Published: July 24th 2011July 20th 2011
Wow. I am more of a procrastinator than I originally, somewhat optimistically, considered myself. For well over a week now I have been back in the U.S., but only now do I feel slightly compelled to compose the final blog entry, putting the seal on my wonderful time in Macedonian in the year 2011. I call it "my" time because I experienced it and wrote about it, but a better adjective for this "time" would be "our" time. I was not the only one who spent five weeks with foreigners; there were seven others who shared this incredible experience with me: four Macedonians and three fellow Tempeans. I am not ready for "our" trip to be over, but writing this does, however, provide some comfort in that I can travel back to the final week in Macedonia and relive the many highlights.
On Sunday the tenth of July, I, with Sashka and her parents, bid farewell to Greece at noon and headed to Veles on our way back to Skopje to have dinner with her grandparents, aunt, and cousin. In Macedonia it is tradition to treat the extended family to dinner when a major life occasion arises; in this case, the occasion was Sashka's cousin's graduation from the university, where he studied dentistry. This restaurant dinner was a multi-hour affair. No one ever looked at menus; Sashka's cousin simply sat down, told the waitor what we wanted, and food began appearing on the table in a steady stream for the next three hours. First came salad items, then plates of fried cheese, ham, and chicken, and oh yeah I also tried STOMACH LINING! Of a cow. It was... interesting. I had a better experience with the stewed liver and cow tongue that came out along with it, but that was certainly the crowning point of the first part of the meal considering it was, well, stomach lining.
All of the food was served family style, so there I was giddily munching on everything that was set down, until I realized that I was well past the satiation point (I think I lost the ability to sense satiation by the end of this trip) and I forced myself to stop eating. I began to ruminate on how I would be able to function normally with this much food in my stomach when Sashka leans over and says, "That was only the first course." I think my heart stopped. The proper time for me to have learned that information would have been maybe forty-five minutes earlier. So after that I ate about four more different types of grilled meat, which were served with bread, french fries, and potatoes to boot. I literally could not move after that. I was mad that I was so full, but also that all of the food was so... good. I took that night as another experience to which I could again say, only in Macedonia.
That night we drove back to Skopje, and the final few days were another whirlwind of activities. On Monday I shopped at the Turkish bazaar and the city center for gifts and souvenirs, finding a little copper Turkish coffee pot, which my parents have already used at home multiple times. Tuesday was the tour of Skopje provided by the city of Skopje. My favorite part of that was taking a sort of enclosed ski lift gondola apparatus up Mt. Vodno, arriving at the top, and not realizing until after several minutes that I was at the direct base of the Millenium Cross that I had been gazing at from afar for the previous month.
Wednesday was a good day. With Sashka and her mother, we took a train to what seemed like the middle of nowhere in the Macedonian countryside. We dismounted the train, and all I could see were trees and meadows. No village, no house. After a little bit of walking, we came upon our destination: Sashka's grandparents' village house, which is actually outside the village, all on its lonesome. Her grandmother was cooking breakfast on an open air iron stove on the patio while her grandfather and uncle were working in the tremendous garden, where everything growing would eventually be eaten by Saska's family. This was the most idyllic countryside experience I could ever dream up; we picked peppers from the garden and ate them straightaway; we washed our hands in a bath tub where water from a spring two kilometers away emptied into; we ate meat that had been cooked on an open coal-fueled barbeque; and we watched her uncle chop firewood, so Lincolnesque in my mind. It all reminded me of the PBS reality show experiment "Frontier House," where modern day families were challenged to live as people would have done at the end of the nineteenth century on the Western frontier. The difference here was, these Macedonians were doing it, without any complaints, performing the work that needed to be done, and enjoying it all the while. I sure wouldn't mind spending my retirement working my own little piece of Macedonia like that.
After breakfast we hiked the mountain to an uninhabited monastery, the best part of which was the spring water there, which will probably always be the best water I have ever quenched my thirst with. It was cool, clear, and sweet. I slept sweetly on the train back to Skopje, with homegrown food in my stomach, mountain spring water in my blood, and memories of a refreshing village day in my dreams.
Since our plane left at 4:30 in the morning on Friday, we Americans thought it silly to sleep away our final night in Skopje. So we didn't. We walked around the city and ended up at the city park, as we always seemed to do, and we did what we always did: talked with the Macedonians. They had shared with us so much for five weeks, including their houses, their families, their culture, their beloved city, and their commitment, most of all, to making sure we saw as much of Macedonia as we possibly could. For that we are indebted to them until we are able to show them America, but even then, I do not feel that I can ever repay them for what they shared with us in their homeland. When I turned my shoulder on the tarmac Friday morning and kissed goodbye to the city, lit by the early morning sun, I knew I would be back at some point. I don't know when and I don't know by what means I will bring myself back to this little, feisty country, but I know for certain that I will return. And knowing that little tidbit is more than enough, because I already have in my possession the memories, the new perspective, and the insight to carry me for a lifetime.