Two weeks ago I hopped on a furgon heading up to Elbasan, glad to escape my chilly, dreary town. OK, now I love Gjirokastёr—such a charming, historic place with erratic cobblestoned streets, aging stone houses (hoping to be restored, but alas so many have crumbled from neglect and harsh winters already), and steep hills offering majestic views of the valley below. And of course the castle! Ours is the second largest in the Balkans, built sometime in the 14th and 15th centuries (on top of more ancient foundations) and expanded by the local oligarch, Ali Pasha, in the 1800’s. It serves as a towering backdrop to the city, all at once overbearing and yet sometimes I’m surprised that it can become invisible to me. Well, in the summer of course the town is flourishing; grape vines dripping globules of black sugar across front yards and side streets, tourists meandering the Pazar and museums of the Old Town, sporadic folk concerts blaring through the night…
However, in the winter, frigid wind and pouring rain (and snow! Valentine’s Day brought large chunks of falling ice!) dominate every moment of my thoughts. My house is like a refrigerator, I spend torturous moments crawling into frosty clothes and waiting for my body to adjust to the inner temperature of my sleeping bag. Work is also very slow in the midst of such weather. No one (including me) really wants to get out and tackle projects, and anyways on very cold or rainy days the schools close early due to lack of heating, so our lessons seem forever postponed. My coworkers and I huddle near the heaters, our minds numb, and count down the minutes until they can rush home to their wooden stoves and I trudge wearily home. For several days a week I began going to my neighbor (Athina)’s house under the pretense that I would help her daughter practice English. 95% of the time we simply sit around talking in Shqip, always with a feast of fruits and figs and walnuts (our favorite, dubbed “Viagra” because they give you energy) laid out, and I often bring a book or work on my computer.
In this lull, I took the opportunity to schedule a doctor’s appointment in Skopje, to get a mole removed from my back. I’ve had it years, without any problems so far, but I know some day I will have to get it removed. [I’ll preface this with an apology for exploiting the government health care I’m covered under, stressing the system with my petty procedure.] I’d seen a dermatologist in Tiranё about it, but apparently there are no surgeons qualified to take it off, thus PC sent me to Macedonia’s nearby capital.
Actually, I didn’t go alone. Two volunteers joined me for the journey, just 3 nights there with 2 days traveling on each end. Monica and I traveled up through Elbasan because the Gjiro-Korce road was blocked by snow, so we stayed in Librazhe, with Amanda and my former semi-sitemate, Seth. He recently relocated sites and is missed dearly in the south, so it was nice to see his new pad. The next morning, Mon and I took a furgon to the border, the road winding up in the mountains and vastness of white blankets sparkling like a winter wonderland. Snow piled 2 feet high; we giddily and very carefully waddled our way between ‘no man’s land’ sections to get our passports stamped. From there, a taxi to Struga, the Albanian town some kilometers away, then the national bus up to Skopje.
Crossing the Qafe Thane border
Eventually our bus pulled in to Skopje, unexpectedly warm and sunny. We found our hotel and headed to the Macedonian Peace Corps office to meet their staff and to check in with the plans they had arranged. It’s so interesting to compare and contrast offices, the life and ‘home base’ we could have had if the dice rolled astray. Their staff is also incredibly friendly, maybe it’s a Balkan thing? From there we met with Will, our third operatee, and some MAC PCVs that arranged a large group dinner with us at a local Chinese restaurant. [I detest Chinese food from the States, and from China and Asia for that matter, but somehow LOVE it Balkan style, weird.]
Eating Chinese food with MAC PCVs
I’d visited Skopje last summer, with Chris, but didn’t really appreciate it. I felt it was an ugly capital city with only shopping in mind (there are dozens and dozens of malls) and a sadly discarded Turkish Quarter. However, this trip the city grew on me. Will, Monica, and I explored the fortress, perused the Turkish Quarter, and hit it off with a man restoring archaeological pieces displayed in the han. Next door at the National Ethnographic Museum we were wowed by an impressively curated series of displays, very well preserved and organized. The similarities between Albanian and Macedonian ways of life and culture are not surprisingly alike, both having originated in pastoral societies with comparable climates. My favorite thing about the museum was the large black and white photographic prints, depicting life through the early 20th century. Having lived in Albania two years now, and visited some still-traditional villages, I can imagine their lives so clearly.
Will and me outside Skpoje's fortress entrance
We also took in the Mother Teresa memorial building. [there is a small placard in the middle of the central square denoting where her house once stood; the neighborhood was later razed to make way for the malls] MT was “Albanian by blood, but a citizen of the world”, though she was born in Macedonia. Both countries want to claim her, and while I am conditioned to believe people are of the nation they were born/raised in, I’ve learned that family blood is stronger than invisible and shifting borders in this region, so I guess I will accept her Albanian-ness. Despite the fact that she never stepped foot inside Albania.
Mon and me with Mother T!
Hanging inside the Mother Teresa House. "I have always kept close to my heart the Albanian people..."
The actual procedure at the doctor’s office went fairly smooth. Monica went before me, with assurances that it was quick and painless. It was indeed painless; they numbed my back and I couldn’t feel any real sting. But despite my best efforts to stop from visualizing the doctor slicing and cutting away at me, my inner wimp took over and I couldn’t help it. And then when the stitches began I tried so hard to NOT envision myself as a ragdoll, en par with Coraline, and with waves of nausea I became dangerously close to throwing up all over the table. I’m no good with medical stuff, fare!
The next day we took off, back across the border. It was a bit tricky because we wanted to take the Korce-Gjiro road, allowing us to stay with a friend in Erseke, a small town tucked away in the mountains. She’s pretty isolated there, especially with the roads closed and very few nearby PCVs to visit, so we took the chance that we’d get lucky and the bus would run. Arriving very late in the night (we had to pay a kid from town to put chains on his tires and take us out there, but what choice do we have at that point?) our friend, Marie, or MAH-ree a la Françoise, welcomed us with homemade onion soup and freshly baked sugar cookies. We snuggled up to her wooden stove and caught up on the latest, then all passed out early in her living room.
In the morning Monica and I, very adventurously I must admit, braved the long, isolated journey into the high mountains toward home. It’s a long, tiring journey. Absolutely breathtaking in the spring and summer, but I think a little frightening at this time, with dead and barren landscapes. We did eventually make it home safely; I hiked up the hill to my house and spent the evening with Chris, curled up on the floor next to the kalorifer.