Travel Story/Macedonia

My husband and I met in 1995 and married a year and half later. In the year 2000 we left our sublet in NYC, Marijan left his job at the World Trade Center and I gave up my art studio with a view of the Hudson River:

I had just finished the work for my second show at the now defunct Cruz L.A. Gallery in Venice, California and we decided we needed a break from The States. We made plans to go visit his family for the first time in his home country of Macedonia and booked flights with a return ticket for four months later.

Macedonia is one of the former republics of Yugoslavia and is just north of Greece, west of Bulgaria and south of Serbia. We arrived in Veles, Macedonia on Monday the 19th of July around 6pm. It ONLY took 4 days including the time change. The flight to Amsterdam was about 9 ½ hours and it flew by. We then connected to Budapest about an hour later. That was about a 2-hour flight. We couldn’t find any direct flights to Skopje, the capital of Macedonia, since we bought our tickets just a week before leaving Los Angeles and it was peak travel season. But we took a chance that we could find a way to get Marijan home. How hard could it be?

Taking a train through Serbia was impossible because American had just finished bombing this beautiful and ancient country and so I was not allowed in. Remember in the movie “Thelma and Louise” when Louise did not want to go through Texas from Arkansas to get to Mexico? And Thelma protested, “But how are we going to get to Mexico if we don’t go through Texas?” This was our Mexico scenario. So here was the route we were forced to take to bypass Serbia: Budapest, Hungary to Bucharest, Romania (12 hours all night) then Bucharest to Sofia, Bulgaria (12 hours all day).Then a seven hour bus ride to Skopje, Macedonia. We when we first boarded the train in Budapest we sat in the wrong car so the conductor told us that the train to Sofia was eight cars down. We had to drag these huge duffle bags full of gifts for Marijan’s family eight cars down. Battered and bruised, we finally and found some seats. The seats in the “budget” section of the train were like long benches that you could actually lie down on. There were two to each compartment that faced each other. The toilets on the train were just a hole down to the tracks with no toilet paper or potable water. Luckily I had packed an enormous amount of Kleenex in L.A. I’m not really sure why I did that but it was a good thing. Even though it was July, there seemed to be a cold spell and asking if there was going to be heat turned on at night was like asking if toilet paper would be provided in the bathrooms. And it wasn’t like you could walk to the first class cars to buy food and drinks because once we arrived at the border with Romania, the nice part of the train was detached, left in Hungary and we continued on without it. That feat alone took like three hours. Welcome to Romania.

Just by looking out the window I could see the stark difference between Hungary and Romania. We left the beautiful picturesque country side of Hungary and entered a Twilight Zone of miles upon miles of garbage packed into neatly formed border walls separating properties in Romania. As if the surreal landscape wasn’t enough, an even more surreal relationship with the conductors began. Each conductor invented one more ludicrous story after another as to why we were in violation of one rule or another. At one stop a conductor told us it was required to have $50 (but in Romanian money) per person while travelling through Romania. When we told him we only had Deutsche Marks (this was the Euro of the day) he said, “Well, let me go talk to my supervisor and see if I can make an exception,” he said in broken English. He came back and said, “We will overlook this if you give me small tip.” So we thought, ‘we are in Romania, it’s poor, it smells like a toilet and we don’t speak the language,’ so we gave him 10 Deutsche Marks, he smiled and left. As we found out each country would have its own unique way of money extortion. Luckily we did bring enough cash to make it through 24 hours on a train in Eastern Europe. We finally made it to Bulgaria where Marijan speaks enough of the language to communicate with their conductors. This Bulgarian conductor was as mean as the Romanian was sweet and yelled at us from the start. He begins to angrily scold Marijan in Bulgarian about what I’m not completely sure. Then he asks us why we had our feet up on the seats and did we know that he could fine us. Marijan remains totally calm and apologizes as I wipe the footprint off the seat with my hand (already dirtier than the seat anyway). He then screams that he is fining us 25 Deutsche Marks each! At this point we are dirty, tired of having money extorted for made-up fines, hungry and sleep deprived. Marijan stands up and says in Bulgarian, “Not only are we not paying that fine but we are getting off at the next stop and going to the police. I want your name and your badge number!” He pulls our bags down from the racks and they (and I) knew he was serious. The conductor runs and gets the supervisor who returns with a bat. He is swinging it into his open palm each time landing with a thud as his sausage fingers grip the bat more tightly. I’m thinking to myself, ‘what are we going to do if we get off this train in the middle of nowhere Bulgaria with these huge bags? What is this guy going to do with the bat?’ I’m in a panic but I don’t say anything and hope for the best. Marijan then repeats his threats of going to the police. At this point they are yelling back and forth and then they tell us if we put our feet up on the seat again, we will be fined and they storm off! I guess my husband had had it with being pushed around and was just fed up with having money extorted in the name of “tips”. I couldn’t believe we won. We placed our giant bags back up on the luggage racks and the conductors never bothered us again. We soon discovered we were not the only ones expected to pay “fines” for having our feet up on the seats. Apparently when we chased the conductors away we also saved two young Mexican architecture students who were also being threatened. They thanked us told us they had no money left anyway because of all their previous “fines”. We took pictures with a gipsy playing some type of violin, I shared my hand sanitizer with the girls and we all rejoiced when we finally arrived in Sofia.

After placing a quarter inside his instrument, the gypsy agreed to take a photo with me:

After that 24 hour journey ended, the hilarity continued in the capital of Bulgaria. We were taken to a bus station by a taxi driver in the middle of the night for the bus to Skopje. The problem was, the bus didn’t leave until the next morning and the bus stop was a single bench outside on the sidewalk. We piled our bags on the bench and lay on top of them spooning each other for warmth. It was the best night sleep we had in two days. In the morning the sun felt warm and glorious as I sipped a five cent sweetened hot tea and ate a mediocre pastry. It was the best tasting breakfast I have ever had. Marijan smiled at me and said he could not believe how brave I had been on this journey and how pleased he was I never complained. The bus to Skopje took seven hours including a two-hour wait at the Bulgarian/Macedonian border while they searched one guy on our bus. Well, you know, he had books in his luggage. I saw the customs and border guards flip through each book and take turns interrogating him. He looked miserable but eventually they let him re-board our bus and we continued on. We had finally made it to Macedonia, I could hardly believe it. Then, the bus broke down. The driver got out to inspect the problem. He then came back aboard and inquired if anyone had some spare change. More “tips” you say? No, Marijan explained to me that something had fallen out of the engine and replacing the gap with some change fixed the problem. That was my first experience of Macedonian ingenuity. No AAA here so you use what you can. The bus actually started up and we drove on. The bus dropped us off at what seemed like parking lot in the middle of Skopje. Marijan told me to wait with the bags and he would go fetch his Uncle who lived not too far away. “Don’t talk to anyone. I’ll be right back.” He returned a very short time later with his delighted uncle whom Marijan hadn’t seen in ten years. We then went to his uncle’s apartment where his wife was waiting for us with drinks and cookies. Then they drove us to their son’s house to have more drinks and food. After a nice visit, Marijan’s cousin and wife drove us the 45 minutes to Veles, Marijan’s home town.

Veles, Macedonia:


There we were greeted by a welcoming party out on the street: Marijan’s sister, one cousin, brother in-law, niece, nephew, great-nephew and his Mother! We were then served homemade cake, pastries, coffee, Coke and home-made whiskey. We unpacked the huge duffle bags and doled out the gifts. I have never felt so happy and so exhausted all in one moment.

Here we are in Marijan’s boyhood apartment with his brother-in-law (Zvonco), his mother(Bogdanka) and his great-nephew(Filip):

One of our excursions while in Macedonia was to the village where Marijan’s grandparents were from and where his mother was raised. When Marijan was a boy, his grandfather would travel on a donkey to Veles for visits. This village was called Vojnica (VOY-NEE-ZA). I can only describe this place in pictures. For me, it was the highlight of our trip.

Tale (TAHL-LAY) was the real life village idiot of Vojnica. But that title belies this extraordinary man and his even more amazingly productive life. When Tale saw us walking down the dirt road he immediately gave Marijan a hug. When Marijan asked if he remembered him from when they were kids, Tale nodded affirmatively and flashed a huge smile. He pointed to what seemed like the only store/tavern and gestured for us to stay put. Tale went to buy two beers and waved for us to come back home to celebrate the return of his childhood friend.

Marijan and Tale in Vojnica, Macedonia:

The village of Vojnica is poor where people survive on what they can raise and sell what they grow at the farmer’s market in Veles. Some people herd sheep, some own cows and chickens or raise pigs. Tale couldn’t do any of that because he was mute. Tale lived with his sisters in the village who translated for him. We all sat around while Tale told us of his latest adventures. Tale communicated by gesturing wildly with his arms in a kind of sign language while grunting and pointing and acting out animal postures. His sister translated to Marijan and Marijan then translated to me in English. He told how he would hunt wild rabbits in the woods, give the meat to his sisters to cook and then sell the pelts for money. The whole scene was amazing to me. Between the translation of a seemingly untranslatable language, to the revelation that not only was this man happy but he was a productive member of the village and a provided food and money for his family, I was blown away. My biggest regret is that I did not return to Vojnica in time with a video camera to make a documentary about Tale. Sadly, he died and the amazing story of his life with him.

3 thoughts on “Travel Story/Macedonia

  1. I probably would have died on the spot the moment the conductor came back with a baseball bat. So wonderful that you were able to make the journey and now you can tell your kids about Vojnica and Tale.

    What a great read.

  2. Somehow I wasn’t really scared of the guy with the bat as much as I was as the prospect of being stranded in the middle of nowhere! As long as we stayed on the train, we were at least headed to our destination!
    Yes, the lesson of Tale and his ability to thrive in spite of his handicap will be a great story to tell my girls when they get older and are full of teenage angst! Thanks for your comments, JJ.

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