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.