Thursday, July 29, 2010

Kochani 2, In need of an ending...

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

Kochani 1

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.  
A few years ago I was going through my albums and saw this picture.  I dug through my negatives and had the picture enlarged to frame and put on an end table where I could see it every day.  Usually stories with donkeys are funny.  Universally donkeys, bananas, chickens, and monkeys are humorous.  But in this picture, the donkeys have pensive, almost solemn looks on their faces as they pass me.  Their eyes are nearly closed as the three of them make their way to some common destination.  They knew something I didn’t and I found that reassuring.  Going to the top of that hill in Kochani with a camera strap wrapped around my wrist always slows things down for me.  I take a moment to stop, hold the glass up to my eye, take everything in, focus, snap, and then listen.  

Thursday, July 15, 2010

After One Week

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

At It.

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:
  1. 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.  
  2. 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:

Friday, July 9, 2010

Three Entries on Skopje

1. Here
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.  
2. Thanks
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. 

Saturday, July 3, 2010


Basically a wonderful day.  Dubrovnik is amazing.  I have to then ask myself the nature versus nurture question of travel.  Is it the place or is it me that is the determinate?  The place being the nature, I, the nurture.  Dubrovnik is what it is, no matter what.  I, on the other hand am something of a variable.  This city is made of stone.  I am made of...who knows what. 
Dubrovnik is fantastic, there is no question about that.  If it were a tree in the forest and it fell, it would make a sound whether or not anyone were present.  It’s that solid.  
But what about me, the visitor?  I got a long in Zagreb.  Pula, Zadar, Plitvica, and Split were somewhat iffy for me.  But Bol and Dubrovnik, absolute winners.  Why?  What made the difference--or, what was different about my experiences?  
Part of it seems like the guide book, Lonely Planet.  I was horribly frustrated by the fact that LP kept saying that there were virtually no rooms in the old towns of each place, but, A) there have been, and B) why don’t they provide maps of the places nearby that they believe do have rooms?  It’s easy to get lost when you have to guess where you are on a map.  These cities aren’t really well marked as it is when it comes to street signs.  At least give me a fighting chance by putting the names on a map for me.  
But that can’t be it.  I can’t blame a book.  What was different about Zagreb, Bol, and Dubrovnik?  What I was looking for in the book when I was in the other cities was housing.  I’d like to construct a theory about the importance of a place of one’s own, but Virginia Woolf has already done that.  And I think there is plenty to be stated about homelessness and placeless-ness, the plight of refugees, which the Balkans is historically abundant with.  I can’t imagine the psychological impact of moving day to day with no control over one’s destiny or that of his or her family.  I can’t imagine how that changes a mind and a body’s chemistry.  But I am not a sociologist, nor do I have the battery power in my laptop to research that.  So I can only consider myself...on a simple vacation.  
In the places I enjoyed the most, I had housing set up either ahead of time or--get ready--I followed my plan!  I had rooms set up in Zagreb and Bol.  In Dubrovnik I swore to myself on the bus from Split that I would talk to more than one old lady before making my choice.  I’d ask for pictures.  I’d tell them to show me on the map.  I wouldn’t accept some phony baloney “it’s just a kilometer or two, just fifteen minute walk” BS from anyone. I wanted to know the price and what was included.
In Dubrovnik, the first lady was very sweet.  The second lady was vicious calling the other one a liar.  I’m not sure what about though.  The third one was by my request--“Who has a room in the center? Two kilometers is too far.”  The vicious lady pulled the third one over and we were in business.  I thought she was pulling a fast one when she had a fourth, younger lady drive us along the walls of the fort that houses the old town, trying to butter me up for the bait and switch, but it was real.  Tereza, the third old lady, took me through the Pile Gate, down the main pedestrian mall--the “stradun”-- around a few churches--I think we circled the cathedral--up some steps, and finally into an alley way that reeked of cat piss.  Through a green door with metal scroll work in the windows and up two flights of marble stairs that...well, you’ll have to see the pictures to understand the stairs--we came to the room.  A ceiling fan, two beds to choose from, tall windows with old broken green shutters...this was it.  For as much as I paid Olga in Zadar for the dangerous walk with short cuts galore, 150 kuna, or about thirty dollars (“double the price, drop a zero and you have it,” I kept telling myself).  
So I had my place, I set down my stuff and was able to hit the old town for some dinner.  
I think that is what made Dubrovnik so much better than Split.  I stuck to my plan and not someone else’s.  I got what I wanted--not the best, not a four star hotel, but what I wanted.  Some one told me once that when we have choices, and when we can make our own decisions, and have some control over our lives, we feel better.  I think this trip has been a decent experiment in that sense.  I jumped at the first available and saw what it got me.  I waited, found and weighed my options, and then made my decision.  And was much happier, thrilled even.  
So today I got up, had an apple pastry for breakfast, and spent two hours hiking the city walls of Dubrovnik.  Each turn provided a more amazing view than the previous.  I literally took a hundred pictures of the walls, the sea, and the city within the walls.  When I got done, I had enough energy to take the book’s word for it and got walking south (I think) away from the fortress and up to an elevation where I could get a view of the entire place.  It was picture postcard perfect.  I took seven shots on my digital camera, each one nearly identical, and I don’t know how many on the 35mm.  Thank God I had filled my water bottle at the public fountain of Onofrio.  The water flows from multiple spigots and runs colder than from the tap in the apartment building. 
I walked back to town and had an amazing lunch.  I was looking for something cheap and found a place that advertised light lunches.  They had listed an open face shrimp sandwich.  I gave it a try.  Along with the coldest beer in town, I was served a split baguette with baby spinach, balsamic vinegar, shrimp tails, capers, cherry tomato, and a delicate little transparent slice of some unidentified citrus fruit.  It was outstanding.  I wanted to eat it all at once it was so good, but I wanted to savor ever bite and make the meal last as long as possible.  Oh, the agony and the ecstasy of an open face shrimp sandwich in Dubrovnik!  Who knew life could have this moment involving something as common as a sandwich?  
Then I accepted the fact that I could just simply order a second, so I did. 
And nothing makes more sense than taking a nap after such a morning.  When I got up and re-showered, I went out to change a little money, see a museum--which was more significant for its architecture than its contents (Google “rector’s palace Dubrovnik) and see what would happen with the night.  
I didn’t get much farther than around the first corner where a skinny, scratchy looking middle aged man was playing guitar on the steps to the public square in front of the cathedral.  I sat and listened and dropped a few coins in his hat.  I’m no judge of music, but his acoustic guitar was a great start to the night.  After getting a plate of gnocchi bolognese at an out door restaurant (some places will give you a 25% discount if you sit inside, but no one ever does and there’s till always room out doors) I wandered the stradun.  Between the arch at the entry to the stradun and the arch at the city gate, a pair of musicians were set up.  One was playing Spanish guitar and the other violin.  People were gathered on the stairs and around a stone railing taking these guys in.  Great classical music.  Everybody dropped coins into the violin case.  The violinist took a break and held up CDs of their music for sale.  I couldn’t help but get one myself.  
Saturday I have made plans to go to Mostar in Hercegovina.  A room has already been arranged.