We get into the car. We’re off to Somewhere, Macedonia, approximately 15 kilometers away from Bitola. Somewhere, Macedonia, is beautiful.
Our host, Vlad, wants to show us some Macedonian village life. We stay in a mini-house, cold and destroyed from winter cruelty. We strain homemade wine through an old sock for the evening, take shots of rakija — classic highly alcoholic beverage throughout the Balkans — with the villagers and sip on brandy before breakfast.
Vlad prepares goulash with a recently shot wild boar. He takes us on a mountain hike, to a small monastery, and then to a little cabin deep in nowhere, Somewhere, Macedonia.
What is this place?
“Heaven,” they said.
A house built collectively over 30 years ago, owned by no one and for the use of everyone. Locals make the hour, multi-hour trek daily to sit in the sun, sip on the mountain spring water and compare homemade wines.
The group laughter fades away but the afternoon sun is still going strong, and Vlad suggests camping out for the night and waking up for a most beautiful sunrise. I’m on fire duty, and he and my friend go back to the village to bring back fish, candles and supplies. They’ll be back in two hours.
They are not back in two hours.
Villagers and rakija happen, apparently, and Vlad passes out on the trail. I’m left in the cabin, with fire, mountain spring water, homemade wine and the stars. I have nothing left to do but think and hope the wine will lull me to an early sleep. It’s interesting the things you think about in such situations.
The wine worked, and at sunrise, I was rescued. And then we hitchhiked to civilization.
Perhaps this anecdote doesn’t perfectly represent my time in Macedonia, or my 5-day journey through the Balkans. Maybe I could detail a night in Sofia, staying with a gamer who crafts figurines out of aluminum foil. Or an afternoon at the Rila Monastery, the largest and most famous Eastern Orthodox monastery in Bulgaria, high in the mountains and overwhelmed in peace. Or strolling downtown Bitola, feeling out of place and staring at all the posh people.
Or an early morning tour of Ohrid, while the lakeside town was still asleep and all of its picturesque churches commanded wonder.
Or an excruciatingly long road trip to Thessaloniki, with skeptical controllers questioning why two Macedonians would be driving two Americans across the border. Or the countless conversations about Macedonia’s name, and Albanians.
But I think I’ll leave you with a hitchhiking story instead.
We hadn’t been waiting more than 15 minutes. But we were already doubting the likelihood that we’d make it from Ohrid to the Monastery of Saint Naum, about 30 kilometers away, along the lake, on a road rarely traveled.
But an orange Peugeot pulled up, and the smartly dressed man ushered us in before returning to his iPhone. Up through the hills we went, and our new friend, a local hotel owner who was on his way to Skopje, kindly went way, way, way out of his way.
He took us to his friend’s restaurant, a classy place on an island, for a drink. The drink turned into two bottles of local wine, a platter of meats and cheeses and a serene boat ride in the mountain springs. Then there was a tour of the monastery, and rakija, and souvenirs. And a ride all the way back to Ohrid. And a tour of his hotel restaurant, with coffee and a platter of desserts — dense nutty chocolate, moist white cake with cream, baklava. Then we said our goodbyes, endless thank you’s, and he sent us away with more bottles of wine.
This unbelievable kindness followed so many other unbelievable moments, unbelievable for various unbelievable reasons. It was the Balkans — beautiful, bizarre, open. Thumbs out, thumbs up.