When Mary Cay the organizer asked via email if I would be singing and dancing with the group, I confessed my limitations. I explained how I’d stuffed up my knee last year and should be resting it, and I told her that although I’m “not entirely nonmusical,” I had not sung in a choir since I was about 14 – oh, except in a small group on a Navy ship when the director informed me, after our single performance on the helicopter deck, that I’d sung the soprano part instead of alto. “But,” she’d added ungraciously, “It was all right.”

I was apprehensive about joining in a choir, but I thought, as the Australians say about everything, “I’ll be roight.” I hoped the singers would be like my friends who sing – people who enjoy music once a week, perhaps in a church group, or with a few friends after some wine.

But on Wednesday the 29th June, at the youth hostel in Skopje, the participants began to arrive, and I realized that these were no mere amateurs out on a faux Sound of Music tour of the Balkans. Prue Berry, with whom I shared the joys of Shopske Salad, used to sing and play guitar professionally. She wasn’t a weekend gigger; she was a serious solo musician who made a living from her voice, for years.

Late that night, jetlagged and trying to work in the foyer on Atty’s master’s thesis (my edits were due at the end of the week), I met a chic, blonde woman with a snazzy haircut and a lot of energy, even at 11 pm after a day of travel. We started talking easily and I learnt that she got into leading groups to Morocco and beyond entirely by accident – and then when we spoke about music I found that she’s also an accidental choir director who has spent the last 10 years, she says, teaching herself how to conduct/manage/direct/facilitate her choir.

The way it began, as I remember, she had joined a women’s choir at her church, and at one of the early sessions she offered the group a song. She said it was “awful,” a real dead end of an effort – but as she was leaving after the rehearsal, a bunch of women approached her in the parking lot and said that the song she’d suggested was what they wanted to sing, and would she please organize it?  She did.

She could not have been more humble or self-deprecating in how she told the story – and she was funny as well, making it sound as if she was staying about half a step ahead of her choir for a decade. Her description of her process gave me encouragement, especially when she said that the choir begins every practice with singing a song called “You Are Welcome,” which expresses her attitude and that of the choir members to anyone who wants to join.

For instance, she said, one of the people in her choir some years back was a young woman who was in a terrible car accident and whose throat was badly damaged – it was not just that her voice was traumatized, but her throat was impaled on part of the car. Yet this woman had wanted to be a singer and continued to try. She came to an early performance with her guitar, and sang in her soft, scratchy voice through her scarred throat. She has since gone on to recover her voice and become a successful performer.

If I lived where Jane lives, I’d join her choir. After talking with her I was happy to know that at least two people – Jane and Prue – were glad to have me there, even if I was no singer.

On Thursday the 30th our group  got onto a big tour bus – one window of which was, embarrassingly to me, draped with an American flag – and went northeast to Berovo, a small town near the Bulgarian border. En route we passed more storks, and many farms, and many fields of sunflowers. Unlike the blossoms in the famous still  life by Van Gogh, these sunflowers weren’t droopy and effeminate – they were bold, living producers of food and hot yellow leaves, and they held their heads high. It happened to be cloudy  and the sun partially obscured as we passed the acres of fields. The flowers were facing all different directions, and Mary Cay observed that they were “confused” by the weather. They looked like a crowd of people all the same height, standing talking to one another.

After an hour or two our bus pulled up to the Hotel Manister, and a big commotion ensued from the entryway –  rhythmic drumming and then what sounded like trumpets – a four-person brass band was meeting us! Everyone on the bus clapped and laughed, and as we crowded into the courtyard where they were playing. It was loud and exuberant, and though their faces were serious over their instruments, we were delighted. I’ve been met by musical groups at resorts in Fiji and Bali, where I’ve felt embarrassed by the obvious, almost mechanical nature of the greetings, which are bestowed on everyone who arrives by paid musicians whose job it is to wait at hotel entryways and be culturally interesting. But this band truly welcomed us with sound and spirit.

Larry, one of the two founders and I think directors of Village Harmony, started a dance, and quickly there was a line of four or five people holding hands and moving in a slow, stately circle around the musicians. A cute, dark-haired woman was watching, and I asked her if she knew the dance – she said yes, I thought, but didn’t join in, so I joined it alone.

I remembered how to do the steps! It must have sunk in from when Joan’s band, I Solisti (Something) used to play for the Princeton contra dancers at The Place. I remember lines of amused and amusing partiers weaving through the narrow, low doorways and in and out of the living room, the back hallway, the kitchen, the dining room, and into the front and sometimes out the door. I must sometimes have joined in, because this time, some 30 years later, I was able to fall into step with this line of dancers, too. I was ecstatic…until the music sped up, at which point I couldn’t  keep up and took my exit from the line.

Still, it was an important moment of belonging and brief success. I’d thought that I would not dance on my injured knee, but as soon as I heard the music and felt the impulse, I danced – with all the great dancers and the teachers and the people who’ve been dancing to these songs for years. And for a few minutes, I did just fine.

Next time: The Pomegranate Knows No Fear (and other songs)