his supper, as if I were trying to make a monkey dance for a banana.
He still looked confused.
I pointed to the man with the accordion and said that the old man was working for his money. He wasn’t holding out his hand just asking. The boy agreed but said he had nothing to offer.
“I don’t believe you.
He said he didn’t. He was too poor to learn an instrument.
I repeated that I didn’t believe him. I asked if he was Roma, and weren’t all Roma masters of music?
He conceded that he did know, but he played the drums. He began flailing the air like mad. “You know, drums?” he asked.
“Yes, yes, I know drums.”
“Then give me twenty denars!” he demanded.
I countered that he hadn’t really played the drums but had only hit the air. He told me that the drums were at home and now I should give him thirty denars. When I refused he sat down beside me.
“Twenty denars,” he repeated, as if it were my last chance to get in on a good deal.
He sat for five minutes or so before he moved on to other benches and pedestrians. I saw one girl standing with a friend waiting for someone pony up a bill for the kid and he went traipsing away. I sat and enjoyed the folk songs coming from the man with the accordion.
Ten minutes later the boy reappeared. Visibly happy I had not moved, he approached in a bid to pick up where he had left off on his attempt to erode my will power.
He pointed in my face and demanded twenty denars. I laughed and shook my head before I realized he was pointing two fingers at me like his hand was a gun.
“Give me...money,” he said now in English, but I told him more seriously he wasn’t getting anything that way, that that was wrong.
“Wait a minute,” I said. “What is that? You have chocolate on your face. You’ve been eating ice cream!”
He put his hand to his mouth and told me I was wrong. That wasn’t from ice cream, he said. That was from candy.
“Whatever,” I said, but told him he hadn’t used his money for bread but for candy. I wasn’t going to pay for his candy. He swore he would use my money to get bread. Twenty denars! He pleaded.
“No,” I replied. I told him I would never believe him again. It would be better if I bought the bread for him myself. He thought it was a fine idea until I questioned how much he really wanted a whole loaf of bread.
He told me that if I was going to buy him a loaf of bread, it would be better if I bought him a sandwich with tomatoes and French fries. He said it, again, in such a way that it seemed it would benefit me more than him.
I told him I didn’t believe that he’d be happy with that. That the next thing would be a drink and desert. I stopped myself, “Oh wait, you already had desert!”
He rolled his head around in frustration and asked one last time if I was or was not going to give him twenty denars. I told him if he hadn’t had all that chocolate on his face I might have. He put out his hand to offer an handshake. We shook and he formally bid me good bye. As if to prove something, he went to the next bench and approached a young man who was half way through eating a ear of roasted corn. The guy looked at the kid, then at the corn, then at the kid again. He handed the boy the corn and the kid started gnawing away as if he was an animal who had caught his prey.
I was glad I had talked to the kid rather than yelling at him to go away. I still wished there was a better way though. I wished I could really know what a beggar needed and give it to him or her.
4. The next day I was back in the town square. I had spent part of the day hiking on Mt. Vodno. I was exhausted from the steep climb and was taking a rest before I headed back to my apartment. It was around 7pm and people were starting to come out of hiding from the day’s heat. The square was filling with vendors of toys, used books, bootleg DVD’s, ice cream, corn, and little fried dough rings.
I didn’t see the Gypsies out tonight and felt relieved. No guilt for having a better life, no fear of being pickpocketed. A woman, probably twenty-five years old, was walking slowly by me when she stopped and looked at me. She was wearing a big sweatshirt with “USA” on it and baggy plastic running pants. She didn’t look Roma and I was surprised when she asked me if I had one Euro I could give her. She said she needed to get home and didn’t have money for the bus.
I couldn’t believe I was hearing the same story I often heard in parking lots in the US. I told the woman no, and that everyone I met said they needed money and I didn’t have enough for everyone. I said that this was Macedonia, there is an economic crisis, everyone needs money. But she stared at me as I sat there. She looked like she was thinking.
“Where are you from?” she asked me in English.
I told her I was from the US and she asked again if I really couldn’t give her a Euro. I said no and asked her to leave, but then she sat down next to me. She kept staring at me. I didn’t like it. She was close enough that I could see the hair growing out of the mole on her upper lip. There was something in her eyes that I couldn’t make out.
I asked her to leave me alone. She sighed and looked down at her hands, then back at me.
“Would you like a massage?” she asked.
I resisted my jaw dropping open. Without thinking I said, “You need to go, now!”
She made no move at all. I got up and left feeling dirty for having been asked such a question.
The next five minutes as I walked through the growing evening crowd, the next half hour as I walked home, then next days and week as I went about my business as a teacher on summer break, a writer taking time to work on his craft, and as a tourist buying souvenirs and eating at restaurants, I thought of this lady. I thought of the sigh and how she looked at her hands. I had been so shocked that I didn’t have time to think about how she must have been working herself up to the question. All I could think about was myself and not about what she was willing to do for money.
Saturday, August 7, 2010
|Yes, I am enjoying my time right where I am, why not?|
Other than that, I have been taking it easy and trying to just enjoy my time here. I have more or less stayed put in one city, Skopje, the capital. I fight the urge to hop on buses and explore, explore, explore. I know the more I am “on the road” outside the capital, the more I’ll be on my feet doing the tourist thing and the less I’ll be sitting getting words on paper. On one hand I feel like I am not using this visit for all it’s worth--seeing every nook and cranny of my home away form home, but on the other hand, I really don’t want to get home to Ohio and realize I spent my days not working towards my goal of writing new material and revising old. Besides, I am on my feet enough exploring Skopje as it is.
The past two days I have been out and about seeing archaeological sites and checking out the museums. I’ve put in time buying souvenirs and enjoying the food. Last weekend I climbed to the middle of Mt. Vodno. I spent two days over in Shutka, the Gypsy neighborhood. My friend, Zhaklina, arranged a half day with her archaeologist friend for me here in Skopje. I’ve had a great week seeing and doing. I even bought an original oil painting. I’ll have to remove the canvas in order to get it home, I think.
So many things to do that I haven’t done, but I am trying to tell myself, as my time for departure draws near, that next time I will do all the tourist things I wanted to do this time. I think Croatia kind of used up my desire to live out of a packed bag for a while. Next time, I’m going to see Ohrid, Krushevo, Galichnik, Mavrovo, Berovo, and stay in a mountain hut, and climb Plachkovica and Korab, and find the church in Varosh dedicated to the Serbians who died expelling the Fascists, and see the Sharena Jama-Painted Mosque in Tetovo, and the neolithic observatory in Kokino, and all that.
But when I find myself getting anxious that I didn’t walk every step of Macedonia, I have to remind myself that I traveled here to have a “staycation” away from home, to get some writing done, and see some friends. And I did all that. Now all I have to do is go out and get a new suitcase to carry home all the trinkets and souvenirs I’ve gotten along the way.
Thursday, July 29, 2010
Before beginning, I would like to ask something of anyone who reads this. I have been working on this entry for days now and I don't know how to end it. It needs a conclusion, some kind of final statement, perhaps a prediction for the future. I have written three or four endings, but none of them satisfy me. If you read the piece and have feedback, please leave a reply or comment or question. What theme needs tying up? What issue is incomplete? I feel at an impasse and could use a reader's feedback.
Now for the story...
I had been in Kochani since Wednesday. Gjorgi’s mother served me delicious food and I had all the freedom I wanted to walk the hills surrounding Kochani and drop in on friends whenever I pleased. I had enough time to get lost on hikes and still get back to town without missing anything. It was a great visit home to Kochani.
Around six o’clock Monday night I arrived at the bus station in order to get back to Skopje. As I waited, a taxi pulled up and dropped off a passenger. He was a nicely dressed man--clean shaven, salmon colored short-sleeve dress shirt tucked in, neck tie. It had been about eleven years but I thought this man could be Tome Filipov, a former colleague of mine. A moment after he got out of the taxi another man in jeans and a tight red t-shirt approached him, shook his hand, and engaged in conversation with him. The man in the t-shirt was big, muscular. Half the men here are brawny as if they work at strenuous physical labor for a living.
In talking about Tome, people often referred to him as “Tomchaki.” In addition to teaching he owned a small change office and travel agency named such. He was not a loud or boisterous man, but everyone in town knew who he was. Tomchaki not only arranged vacation and business travel, but represented the town’s folk group which toured internationally. He may also have been trying to get into the textile exporting business. One time in telling me about his desire to draw international tourists from the United States--he insisted that Macedonia was a great destination for international travelers who enjoyed Greece--he got me to agree to check out businesses when I got back to the US that would be able to import Macedonian towels. He had a stack of products in his office and politely insisted I run my hands over a few to see that Macedonian textiles were world class. I certainly had no grounds to disagree, but I had no grounds for agreeing either. I tried to tell him I was neither a textile expert nor a business man. As much as I wanted to contribute to Macedonia’s growth and success, I had no business connections. When I returned to the US I did stop in a friend’s store that specialized in international fair trade and impoverished artisan cooperative products. I tried to get back to Tome through email to tell him that I’d asked but had learned that in the US textiles were nearly impossible to import due to high tariffs and the flood of cheap Chinese products already in the market.
My unsureness of this man being Tomchanki was compounded by my surpirise at seeing him at the bus station. A man of his stature riding a bus? Surely he would have his own car. Not only that, but more so I’d heard rumors from two friends about him. The word on the street was that Tome had gotten himself involved in shady business deals that fleeced many Kochani residents and he had become the town’s persona non gratta. I wasn’t sure what I’d heard was true though. I’d heard that the courts suggested he relocate for his own safety. One person thought he was in exile in Bulgaria. Another said his passport had been revoked, and to avoid those in Kochani who wanted to break his legs, was at Lake Ohrid, Macedonia’s tourist location, selling souvenirs and folk costumes trying to eek out a living.
No one I talked to knew for sure why, maybe it was gambling debts, maybe it was blind greed, but Tome had been taking money from friends, neighbors, and colleagues for investment. Apparently he promised people to invest their money in short term deals and give them twenty percent returns. Few people apparently suspected anything despite the unbelievable rate or when he refused to disclose what the exact investments were. People are said to have not just deposited their own money but also had taken out loans--thousands of dollars at a time--from banks to get in on the action. Like any scheme, the deal paid for a short while in order to entice people and bring in revenue. But then Tomchaki started to run short. Perhaps he was using one investor’s money to pay back another with interest. Whatever it was, it could only run into a deficit sooner or later and come up empty. One friend told me that when the scheme fell apart Tome was fired from his job teaching, had to close up shop, and move out of town. If he really had wronged the people of his town, he was taking quite a risk being out in public.
On second thought however, it may not have been Tome. That’s what I told myself. Tome was always kind of a glad hander and would always go out of his way to formally greet me no matter where I ran into him. I assumed with how few people were at the bus station that he probably would have seen me if it was really him. I am rarely mistaken for a Macedonian. Even in large crowds of strangers someone always comes up to me and tries to speak German to me. I may not be correctly identified as an American, but everyone knows I am a foreigner. If it was Tomchaki he would have noticed me and come to say hello.
But what if that was him and the rumors were true? What if he had lost or stolen so many people’s money? I didn’t want to go over and act like nothing was wrong. I had heard what he had done. I couldn’t pretend like I didn’t know what had happened.
Not only that, but what would the strangers think if I walked over and greeted a criminal? It is a small number, but a loud minority of people here who harbor anti-American sentiments. I hate when I have to tell people I’m not German but American. There is always a chance of being barraged with a rant about what is wrong with my country. Despite the overwhelming hospitality I am normally shown here, instances stick with me of the times people have yelled yell at me on the street for being an Albanian lover, a killer of their Serbian brothers, or even once, a spy whom they intended to kill, all for being American school teacher. I have lost count of how many times I have been lectured on my ignorance of Yugoslavia’s glory, independence, prosperity, and benevolent political leadership. What would the other waiting passengers’ opinions be of me if I, the obvious foreigner perhaps recognized as an American, was perceived as a chum to a domestic outlaw, a criminal against his own people?
Most of the time though people are indifferent toward my nationality. Often people are curious as to which state I am from. People always ask if I am from New York of California. It isn’t uncommon when I tell people I am from Ohio they tell me they have a relative in Cleveland. Often people tell me with pride about their children or nephews or nieces who work or study in the US or Australia or other English speaking countries.
I thought about going over to say hello to Tome--if it was him--since I hadn’t seen him in nine or ten years. And if he was in criminal trouble, the man talking to him might be giving him a hard time. The man in the red shirt seemed to still be holding Tome’s hand from the original handshake as if to keep Tome from walking away. Maybe I should kindly interrupt and help Tome out, I thought. He’d always been nice to me and I thought I owed him that much. In the past he had changed traveler’s checks for me in a matter of minutes without a fee when banks would take huge cuts or make me wait an hour for their approval. Despite the rumors, Tome had been good to me. I should at least go over and ask if it was him.
Maybe it wasn’t Tome Filipov though. I still hoped it wasn’t. It’d be easier to stand here and have nothing to think about. I couldn’t hear what the two men were discussing, but it didn’t sound angry. If my friend was right, that people wanted to break his legs, it seemed the conversation would be loud and aggressive. But that certainly was turning into a long handshake. I looked across the bus compound where a group of men sat at a table drinking outside a snack bar. They were all staring at the two men locked in a handshake. People near me who were waiting for the Skopje bus were looking on as well. I wanted to ask some one if that was Tome Filipov but I didn’t want to do anything that would change the situation one iota. I was realizing it had to be Tome and that the stories must have been true. Why else would people be staring? But at least there was no violence.
Then I heard the man’s voice elevate, the man who initiated the handshake, and he screamed something about two thousand Euros. Everything was true. The man in the salmon shirt and tie was Tome. He had done something wrong. Now I knew I didn’t want to talk to him. Even though the man in the red who was crying for his money was acting childish, he knew he wasn’t going to get his two thousand Euros back this day, I felt disgusted by Tome and his criminal greed. If he was going to show his face in public, to return to the scene of his crime, he had a lot of audacity to show up dressed so nicely. Wasn’t he supposed to be getting punished? Whatever the courts had done to him, why didn’t it look like he was suffering? He looked as neat and clean as a dozen years ago. For Christ sake, put on some sack cloth and ashes. Show some remorse, I thought.
As much as I wanted to condemn Tome, I didn’t feel so good about myself either. I felt ashamed that I had been talking about him with friends. Some part of me had enjoyed being surprised and laughing at the gossip. I heard someone once say that in America we love a rags to riches story, but we love a riches to rags story even more. There is something about judging others that is at once both satisfying and shameful however, and I wished it wasn’t Tome here at the bus station. I wanted but didn’t know how to ignore everything that I knew. Goddamn, I thought. It’s six forty-eight p.m. The bus was supposed to be here three minutes ago. Where the hell is it so we can all end this scene and pretend like it never happened?
Still holding Tome’s hand, the man turned around to no one in particular and cried out, “Police! Police!” This was turning ridiculous and ugly. Tome was already under orders to report to the police. What was this man trying to prove? To shame him? To put it in Tome’s face that he had wronged him? He knew. I thought about calling to Tome from across the space between us. Interrupting, distracting, changing the subject might be appropriate at this point. But did I have the nerve? Back in the US, often I have to break up arguments between students in the halls or classroom or commons. I was used to it as part of my job. But these were adults, a criminal and a victim. I was a foreigner. I wasn’t part of the situation. I had no right to butt in.
The bus came around the bend and down the drive to the peron to pick up its passengers. I thought I’d feel more relief. I threw my bag into the bus’s cargo compartment, but when I turned around I felt compelled to put my eyes back on the confrontation. It was getting louder and they were moving towards the bus. The man was shouting now for his money. They were close enough that I could see that while Tome remained calm, a trace of fright was building in his eyes.
That’s it. This was stupid.
“Tome!” I called. I’m not a kid anymore. I needed to do something, I thought. The man in the red was running out of time. Now that the bus was here his chance to make his point was slipping away. He moved his hand from Tome’s hand to the back of Tome’s neck as if to pull him closer. His posture looked like he was ready to lunge.
“Tome. How are you?” I asked and offered my hand to shake. The man talking to him was big. Solid arms and thick body. I couldn’t do anything but interrupt. Tome looked at me. David! he said calmly as if he had expected to see me. Something else also came out of his mouth but my own fear was growing in me now and I couldn’t hear what it was.
Was this going to work? I worried that taking this step would make the man holding Tome’s neck turn and take a swing at me. I’ve never taken a punch before. What was I doing getting involved? This wasn’t my school in America. I didn’t have the right, the authority, or the physical power. Who was I to defend a criminal? I hadn’t been robbed. I wasn’t a victim like the angry man was. I had no understanding of his position.
The man turned to me with a version of pain and anguish on his face and said to me in English, “Call the police.”
“I know, but I need to talk to this man too,” I said in his language. Maybe he would think I had a gripe with Tome. If I did, if Tomchaki had ripped off a foreigner, maybe he would let me have a turn. All of this was just wrong.
The man turned back to his object of anger, placing his back between me and Tome. I don’t think I have ever been ignored more efficiently. I’ve had kids ignore me as an insult, literally wave me off like I was a nuisance, but this man was quick and focused. I wanted to say more but the man’s English threw me off and I could only think in my own language. I couldn’t articulate anything in Macedonian. I wanted to utter anything that would seem like reason and maybe shame him in front of others for not listening to me.
I placed a hand on the man’s shoulder. I hoped to God that if he noticed me behind him, his superior size would keep him from seeing my interruption as a provocation, but as a plea for just a moment to sort this out without trouble.
His shoulder was hard, solid. It felt tense and ready to commit violence. My hand looked so small and thin and useless against his stretched t-shirt. I was ashamed that I was so small and soft from making an easy living as a teacher and that I was on vacation while others worked, that I had waited too long before trying to do something. I felt stupid for being weak and ignored. But this whole thing was absurd and had to stop.
Tome backed away from the man, but the man, with his hand clenching the back of Tome’s neck moved with him, away from me. My hand fell away and an older man close to me looked me in the eyes and waved his finger. It is a motion that in the US means “bad boy” but here usually just means “no.” I couldn’t tell if it meant I shouldn’t meddle or if it was pointless to even try. Or maybe he meant that I was taking it too seriously, that this was normal.
The man in the red shirt then shouted and smacked Tome on the ear. It was a grotesque action. Tome winced and pulled away. The man was giving himself over to the emotion he had been working up. It seemed so primitive and self demeaning. Don’t we all know, I thought, even me, an outsider, that Tome is being dealt with by the police and courts? It isn’t anyone’s place to demand more.
Tome made to get away and the man took another open handed swing and struck Tome on the other side of the head. Free from the man’s grip, Tome backed away and avoided another swing. He turned and began to hurry away, not quite running. The man in the red shirt kicked at Tome and connected with his buttocks. If it wasn’t a physically significant hit, it was embarrassing to turn tail, to run, and to get kicked there. I felt ashamed for Tome, now high stepping in flight from this man. He began running up the driveway the bus had just come down. The man ran after him but looked slow. Then the man stumbled. His feet couldn’t keep up with the rest of him and he fell forward onto the pavement. His full weight came down with a smack. He didn’t even have time to catch his fall and landed on his face. Tome continued in his awkward, frightened trot out of sight.
What I know from seeing fights at school is that crowds often side with the winner. Regardless of why the last one remains, perhaps he or she held his or her ground, maybe he or she was simply the last one to be taken to the office or to get in the last word, no matter how stupid that word might have been, people cheer for the one who remains. Who would people side with here? Would they feel sympathy for the man, the victim of Tome’s greed? He had landed face down though, the victim of his own stupidity. Or would they side with Tome, the intended victim of the huge brute? Even though Tome was the last one on his feet, Tome was a cheat who skittered off like a dog with his tail between his legs. They both looked stupid.
I considered that they might have been looking at me thinking what an idiot I must have been, impotently trying to get the man’s attention. I must have looked like a child beating an intruder with his toys while his mother was assaulted. I don’t know what anyone else was thinking. I don’t remember even being aware of their faces. All I remember is turning to get on the bus and vocalizing my feelings under my breath about them and myself. Fucking stupid ass shit, I said. Goddamned stupid fucking shit. Everything--Tome, the man in the red shirt, me and my stupid “Tome, how are you?”--everything was useless and stupid.
I got on the bus. As I walked down the aisle to find an empty seat I didn’t lower my head for having failed to alter what happened outside. I pursed my lips and shook my head. I felt disgusted and wanted others to know it. I wanted them to know I was judging what happened outside--Tome, the man in the red t-shirt, myself and everyone present. We all sucked.
When I sat down I took a deep breath and thought about what I should have said and what I should have done differently. When the man told me to call the police I should have found the words, “Come on, the police already know where he is,” but I laughed a little to myself because I knew that he wouldn’t have listened. At least my second thought when I had more time to consider things was no better than my first. I didn’t feel so bad about what I had done and what I had failed to do.
That didn’t stop me from a stream of philosophical and moral reasonings against violence and vigilantism. I wanted to say that what Tome had done was wrong, but beating him would be a completely separate crime that would bring its own consequences. I wanted to tell the man that he would go from being a victim to a criminal. But thinking of how to say it in my simple Macedonian would have come out cliche and meaningless: “Two wrongs don’t make a right.” The hardest part though would have been that the word for wrong is the same word for mistake. I didn’t know how to differentiate between the two, and I would have sounded like I was excusing Tome’s crime simply as a mistake.
The farther we drove from Kochani, the less it might have all mattered. Tome was only hit with what amounted to bitch slaps. He didn’t bleed and the man didn’t even catch him. No one egged on the man in the red t-shirt or looked interested in joining the fray. This was no lynching, no crime against humanity. To my knowledge, there has never been an instance of mob justice against an individual in Macedonia. This probably wasn’t anything anyone would even remember.
Monday, July 19, 2010
I’d forgotten my town somehow. I’d forgotten what it did for me. I think I’d forgotten because I was there alone. I was there just living. Skopje had been an adventure a day. In Skopje I was learning something new in class, I was hiking around the city with Mike or Josh looking for something. I was sneaking off to meet Julia. Skopje had been an adventure.
Kochani on the other hand, was all mine. No one knew about it. It was so different than Skopje: no one telling me to be somewhere at a certain hour, no lessons to study, no girlfriend to meet in the park. No one to share things with. Every day was new, but with myself in charge of my experiences, it seemed less...important, less concrete.
I guess it’s not until I left and returned that Kochani presented itself to me as a picture, as some kind of legitimate history.
To be clear, Kochani is a town in the east of Macedonia on the Balkan Peninsula. It’s the second to last major town before reaching the Bulgarian border about an hour bus ride still east of the town. People have told me Kochani has about 30,000 people. I’m not sure how much area that encompasses though. If it includes all the outlying farms in what in the US we would call outside the city but still in the county, I’d believe 30,000.
The city center is wedged around a little river or stream that runs down from the Osogovo Mountain Range into the fields below. Historically rice has been the major crop of the area--a crop that has been losing prevalence for economic reasons, just like anywhere. Most of the town is set on the foothills of the mountain range so that the east and west side face each other, one side receiving the morning sun, the other side the setting. As the town has grown, the population has spilled over the western hill.
Kochani is old enough that there are two Turkish watchtowers placed on the eastern and western sides of the little river. The Turks have been gone for about a hundred years, and I don’t know how old the structures were when the Turks were finally expelled. On the western hill, a ten minute climb to the top, the people have built an outdoor semi-amphitheater decorated with one of Europe’s largest mosaics. In bright oranges and blues and reds are abstract scenes, perhaps borrowing from Picasso’s Guernica, of the struggle for freedom against fascism. The huge white structure, to an outsider like me, appears practically abandoned. It is overgrown with scratchy weeds and littered with beer cans. The light posts that remain are topped with rusted and lopsided fixtures. New red and white radio masts now adorn the hill top behind the memorial. A small weather station with a quickly spinning wind velocity propeller.
I went up to the memorial Sunday after thinking it best not to. Four years ago when I was here, ascending the eastern approach to get a photo of the town below, I was greeted with a young man’s bare ass ramming down on its owner’s girlfriend. I wasn’t totally surprised by the event, but was a little amazed that they were at work while the sun was still up. Young people, lacking privacy--parents are usually home in the small apartments, there are no cheap hotels--find any conceivable (ugh, totally unintentional pun) spot to carry on as people have for eons.
But it was about five o’clock and the light was just becoming right. All during the day with the sun overhead the view across the Kochani Plain is obscured with haze. At this time of day I couldn’t help but feel anxiously pulled to the top of the hill. So I went--and this time thankfully, no lovers. I wanted to click a quick few shots with my new camera with its panorama feature. I hoped to capture Kochani as I have never been able to before--roofs in the foreground, rice paddies in the distance, and the Plachkovica Range ten miles off in the distance. If everything worked right I might be able to capture in three camera frames a width of the valley between Osogovo behind me and Plachkovica before me that spanned twenty miles.
After scampering around through weeds and over low whitewashed concrete walls for the best points of view, I slowed down and noticed the noise. I was aiming up the Kochansko stream’s valley in an attempt to document how the green hills fold together like fingers of two hands clasped together when I noticed the sound from all sides. Not the buzz of summer insects moving from dry weed to dry weed indecisively, but of hammering and sawing and wood splitting.
Less than ten kilometers to the south east of Kochani is a smaller town called Vinica or Vinizza (sounds like “pizza”). On one of their hills are the remains of Vinichko Kale, a stone fortress that has given up rich evidence of pre Christian and early Christian occupation--so this area has been populated since before Christ, over 2000 years. Yet on the top of the hill I was on, I could hear the work of construction. Amazing. A place a hundred times or more older than my own country was still in the process of becoming. On all sides of me saws whined and hammers plam plam plammed against nails.
Thirteen years ago I arrived in Kochani for the first time. I was a 130 pound package of despondency--my relationship with Julia was on the rocks. It was starving and emaciated and I didn’t know why--I didn’t have the courage to ask, fearing asking would hasten an answer. It was one hot summer afternoon that I decided to get off my ass and take my camera around town. I’d seen some white object on top of the city’s western hill and thought I ought to investigate. If this was going to be my town, I ought to know what was there. I still don’t understand the paradox of approaching an object on a hill and losing complete sight of it. I guess as one approaches, objects between the eye and the goal become larger in perspective and seem to rise and block the view. I think I learned in science class in high school that this is called parallax. The thing you are looking for seems to move or in this case, hide, as you move closer.
After weaving thorough a maze of one lane roads between houses built on the hillside, one roof level with the next house’s foundation, I finally located my target. Thirteen years ago the war memorial had already begun its decline. I wasn’t sure if photographing it would be perceived as a tribute to its original intention or as a westerner’s documentation of the decline of a former socialist state. There were plenty of people who believed in me and in my role as a Peace Corps Volunteer come to “do good,” but there were also a loud number of detractors who let me know their belief. I was part of an aggressor empire. My country had schemed and executed a sinister plan to destroy the world’s third most powerful nation. The third most powerful, but also the world’s first most peaceful, prosperous, and benevolent state. They wanted nothing to do with me and they approached me every damn day to tell me about myself and my ignorance of history.
I ended up not taking any pictures of the memorial, not necessarily out of my great political sensitivity, but because from up so close to the structure, it wouldn’t all fit in the frame of the camera. Standing there puzzled and frustrated I heard a low clank, clank, clank sound. I turned around and three donkeys were slowly making their way across the dry grass of the hilltop. I know nothing about farm animals and I remember wondering what these animals were doing out alone without some kind of supervision. I guess I thought of them as large dogs off their leashes. Not like they would bite anyone, but wouldn’t they wander off? Would they return home? I still don’t know a thing about animals. But as the donkeys wandered past me they formed a perfect staggered line, the third one from me was a neck ahead of the first, the second ahead of the first by a head. Click, and they were mine.
Thursday, July 15, 2010
If anyone’s been keeping up with the photos on Face Book, I’m sure it looks like I am living the vacationers life. And most days I find myself taken like a tourist with something unique that would slip past the eye of someone who walks past the same thing every day. (Ex: See photo of pepper.) I have to do that to keep things interesting, to keep my mind stimulated.
But when I started walking toward the stone bridge to get to the other side and didn’t think to stop and take another picture--“the light looks different today,” I usually think--then I know something has changed.
I found myself wondering what I am doing here. Don’t misunderstand me. I used to ask myself that question most days when I was here for Peace Corps and the English teachers at work told me I was doing fine when I was doing nothing but keeping out of their way. But now the emphasis is different. Not exactly on I or doing, and not on here. Here is wherever you are and I definitely chose here. Here cannot be avoided--you are always somewhere. But people ask if I am working here or whatever. At first I said “vacation.” But how did that explain the language? “I used to work here.” And immediately whoever I was in conversation with could tell I loved the place enough to return, especially after so many years.
Before I left the US, before work had let out for the summer, Anton had said, “Wow, so you’re like, going to be living there.” And after a week, I am not on a vacation anymore. Not a typical vacation anyway. I am on my second antiperspirant, my fourth bar of soap, my third carton of orange juice, and am wondering why I haven’t bought more groceries. I think that’s all a sign of living somewhere and not just visiting or sight seeing. Right?
There is still an urge to “use” my time and go out and see things that a tourist should see, and there’s a slight anxiety that I’ll get back to the US and have to explain how I didn’t go to Ohrid or how I didn’t walk ten miles everyday. Indeed, I think my photo taking is slowing down, and I am not completely entranced every time I walk by a skara and smell kebapi grilling. Am I starting to live here? My time will definitely be too long to just be a tourist on vacation, but also too short to be a resident.
What am I doing here? Emphasis on am, not on here, or I, or doing. I know I am writing and rewriting. I know I used to be a Peace Corps Volunteer in Kochani for dve godini...i uchev Makedonski za tri meseci vo Skopje, but I am not exactly a Volunteer anymore. Certainly that is in my DNA like my hair color or my fingerprints, but can I still claim that status? When I say I am writing, I say that I am kind of a writer, but people ask about being published--because that validates a person as a serious, recognized writer and not some kind of hobbyist--I have no good answer. I guess I am just here. I have to be somewhere. The transcendentalist side of me wants to be alright with that, for that to be enough. Maybe for now, I will have to accept that and wait to see what emerges next.
Monday, July 12, 2010
I’ve been in Skopje a few days now and am feeling good, relaxed, and at home. I’ve gone out to see the city and to visit with friends. A couple of times I’ve sat down on a shady bench in the center to do some journal writing. Even in the hustle and bustle of the capital city there is always a quiet, peaceful place to sit. I’m learning though that can’t be done at a restaurant--food comes too fast. And no matter how much I tell myself the tavche gravche can wait for me to finish a sentence, I find myself a liar.
Yesterday I began the process of revising pieces from last year’s Master’s thesis. I’m really glad I am here to do that. Being away from home gives much more focus--although:
- I have to repeat to myself that coming all this way, to one of my favorite places, I can stay inside and do my work. Well, not “work”--I can stay inside and do what I came to do. I’m not wasting anything by staying inside and working on my computer. I can go out later when it cools off.
- This writing is still hard as hell! I ask myself, “Will I lose the reader here? Did I say enough?” “Or am I belaboring a point?” “Is this too whiney?” “Does this sound arrogant?” "Why can't I just write down what happened? Why doesn't it just flow out of my fingertips?" Hard as hell.
But at least I am at it.
For photo updates:
For photo updates:
Friday, July 9, 2010
I have made it to Skopje. The apartment I am in is fantastic. It is like a tree house for an adult. It has everything a person needs, but compacted into a tiny loft with a fun little half-spiral stair case.
When you enter, straight ahead is the living room. It is a step down from the entry way, has wooden flooring, and enough room for two chairs, a small coffee table, and a love seat sized futon-looking couch.
From the living room, take a step up and there is the dining room. A little display stand, a TV, a small dining table and chairs, kind of a bistro set I think we call it in the US, and a bank of windows.
To the left of the entry is the kitchen. A nice little galley kitchen with two dorm size fridges, an oven in one wall, a stove along the counter tops, an angled sink.
Off left and up a step from the kitchen is the bath with full size sink, angled commode, glassed in shower stall, and a washing machine tucked in there.
At the end of the kitchen galley are a set of stairs that go up to the loft. The loft has brushed nickel railings all around. Straight ahead from the stairs is the “master bedroom” with a full size bed and TV. There are curtains all around to create some privacy. One side of the room has drawers and accordion sliding doors for storage, and two sides are open, overlooking the first level.
Between the stairs and the master is a small bridge that goes across to a sleeping space over the kitchen area. Step up and duck down at the same time as you cross the bridge. There is another full size bed with accompanying closet space. The side of the second bedroom that overlooks the kitchen has a retractable accordion door with frosted plastic windows. The entire second level is open and has metal railings for safety. The ceilings are only about two meters high--about six feet.
Everything is new and neat and clean. In the entry and kitchen and bath there is tile, and everywhere else there is blond wood flooring. The windows from the dining room go all the way to the ceiling on the upper level. There is also a small balcony by the entry for hanging clothes to dry.
The neighborhood is close to the center and just around the corner from the bus and train station. It’s nice and quiet here, with only a slight whoosh of traffic, a few voices off in the distance, and occasionally a honk from a train leaving the station that sounds like a goose getting stepped on.
I give thanks to my best Kochani friend, Gjorgi Kushevski for scoping out the place for me. I found it on the internet and he contacted the owner to take a look at it and even put down money on it for me.
The bus was really late arriving from Sarajevo. Gjorgi had waited an hour and then left, knowing I’d contact him when I finally arrived. The bus that was supposed to take a grueling twelve hours actually took fifteen. A couple of hours outside of Sarajevo we ran into a horrible thunderstorm, and then at the entry and exits to Serbia we were held up for quite a bit. An hour at the border between Serbia and Macedonia. Most of that was waiting in line.
I’d thought about flying, but it seemed silly to spend $250 to fly north through Zagreb. I’d arrived in Zagreb, and some purist part of my super ego told me doubling back would feel like inefficient. That was before I noticed that on the way out of Sarajevo, the setting sun was on our left. I have multiple times kicked myself for not taking Rondie’s compass with me--You were right Ron. I should have listened. It may not have told me what I wanted to know, but it would have at least confirmed my suspicions.
He’d given it to me when I left for Peace Corps but I never made much use of it. The directions indicate that you need to know where you are in order to find your destination. My problem has never been that. If I knew where I was I’d be able to find my way somewhere else. When I am lost I literally find myself walking in circles as I keep hearing a voice in my head say, “That looks familiar, why not go in that direction?” I think it looks familiar because it’s what I picture my destination to look like. I am so tired of being wrong.
Anyway, the sun was setting on the left, which meant we must have been going north. I wanted to go south. Maybe I was on the wrong bus? No, I’d checked the plaque in the window, it said “Skopje.” Maybe they changed it after I’d gotten in? But other people had asked each other if it was the bus for Skopje and had gotten on. People asked the driver and the luggage and ticket men and they’d repeat “Skopje.” Why were we going north?
Unfortunately we were doing what I had feared: we were headed through Belgrade. I did not want to be in Belgrade. I felt they must dislike Americans from the 1999 war. I knew they’d call me off the bus at the border to interrogate me like they guards had done going into Hercegovina with that black clad buzz headed kid with the tattoos and nose septum piercing. They’d want to know who I really was, where I’d been, where I was really going, and who I actually worked for. I was ready for the paranoid, “You are a spy, admit it!” discussion. I didn’t want to go through Belgrade, the White City, in the daytime, and certainly not at night when nefarious things can happen to a person. I imagined a body cavity check.
Nothing happened. Even the boy who was already slap happy at nine o’clock--whose father let him drink a Red Bull at eleven o’clock at the last rest stop before we left Bosnia--calmed down and fell fast asleep with his head in his father’s lap. Even though we filled the bus by taking on new passengers every five minutes from the side of the road, I never had to give up the free seat next to me or put my backpack on the floor. Despite the stagnant warm humid air on the unairconditioned bus, I made it through with no problems--no dehydration and no major B.O.
Gjorgi met me at the bus station, took me to the apartment, showed me all the features, lent me twenty bucks in case of emergency before I changed my own money, and told me he’d be back in town Friday so we could drink some beers. He told me he might even have an extra cell phone at home that he doesn’t use any more that I could simply get a SIM card and prepaid minutes for. He’s always been funny when helping me out. He gets very concerned and almost motherly. He has worried in the past if I was too hot, too cold, getting enough air, getting too much promaya (wind), or too much sun. I’m really grateful for having a friend like him.
I didn’t think that Gjorgi needed to give me the twenty dollars, but I went out walking last night and wandered over to the old Turkish quarter. I stopped at the first row of sidewalk grills and had a helping of tavche gravche--clay pot beans--and a side of kebapi. Real iconic Macedonian food. The bread was even thrown on the grill and heated up--the round, flat, airy kind of bread, not slices form a white loaf. Delicious.
I wandered back to the newer part of town where the sidewalk cafes are and sat down for my first Skopsko in four years. They had it on tap and served it in a frosty mug and with a side of salty, roasted Spanish peanuts. It was so good that I ordered a small mug to finish off the nuts. Before I finished, the cafe began to fill up and befoer I knew it, the World Cup was on between Spain and Germany. I must have looked ridiculous being the only person with my back to the TV. I scootched around to blend in and noticed a couple looking for a place to sit. A waitress was bringing out more chairs and looking for where they might fit. I spoke up, went out of my shell, and told the couple they could sit at my table, I was about to go anyway. They sat with me and he immediately ordered me another small mug of Skopsko. We began talking and I found out he was from Macedonia but married a Norwegian girl and was just home for vacation with his wife. He started to speak English when I told him I taught English in Kochani eleven years ago. He told me that he used to work at a school called “Nova.” I recognized the name and he said there was an American there about the time I was working in Kochani. He said the man’s name was Stephan something. He had white hair. I asked if he had a Macedonian wife and he said the thought so. I remembered his last name, Hardy. “Yes, that was it,” said the man.
For all the changes in Skopje--there is a lot of construction going on, especially along the Vardar River, and many, many statues going up around town, and the whole center of the city square is cordoned off for the construction of a giant fountain, and plans are in the works to put in two more pedestrian bridges to flank the old stone bridge--Macedonia manages to retain its small town charm and character.
3. Still Like a Home
Even though the first person I met was a taxi driver at the bus station who offered to help me by calling Gjorgi for me--and then demanded thirty Denars--about about seventy-five cents, Skopje is still home away from home.
(I had already told the taxi driver I had someone coming for me, I didn’t know the address of the apartment, nor did I have a key for it, and I didn’t have any Denars to pay for a ride anyway, he still demanded money. I offered him Bosnian Convertible Marks, which he verbally accepted, but then refused when I withdrew them from my pocket. I reminded him that he offered, that I didn’t ask, and that he didn’t tell me there was a price. After arguing for five minutes while a gevrik seller kept interrupting, trying to help in German, and another taxi driver standing behind the angry one making the he’s-crazy finger-circle gesture to the temple, I held out my wrists and said, I have nothing to give you! What do you want, blood? The gevrik man gasped, the second taxi drive burst out laughing, and the first taxi driver kept shouting. A police man whom the taxi driver must have known walked up--I was afraid wanted to sort things out, surely with the verdict that a service had been rendered and I needed to pay--but they just shook hands and started to talk about whatever BS people talk about on the street.
Figuring this was my chance, I uttered to no one listening that I was done and I was off to wait somewhere else. On the other side of the station, Gjorgi arrived ten minutes later.)
Even though a Gypsy woman slapped me on the arm when I told her I didn’t have money to give her--I’ve never seen a Gypsy slap anyone--Skopje is still home away from home.