Macedonia

A blog post hardly ever goes about a love affair. A love affair involving someone else than your partner, that is. I took time out to marvel at the thought of being in a love relationship with three.

Macedonia stands for a dog. For nature. For Balkan. As soon as we enter this new country I notice the earth is softer, and it is void of stones. Ramming the stakes for the tent in the ground is easy. The supermarkets carry different products. I hand over the Roma child who ask for money some new curious product I just bought. She is not impressed by the yellow turmeric all vegan cookies. They hardly can be called a cookie.

Cycling on the E65 is a narrow road. There is no shoulder and the surface is bad. My first impression of the village we cycle through is not too optimistic. It feels sad, expired, outdated and backwards. The celebratory feeling of Greece is gone.

On top of the hill and I'm feeling great

We go to Bitola and my thoughts deepens. All I see are neglected buildings, a mismatch of surly constructions, with unfinished orange stones. People who appear to have a hard life walk past walls with graffiti seemingly protesting. Are the people living in misery? The Mediterranean feel is gone. I feel a communistic touch again. Perhaps Tito has to do with this? I don’t even know about Tito, whether he was good or not fully good? I know Yugoslavia fell apart in the ’90. I was an art student in Antwerp, having friends who’d fled from these parts of the world. They might have well been Roma. They surely had a story or two to tell, if not hide.

Almost I suggest to go back to Greece, and cycle around Macedonia.

But I also know I need to adjust. It’s just amazing; the differences in Europe. We roam around Bitola for a short time and when I see an old caravanserai and mosque, when I see groups of Turkish tourists with many a selfie stick holding up high in the air, when I notice an uncomfortable number of Dutch speaking tourists, I think this country must have something to offer. And yes, I do see it too: the elderly man watching the afternoon go by on a bench, the pedestrian zone where no one mind we’re cycling through, the tangle of electricity wires above the street, the partially white-painted tree trunks, the minarets where the sound of the azan captures me at once.

Going up a little in altitude shifts us from late summer to a cool autumn evening in one day. Busses and trucks pass us with effort, their motors roaring with tiresomeness. I like that sound, it indicates we are on a serious hill. And we are truly in the hills now and climb up to 1200 meter. The roadsides are littered with dirt and the management of those roads took advantage of that: they used bottles and cans to slide over the evenly occurring iron pins sticking out of the tarmac. Smart.

Our camp spots are chosen in such a way that we wake up bathing in sunlight. We often hear bells and voices of shepherds not far from us, other than the Greek shepherds, who had loud screams and funny voices, Macedonians guard their flock in a calmer manner.

Something which doesn’t go unnoticed: in Macedonia are big stretches of nature. Lush and green, full and endless. I don’t know anything about the leader or past leaders of this country but one thing is clear: he was not fully corrupted. A less rich country having Natural Parks means no easy and quick income for the president. Only in the long run this will pay off. At least the leader of Macedonia values it’s nature and doesn’t misuse it badly. What doesn’t go unnoticed are the many different breeds of stray dogs…

While climbing I am reminded of Pakistan, when men gather together at a white church. It’s not so much the church which reminded me of Pakistan, but the surrounding of trees, a clean kept building, the serenity, quietness and silent peace. Sometimes I am flashed back to Iran, when days were gray and cities so small it were more villages. Forgotten places where leaves turned yellow, falling from the tree, nobody rummaging through. I am reminded of India, when I watch the faces of the Romani people.

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A bottom bracket that gave up

We cycle though Resen, another sad city with a seemingly unfinished and poor style of building materials. I wonder if people need a permit to build their house? Maybe all they need is orange brick and manpower. Old fashioned Yugo cars and Tam trucks move slowly on the roads. There’s dirt. The delicious smell of fried paprika too. I watch the people go to a supermarket, one where I hardly can make a decision. It’s worse than an Aldi. And I feel for the people who have to create a healthy meal from such a selection.

We cycle on to Ohrid. We would have been in this country only a few days if not my partners bottom bracket broke down. We go to a shop, selling car batteries and bicycles, where they send us to one in the center of Ohrid. The guy who works in this shop flags us from the street to his tiny workplace and says: ‘We can’t do anything now, come back tomorrow.’ It’s 4 o’clock, closing time. That must be it.

We were not planning on staying in Ohrid.

‘We don’t have this bottom bracket. We need to order it and will have it tomorrow.’

The guy, Enes, truly seems to love bicycles and technique and before he himself notice, takes out the bottom bracket.

‘This one we don’t have. We need to order it from outside Skopje. It will take two weeks.’

He then jumps on a bicycle and speeds off to find a replacement.

Meanwhile his brother Levent has arrived. A few friends too. Closing time of the shop is 4 PM but everything is in full swing now.

Levent and Enes decide to pull out a friends bottom bracket. The friend who’s seriously dressed for cycling is having an unfortunate expression on his face. As if he is going to cry.

He is send off with a Fixie instead and cycling happily ever after. I call this work of a champion!

Uhm, Levent actually is a champion, in Macedonia as an off-road cyclist!

It’s too late to find a camp spot out-of-town, so we stay in Ohrid. We don’t know it yet but we will stay a week because the bottom bracket needs proper replacement, the second hands one did not go down well. But this we only notice half way through the week we’d stayed.

Sacha, the owner of a cozy little apartment we stay at, outfitted with a little kitchenette, asks: ‘Why like dogs tourists?’ as he have noticed we have made a little friend. Every day we make new friends but we have made one in particular.

Ohrid is full with tourists. If I close my eyes and partly my ears –most tourists are Dutch- I notice myself being transported back to Yemen. The azan in this country is elaborated. As is the orthodox church singing. In contrast with the azan, the tape played by the church is making me feel sad.

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Bobi, the feral show dog with one elegant dreadlock

Ohrid is a tourist destination. The pedestrian zone is paved with smooth giant flat stones. Pearls and gold are for sale. There are men outfitted as captains, to take you on a boat ride. It is a perfect reflection of how the country is not.

We walked away from the pedestrian zone where too many tourists with too much money, or pretended to have much, as they are mostly Dutch tourists, towards a cobblestone path. A path winding its way steep up to the crumbling ruins, and suddenly, voila, there he was. A fancy tail and a dreadlock. Not a cat. But an elaborate street dog.

We gave this seemingly good-natured dog a piece of dry bread. He took it carefully, clenched it between his jaws and kept it there for the time we admired and cuddled with him, this elegant street dog.

After he disappeared we went looking for him, we found him, and that was the first of many increasingly beautiful encounters. We baptized him Bessie and visited him daily.

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Bessie is a frilly, extravagant dog with white socks and a bib to match. His bib has a clean, fresh fringe. His luscious tail always has a twig decorating it. Yet, this dog is no push-over kind of canine; he has his own world view, his own agenda. Yet, he could be called a flexible wimpy. That because he let a small dog pee in his territory and his defending towards a German Shepherd sounded weak with a terrifying undertone.

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We found out Bessie is an orphan. We found out many more things. Most important of all that he took a big liking to us, and not only because we fed him pastries. We found out Bessie might have been a sheepdog. This is my belief, not my lover’s. But I really think he was a sheep dog. The human who took care for Bessie recently died, we hear from a nearby neighbor. He explains it with a hand going across his throat and the word ‘kaput’. Since than Bessie is fiercely protecting his territory, a house with a garden around it. He never strays far from his house, where the door is not opened for him anymore.

Each time we visit Bessie here he’s whirling like a dervish. He leaps three times his body length, straight up, miraculous leaps of a show dog. Once he is so enthusiastic, either that or I stroked him the wrong direction, he hung in my arm. Not letting go of it.

Early morning I am off to the bakery, suddenly feeling two soft pillow-like feet pawing against my bottom. My heart spills over with joy when I turn around and see it is Bessie! He’s greeting me so enthusiastically that I can’t stop hugging the little miniature sheepdog. The guy behind me in line speaks out ‘I think he wants food?’

But Bessie is not so much about food as he is about love. Each time we visit him, we find out more about this feral sheep dog. He jumps on a bench when we are not too far off his home range, as if he says ‘now, let’s have some benchy relaxed time’. When we arrive, we never do so empty-handed, and Bessie shows his happiness by making long-jumps. He is swirling around, the axle his tiny body, faster than our eyes can catch. He’s leaping, as high as a tall building in one single bounce, like Hanuman. The monkey-god from Hindustan.

We meet him once under the ancient tree at the pedestrian zone. When I call out for him ‘BESSIE’, he run towards us. People look at us as if we are dirty street people. Bessie might be a street dog, for us he is a beautiful, bountiful show dog, performing his love in the open.

He doesn’t smell. His penis is never sticking out his case and he does not try to ride my legs. He doesn’t stick his wet nose in my crotch either. Or else I would have turned my back, never to return to such a dirty minded dog. Bessie is not that kind of dog. Once we took a female friend for him, but Bessie’s probably is too young for such indecent handling. They do sniff at each other’s anus though.

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More discoveries are his name, it is not Bessie but Bobi. The man who revealed his human is ‘kaput’, told us his real name. Although Bobi shows his love exuberant, he shows it sweet too. No dog has ever been happier to see a human like Bobi did, as far as we know. He curls up to cuddle with us. He softly pokes his nose into our armpits. He runs off with cheese to bury it in his garden, never-ceasing to watch back at us, making sure we follow him.

Then one day, we leave.

To this day, we still talk about Bobi. We have dreams of having him hauled behind us in a Bob-vehicle. We see Bobi everywhere and we are reminded of him daily. When we eat a spinach pastry, or wild chestnuts. When we see an empty tin of pate. When we notice a twig sticking in our own hair. When we miss a third party to cuddle with. We miss him when we see a person with dreadlocks, although that’s rare in the Balkans.

We have thought through the possibility to tow him in his own little Bobi vehicle but how dangerous would that be? Cars passing us closely, imagine someone smashing into him? As a feral wild dog he might roam about. For all he know roads are his playground, or show concourse. Besides, who knows he want to be pulled away from Ohrid? He seemed to be a pretty content dog. But for us, he left a trace, a kind of paw shaped scar on our heart.

We were in Macedonia in September 2015, more details are here.

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