Sunday, June 9, 2013

Macedonia - A Far Away Land

We found our son. After a long, overnight flight and an interminably long wait for our luggage in the Macedonia airport, we spotted Kenzie waiting outside glass sliding doors behind a roped off area. I paced the airport baggage claim area until our suitcase appeared. After snagging our bag, we made a dash through the doors to get our hands on our long, lost son. So good to finally wrap him in our arms.

We had reserved a rental car from Hertz since Peace Corps volunteers aren’t allowed to drive and we wanted to visit several villages and cities. I had imagined the car to be a Yugo, Citroen, or old Peugeot, something with questionable reliability but fitting in with all the other cars we would see on our travels. But no. They gave us an Alfa Romeo, making us immediately stand out as different from the locals. Ugh.
When we woke on our first morning to the Call to Prayer from several mosques around the city, I knew we were in a different land. For our first two days, we explored the capital city of Skojpe, slipping slowly into actual Macedonia culture. We began as tourists, eventually making the jump to the life of the locals. In Skopje, we visited the Old Turkish City, an area of narrow cobblestoned streets lined with market after market and many caf├ęs (or Kafana in Macedonian). Block after block of the downtown area serves as outdoor cafes with most establishments providing seating (comfortable, cushioned couches in some places set up like a living room) for a hundred people.   
I grieved the sight of three children forced to sell a box of juices or some such item to people in the Kafanas and people on the street.
They tried to enter the Kafana where we sat but the waiter sent them away. One girl especially won my sympathy, walking with hair in her eyes, fighting tears. I wanted to buy all their goods so they could be children for the rest of the afternoon. “They’ll never see a penny of it,” Kenzie told me, but at least their day’s work would end. For at least one day. At stop signs, children came to the car windows and begged.
When we finally arrived in Kenzie’s small village of 2,000 residents three days later, we found another world. Drugovo sits at the base of a mountain, nestled between the road and the steep hillside and surrounded by fields. On arrival, the elderly men who hang out in front of the store below Kenzie’s apartment swarmed us with true Macedonian warmth as they cradled our faces between their hands, kissed our cheeks, and gave us hugs. They enthusiastically invited us to join them in front of the storefront, an activity called "sitting pred koperacija," and pulled up chairs to make a circle before introducing themselves and telling us how they love Kenzie.
“Welcome to poverty,” one man said soon after the conversation began.   But despite poverty, over and over people invited us into their homes and shared lavish meals and drinks, some extending for hours. The very intimate invitation into someone’s private living space made an impression on us. “They’re the most hospital people I’ve ever met,” Kenzie said and we agree. And time after time we experienced this generosity and warmth.
To an American, the country is a land of contrasts where antiquity and modernity meet and paradoxes abound. Despite access to the internet in Kenzie’s village which brings the world to his apartment, allowing him to regularly check his favorite US sports teams and keep up with friends, an old man drives past his door on a horse-drawn wooden wagon to work the fields, and an old woman walks her goats home for the evening down the dirt road that runs through the main street of the village.
In the evening, we went to a restaurant up the road with Kenzie’s Albanian neighbor, leaning heavily on Kenzie’s translation skills to allow us to get to know each other. The restaurant owner wanted to show us his lovely facility set on the edge of a clear, flowing river. He took me to an outside seating area and I made the international sign of shivering to let him know we would rather eat inside due to chilly air while saying over and over “beautiful, beautiful,” pointing to the river.  I hadn’t learned “beautiful” in Macedonian yet, although I did learn “thank you: fala. So I became the foreigner who simply said “thank you, thank you” over and over again, whether the word fit the conversation or not. We were confused foreigners unaccustomed to being shut out of conversations, leaving us feeling like we were just dropped into a scene from the movie, Lost in Translation.
Throughout the evening, I sat in awe of how my suburban, middle-class son has made the transition and jumped over the culture gap, building dear friendships with the locals. At the restaurant, our 54-year-old dinner guest also leaned on Kenzie. Once a burly construction worker, Emin had experienced a bad car accident a number of years ago, leaving him slightly paralyzed on one side. So at dinner, he demonstrated his trust for Kenzie by leaning over and asking our son to cut his meat for him a couple of times.
 I wondered what it would take for the locals to trust us as well, we who zoomed into town in our Alfa Romeo and so much luggage that  out of embarrassment we waited until after dark when the men had left the storefront before we brought it inside. We arrived with cameras and laptops, smart phones, warm and cool clothes, a food supply, Starbucks coffee, decaf tea, nonfiction and fiction books, gifts, and brand new sheets.
I suspect more than the rental car kept us from fitting in.



Susan M said...

Beautiful post. I remember seeing Colin towering over others when he met me at the airport at Quito,Ecuador--that first hug, and that was only 3 months separation. So glad Macedonia got Kenzie and that you had a chance to glimpse his life. Stay well and hugs to the family.

Anonymous said...

Linda this is brilliant. You have captured such loss and joy in beautiful words. I am so glad you were able to go and that Kenzie has adjusted so well and has had the opportunity to see beyond the borders of america what life is like for others. Looking forward to seeing pictures.

Favorite lines:
"I wanted to buy all their goods so they could be children for the rest of the afternoon."

"the country is a land of contrasts where antiquity and modernity meet and paradoxes abound"