Can I be frontally honest and even a bit shameless with you? (No, not that, but maybe later.) What I’m trying to say, and do brace yourself here, what I’m really trying to bare, fess up and gently confide here, behind a curtain and under a sheet, sotto voce, is that I simply do not like burek!
Shit, man, but if you ever witnessed my buddy Aleksandar wolf down one of these, you’d think he hadn’t eaten in a month, if ever. What’s the hurry, Alex? There’s plenty more, like tons. It’s hard to take five steps in the Balkans without having another greasy burek slap you in the face, with bits of minced meat, cheese or spinach splattering from Subotica to Burgas, if not Istanbul.
I’m in North Macedonia, thanks to Alex. In 2016, he wrote me, “Would like to thank you about your wonderful description of your travels. It feels like am traveling myself.” Answering, I vaguely expressed a wish to see his homeland. And, “When I just got to Germany, I took a wrong train, and a Macedonian woman helped me out. She was very lovely.”
Seeing that I was in Belgrade two months ago, Alex insisted I come to Skopje, so last week, I finally did. My all-night bus pulled into town at 5AM. There was a casino at the station, with two bald and burly guys standing outside, one very loud and smirking, his eyes lit up. Cabbies addressed me in terse English. A travel agency advertised express buses daily to Istanbul. All roads still lead to Constantinople, you better believe it. I slid coins into the coffee machine. Revived, I also felt grateful to have a smooth border crossing, because you just don’t know, man, especially during this time of the coronavirus.
I had no idea what Alex looked like. Spotting me, he shouted like a Texan. His English was rapid and fluent, which made me suspect he had lived in the States, but Alex had only spent two months in Houston.
“Did you go anywhere else while you were there?”
“No, I was working.”
Heading to Vladimirovo, we were in his tiny, beat up car, with his quiet son in the back. It was still dark. Dim apartment blocks sped by. Now and then, a radiant gas station.
“How did you learn English?”
“I taught myself.”
“No way, man! Seriously?”
“When I was a kid, I spent all my time at the US Information Agency, reading.” Alex’s English vocabulary is larger than most Americans’.
Alex has also worked with Brits and Americans, he said, mostly Texans. His current employer is Norwegian. As a project or inventory manager, Alex has been sent to Norway, Chile, Italy, Uzbekistan and Afghanistan, and for fun, he’s traveled to Greece, Bulgaria, Albania, Turkey and, of course, all over the former Yugoslavia. “But I’ve never paid for a plane ticket! I can’t afford it.” Although his €600 a month salary is excellent for Macedonia, he has a wife and two kids to support. Alex’s son needs special care.
Supplementing his income, Alex gives encyclopedic walking tours of Skopje, and he’s even won two TV quiz shows, with another appearance next month. Nearly everything we’ve discussed, Alex knew way more about it than I did, not that’s saying much. My ignorance is encyclopedic.
Vladimirovo is only ten miles from Bulgaria. The 2002 census counted 861 people, with everyone Macedonian except for two Serbs, with no Gypsies or Albanians, which is extremely rare in North Macedonia. Now, Vladimirovo has less than 400 people, with the rest dead or emigrated. The easiest way out is to claim Bulgarian citizenship, through ancestry or bribery, and just like that, you’re in the European Union! About the only ones left are old folks, subsistence farmers and sheep shepherds.
“That’s a very rough job. People don’t know. Screaming at all these animals all the time is very stressful. Many of these shepherds have strokes or heart attacks. Most are alcoholics. Many of them can’t get married. Who wants to marry a drunk that smells like sheep?”
Alex’s maternal grandparents had a house in Vladimirovo. In its four bedrooms, 19 people slept. By 2000, it was so decayed, hardly anyone wanted it, but Alex’s mom got half, which she then gave to Alex. After she broke a leg falling down stairs four years ago, Alex has been taking care of her. She also has Alzheimer’s.
“My mom gave me life twice. Once, when I was born, obviously, then she gave it to me again when I was eight. I loved Bruce Lee, you see. You know that movie where he fought in the glass house? I made my own nunchucks, with two pieces of wood, some chain and two nails. After I saw the movie, I went home, played with my nunchucks and crashed through a glass door.” Alex had to laugh at the memory. “I was bleeding here and here,” he pointed to his arm and neck, “but my mon did not panic. She stopped my bleeding and told my sister to call an ambulance. It arrived within 15 minutes! I was in the hospital for 23 days. I will always remember that. I will never abandon my mom. I will stay with her until the very end.”
After an aunt fell and broke her hip, Alex also took care of her for eight years. “I changed her diaper twice a day. I got her the XXL ones, for extra absorption.” Inheriting her apartment, Alex is renting it out.
Vladimirovo is filled with all these picturesque but at least semi-abandoned buildings. Windows miss panes. Daub deprived walls expose wattle. Meandering around, Alex greeted or bantered with everyone, for this soil was his anchor, comfort, blood and deepest resonance, what we should all have. We passed a middle-aged man on his way to picking beans, and a beefy fellow cutting firewood with a tractor-rigged saw. As sheep surged towards us, a dog angrily barked at his charge. A hippo sized pig begged to be petted.
“This is the church. The sexton was a very old man. When he allowed a candle to burn down almost the entire church, he was so heart broken, he died soon afterwards.” Alex shook his head. “Maybe two months afterwards.”
Leading me to a chapel in an open field, Alex explained, “Saint Elijah is our village’s patron saint. This is his chapel. Every year, there’s a huge festival. Over there is where we cook the food. Last year, five thousand people came, but this year’s celebration was canceled because of the coronavirus.”
When Alex said he was going to a nearby town, Berovo, for a haircut, I decided to join him, for the last one I had was nine months earlier, in Hoi An. With mostly white hair sprouting in all directions, I looked like a wild man or a bum.
Deep green and beige plastic strips curtained the barbershop’s door. Barging through them, we found an old man sitting against the back wall, reading a newspaper. The tiny room was covered with pictures or calendars, some going back a decade. Relatives jostled with Jesus, Mary, soccer stars and even Tito, abutted by a crawling nude.
“He’s 86-years-old,” Alex said of the barber.
“How long have you been going here, Alex?”
“And how long has he been a barber?”
Alex asked the old guy, then said, “Since he was sixteen!”
“Wow! So he has never had another job…”
“I wouldn’t think so.”
It was my turn to ease onto the ancient chair, which was crafted during the Ottoman Empire, probably, if not the reign of Philip II, Alexander’s daddy. As the old man clicked clicked his scissors all over my head, I thought that one of these days, when the inevitable heart attack knocks him over, he will slit the throat of his last customer, which could have been me that day. Guided by knobby fingers, the extra long razor nudged, glided and skated against my defenseless flesh, without somehow nicking.
“Nul ne meurt avant son heure,” Montaigne said, but that’s bullshit, amigo. Even if a man lives to be 150, he’s killed way too early, for each of us needs several lifetimes to learn or do anything, and, hopefully, right a fraction of our wrongs.
Though death didn’t smooch me that day, its fragrance sure did, for each time the old man leaned over my white sheeted carcass, I could tell he was no longer, you know, holding it all in. We’ll all get there soon enough. Da Vinci, “When a man dies, he’ll pass through his own bowels.”
During several visits to Berovo, we always ate at the same place, for Alex had his habits, “In a small town like this, you can’t serve bad food, for words travel fast. Once people complain, you’re done. This place is great, and cheap!”
“How long have you eaten here?”
Alex has his favorite waitress. When another showed up at our table, Alex quite cheerfully asked for Angela.
Thinking it a bit odd, I asked, “Was that rude?”
“She’s not offended?”
In her late 40’s, Angela has not had it easy, though you wouldn’t know it from her always cheerful demeanor. Her father was violent to his wife and children, so Angela married at 17 just to escape home. She then moved to southern Serbia.
Her husband was a waiter who, soon enough, also beat her. They had a daughter and a son. After 15 years with this brute, Angela returned to Berovo.
She then emigrated to Switzerland to pick fruit, before being hired by a fellow Berovian to take care of his senile and incontinent mother. A successful immigrant, he owned a supermarket in Zurich. After the old woman died, Angela came home for good.
Last year, Angela visited Berlin for four days and had Chinese food for the first time, she told Alex with a bright smile. (She thought I was Chinese.) Always mirthful, Angela’s truly angelic.
Despite all of his traveling, Alex has never eaten Chinese, Japanese, Indian or Thai, and the one time he tried bratwurst, Alex thought it was awful. “I like my own food,” he has said to me several times.
Halfway through our meal, a stocky, cheerful man came to our table to say hello. We shook hands. Leaving, he said to me in English for no apparent reason, “Thank you very much!”
“He was a very good soccer player,” Alex said. “We call him Savić, after Branko Savić, you know, the guy who played for the Red Star.”
“What does he do now?”
“He lives in Vladimirovo, but has a grocery store in Bevoro. Each morning, he buys milk from farmers, then resell it to the dairy companies.”
That evening, we again ran into Savić, and again he said to me, “Thank you very much!” It’s his one English phrase.
At least for now, I’m running out of English phrases myself. You think it’s easy to weave, feather, dab, daub and scumble endlessly out of one’s ass? This quick sketch of Vladimirovo and Aleksandar of Macedonia will have to do.
Say Macedonia and people will think of Alexander the Great, if they’ve heard of him, and maybe Mother Teresa, who was born in Skopje. The capital’s recent remake into a rather strident Hellenic theme park has been much derided, and we’ll get to it, OK, soon enough. I’m just glad that my introduction to North Macedonia was through its down-to-earth, low-key and honest aspect, so many thanks, Alex!
All over the globe, villages like Vladimirovo have been compromised and degraded, if not wiped out completely, but this trend must be reversed if humanity is to have a future. Though it’s hard to believe it during this grim and uncertain moment, that’s exactly what will happen. Soon.
Fame, infamy, honor, anecdotes, jokes and songs must be local, and they already are, mostly, in all ways that matter. Gravity will return.