So where was I? As I was saying, traveling during Covid is not exactly relaxing. Entry rules can change overnight, and flights may be canceled at the last minute. No really means no, just like on your first date, all those moons ago. You ain’t getting in, so stop begging.
On my last day in Skopje, I got a Covid test just after dawn, with the negative result arriving just two hours later. It was far from a Shawn Kemp slam dunk. The day before, I had drank rakija from a bottle shared with two strangers. Walking around, my friend Alex and I had run into two friendly old farts, just sitting in the shade, watching pigeons. When one gave me the plastic bottle, I just had to gulp down a bracing shot, then another one. It would have been extremely rude to rebuff such as spontaneous gesture of kindness and universal brotherhood.
One man was 70-years-old, and the other was 78 and a former truck driver. Each had a cheerful disposition, bulbous nose, firm posture and fine complexion. With Alex translating, I asked the ex truck driver if he had a girlfriend in each town, and that got him talking all right.
“I’ve had sex with over a thousand women! That’s right, over a thousand. If I saw a beautiful woman, I had to fuck her!”
This casanova had driven as far as Kuwait, so we asked if he had pleasured an Arab woman. No, unfortunately, although one did all she could to seduce him.
“She pulled up her burqa, and there was no panties, but I couldn’t.” We all cracked up. He popped his eyes, bunched his fist and lifted his arm in an illustrative uppercut, to mimic that distant arousal. “I just couldn’t. In Kuwait, if you stole, they chopped your hand off.” The long-hauler didn’t care to have anything of his chopped off.
He spoke quite fondly of the Tito years, and even did a Partizan salute, so I aped the man after my parting shot of rakija. When he said, “I loved Tito,” his friend chimed in, “I loved Jovanka!”
Alex is a take-charge kind of a guy, which means he’s a facilitator, protector and sometimes bully. He’ll do what he thinks is right. In school, Alex stood up for kids who were picked on, even if it meant fighting their harassers. Alex slapped classmates to stop them from smoking.
In college, Alex argued with a hardline Marxist professor, which resulted in him getting an unjust D. Years after Socialism’s collapse, however, Alex caught this man leaving a church, so he shouted, “Hey, I thought you didn’t believe in God!”
Surprisingly, the old red graciously responded, “I was wrong.”
Seeing a single typo on my Covid test result, Alex went to the lab to get it corrected. “We don’t want to take any chances.”
Set, Alex drove me to the airport after midnight, in an orange-lit smog. “Look at this pollution,” Alex grumbled. Parts of the highway were under repair, yet poorly marked. “That’s just typical,” Alex shook his head. In the backseat sat Alex’ son, Slave, and our mutual friend, Darko.
Thirty-six-years-old, Darko’s an underemployed dentist just waiting to emigrate to Australia. I had visited his grandma’s village, Prostranje, to see all of its empty houses. Half a century ago, Prostranje had a thousand people. Now, there are only ten, and no one is doing anything, not even farming. Guided by Darko, I dropped in on a 95-year-old man and his 62-year-old son, a former factory worker. A grape arbor graced their house’s entrance, and strings of hefty, curling red peppers were dangled to dry. Once, 15 people were crowded into this handsome, solidly built house, now crumbling on the outside.
Inside Prostranje’s well-maintained 19th-century church, I admired the still-vibrant and rather spectacular frescoes. This is heritage, lovingly preserved. Using pitchforks, dark devils with darting red tongues poke naked sinners into hell, where wolves may devour them. I inspected its made-in-America bell. Inside its long-dead elementary school, there was a mini pub with four photos of Tito, in a medal-bedecked military uniform, suit, and, with a hunting rifle slung on his back, looking suave and regal on horseback. Yugoslav maps and army jackets shared a wall with a religious icon. Behind the bar, there was a photo of a half naked woman, barely covered by lurid green leaves.
Darko, “I come here, my parents come here, to fix our old house. We do everything ourselves. I feel good when I’m here, because this is my village, my history. My family has been here more than 300 years.”
Despite all that, he’ll have to leave his beloved North Macedonia soon, because he’s still unmarried and living with his parents, like so many other professionals in this broken economy.
Just before disappearing into the airport, I hugged Alex goodbye, gave Slave a fist bump and accepted a gift pen from Darko. ”
“We’ll meet again,” I optimistically said. “Maybe in Sidney!”
“Yes, we’ll meet again!”
My plane was supposed to leave Skopje at 4:45PM, with a layover in Istanbul of just 1:45, but my departure was changed to 2:35AM, which meant I had to slump, slouch, schlep around and nod off inside Sabiha Goksen for 16 hours! I couldn’t go into town without a visa, a requirement I had forgotten about.
In the international transit section, there were McDonald’s, Burger King, Starbucks, Subway, Popeyes Louisiana Chicken and Sbarro, plus Turkish chains Mado Cafe, Maca Cafe, Secco Kafe, Karafirin Bakery, Simit Sarayi and Usta Doneci, etc. Trattoria Milano, Heroes Sports Bar and a few others had gone out of business, presumedly because of the coronavirus crisis. With so much time on my hand, I could observe there was very little traffic at this airport, though occasionally, it would be swarmed for half an hour or so, thus giving the impression that everything was still normal.
Set apart in the mezzanine was a very pleasant eatery called Big Chefs, so that’s where I sheltered for several hours. With its tables civilly spaced, everyone had his serene bubble, and the music was elegant. Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald’s singing Irving Berlin’s Cheek to Cheek has to be among the peaks of American culture, and Betty Carter scatting, riffing and growling One of My Favorite Things is pretty damn awesome too. I felt blessed.
Suddenly, I heard English coming from the next table, but it was spoken so softly, I had to strain to make sure it was really the Queen’s. The young couple turned out to be from Liverpool, and they had only come to Turkey to get new teeth. He was a mechanic and she’s an accountant.
Flashing his sparkling chompers, the bearded man said, “I only paid 1,800 Pounds. In England, that would have cost me 5,000.”
“Where did you go?”
“Izmir. It’s down south, by the ocean. This doctor is very famous. A lot of English people go to her.”
His tank topped girlfriend added, “I got mine done, too.” Showing off blameless teeth, she smiled. “I paid 5,000. It would have cost me 14,000 back home.”
In Turkey ten days, they never had a chance to even hang out in Istanbul, one of the world’s most resonant cities. It’s really deep, man. Now they were going back to work. Before Covid, they had planned a trip to Paris and Amsterdam, which they had never seen. They had traveled a bit, though, with trips to Tenerife, Krakow, Torino and even Bali. Years from now, people will look back in astonishment at how accessible this entire earth was to even the working class of privileged countries.
Just before we boarded, a middle-aged Turk was turned away from another flight. Enraged, he unleased a tirade that stopped and started, with no security guard nearby to calm him down. There was so much hurt in his anger, I almost expected him to sob.
In any totalitarian state, just getting on a plane is nearly a miracle, so if you haven’t experienced this abject hope, anxiety and fear, consider yourself pampered. Freedom of movement is among the first to be taken away, and it’s already begun.
My Pegasus mistress tore my boarding pass so gently yet authoritatively, I felt acute love, then moved on. Though mine was a window seat, a woman had taken it, so I sat in hers. Flying into Beirut in the dark, I wouldn’t be seeing much anyway.
The passport, Covid and customs checks at Beirut’s airport were surprisingly hassle-free, so, just like that, I was out in the warm Lebanese air. I had a driver, Ali, to take me to Al-Quala’a, just over an hour south of Beirut, and why was I going there? To be close to Israel, of course, for can any Jew resist this visceral yank?
It wasn’t quite midnight, yet all the streets and houses were barely lit, and there were almost no open cafes or restaurants. Although I knew Lebanon was in a severe economic crisis, I wasn’t aware there were scheduled electricity blackouts daily, and capital control had been imposed for a year, so that Lebanese could only have rationed access to their own money in the bank. On top of a corrupt government, there was also Beirutshima, and a suspicious series of wild fires that many Lebanese attribute to Israel. Before you dismiss them as paranoid or “anti-Semitic,” a meaningless word here, consider how many times Jews have attacked their country, and that Jewish fighter jets daily violate their airspace. That roar above the clouds has become so familiar, locals barely notice it.
Wiry, dark and mustached, Ali’s a cheerful ex-cop of roughly my age. Although I had been informed he didn’t speak much English, Ali had more than enough to chatter with me. He had learnt English by watching American TV shows and movies, he said. His first foreign language was French.
“You never took an English class?” I asked.
“That’s incredible.” Perhaps Ali had worked overseas, I thought. “Have you traveled much?”
“No, I do not travel. I love Lebanon too much!”
I couldn’t help but chuckle at that odd answer.
Ali, “My daughter is in Australia.”
“Wow! You should go see her.”
“No, she come to see me. She has three sons.”
“You haven’t seen them?”
“One, six-years-old, has come to Lebanon.”
“My wife go to Australia. She stay there two months.”
“So she travels…”
“Yes, she been to Syria, Iraq, Iran, Australia.”
“I love to travel.”
“A friend invite me to America. He say he pay for my plane ticket, give me money to spend. I say no. Another friend invite me to Arabia. If I don’t want to go to America,” he laughed, “why I want to go to Arabia?”
“Just go, look around, eat new food?”
“No, I like it here. I love Lebanon.”
On our right, there was just enough light to reveal the ocean. Highway signs indicated unfamiliar towns and cities, and even Sidon was unrecognizable because it’s called Saida here. A brightly lit, humongous bakery flashed by. Al Forno was like a casino.
Ali was sipping from a can of Heineken. “I drink when I drive. I drink beer and scotch and whiskey. I drink beer in the morning, afternoon, evening, night.”
“How many beers do you drink a day?”
“I don’t count them.”
“Do you drink beer at a cafe, in your village?”
“I’m the only one, drink beer, in my village!”
“Wow! So where do you drink?”
We passed several churches, with one giant one, on top of a hill, in Maghdouché. Jesus and Mary had sheltered in a cave there. We saw mosques, of course, and Hezbollah billboards and banners.
Since they are on the front line against Jewish power, you’ll be delivered too when they win, God willing, whether you call Him Jesus, Allah, Buddha or Vishnu. You must join me, then, in rooting for these Arab fighters. If only the rest of us had their balls and brains, this war would already be over.
When Ali says “before the war,” he means Lebanon before 1975, but his country has been continuously under siege or attacked by Jews since 1948, with the founding of Israel. More than any other nation, Jews trigger war. It’s what they do, for profit, revenge, conquest or sadistic, righteous fun, judging by how much they cheerlead each new one.
Just think of all the wars they started in the last century alone. Just think of the one you’re submerged in, right now.
That fuse is getting short. Three more days before hell breaks loose. It’s all planned at your expense. Though way late, you still must act, if only to save what’s left of your ass. There’s still some flesh there, though pitiful. It may grow back.