Before dusk on Monday the 27th I was ensconced in the very comfy three-star old Hotel Tourist, which was even nicer in person than in the website.

 

After being welcomed by twin brother receptionists (both very good looking and kind) and their bearded, scholarly-looking uncle who co-owns the hotel with the twin’s father. Or other uncle, or mother, or something.  Various cousins and great-aunts appeared during my check-in and were introduced as if I were a long-lost if rather simple-minded relative. It took me about 5 minutes to notice that the two young men checking me in and standing next to each other –one in a bright pink golf shirt and one in a hotel uniform — were rather similar of feature, and when I dopily asked if they were brothers, they said, “Twins!” in unison.

Later, having left my stuff in my cool, quiet room with the very low bed – which was about four times higher than it was wide, with a broad gold-leaf detail around the ceiling reminiscent of rooms in Parliament House – I took the precaution of asking one of the twins (Vassily?) how I might make my way to Skopje, Macedonia, in the next day or two.

He said there was a train, and he would be glad to look up the train schedule for me on his computer, which he attempted to do for about twenty minutes. I went out to buy some water, and when I came back Uncle was back, and he told me that a two-day strike had just been declared, and there would be no trains for at least 48 hours. And anyway, his nephew said, there were no trains from here to Skopje, although, he assured me, nodding hard, there had been two a day until quite recently.

“But I have to get to Macedonia!” I said, ignoring the obvious reality that my desire to arrive on time for the Village Harmony events did not literally merit my use of the modal “have to.” It was a linguistic nuance that they might miss, I thought, and I was right.

“Which Macedonia?” Uncle demanded, a preface to an impromptu patriotic speech regarding the impropriety of “them” calling their area by the rightful and historically accurate name of his hometown, the very area where we were standing. The large area to the north which of course was liberated (or was it colonized?) by Tito – “You know Tito!” he said, and I nodded as if I did, although I was thinking only of Desmond Tutu, who I believe actually has had relatively little influence in the Balkans – who or maybe it was someone else had done so much to unify (liberate?) the area, and good for them/him/it, but still anyway it should not be called Macedonia, or maybe possibly “North Macedonia” he could accept, but you can’t change history and they should not be building a 9-million (Euros? Dollars? Dinari?) statue of Alexander the Greek in Skopje, because he (Alexander, though also Uncle himself) was born near here, Macedonia, not in the faux Macedonia to the north!

After thanking Uncle for his enlightening and interesting address and agreeing that no, you can’t change history, certainly not, and using only the term “Skopje” for my intended destination, I inquired as to whether there might be a coach or bus from here to there, and if so whether it would be running during a general strike. Uncle and nephew #1 (the night shift nephew) agreed that it was impossible to know that now. Nephew #1 (wearing the pink golf shirt) looked online at the bus schedule, and he wrote out a list of all the buses that would run the next day, if they were running, and advised me to take the 10.30 a.m. bus. I asked him for a wake-up call at 9 a.m. so I could have breakfast (included! I didn’t want to miss that!) and a shower and not have to rush to the bus.

Meanwhile, Uncle called the bus station and got a recording saying that the bus company office was closed. He said it was a good sign that the recording did NOT say that the buses were NOT running the next day; on the other hand, it was likely that the recording had been made before the strike had been called, and so it was possible that the buses would not run. Both men assured me that I must ask nephew #2 to ring for me in the morning, to see if the buses were running.

If so, Uncle explained, it would be a simple matter of my taking a taxi to the bus station, then a bus to Polikastrano (near the Greek border), walking across the border through passport control, taking another taxi to the Macedonian border town of Yevyelli (he said, “They call it something else, but the name is Yevyelli,”)  and then hopping on a bus to Skopje. He wrote down a series of steps for me to follow, and printed it so that anyone I showed it to could guide me to my next form of transport/destination. I felt like a small child being given a nametag before a school outing, but I held onto that piece of paper carefully.

It says:

THESSALONIKI BUS

POLIKASTRO  TAXI

EUZONOI **********——————

TAXI (YELLOW)

GEVGELIJA (YEVYELLI)

BUS, TRAIN

SKOPJE

I took my niece’s recommendation and had some lovely Greek yogurt and some nice water for dinner and fell asleep.

Tell Laurie that I  took her recommendation and am eating lovely Greek yogurt for dinner. It’s very thick.

Having travelled for some 19 or so hours (far less time than it takes to get from California to Melbourne!), I went to bed and to sleep instantly, waking up only once about dawn, and going luxuriously back to sleep knowing I could rest until my 9 a.m. wakeup call.

When I woke up, my watch said 12.15, which seemed odd, but I figured it must be 12.15 in London or New Jersey or perhaps Melbourne. The breakfast room was deserted. Downstairs, I learned from Nephew #2 that my watch had the correct local time. I mentioned to him that I’d had a wake-up call for 9 a.m. which had not come, ho ho ho. He looked embarrassed and blamed his brother, which was fair enough. I asked him to please find out if the buses were running, which he did and they were. My little schedule from Nephew #1 said there was a 1 pm bus, so #2 said, “You will have to hurry.” I had a splash of a shower while he called a taxi for me, and he told the driver to drive like fury to the station so I could make the bus to Kilkis.

Went flying into the bus station upsetting round ladies in black and small children, gasped out a request for a ticket on the next bus to Kilkis and was surprised that the ticket-seller moved so slowly. She pointed to the platform and said I had 15 minutes – the bus was going at 1.15, not 1 pm as my schedule indicated. I was glad for the chance to catch my breath and make my next helpful friend, a woman who assured me that I could get a taxi near where the bus would let me off in Kilkis.

It was a long but very comfortable ride; I had my usual empty row of seats; there was air conditioning and no music or cigarette smoke, and I enjoyed peacefully looking out the window and dreaming of arriving on time in Skopje.

Sure enough, after being dropped off in Kilkis, it was an easy stroll (lugging my wheeled black bag) to the taxi stand. However, when I asked in my shrewdest negotiator voice how much it would cost to get to the border – Uncle had suggested it would be about 6 or 7 Euros – I was shocked to be told that it was about 45 Euros!  I thought that the drivers were treating me badly because I was American, and I indignantly showed them my scrap of paper. “At the hotel they told me it would be only 5 or 6 Euros,” I said, underestimating shrewdly.  The men I was talking to seemed gently surprised, and they scrutinized my piece of paper. Yes, I had taken the  taxi from the hotel and yes I’d taken the bus from Thessaloniki – but unfortunately it’d been the wrong bus.

Nephew #2, perhaps confused by my evident rush and the forgotten wake-up call, had not put me on the bus Uncle had recommended. Kilkis, where I was, was equidistant from Thessaloniki and Skopje. Polikistro waas much, much closer to the border – about 30 miles closer. Hence the difference in price.  I could, they offered, get a bus to Kilkis…

I dumped my black bag (containing all my clothing, my Australian passport and bank card and a wad of American cash, but I was very tired of carrying it and the taxi drivers seemed trustworthy) and walked back to the bus station, to find out that I had missed the last bus to Kilkis – it had departed around the time I’d been discussing it with the taxi drivers.

I paid the $35 Euro (shrewdly negotiated down from 45) fare to get a lift to the border, where every truck in the world was waiting in a solid, nonmoving line, and the few cars were stranded by the side of the trucks, drivers nowhere in sight. I walked past them with my little black bag and small backpack, feeling small and insignificant and stupid, like Dorothy before the Wizard of Oz.

Yet another taxi driver spotted me and asked where I was going. Very shortly my black bag was locked in his trunk and he was asking me to hand him my passport. Shrewdly, never one to make two incredibly stupid mistakes in a row, I said that I would myself take the passport to the border control. I did so, with my new best friend at my shoulder. One of the guards looked with some interest at my passport, assured me that the Macedonian (not Greek!) man was ….he didn’t know the word the driver was not bad.… “Honest?” I said, hopefully. “Honest!” the guard said. So I got in the honest man’s car and he drove me and me alone through the border, ahead of 1 billion large trucks and many cars, and even though he had no passport, he was somehow able to cross the border, and so was I.

The first thing I saw that was notable was a huge, messy nest atop a telephone pole or some such thing. There was a big white bird on it, and somehow I knew it was a stork.

The countryside was much greener than it had been in Greece, and hillier, but otherwise the villages looked about the same. The most singular feature of the Greek/Macedonian villages I have noticed is that virtually every single house is white. Why should this be so? It’s not that they’re all made of local stone or that there’s no color in the décor. I guess it’s just a Mediterrranean custom that has extended even to this landlocked I think country which I think it Macedonia.

The penultimate taxi driver of the day dropped me near the bus station in Yevyelli (the town that the locals insist on calling Gevgelija!) and I trundled Little Black Beast along the broken sidewalk, and then along the broken street, to the round building with the buses parked and the people smoking outside.

The bus station was orange. Inside, it was a round room featuring a ring of orange plastic chairs bolted to the floor in an outward-facing circle above a filthy gray broken floor. There were windows on all sides, many of them letting in fresh air and sunshine through their cracks and breaks, with cobwebs dancing in the breezes. There wsa a toilet available for 10 dinars, which was the filthiest and nastiest toilet I have ever been able to bring myself to actually use. It is not the nastiest one I’ve ever seen — there was one in China I could not even go into. There was a large schedule on one wall, all illegible to me, and a few bank-teller-like windows, with no one at them.

After some time, a man came in and helped me figure out that that next bus would leave in about four hours, so I had plenty of time to explore the surrounds of the bus station.  I dumped Little Black Beast on Wheels behind the counter, not really caring if I ever saw it again, and went to a cafe. I couldn’t read the menu, so I made a little drawing of a sort of generalized animal (part sheep, part cow, with nice round ears a bit like a rabbit) and put the international sign for NO across it — the red bar and circle, only mine was done in black ballpoint. I said “No meat” about 3 times to the waitress, and she came back with a plain cheese pizza, which was not as bad as most Australian pizza but still not very good.

A number of young women worked in the cafe, and they had a lot of free time to sit at a table near the kitchen and talk. One was complaining about something — probably something a man had done — in a the exact same tone and with the same inflection as my nieces use.  Like them in their petulant moods, she was pretty and pretty pissed off. She was frowning over piles of receipts, tapping at a small calculator, talking fast in an emphatic and excited way that was quite charming since I couldn’t understand the words. However I think I could tell what she was saying: She cannot do her JOB properly because of something or other that has happened which is NOT. HER. FAULT. She is vexed and impotent and lovely, with her long hair up in a messy bun-ponytailo and her young cleavage showing under a low-neck shirt, which she probably does not realize is so revealing. The papers are in terrible shape, she is saying to a waitress. It’s a shame, because she tries SO HARD to get it right and then he messes it all up! She makes that clicking sound with her tongue that I already know after one day in the area means something is really stuffed up. It’s the same sound my first taxi driver made in the mafia traffic.

I think the other two girls are sisters. They look alike and smile in the same way at a man who speaks kindly to them. Now the three girls are sorting and counting a container of beer (?) caps, yellow and red, into a couple of dishes.  As they work, the complaining girl berates one of the sisters mildly, explaining that if they do not put the yellow caps into the right place when they serve a beer, then the cafe cannot pay the right tax / get a refund on the bottles / reorder inventory. The waitress nods and says she will do better next time, don’t be mad.

I got to Skopje about dinnertime, and was immediately ripped off by the taxi driver who took me to the hostel, but the worst price he could wrest from me was only 200 dinars, about $4.25, and the actual fare should have been about $1,and I was so tired and triumphant I didn’t care.

When I went in the hostel, a big (white!) building about 500 metres from the train station, but which had taken us about 10 minutes to drive to, I guess so the taxi driver could justify his fare, I was quite impressed. It seemed spacious and gracious enough for whatever I’d be paying for each night – I couldn’t remember how much it was but I was looking forward to a shower and a bed. And then the hostel warden told me that I had no reservation.

Next time: A small shower, a great salad, and meeting the Village Harmonizers