I exit Skopje’s train station, ignoring all calls of you need a taxi but still curious about the professional courtesies of underemployed taxi drivers. They stand close together, smoking cigarettes and talking until someone walks by, disengaging from each other long enough to shout out four or five you need a taxis. Some are more aggressive than others and will crowd you for a few steps, quietly pointing out the folly of you walking somewhere when you could oh so easily get in my taxi. Very cheap. But I continue on, doing my best to discreetly carry my two-inch thick guide book, as if the back pack and tan cargo pants somehow aren’t enough to give me away.
After ten minutes walking the wrong way and one solicitation for directions to the city center, I arrive in downtown Skopje to see a city under construction. Skopje has a walled Old Town, but the new town has fences as well, seemingly around everything. At my hotel (the Hotel Square, a “Unique Solution”) I ask the young man at the desk about the all the work going on. Alexander tells me it is new government and international money, and they are not only restoring infrastructure, but building monuments as well, “to Alexander and King Phillip II.” Perhaps Tasos’s fears weren’t misplaced.
I check in, drop my bags, and ask Alexander for dinner recommendations. He tells me only to “watch out for small gypsies,” saying “watch” with that throaty “hwa” sound for which no character exists in the English alphabet. I go out, promising to keep my eyes peeled for small gypsies, and find a city all to myself. It is a Sunday in the tourist off-season, but I am exhausted so it is just as well. I eat, read about Alexander, and drink several of the local beers before dragging myself to bed. Skopje TV, after hours, turns into a soft-core pornography telethon, and there on my television screen are several not-small ladies in varying stages of undress and all wearing hands-free headsets. They are apparently answering caller requests, unimaginative ones at that, though clearly talking far more to one another than to lonely men on the telephone. It is sad and a bit pathetic, on many counts, and though I am exhausted, I watch it until I see one of them turn around on the couch she’s sitting on, placing both hands on the back of the couch and causing it to break, her and the girl next to her tumbling over the collapsed couch and away from the camera and into a girl standing upright behind them, frilled buttocks and camisoled shoulders everywhere. Perhaps the callers aren’t so unimaginative after all.
I wake, early and refreshed, and cross the Vardar River over the six-hundred year old Stone Bridge and into the Carsija, Skopje’s old town. People are up and about and moving with a purpose, everyone bypassing a red-panted yellow-jacketed older man with darker skin and shoulder length oily black hair. He stands erect, looking straight ahead but at nothing, hand extended and palm up, distinguished all the more so for his colorful clothing in a black denim city, stark; a cigar store Indian on a centuries old Balkan bridge. The Carsija is centuries old as well, left over from the Ottoman Empire, and has been the cultural center of the city since around the year 1400. It is alive this morning, children and adults alike passing through on their way to tend to Monday’s activities, though the lack of tourists allow the adults time more social than business. I pass by idle shoe-shine men, unambitious watch and trinket stands on the cobble-stoned streets, groups of men gathered for coffee. I spend the day in the Carsija, drinking coffees, eating stewed lamb and kebabs, baffled at the dizzying number of jewelry shops, and envying the camaraderie of the Pit Bazar, the farmer’s market.
In the afternoon, on my way back across the now packed Stone Bridge, I am accosted by three or four adolescent, slightly soiled children. A boy stands in front of me, blocking my way, one hand holding his stomach, the other alternating between touching his lips and holding his cupped palm out to me. He feigns mute; his face is dirty, hair matted down and clothes shabby, face distorted to indicate his near-tears hunger. I am not sympathetic, I saw this kid in the Carsija, early morning, his frosted-tip hair massaged into a faux-hawk, running and laughing with his friends, I had made a mental note that here was a trouble-free kid, trendily dressed, who I could place in just about any city in the world and he would not look particularly out of place. But now here he stands before me, tragically without voice, nutrition or hair product. I tell him I am on to him, that I saw him earlier, and that he should ply his wares elsewhere. No matter his English skills, the tone is clear and he immediately gets the gist of what I am saying. He quickly switches tactics to flattery, smiling and grabbing my chest, one hand on each pec, telling me how strong I am. He follows with a bodybuilding pose down, and though I laugh, I am not moved and I tell him to “beat it.”
And then he turns on me. Sliding one step to his right to let me by, he relieves me of a banana, jammed into my backpack, quicker than alligator jaws. I am alerted only by his laughing friends, and I turn to see him just out of reach, cradling my banana like a baby, cooing to it, rocking it, letting the banana know everything will be OK despite its switch of parent. I want to grab him by his Adidas jacket and dangle him over the bridge. He is not intimidated, and now he holds the banana seductively, kissing it lightly, provocatively, eyeing me the entire time. His handling of the banana, a sick pederast version of licking the last piece of candy so your friends won’t eat it, gives him the win: the banana is his. I turn and continue across the bridge for home.
I return to the Hotel Square and tell Alexander about my interaction with the locals. “I told you,” he says, “to hwatch out for small gypsies.” Alexander then tells me that if I see a gypsy man I should punch him. I start to laugh, but Alexander is serious. “If you are walking and you see a gypsy man, and he is maybe one or two man away from you, you should go to him and punch him. In the face. It is okay.” I am not entirely confident in my gypsy-identification skills – in my mind they all look like Little Steven – and though I’m not sure how the justice system works here in Macedonia, I am not comfortable using “I thought he was a gypsy” to vindicate a hate crime.
The next morning I plan to rent a car and drive to Ohrid, a mountain lake town in southwestern Macedonia two and half hours from Skopje. At the rental car agency, a Donald Sutherland look-alike takes my credit card and driver’s license; he wears a thick brown rolled-neck cardigan, rectangular tortoise shell glasses hang from a chain around his neck. His beard and hair are the yellow-gray of a chronic smoker, he gives the passive air of intelligence of a liberal arts college professor. I ask for a map and he gives me a cartoonish, 3D folded version of just Skopje, and in Cyrillic at that. I ask for one in English, but he only says it is no problem, Ohrid is “that way.” Ohrid, in Cyrillic, looks enough like “Oxpna” that I am willing to take my chances, so I get into a car so small I am sure I can lift it in any emergency situation, turn on the radio to hear the tail end of Alphaville’s “Forever Young” followed by an accentless American voice proclaim that I am listening to “MACEDONIA’S NUMBER ONE RADIO STATION” and make a left turn onto the busy streets of Skopje.
There is something to city driving, particularly when you are accustomed to a short, relatively traffic-less commute, and city driving in a foreign county is especially exhilarating. I dodge pedestrians, speed past Yugos and dive in and out of lanes, here letting a faster car pass me, here moving out of the way of an oncoming bus in the suicide lane, here deftly avoiding the cars parked half on the sidewalk, half in the right-hand lane: I am dialed in. And the car man is right, Ohrid (Oxpna) is, in fact, that way, and soon I am on to the empty, melting-snow wet E-65 highway first to Tetovo and then Ohrid. The sparsely-treed mountains, early spring snow and village towns look enough like my own Sierra Nevada’s that I wonder if they are close in latitude (I find out later they are less than 100 miles apart), and I immediately feel at home.
The city of Ohrid is on a lake of the same name (again, Nevada: Lake Ohrid is a visual twin of Lake Tahoe, or Tahoe of it, and they both sit half in one state and half in another), and people have been living here continuously since 400 years before Jesus was born, his influence to spread here to Ohrid some 900 years later. The city has been ruled by Greeks and Macedons, Bulgarians and Romans, Seljuks and Normans, Ottomans and Serbians, and most recently Yugoslavs under Josep Broz Tito, but it is, at its innermost, ecumenical – a 5th Century Ottoman traveler noted 365 chapels within its walled Old Town. There are several still standing today, and I have my choice as I again have a centuries-old city to myself. I walk into the curtilage of the Sveta Bogorodica Perivlepta, an Orthodox church constructed in the late 1200’s. There are cats – Ohrid is, as many of the cities I visited, overrun with cats – but no other humans as I walk once around the outside before entering the church itself. I pay, and the woman behind the plexiglass – Jana Popaska, Doctor of History – asks me if I’d like a guided tour. I accept, and watch as Jana clips on a laminated badge, presenting her as a “UNESCO Tour Guide.” She steps outside the booth and shows me the badge, as if to eliminate any confusion as to who is guiding and who is being guided. She wears a white and black leather jacket, too much make-up, long black hair braided in two strands down to her waist, and her enthusiasm is infectious. The interior of the church is covered with frescos painted in 1295, Jana tells me, by the painters Mikhail, Carlos and Nikolai, and for the next thirty minutes Jana holds my rapt attention as she covers the frescos, the church, Jesus, love, politics, Bulgarian tourists, God, and the state of the economy in general. We stand in the center of the church, and rotate slowly in a clockwise direction as Jana first whispers the titles of each of the frescos and then follows with a description. The Birth of Jesus, she whispers, then practically shouts EXPLANATION!
I gather my thoughts, but it is not a request, it is a declaration, and Jana explains to me The Birth of Jesus (EXPLANATION!), doing the same with The Burning Bush, The Death of Jesus, Jacob’s Ladder, The Death of Mary and several others, following each whispered title with an emotive explanation. Her emotion would shame any other tour guide, her idolation of Joseph evident as she tells me he was 87 years old when he married the fourteen year old Mary, treating the child as a daughter and not a wife; her sadness clear as she, near tears, recounts the distraught Mary upon learning of the death of her only son. She whispers Jacob’s Ladder, then explains that though there are many explanations, her favorite is that of Saint Gregory, who described each rung as a year in life, ascension from earth to heaven possible only by living a life of virtue, by striving to love my fellow man and to worship a loving God. There is no Serb she tells me, no Croat no Muslim no Christian no American no Ohrid and no anything except for the love of life, and a loving heart and a loving God.
She ends abruptly, as if someone else had been giving me the tour, and apologizes for her voice which she says “sounds like a musician.” She tells me she had taken a pill a little earlier to make her happy but she fears it has only made her crazy, and I tell her no, your voice is just like music. We part, Jana telling me she will pray for me and will ask God to protect me wherever I go in the world. I tell her thank you, and that I think, after today, I need it a little bit less.