I told my friend Katie there were two requirements before she visited me in Macedonia. 1. Bring Reese’s Pieces. 2. Write a guest blog about her trip. (We met when we were baby bird reporters in Scranton, Pa., so she knows how to string a few sentences together.) I also asked her to be slightly less witty and cool than me, so you guys will keep reading my blog after this post. (Kidding, sort of.) There are many reasons why we are such good friends, but one of the biggest is that we’re always down for any adventure. Feel free to follow in her footsteps and visit next! – Rebekah
Life’s been crazy lately. It’s crunch time at work and rugby is in full swing. After a long, cold winter in Washington, D.C. and a hectic spring prepping for summer interns and rugby season, I was ready for a break from it all. So I took a 10-day hiatus for a Eurotrip to visit two very important ladies in my life.
After venturing through London and Budapest for six days with two friends from the States, I split off from the group for Macedonia to visit Beka, my good friend and former roommate from my time in Scranton, Pa. (yes, like “The Office” and Joe Biden). Beka has seen me split my pants open while changing a tire on the side of the road, expertly cover Destiny’s Child in long car rides, fail at flirting with the few desirable and eligible bachelors in Scranton, and stuff my face with more food than any normal human should consume – so I guess you could say we’re close. Our former co-workers used to call us Laverne and Shirley because of the hijinks and adventures we got into trying to entertain ourselves in Pennsylvania coal country. Needless to say, I couldn’t come to Europe and not make a pit-stop in Macedonia to see my cooking buddy and partner in crime.
Plus, I had to meet Julie, the alley cat who’s secretly planning Beka’s demise.
I’ve traveled quite a bit up to this point, but never to a place with a completely different alphabet and where the majority of people didn’t speak at least a little English. But with Beka’s research and help, I was able to successfully navigate myself from Skopje, the capital, to Kocani, the town closest to the village where she teaches English through the Peace Corps. I made it solely by asking the poor woman sitting next to me on the bus repeatedly in badly accented Macedonian, “Kocani? Kocani?” every time the bus stopped. Each time she’d smile and shake her head and go back to scrolling through her phone. She was kind enough to let me call Beka so I could confirm she’d pick me up at the station at the designated time.
I think we both breathed a sigh of relief when I connected with Beka: Me because I wouldn’t be stranded in the middle of nowhere Macedonia with only a cheese and pickled sandwich I’d saved from the plane ride so I wouldn’t wither away and starve to death in the 5 hours since I’d eaten last, and The Bus Woman because I mostly stopped fidgeting and refreshing my phone, searching in vain for a wi-fi signal that never appeared.
After I arrived in Kocani, immediately enveloped in a giant hug from Beka and the promise she’d feed me a giant Macedonian dinner, we met up with her friend Rachel so they could introduce me to some of the local fare. Watching the two of them talk with the waiter at the restaurant was inspirational, even bantering and joking with him. In six months, they’d gone from not speaking one word of the language to this: Ordering a meal with confidence and minimal hand gesturing. Impressed doesn’t begin to cover what I felt.
We ate some delicious stuff I can’t pronounce, which mostly consisted of bread and meat and fried food covered in cheese. Even the cucumber and tomato salad was covered in a layer of salty, cheesy goodness. People don’t come to Macedonia to lower their cholesterol, however, they can definitely eat on a budget. We ordered four dishes to split and a bottle of red wine for a total of about $7 American dollars each. Even our measly newspaper salaries would have made us rich women in Macedonia.
After dinner, Beka and I ventured back to her host family’s home a few miles outside Kocani, where I delivered a card from Mama Brown, shells and cheese, Reese’s Pieces, Swedish Fish, and a new DSLR camera she’d ordered – nothing boosts the spirit like a little love from home. We built a fire in the stove (my fire-building skills transcend continents) that heats the upstairs of the house and sipped tea while we caught up, laughed, and made baked goods in true Laverne and Shirley fashion. You know you’ve got a true friendship when it feels like there’s no way it’s been six months since you’ve seen each other and you can pick up right where you left off, comfortable and relaxed, but still excited to be together again.
The next morning we hung out with Beka’s host mom, who gave me a strong mom-like hug and a scarf she brought back from Istanbul. We chatted over Turkish coffee and heard stories about her relatives in neighboring countries who had to leave during the fall of Yugoslavia and the subsequent troubles throughout the region. Again, watching Beka go back and forth with her host mom, who was really pushing for Beka to find a nice Macedonian man to take back to America with her despite Beka shaking her head, had me in awe. She was able translate for her host mom, who knows zero English, and me who only knows, “please,” “thank you” and “Can I have a chicken burrito?” in Macedonian. Home girl amazes me.
On our way out the door, I finally met the infamous Julie, who strutted right up and started rubbin’ up on me. Just call me Cat Whisperer. I meowed at her to be nice to Beka – and maybe not roll in so much dirt outside – gotta keep that white coat lookin’ fresh. We left Julie on the stoop and hopped a bus for a 2.5 hour journey back to Skopje to meet up with her Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) counterparts who all flooded into the city from various parts of the country for a triple birthday celebration and karaoke.
Beka and I stayed at an apartment with eight other PCVs, staying up late talking and drinking crappy Macedonian beer that comes in two-liter, plastic containers. Sometimes it was hard to get a word in edge-wise with the group of outgoing friends, but I think I got a few good one-liners in there that made people realize I wasn’t going to be the needy visitor or an inflexible Debbie Downer.
The morning brought bloody marys and brunch, which are scrumptious in any country, along with more group bantering and chatting throughout the morning. After a failed attempt to take the cable car up the side of a nearby mountain to see what I’m told is a beautiful view of Skopje due to a bus that never showed, followed by rearranging an entire Turkish restaurant only to find out they didn’t serve coffee or tea, we migrated to a small café in the old bazarre in town. We sipped coffee, tea and salep, a sweet drink made from orchid roots topped with cinnamon – PCVs don’t let a change in plans get them down for long. I found out a number of people in the group lived in or had ties to D.C. I hope they come back after their time in Macedonia because they’d be cool as hell to befriend back home!
It was crazy interesting to hear the stories about their villages and host families, and all the differences in culture and daily life in a country that’s much more conservative than many of the more liberal-leaning PCVs.
That night we got all gussied up (showered and put on make-up) and went to a bar in Skopje where Beka arranged a karaoke birthday bash for her fellow volunteers, about 40 of whom showed up from their separate posts to drink copious amounts of cheap alcohol and belt Tina Turner’s “Rollin’ on the River.” The rambunctious enthusiasm of the crowd quaking the floorboards drew curious looks from unsuspecting Macedonians. A Beyoncé song, a Billy Joel duet and a good number of Jamesons on the rocks later, I felt like an honorary member of a special club, joining right in on the laughter and back and forth. I even ordered my own food in Macedonian when we stopped for burritos.
Sunday morning we ate burek, a savory filo dough pastry that’s usually stuffed with cheese, spinach, leeks or meat, paired with a drinkable yogurt that tasted a lot like plain Greek yogurt. A quick walk around Skopje later, I was back at the bus station, quickly hugging Beka goodbye and splitting a taxi with a nice English man after realizing we’d missed the early shuttle to the airport. I was sad to go – it was really cool seeing Beka in her new surroundings, adapting to her new life and friends. I don’t know if she was as sad to see me leave: Apparently I snore?
A few things about Macedonia that made me furrow my brow and cock my head like a confused puppy:
1. Toilet paper: People don’t flush it. Wipe your business, then toss it in a trash can next to the toilet. Beka explained the sewer system throughout the country isn’t the best, so this is how they dispose of the toilet paper. Thank goodness there were windows in every bathroom I saw.
2. Bags on the floor: Don’t do it. Apparently it looks tacky and gross. This is difficult when you’re humping around a suitcase and backpack stuffed with American treats and presents for your friend who has been eating strange Macedonian peanut-butter puffs for months.
3. Slippers: Bare feet is another no-no around here. Beka had a pair of slippers ready and waiting for me when I arrived so I could slip them on immediately after taking off my shoes. No complaints here – my toes were nice and warm!
Things about Macedonia that were awesome:
1. Carbs: Bread on bread on bread. Usually accompanied with cheese and meat and ajvar, my favorite thing I ate in Macedonia – a tasty roasted pepper spread that most families make every year. Beka’s host family made an exceptionally delicious and slightly spicy version of ajvar that we nommed up at breakfast. It was certainly a whole other culinary world from the one I’d be eating with my gluten-free, dairy-free counterparts throughout our time in London and Budapest. They definitely would have died in Macedonia, or spent a lot of time in the bathroom, which wouldn’t have been ideal considering the toilet paper situation I mentioned earlier. Derp. It’s probably best I was only in Macedonia for a long weekend, or it’s a safe bet I’d get exceptionally fat living there.
2. Beka’s Peace Corps contingent: The PCV crew were definitely the kind of people I anticipated – laid back, outgoing folks who laugh a lot, and shrug and move on when something doesn’t work out. At some points I felt a little bit like the kid who shows up a week late to summer camp and everyone is already best friends – doing my best to show them I could hang and could roll just easily with the punches as they could. In a foreign country with no family, they’ve formed a tight bond that involves lots of hugs, snuggles and affection, which I think they might lack when they go back to their separate villages. Everyone was welcoming, friendly, inquisitive and hilarious. I’m happy to see the environment and support system they’ve created for one another.
3. Turkish coffee: Anywhere I travel I’m always skeptical about the coffee. After living in Ireland for five months where drip coffee is almost non-existent and espresso and water is more of a thing, I’m leery of what people call coffee. However, Turkish coffee was delicious and did not disappoint. Beka boiled the grounds in a small pot until the mixture was thick and bubbly, then poured it into small cups a little larger than espresso-size vessels. It was thick and rich, and thanks to the bit of sugar Beka added while boiling it, not overly bitter. We sat and sipped it while we socialized with her host mom, who recounted her recent trip to Istanbul to purchase goods for her boutique in Kocani. Coffee is the great social tool here – Beka said sometimes it’s cold by the time you get to drink it because you’re too busy talking to take a sip.
Things I didn’t get to accomplish in Macedonia:
1. Drinking rakija: This homemade liquor is a staple in Macedonia. When Beka and I went down to have coffee with her host mom, Mom busted out the booze not to drink, but to wipe down the table we sat around. “Rakija – for drinking, for health and for cleaning,” she chuckled in Macedonian. I didn’t have a taste because it wasn’t yet noon and even I have some comprehension of what a socially acceptable drinking time is, but I caught a whiff, and it’s safe to say it’s probably a drink that puts a few hairs on your chest.
2. Hiking the mountains: I honestly didn’t know much about Macedonia before Beka told me that’s where she was accepted when she applied to the Peace Corps. In fact, I thought it was a biblical land that didn’t even exist as its own entity, so I had no idea what to expect geographically when I hopped on a plane for Skopje. I was pleasantly surprised. The mountains are beautiful and the rolling hills are green and dotted with terracotta-roofed homes, the bus-ride to and from the capital weaving in and out and around the mountains. We had a hike planned for Saturday, but rainy weather and time constraints kept us away. I would have loved to traipse around nature a little more a get a better view of the city.
3. Buying a Turkish coffee pot: Despite my best intentions to purchase a Turkish coffee pot at the old bazarre or while walking around town, time got the better of me and I boarded the plane without one of the adorable little contraptions or the cute, tiny coffee cups people drink out of. Beka, now you have a Christmas present idea for me … just throwin’ it out there! Although, it might be a good excuse for me to come back next year and do some more exploring.
Shout out to Beka, her host family and all the PCVs who made me feel welcome and showed me a great time in Macedonia. Cheers to you guys! Nastrovjia!