"Europe 2004-05" story # 46

Skopje, Macedonia           April 10, 2005

And the following morning, I woke up in the middle of nowhere.
     The family of the very tiny, old, round Croatian man with bad knees invited me in for breakfast. The man's daughter was cheery and big-boned; I don't know how she was the daughter of this very tiny man. Fortunately, you don't need to be able to speak with people to be able to eat their food. The daughter served me eggs, pickles, and fresh milk.
     Afterwards, I tried to get somewhere. I hitched a ride back to the expressway in Zoran's car. Zoran had the wrinkled, tired, forty-something face of someone who works too hard. He worked in Austria, which was where I thought he was from. But, he gave a wild, possessed chuckle when I said I was American. He was Bosnian-born - of SERBIAN descent. Uh, oh.
     Zoran liked me, though. Who wouldn't? He liked talking to me ... in German. He was a communist/socialist. He said most of the Yugoslavian republics had been better off before the war. He said capitalism creates bad ethics, bad morals.
     Well-said, Zoran. It's money which allows managers to treat Ukrainian Victor and other poor truck-drivers like oxen and never let them see their families. Money lures women into prostitution, jobs at strip clubs, jobs in pornography. The class system leads to theft. Capitalism encourages the manufacture of drugs, the existence of sweat-shops and child labor, pollution and habitat destruction, cigarette advertising, SUV's in cities, and war. Competitive and egocentric societies don't provide people with the love they need; resulting psychological problems lead to a further detioration of morals.
     I liked Zoran. Especially, I liked how his name sounded like an action figure's.
     A trucker from Slovenia helped me continue across Croatia. He was early-thirties Joze. He had a strong, carved face and a big smile. I liked him because he looked like my friend Jojo from Sweden. I've never seen anybody slouch in his car-seat so much.
     He spoke German to me, which is a bit like Swedish. (Eastern European adults can often speak German, Russian, Polish, and their native tongues.) He owned "Joe's Bar" in Slovenia, as well as his trucking company. He asked a lot of questions about how much money people make in the U.S. He liked Serbia very much; I think he liked its strip clubs.
     I was forced to walk on the expressway and thumb a ride after that. Two cars stopped for me, and there was no comprehension between me and the drivers. Then, while standing beside a toll booth, I got picked up by Bojana.
     She was young, female, pretty, and from a family with money: perhaps the first person of that character type to ever stop for me. She had skin like Alleola garlic butter (you gotta try it). She was little, in a little white car, with little black sun-glasses.
     She was Bosnian, on her way to study in Serbia. Her English was very good. She hopes to go to the U.S. this summer to work as a lifeguard on a beach. She's waiting to see if she gets the visa to be able to go. She said there are only four foreign countries that Bosnians can go to without visas.
     I wished her luck with the U.S. visa but said my country is indifferent and cruel with such matters. (Actually, a swear-word is the only correct way to express how my country is.)
     Bojana drove me into Serbia. I was a bit anxious to see if I didn't need a visa to enter Serbia. After all, why would they let me enter freely after my country bombed their's? But, no. I showed the U.S. passport and was ushered right in.
     Bojana left me at the border and drove off to see her boyfriend, "ratzac!" (That might've been Slavic for "rats!" ... but probably not.)
     All night, and all next morning, I tried to get rides from the Turkish and Bulgarian truckers. If I could've spoken German, I could've said more than, "Me ... auto-stop ... Bulgaria." None of them were convinced.
     I took a bus to Belgrad, a big city with a strange language, and I was totally confused. Very interested, but very confused. I quickly snagged another cheap bus to southern Serbia.
     Two observations about Serbia: 1. It's filthy. Garbage and piles of garbage go where they please, and they're taking over. Sheep grazed in one large pen where more plastic bags were visible than grass. and 2. It's the only place where the bus-driver gave me a beer for the ride. 2.5. Good beer.
     Back to the road. An off-duty policeman gave me a ride. He was secretive, like a policeman in "Dragnet." We visited a small town, while a mechanic looked at his car. The town's white-with-red-shutters houses climbed all over the hills like bugs on a dirty boy's head. I mean that in a nice way. The mechanic's wife brought us awful rum, and then somehow-even-more-horrible black coffee. I politely drank them.
     Finally, a young pilot called Bojan drove me to Macedonia. I didn't need a visa to enter Macedonia.
     Bojan explained in English the Balkan War. He said Croatia wanted to be free of Yugoslavia. Serbia said "no" and waged war on Croatia. The Serbs simultaneously fought Bosnia. Within Bosnia, some of the Bosnian Serbs wanted to stay with Serbia while the rest of the country wanted to break free. The Serbs lost the war. Croatia kicked many Serb residents out of Croatian land afterwards. Meanwhile, the Albanian mafia operates in Montenegro, which is in Serbia. The Albanian mafia supplies most of the world with drugs, Bojan said, and they need a state that will allow them to run their business.
     He and many called it a "dirty war," a war over money.
     He had been turned down for a U.S. visa in the past. He'd had an American girlfriend, an apartment he could stay at in New York, and people who would give him work. He didn't get the visa because he didn't have land or property in his name.
     He left me in Skopje, Macedonia, pop. 500,000. In the city's center, white stone sidewalk led beside a flushing river and over a pedestrian bridge. Beneath black night, it was romantic.
     I bought a ten-Euro ticket on the night train to Greece. There was time to check out the Monday Macedonian nightlife.
     The nightlife was in cafes. I went in one, ordered a hot chocolate buried in the sweetest fluffy whipped cream, and spoke with two black-haired girls. They thought it was cool I traveled.
     If they wanted to travel, they had a few options: Albania, Bulgaria, Serbia, and I think Bosnia. Otherwise, they needed visas. "It's a small world after all!"
     Macedonia is the shape of a gum-drop. Those twenty-three- and nineteen-year-old girls make one-hundred-and-fifty Euro's a month working in the cafe. To top it off, Greece hates them and angrily protests their name.
     I feel bad for poor Macedonia.
     On a separate note, the streets of Skopje scared me. I left a bar at one a.m. Gypsy kids were turning acrobatics and reportedly snatching people's valuables. When they surrounded me to beg for money, I put my hands in my pockets and ran.
     The next morning, Greece stamped my passport and admitted me to Greece. They didn't say anything about me staying nine months in the European Union already this year. I'm lucky I have the U.S. passport.

- Modern Oddyseus.

Thanks to Tom; Zoran; Joze; Bartola; two Croatian highway construction workers; Bojana; Politzai; and Bojan for the rides!

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