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At 6 a.m. in the transfer terminal of Nadi Airport, in Fiji, I found a shower. The bathroom downstairs near the first-class lounges was unlocked, unattended, and unoccupied, so I helped myself to warm water and pink liquid hand soap. I had no towel with me (using only carry-on luggage for this 3-week trip to three countries, and feeling quite smug about it) but dried myself with my bathing suit and an old bra, the one I’d been wearing since leaving Florida, and in LA for a day, and on the overnight flight to Fiji.

It’s a relic, this bra — 10 years old, the cotton worn thin in places and worn out to holes in others, and useless as a supportive garment. I planned to wear it one last time on the first leg of this journey, where comfort mattered more than appearance, and then throw it away. It’s disposable clothing. But as I reached towards the trash can, meaning to drop in the soggy, stinky ball of material balled in my fist, I was stopped by seeing a scrap of red yarn.


That one inch of red, sewn with one stitch and then knotted in the elastic, was a remnant of my first trip to Bali in 2002. Ten years ago, newly emigrated to Australia and still not a citizen, I had to leave the country every 4 months to renew my visa. So I took a holiday to Bali with my Australian partner, Nicole. While staying at a casual beach-side resort, we’d taken our laundry to the strip of shops and cafes in the village, where we were relieved of our bundle and our chore by two young women. They inventoried, listed, marked with thread, washed, dried, folded our laundry and returned it with huge smiles and warm greetings to our hotel room the next day, wrapped in brown paper, for about $9. Each item was marked with a bit of bright red yarn, which we deduced was used to distinguish our laundry from other people’s in the washing machine.
The two weeks we were on that trip, we were also closing on the purchase of our first house, a condo in a Melbourne suburb. It was the first house either of us would own, and the beginning of our life together.    

A decade later nearly to the week, I’m dripping in a steamy windowless airport bathroom, trying to throw away the bra I wore on that trip. It’s worn out. I don’t need it anymore. I’m traveling lightly as I fly into Melbourne for what might be the last time. 
Nic and I sold our condo a year ago, and then, 6 days before we were due to leave on an extended trip to Europe, she broke up with me. All of our belongings except what we were taking on vacation were in storage for six months. I had no time and no ability to sort them and to figure what I would need for my life without her.

I went alone to Europe for four months, and then I went to Florida to live near my parents, and pretty early and often after we split up, Nic said she’d made a mistake in breaking up with me — I agreed — and she wanted to get back together. She said she’d meet me in Europe, but she didn’t, and then she said she’d meet me in Florida, but she didn’t, and now she has a new girlfriend. Our plans to reunite and repair and resume our relationship have gone from being on hold to being off.
 I am now going back to Melbourne and the storage unit, to sort out my stuff, doing what I didn’t have time to do last year. In the next 13 days I will examine, evaluate, touch and decide on every single item in a 10-cubic-metre storage unit, and each thing I will give away, sell, or ship to myself. There will be no more storage after I get on my return flight in 2 weeks’ time, and so, presumably, also there will be no question of my coming back.

I look at the small red knot, with frayed ends, against the dingy and sodden white cloth. I will not throw it out, yet. I want to show it to Nic, one more time.
We were amazed that our nine Australian dollars — about enough to pay for a suit to be dry-cleaned, at home — could buy such painstaking work from the two washer-women. The difference in pay for their labor and our own shocked us. On my hourly wage at that time, it would have taken me nine minutes to earn $9. It wasn’t that we felt we were underpaying them — that $9 would buy a lot more for them in Bali than it would for us in Oz. And our standards of living were probably not all that different, in terms of what we ate and were we lived and how we got around. If it took each of them, say, an hour to do our clothes, and that work earned them enough for a couple of days’ groceries, it was relatively similar to our earning potential.

But the work they did seemed different: their was manual labor while ours, ostensibly, was not. But Nic, a reference librarian, had to have a shoulder replacement from handling books, and I, a reporter in Parliament, had to take several months off work to have physical therapy for my left arm and hand, because of strain from typing. I wondered if the Balinese women got such injuries from their jobs, and if they did, if they got treatment.

The bit of yarn brought back all that reflection, that awareness of difference and similarity that is the heart of travel. It also brought back pleasant memories. I remember sitting on some low, shallow steps at the entry to a shop where Nic was buying postcards — for which she did not bargain, thus adding incrementally to the imbalance in prices paid by tourists — and one of the many slim, saronged women who were standing around the shop in their flip-flops, either working in the store or spending time with friends who worked there, started chatting to me. She, very short, was about on eye level with my head as I sat on the low step, with my knees up around my ears. Seeing my belly protruding between my legs, she said, in a friendly way, “You going to have baby?”
 Aghast, embarrassed, and laughing, I said, “No, I’m just fat.” All the ladies laughed, and so did Nic and I, though I sounded a little high-pitched.
Later on, another local, used to spotting tourists from different parts of the world, told Nic she looked as if she came from Stuttgart: we didn’t know if it was Nic’s auburn complexion, her sturdy build, or something else (her refusal to bargain?) that made them make that mistake, and we wondered which was worse: to be thought pregnant, or German.

 At a lush tropical spa, in a shady private outdoor courtyard with a waterfall for background music, Nic and I got a “couples massage” that included oils and creams and rubs and much lovely attention to various parts of our bodies. We shared a milk bath. We drank a strange, opaque, hot fruit-and-cereal beverage. The two slim, beautiful, long-limbed Balinese masseuses helped us shower off the salt scrub, as unselfconscious with us as if we’d been toddlers, not grown-up women and lovers.

 I have no other mementoes from that trip.


 I will be meeting Nic at Melbourne Airport in 12 hours, and soon after that I will throw away that bra.

 And then I have to sort out all the other stuff in storage. One way would be to select and save only things I can remember now, that is, the things I have actually missed in the year since i last saw them, to wit.:
    1)  My cookbooks. My bound, fluttering, pages-falling-out, heavy binder of my own collection of recipes, the Esalen cookbook, and my Cold Pasta paperback. My Calphalon omelette pan and soup pot. My Wusthof  knives.

    2) Canadian artist Jillian Tebbitt’s charcoal-and-ink paintings from her “threshold” series, each about five foot high, which were framed in beautiful silver-and-rust frames and which hung asymmetrically over our staircase in Melbourne. Also some portraits of me and my mother drawn by my late friend Richard Illsley.
    3) The wardrobe. It’s the only piece of furniture I shipped out to Oz in 2001, and the only one I care about. About 150 years old, it’s either French or English, and I got it when we moved into an old house in England when I was 16 — it had been left behind by the previous, French, owners, who must have been either very sad to let it go, or crazy. It’s a medium-dark wood, inlaid with lighter pieces in irregular, soft shapes, like bows and ribbons with long curling ends cascading down the sides of the bevelled mirror. The ribbon-ends are tapered, flowing and symmetrical, the opposite of the chewed-looking torn off yarn ribbon on my bra — and I have never seen any inlay so beautiful and unusual. 

It would cost me at least $1000 to ship it to the USA. I could get perhaps that much, or perhaps much less, if I sold it to an auction house. I have no job and no regular income beyond a modest amount from the proceeds of the sale of my house. It’s the only piece of furniture I own or care about. It’s beautiful. There are other beautiful wardrobes in the world; the world is full of lovely things that other people have had to give up or sell when they’ve moved, and i could buy one with the money I got from selling this one. None of the other beautiful pieces were part of my life when I was 16. It’s only furniture. It’s the only furniture I own.

If I can’t decide what to do with that wardrobe, and if I can’t bear to throw out a wet, twelve-year-old undergarment that no longer serves its purpose, how can I give up on my relationship — a civil union, and essentially a marriage — of twelve years? I can’t imagine how I will do this.

All I know is that it’s related: how I make decisions on the stuff in the storage locker is related to, and affects, and is affected by, how I make decisions in my heart.  But right now, I don’t know how I will manage either one.

Many of you have written asking various forms of the title question (“Where have I been?”) in varying degrees of irritation /bemusement / relief when you did not receive any Blogodonia posts after late September. Well, I was all over the place, to wit, viz,  after leaving Europe in late September, I went back to Florida via stops in New Jersey with Paul; Philly with Miho; Sy, Norma, Tim, Krista, and Heather (and kids) in Chapel Hill;  and Alabama with Leslie. Then, between October to May I was in England (twice) on press trips, and in between  I was changing my abode in Florida frequently. Such fun is living out of a suitcase, re-usable green bags, and the back of my niece’s old Honda, that I’ve started a new game. It’s called “Where’s Jill?” or in the vernacular, “Where the bloody hell is she now?”

Today’s “Where’s Jill?” quiz offers three hints: 1) It’s a major international airport. 2) It’s called the mile-high city. 3) I am en route from TPA (Tampa, Florida) to LAX (Los Angeles, California). I have nostalgic feelings about this airport from the early 1980s, when I discovered the “chapel” on the second floor and spent a peaceful afternoon between flights, sleeping on a red-cushioned pew, in total solitude. Those were of course the pre-Home Security days, when you could be free of human company and surveillance in an airport as long as you were seeking out the  presence of The Divine.

Today, though, I’ve found a new area of the airport to enjoy. It’s unusual  in that it is not crowded on a Saturday afternoon, and there are plenty of seats, although sadly not the kind one can lie down across. Still, even with ample seating downstairs, I noticed the green grass above me: the upper realms of the hangar-like terminal were unoccupied, so I took the escalator up to a huge, open area of which one tiny room off to one side is apparently an employee break room.  Now I have to myself a space roughly the size of a huge penthouse, with at least 20 seats all available to me, and a view of the concourse and the gate below, and NO ONE else is here!

I came up here hoping to nap, but I’ve turned into one of those sad people you see at airports, surrounded by computer equipment and hunched over a couple of small screens while holding a phone. I am using my phone, my Kindle, and my netbook, and the best way to access them all while remaining within reach of the electrical outlet is for me to sit on the dusty, dirty carpet. So I am.

I am en route to Melbourne, Australia, on a journey that will last about 4 days — I left Florida on Saturday and will arrive Melbourne I hope Tuesday night, and even including the loss of 24 hours due to the International Dateline, it’s still a big trip. I am spending Saturday night with my Scottish friend Vicky, who lives in LA, and whom I haven’t seen in about 2 years, which will be great fun, but the rest of the journey between hemispheres is not going to be nearly as  pleasant as it will be to drink G&Ts with her and chat and enjoy her Scottish accent and British sense of humor.

The purpose of my trip is complicated (no kidding) but in short, I am Tying Up Loose Ends, at least logistically, and thus untangling a bit of Nicole’s and my knotty domestic lives, even as we see how the threads will run together in future (to prolong a metaphor past its useful life).

Consequently, I am going to be touching and sorting the 99% of my worldly possessions that are in storage in Melbourne, and thus in transit I am traveling (or travelling, for  British readers) lightly, carrying only electronic items and their impressively long and thick cords, drugs (Valium and antidepressants), and tampons (there’s a reason there’s a brand called ‘Always’). Having so few items with me, I feel it important to keep everything charged up at all times, so I’m now alternating the alternating current source to my three best friends: Kindle, red HP, and Tracfone.

I bought the Kindle last January before my first long flight this year to England, and have subsequently used it only on long flights, so I don’t know it very well. I have only one book on it, David Foster Wallace’s INFINITE JEST, and in my fifth month of purchase I’m still only 8% of the way through it (note: this is not quite as feeble an effort as it sounds: the book in standard print is nearly 2000 pages).

Having a few hours to kill here in the mystery airport, I decided to see if I could access my email on my Kindle, and I found that yes, with only about 2 solid minutes of clicking, tapping, and smearing my finger across the tiny touch-screen, I could in fact get gmail up, albeit in a font best suited to small insects. Still I could read a message from Nic, having a wonderful time in Hobart, and I could write back — oh, wait, I could hit Reply and get a blank space to write back — but no, I couldn’t write. There was no keyboard , no matter how many times I tapped the touchscreen, mimicked the motion of typing letters on it, swore, or fiddled with the mysterioussettings or pressed promising-looking icons. I even turned the screen horizontal, hoping a keyboard would fall into place, but none appeared.

So I switched to my netbook to write back to Nic, but left my Kindle on to charge. It was at 92% when I put it down — plugged into the wall socket — and a minute later when I checked the storage again, it said 91%.  At that rate I’d be flat within an hour and a half, so I’ve stopped checking it and hope it will charge itself.

Meanwhile, the owners of a baby that has been crying through my entire trip have ascended the escalators into this area which I was starting to think of as my private study. Incredibly, this child and its misery have been my companions since we were seated in the waiting area at Tampa. Now, at least 1000 miles distant (clue #4!) and 7 hours later, I am still within hearing range of this baby, whose sobs are not just sad or angry like most babies’, but a kind of choking, wracking cry that makes me want to put it out of its misery.

It’s times like these — and they come often — that I am once again proud and glad not to have had children. I feel sorry for these parents, but I also wonder what they were thinking; they already have two other perfectly good children, trundling around them like moons, never straying far from the center of diaper bags, carry-on strollers, and parental authority and snacks — did they (the parents) really think a third one was a good idea? And if they did, couldn’t they keep it to themselves and not allow its wailing disjointed cries in the public world of airports, where there are stressed and under-resourced travel writers trying to calm and corral their own important charges?

I am going, as I said, to Melbourne, to sort out my life’s possessions. I will have 13 days and 14 nights there, to organize the storage, giving-away, sale, tossing-out, and shipping of a decade’s worth of personal items. I have completed only 1 of the 5 flights I will need to get there, and already I’m on the verge of infanticide. I’d better go get something to eat. Where the bloody hell am I?

This morning I was woken in my cave-room (the Old Treasury) for the second day in a row by the system I’d requested here at Sacred House (just look at this place – I don’t yet have the wherewithal/time to describe it — is the link to the hotel, and a short video is available — just ask and I’ll email it to you, as I can’t yet work out how to post it here.)

In this place, Sacred House, amongst other blessings, there are no phones or clocks in the rooms. At 8 a.m. the staffperson on duty knocked on my door until I shouted “Hello!” from my (gargantuan, and far-away-from-the-door) bed. Ten minutes later, he returned with a glass (not a cup) of strong black tea and a (real) silver sugar bowl (with real sugar in it). This arrangement is infinitely superior to my usual system of hitting the snooze button every ten minutes for an hour and a half, trying to bribe myself to get up with promises of making myself something to eat.

In the interim, between the first and second wake-up knock, I got dressed and searched for some tip money for my dear wake-up-person, whose face I had not yet seen. I opened my wallet and found about 6 bills. One was for 20,000, one was for 5,000, and four were for 50. Well, I didn’t feel I could give anything as small as 50, but neither could I afford to give 5000 Turkish lire. I had not yet learnt the conversion rate, but I thought about 200 would be a decent tip for tea and wake-up. Not having a 200-lire note, I decided to give the guy 3 of my four small pink bills, which were for 50 each. I hesitated, because I didn’t want to insult him by giving him the equivalent of 3 quarters. On the other hand, a small tip is better than no tip at all. And that way I’d still have one 50 note in case I needed to use the loo or something on my day’s tour of Cappadocia.

And I felt sure that I was right about a small tip being better than none when I handed the man who brought my tea the 3 bills. He looked surprised – maybe because I neglected to tip yesterday morning – and said thank you in two languages, making me glad I’d bothered to give him even that paltry amount.

About my tour of Cappadocia I can’t even begin to write yet – I need a whole new vocabulary and syntax, plus a more time – but I did buy a bunch of postcards to show some friends and family some of the amazing scenery. I also took about 400 photos — here’s just one:

The postcards (which, my guide assured me, I was buying from the very best place) were 10 for “1,5” according to the sign. I didn’t know if that meant 1,500 of something or 1.5 of something  or something else, so I handed over one of my large notes, apologetically, feeling bad because I’d be surely getting all the post-card-seller’s change. He shook his head sadly, and I took the note back and looked for something smaller.

“Is not Turkish,” my guide said, looking over my shoulder. He examined the big note and gave me to understand that I had tried to pay for my postcards of Cappadocia with Hungarian florins.  Oh, I thought. I hadn’t realized that I still had any Hungarian notes.

That is Turkish,” the guide said, pointing to my one small pink note.

“But it’s not enough,” I said, wondering if I could use my Visa card to buy postcards.

“It’s enough to buy many,” my guide corrected me. I handed over the money and received a lot of notes and some coins: 48.5 lire. “Can buy 1000 postcards,” the guide murmured. I didn’t want 1000 postcards, and I wondered if I’d have enough to buy a lemonade. Turned out I did – a lemonade was only 2 lire. I still had 46.5 left…

…but that was the end of my Turkish money, because I’d given away 150 lire to the tea-man. This seemed regrettable, but I had no idea how much money I’d actually paid in that tip, and anyway we were moving on to another fascinating stop.

After my tour guide departed, the driver took me, at my request I think, to a carpet and handicrafts co-op. Anyone who knows me (or knows my mother or knew her mother) knows that I love rugs, so my visit to this co-op was not entirely for research purposes. I had decided that if I saw a rug I loved, I would invest some of my savings into it, with the idea that someday in future I would again have a) a job, to replenish said savings and b) a place to lay the rug.

Thecarpet factory was the nicest co-op I’ve seen (not that I’ve seen many, but I visited a few in Bali and maybe Thailand). It was in the middle of a long, one-storey, new building, and it comprised many well lit rooms with an healthy cubic-metre of-breathable-air-to-human-being ratio. In each of the front rooms, two or three master weavers / teachers were working at looms, with plenty of light and room (and plenty of rights and looms, too) and, I was assured by the salesman, frequent breaks. These women are the experts who not only weave the best carpets in, apparently, you know, the factory, the city, the area, the country, and the whole world, but also they are teachers of the women of their own home villages, training the stay-at-home workers (all women) how to make carpets for sale, creating cottage industries that allow thousands of women to support their families.

The whole place seemed legitimate, and the employees unoppressed (apart from the fact that they apparently are required to wear bright pink shirts), and my tour guide had mentioned to me that it was government-supported enterprise, designed to pay fair wages to local women to prevent families from having to leave the area – and, oh yes, to make sure the carpet-weaving skills were handed down to the next generations. Income production for the government was, I was given to understand, a secondary consideration to ethical living standards for the poor people of Cappadocia and humane, sustainable forms of development.

I watched the women working for quite a while and took photos. One of them slowed down so I could get a photo of her hands doing one of the 10,000,000,000,000,000 knots in her current project. She was holding a sharp knife in one hand with which she cut off the thread after each knot. This seemed inefficient to me but my opinion has not been requested in the last few thousand years of carpet making in this region, and the result of her cutting was a lovely bowl of silk threads under her loom.

The English-speaking carpet salesman walked me through the workshop and the dyeing area, talking continuously about the history of the weaves and the dyes and the women and the designs and the area. He didn’t really like me taking photos but he allowed me to when I explained that I was a journalist – a handy glorified term for “freelance and thus impoverished travel writer” on assignment for a US magazine. He asked me if it was Architectural Digest and I had to admit it was not. The one I was working for is not so widely known in Turkey as the one that had awarded his carpet company the “carpet of the year” design award.

By the third or fourth or fifth roomful of rugs and auditory information I was ready to hear some prices, at which moment, conveniently, we happened to be entering the very showroom where the display carpets were kept. What timing! Of course there was no obligation to buy and could he offer me some Turkish hospitality?

He could. It was about 42 C. outside and I’d been scrabbling around cliff faces and in caves. I asked for water rather than coffee or tea, and in seconds I was offered a chilled bottle and a glass, on a (real) silver tray, by a woman dressed in some kind of costume  I couldn’t even really see, let alone classify.

She left and the two young men in the showroom began to haul out carpets and kilims in a practiced order. First I was shown the crudest and simplest of pieces, a nice small widely woven kilim in yellow and red. And then I quickly was shown better, more dense examples of similar techniques. The whole time, the salesman – who was wearing a bright pink shirt that made him stand out from the rugs – kept hammering the essential points that were vital to my appreciation of Turkish carpentry —  matters about single and double knots, about how long it would take “one lady” to make each rug, about the quality of the materials, the nature of the dyes used, and the origin of the design. He knew all those details and more about every single rug in the showroom and beyond – he’d been selling rugs there for 26 years.

I liked him and found his patter informative, but I had to laugh when he motioned one of the young men not to unfurl the carpet until the exact moment when he cued him. Although I don’t understand Turkish, it was clear that he was admonishing the young man for starting to show me the carpet before I had been properly advised as to its fine qualities and unique design features. I laughed, the boy holding the rug laughed, and the salesman laughed.

The technique was simple (for me, the buyer) and less individualized than that in the Chinese shop where I bought my last significant rugs. The salesman simply produced more and more carpets of better and better quality and higher and higher price, starting with the kilim for $150 US and going up to those that cost as much as my most expensive car, and then further.

Naturally the system worked. Not for nothing had my new friend been selling carpets for 26 years, and not for a penny under what the customer was prepared to spend, either. He knew my limit, I think, because I’d asked him earlier if he had anything in the $500 range, expecting a “no.” I was literally dizzy after half an hour of seeing carpets unrolled – and sometimes  FLIPPED from end to end in midair, to show me the different nap in different lights, which produced astonishing differences in color. Every time one of the young men flipped a carpet like that, I’d laugh and sometimes applaud at their skill. It made a carpet that seemed white turn green; it changed a background from indigo to rose. I don’t know how they did it, but it was fast, like sleight of hand

I was not just overwhelmed and tired but physically dizzy as if I’d been on a roller coaster. I think it was the heat and the dehydration; I felt ill and all I was doing was sitting down and looking. Feeling sympathetic for the young men doing all the work, I asked the salesman to stop, because I didn’t want to exhaust the poor boys for nothing. He said okay, then showed me two dozen more of the great carpets, including one silk number for $240,000, which he assured me he was having shown to me for my “eyes’ pleasure only.” He could say that again.

He then said that they would start rolling up the carpets again and putting them away, but if there was any one I wanted to ask the price of, I could do so.

I am pretty sure that he knew which ones I wanted, because they were not rolled up as fast as the others. Or maybe I wanted almost all of them, but he left out the ones in my range. The one I thought might be possible, and the colors of which appealed (dark red and dark blue), was a local design from Cappadocia — the very place I’d just been visiting!! and it signified world harmony, in that it had mosques and houses next to each other (neither one bombed out or graffitti-scarred) around the border.  This excellent piece was, he calculated, flourishing a calculator — $687.50 US, rounded down to $680. That included my 13% discount for using Visa or Mastercard, and shipping. To the USA.

Shrewd and experienced bargainer that I am, I walked away. Or, actually, I crawled away. Between wanting to accept the salesman’s invitation to touch and see the carpets close up, and not wanting to put the bottom of my shoe on the new carpets, and what with being dizzy and very hot and very covetous of these carpets, I’d been virtually sprawled atop the piles of carpets, moving on hands and knees rather than put  sneaker on them, and eventually pretty much just lolling on top of the best silk ones, petting them in ecstasy. But when he said $650 was the final price, I sat up, shrugged dramatically and said it was just too high. I crawled back to my water glass, drank from it, and tried to look resigned.

Well. Madam. He could not possibly offer me a lower price. Not for such a fine carpet as the one I’d chosen.

Well. Sir.  He should know that I was not a rich American. I was a writer, working my way around his country.

He laughed softly. “At which motel are you staying?” he asked.

This was a bad turn. I am staying at the best hotel in the most exclusive town in Cappadocia, the Sacred House. I don’t even know what the room rate, is but I’m guessing it’s at least a couple of silk runners per night. I am sure that most of the visitors who come to the co-op from the Sacred House do not ask for deep discounts.

“I’m a guest of the manager,” I said, wondering if his English would allow him to appreciate the nuance of the word “guest” that meant, “non-paying.” In case it was not, I added, “I am a travel writer, and I am writing about the place. They have me stay there so I can write about  it.” And then Allah intervened and sent me an idea. “If you give me a carpet I will write about your co-op, too.”

Technically of course I don’t yet have an assignment to write a feature about the carpet co-op, but who was I to interfere with divine inspiration? The carpet dealer laughed but he seemed interested in the possibilities for promotion. Or maybe he was just pulling the usual car/pet-salesperson stunt, but he went off to consult a higher authority, leaving me with the two boys still rolling up rugs. They understood enough English that they were laughing at my suggestion, but in a nice way. I felt they were on my side since I’d made everyone laugh at the salesman’s dramatic techniques.

The higher authority turned out to be the manager or director or something of the carpet co-op, a stately and patriarchal looking man with a big belly, a gray furry head, and Sultan-like stature. When he walked in to meet me, one of the boys happened to be holding up a rug similar to the one I really wanted, and not realizing it was not my rug, we all three negotiated the deal while looking at that one.

The salesman told the Sultan, in English, as if for the first time, that he’d offered me the rug for $650. “Will you tell him your final price?” the salesman asked me, with the flair of an actor handing over a scene.

“Five hundred,” I said. I was sure there’d be a counter offer, perhaps $600, and I’d take it, but to my surprise the manager said yes. I said “Hum-del-Allah!” the way I learnt in Egypt, and he gave me a big smile and a polite one-armed hug and we were all delighted, especially me since I’d been prepared to pay even more than I was paying.

I signed the back of the rug (so they can’t swap it for an inferior one in the shipping), signed away my first-born child and rights to all future publications, and I was done. The rug should arrive at my parents’ house in matter of weeks.

On the way back to the hotel, I calculated the total cost of the rug – it was $500 plus whatever sum I’d given away as a tip that morning. I decided that I was not going to ask for the tip-money back; it was my own stupid fault for being too lazy to work out the exchange rate. I’d given the tea-man all my money for my time in Turkey, so I’d just have to economize later. No food for a few weeks should help me lose weight anyway.

Later, back in the cool sanctuary of Sacred House, I was greeted by the lovely manager, Ecce, who introduced me to her husband, the man who has designed this incredible hotel, and I showed them the photo of my new rug. I asked their opinions about the price and was relieved when they put it at $1000 or $900 US.  Ecce’s husband, Turan, mentioned that he knew the design — it is local, Cappadocian — and I mentioned to him that it symbolized global harmony, with churches and mosques next to each other — kind of like his idea for Sacred House hotel, which doesn’t glorify any one religion but showcases the most beautiful aspects of many faiths and religious art forms.

I then remembered my question about money then. “Can you tell me about the exchange rate?” I said. “I think I made a mistake earlier.”

Ecce laughed a little.  “I think I know what you mean,” she said. “I meant to speak to you about that later.” She has a soft voice and a lovely gracious nature – daughter of a diplomat, raised in Russia and Switzerland and Germany – and she somehow did not add to  my embarrassment or shame as she explained that when the tea-man had given the money in this morning (as the staff do with all tips) she had thought maybe I’d been confused, as I’d tipped him US $135.00.

“What did you mean to give him?” she asked, and I said I’d wanted to give a nice tip, maybe $10. She very kindly said she’d talk to me later and that such confusion happened often – I’m sure in truth I’m the only person to make such a stupid mistake, but she was amazingly gracious.

Ten minutes later, as I was back in my cool cave, another staff member knocked on my door and handed me a stack of bills – about 135 lire. I now can buy food for the rest of my time in Turkey. Shrewd bargainer that I am, I’m doomed not to lose any weight here…but I do have a lovely carpet to remind me of the importance of conversion rates and the hospitality, generosity, and graciousness of the managers and staff of Sacred House…and, you know, the factory, the city, the area, the country, and the whole world.

My flight itinerary from Budapest to Navsehir (in Cappadocia) indicated a comfortable layover in Istanbul. I got in about 2 pm, and my next flight on Turkish Airlines left at 5.45 pm. It was plenty of time to make the connection and maybe grab some Internet as well.

The flight from Istanbul was exemplary. No wonder Turkish Airlines was named European Airline of the Year. They offer about 9 different special meals, including Indian (Jain) vegetarian, Oriental vegetarian, ovo-lacto vegetarian, vegan, Kosher, and “special celebration” with cake.

The food was good and the service better. One of the smiling attendants, who all seemed to enjoy their work, taught me how to say “Thank you” in Turkish – it sounds like “Tea shay cur idiom,” or so I thought after many practices with the smiling, head-scared woman. She helped me again when the pilot announced that anyone on the flight who was going to a destination without customs offices must get their bags in Istanbul, clear customs, and check the bags back in. I was hopping that I would not have to do this – my bag is relatively heavy since the nuns gave me a lovely rug-runner – so I wanted to make sure my destination – NAV, or Lavisher airport, would allow me to clear customs. I The lovely air hostess looked all through the online magazine for me until she found the tiny print that indicated, clearly if minutely, that NAV had customs facilities. Therefore, she assured me, I would not need to collect my bag in Istanbul but could proceed with confidence and without luggage to the domestic terminal for my ongoing flight.

And so I did, stopping once at the airport drugstore to obtain those feminine hygiene products for which in this, my 50th year, my need is always unpredictable and never convenient.  I then cleared security, located my gate (102) and took a seat at a relatively charming café with wireless internet (a.k.a. wifi, pronounced “veefee” in the Balkans).

I ordered water and salad (my staples when they are safe and available; otherwise it’s pizza and sour-cherry juice or elderberry lemonade) and whipped out my notebook and plugged it in, using my recently remodified and newly cumbersome adaptor, now featuring a second adaptor plug on top of the first worldwide adaptor that is the receptacle for the original AC power cord from the computer. In less than five minutes, I managed to get it all rigged up and plugged in; the battery was charging by the time my food arrived.

It took about 7 tries, and the assistance of more than one waiter, but I did eventually get a viable connection to the Internet, and went immediately to Gmail to tell the relevant rellos in London know that I’d booked a flight for the UK on August 7th, just in time to make it to a family get-together at Jean and Ray’s house.

I wasn’t smug, but I was feeling good. I was very excited about my stay in Cappadocia, then the Bodrum Peninsula, and then my trip to Istanbul, none of which had been even a serious consideration (and two of which I’d never heard of) until last Friday afternoon when JETSETTER offered some assignments in Turkey. I bought my plane tickets yesterday, in Istanbul, and got an astonishingly cheap fare. I knew I was going to be treated well (by which I mean, indulged and catered to) by the PR/marketing people at Sacred House (just look –you’ll see why I was eager to get there and indeed there was an email from the manager giving me the itinerary, starting with dinner or my arrival and a balloon flight starting at 4.30 a.m. the next day!

So, sitting with my salad and my Gmail on a soft seat in a clean café with a sanitary bathroom nearby, I felt that the hard part of my trip – including more than two and a half days on buses from southern Macedonia to Budapest – was over, and I could relax and enjoy the sumptuousness of five-star resorts and the wonders of Turkish nature.  I ate my salad (featuring great cherry tomatoes and some kind of small red dried pepper thing, plus fried cheese and roasted eggplant) and sent emails. When my watch said 5 pm, I put my water bottle away,  packed up the notebook, paid the bill and headed to my gate for an early check in.  The flight was at 5.45 and the gate within a hundred meters.

En passant, I checked the departures board to make sure that the gate had not changed again, and was startled to see that the first flight listed was for 1800 – 6 p.m. And, oddly, it was “closed.” Abruptly I realized that the 6 pm flight had closed because it was, in fact, in Istanbul, 6 p.m., Istanbul being one hour ahead of Budapest time.

The words, “I’ve missed my flight” flashed in large black block letters across my brain and I quickly moved through the 4 of the famous Kubler-Ross’s 5 stages of mourning: denial, anger, bargaining, sorrow, and then, instead of acceptance, panic. I shouted at myself internally for being stupid, and my throat got clogged with held-back tears.

I accosted the first uniformed person I saw and begged him to call the gate and hold the flight. “It is closed,” he said. Well, I knew it was closed: it was supposed to have gone 15 minutes ago. The point was, I wanted him to find out if the flight was still on the ground and if it could be re-opened to permit me to board, but he directed me away from him – the first of a long series of people to do so for the next several hours —  and told me I must ask at the Turkish Airlines counter.

The counters were not in sight, but I ran (on my bad knee, remember, which I am supposed to be RESTING) in the direction of his pointing arm, and then stopped another blue-uniformed person and begged for help. She told me I must go to one of the Turkish Airlines desks, which, as she indicated, were behind a formidable glass partition on the other side of a one-way security checkpoint through which people were exiting, coming towards me.  “But how do I get there?” I wailed.
“You must talk to the security,” she said. Well, I thought I was talking to the security, but she waved towards the far end of the barriers, about 40 feet away from her and conveniently out of hearing range. I ran there, hoping I might still find someone to hold the flight for me, but there was no way through the checkpoint. I turned back the other way I’d come, dashed past the woman (who avoided eye contact) and, at the far end of the checkpoints, I saw a small guarded gate with perhaps a security guard there. I don’t know why the woman had pointed me in the opposite direction; probably it was to get me away from her.

Going through the security gate were a youngish man and a woman, obviously a couple traveling together. As the guard was checking the husband’s pass or papers, I slid into place behind him, at the same time that the wife went through the open gate, unnoticed by the guard. The man passed through and the guard looked at me, and at the other woman, confused. Maybe the guard thought the man had two wives, one conventional and one a fat, panting, middle-aged American hippie. I held up my boarding pass as if I too had authority to pass the wrong way into a secure area, and the guard looked away and let me in.

I dashed to the closest TA desk, and said to the woman working there, “I’ve missed my flight.” I wasn’t intending to cry, but my voice broke on the last word and I didn’t stop myself. The only thing I know about relating to customer-service personnel is that it’s a good idea to emulate their own facial expression and affect as soon as they set eyes on you – that way they feel identification with you and are more likely to help. I learnt this from someone who taught salespeople, and I’ve found it enormously helpful in the past, but I was too distraught to try to mirror the woman in front of me, and besides, I thought crying might help.

She looked into my wet eyes, astonished and not unsympathetically, shook her head and said I had to go to a Turkish Airlines desk, over there. She pointed behind her. Well, I knew for sure that I was at a Turkish Airlines desk  — the row behind her was identical to the row she was sitting in – and I was hesitant to move again when I had a sympathetic person paying attention to me. “Which one?” I said.

“Safari mmurgruh,” she said, once or twice. Like a lot of Turkish and Macedonian people she seemed to think that repeating words I didn’t understand, and saying them more loudly, would help me realize their meaning. I squinted and did not move. Then she pointed to the top of her little booth and said “N. Supervisor.”  Her own booth had a “G” or something over it, and so I realized that she was trying to help by directing me to another letter of the alphabet, presumably a more important booth.

Running towards the second row, I didn’t see any Ns anywhere. But I did see another TA official and asked him where the supervisor was. He pointed to another booth – I think it was a letter ‘J’ or something – and opened the special dividing rope that marked it off from the general TA queuing areas.

I stood panting and impatient while the three people under the J all spoke desultorily and thoughtfully to the couple ahead of me in line. I couldn’t understand and therefore deemed unimportant the conversation they were having, and I found myself becoming very bad company, a very ugly American indeed at least inside my head.

And so came one of the great lessons of the trip so far. At the worst moment of the last 2 months, I found myself thinking horrible things about not only the inhabitants of booth S but all the employees of Turkish Airlines,  about Turks in general and in fact all of humanity myself included. I reminded myself of the contemptible American men (GIs I bet, on leave from Kosovo) I’d seen a few days before in a train station in Belgrade, swearing and abusing the poor harassed ticket-seller in juvenile and obscene and unimaginative terms. I’d wanted then to turn to them and say something like, “It’s people like you who make me ashamed to be American,” but at this point, at booth S, it was ME who was making me ashamed to be American.

I tried to improve my state of mind. In Be Here Now, Ram Dass says that if you don’t like where you are, change your head. He also says, as the title implies, that the best way to change your state of mind is to be fully aware in the present moment in whatever circumstances you find yourself. Although I’ve found the words “Be here now” useful since I was 14 years old, and although I’ve joked with friends about our ability to be, say, about a mile away right now, or here last week, I had never before really considered the verb in that sentence: BE.

So I tried to bring my full attention and awareness to the claustrophobic little roped-in section of airport where the couple ahead of me were still conferring at length with all available staff about their own all-absorbing crisis. I thought about how Sy (Safransky) would handle that moment – this is the SUN devotee’s version of “What would Jesus Do?”.  And I thought of Sy’s essay where he spoke about praying after his daughter’s car crash – how he prayed not only for grace but also “to keep his heart open.” I took a few conscious breaths and I became aware of a section of my chest loosening a bit. I put down my carry-on bag. I thought about how probably the worst thing that would happen would be a night in Istanbul or in the airport and a flight the following morning. A loss, yes, of a comped night at a boutique resort and the balloon ride of a lifetime, but hardly a tragedy. In a few breaths, I felt calm and then, to my surprise, a little happy.

Next time: But the panic comes back

Today I have a guest blog from Bonnie Kraft, whose fantastic  too-brief solo on “Where Shall I Be?” every time gave me shivers on my arms and a lift inside my chest. The way she sang showed me how singing should be done.  Read her account of the Villlage Harmony trip, below:

The Wild and Crazy Adventures of a Traveling Quartet

Once upon a time there were four super singers (Bonnie, Gill, Robin and Fric) from New Hampshire and Vermont who took a very long and exciting trip to the marvelous country of Macedonia…

It was a beautiful New England summer day in late June when the four departed for their appointed rendezvous at Logan Airport for the first leg of their journey on United Airlines…Mysteriously this flight never actually occurred, and thus became the catapult for the cascade of adventures which followed with a layover in Boston, including a mouthwatering Ethiopian dinner at the Habsha Restaurant in Malden, MA, a tantalizing subway ride to view the amazing and colorful glass sculpture of an one-eyed artist, Dale Chihuly, and the new flight itinerary to Sofia, Bulgaria allowing for a delicious fruit and muesli breakfast at the Goethe Bar in Frankfort, the meeting of a famous Macedonian opera singer, and a perilous drive through Bulgaria under the hands of the good and faithful  Macedonian taxi-driver (movie star and wine smuggler) and soon to be loyal friend…Bronco of Berovo.  The quartet quickly developed a fluency with the important phases of Macedonian language…”Di mi Skopsko ve molem!” and “Fantastichno!”…..

With their arrival at the Hotel Monastir in Berovo, Macedonia, the adventure continued…Over hill and dale, the super singers wandered and explored breathtakingly beautiful country side, learning to speak unspeakable words, singing songs of mysterious Macedonian rhythms with the intoxicating sounds of accordian, tupan, tambura and kaval, and were initiated the ways of complex dances with special handholds and hidden codes of hops, skips, and kicks…”raz, dva tri.”  They met “sheeps,” spectacular horses, goats, friendly doggies, cats and kittens, peacocks, an array of unusual insects, with one singer graced by the glorious sound of the elusive nightingale. They sampled delightful honeys, sweet pears, picked juicy raspberries, heartily consumed thirst quenching watermelon and warded off illnesses with a daily dose of chicken soup, potatoes, sliced cucumbers, the reddest, sweetest, juiciest tomatoes, rich olives and cheeses and morning doses of kefir, yogurt, fresh jams and wild mountain thyme chai. And, were filled up at mealtimes with the addition of roasted and specially prepared meats of local pig, lamb and cow. They were sharply warned of the dangers lurking in deep lakes, the likely possibility of finding a frog or even a bear in the zelnikot bread, and dared to taste the breath-catching, tear-streaming, tongue-burning brilliant green peppers, learning to eat cautiously when such foods served. Fueled by the national fermented fruit drink, rakia, and the premium beer, Skopsko, the traveling quartet sang and danced into the night. Yet, most astoundingly, throughout their wanderings the traveling quartet was warmly received and welcomed into the homes and heart of the Macedonia people—on hillsides, in monasteries, in fields, on hikes, and invited into homes in the small villages and big cities by…people who smiled with twinkling eyes, extended handshakes, offered hugs and cheek kisses, kafe and rakia, and gave gifts of the heart with song, dance and treasures of family stories, little potted plants, flower bouquets, books in cyrillic, holy water, and Bulgarian Bear’s Blood wine….By the end of this wild adventure the traveling quartet had learned to sing the folk songs of Macedonia in full voice with open heart and dance joyfully supporting one another…

Last week while some of the Village Harmony folks were having a meal in the prettiest cafe in the center of Berovo ( a nice square featuring about 6 big cafes with outdoor seating, and a fountain or two),  a small, light-colored dog appeared near our table, wagging its tail and wearing a sweet expression. There’s some terrier in it and maybe some chihuahua. It’s sand-colored with a white blaze down its nose and little white paws. It’s filthy and hungry but like most of the dogs here it wags its tail all the time.

Still, when I went to pet it, it cowered — still wagging its tail.  I concluded that it has been kicked or hit, but not so often that it is totally afraid of people. I offered the dog some cheese from my salad, but at first the dog didn’t recognize the shredded white stuff as food. The dog seemed more interested in a pat than in food, so I concluded that it wasn’t starving.

The waitress, Gabriella, told me they call the dog “Maus” (“Mouse”) because “she” is so small (note: the universal Macedonian-English pronoun is “she,” used for male and female third person and sometimes first person, too). When I asked who Maus belonged to, the waitress (who has  shining dark clear skin and a bone structure that would get her a modelling job in the USA) said, “The town.”

Indeed we, the Americans, have noticed quite a few dogs running around that seem to have no specific owner. We’ve noticed how good-tempered they are and how they don’t beg.

“Who takes care of him?” I asked.

She shrugged again. “If he lives, he lives; if he dies, he dies.”

“But who feeds him?” I persisted. “He’s not starving.”

“The people feed him if he is hungry,” she said. “I feed him some pizza or…” she drifted off, saying hello to a friend.

I decided then, last week, to try to help Mouse when I came back to Berovo — in fact, I decided I would come back to Berovo if only to help Mouse.

Shortly after I met Mouse and Gabriella, the Village Harmony group left for Skopia to do our performance, but after a week I returned, and Mouse was still in the cafe. But this time Mouse had runny eyes and seemed to be limping.

Gabriella agreed that the dog was sick. She said she would help me get him to the vet, and she called and made an appointment. That was Monday and we had to wait until today, Wednesday, to see the vet, because the vet does not usually see dogs or cats but goes out to the countryside to take care of sheep.

At 9.30 a.m. this morning  I was at the cafe, but neither Mouse nor Gabriella was around. I asked the other waiters if they’d seen either one, and they pointed out Mouse who was sleeping at the cafe next door. One of the waiters gave me an old piece of pizza, and I slowly fed the meat and cheese from the pizza to the little dog. The dog was afraid to come to me at first but it liked the meat, and so, using my knowledge of intermittent reinforcement for behavioral modification (thanks, Valerie!) I convinced the dog that it was a good idea to come when I called.

By 10 a.m the dog was sitting by me enjoying a scratch on the chest, but  Gabriella was not there. I asked the waiter again and he rang her — she was coming, she said. I was very anxious because we had an appointment, I thought, for 10 am, and if we missed it I might not be able to get another one before I leave on Saturday.

At 10.15 Gabriella showed up and said she’d been sleeping. To my surprise she didn’t want to jump in a taxi right away but told me to wait a few minutes. “But the doctor– –” I said, all American and time-conscious. She shushed me and said not to worry.

I sat there trying not to fret about the time, but I was nervous.  In Melbourne our vet does surgery in the mornings only, and her time was scheduled very tightly around and between operations. I was hoping to get Maus spayed , and it seemed the day was passing.

But about 10.20 Gabriella summoned a taxi driver from nowhere, and since Maus had no collar or lead,  she also found a box. The taxi-driver opened the trunk and put the box in as I picked up the dog who I think had never been held before by a human being. I told Gabriella and the driver that we were not putting Maus into the trunk, and then I got in before they could argue.

Here dogs and cats are considered filthy and ARE filthy, but the driver’s car was no showpiece and he had a cloth over the back seat anyway. So I held Mouse, who was petrified, and she stared out the window in amazement. After about 10 minutes’ drive we reached the “vet.”

The “vet” was a long offwhite building with a black sign outside, pretty far on the outskirts of town. We walked in — me holding the still and silent little dog in my arms — through a small hallway lined with shelves. On the shelves were dozens of jars of animal parts and organs and animals. I saw a fetal big and something that might have been lungs, and then I looked away. Gabriella said, “You see why we don’t — — ” and I did. I understood then that not only can’t people afford to take animals to a vet, but there ARE no vets as I think of them. There was only this horrible, filthy, disgusting place full of dirt and death.

There was no reception area and no receptionist, but we walked through a dirty, long hallway to an office where a man was smoking. Gabriella told me the building was probalby 70 years old, and I’m sure it was. It looked as if it had not been cleaned in all that time.

The vet looked surprised to see the dog and asked what the problem was. Gabriella explained that the dog was sick and I wanted to get it seen to. He said, as if it was unusual, that he’d like to look at the dog.

I said okay to the examination — duh — and we walked back to a sort of half-open room that seemed like a kind of place where large animals might perhaps be housed sometimes. I can’t say why but it seemed like stables.  There were piles of boxes along the walls nd no examination table, only a flat empty space  between piles of stuff on a table.

The man — about my age, with very dark hair — picked up poor Maus by the scruff of the neck (Mouse cried and so did I) and dropped the dog on the table, where she weed a little bit and held completely still, in fear and confusion. The vet went to get some things, and I patted and talked to the dog, who stared straight up into my eyes and didn’t blink or move.

When the vet came back, I asked Gabriella to ask him to tell us if Maus was male or female (we hadn’t been able to get close enough to see) and the man PICKED UP MOUSE BY THE TAIL to check the genitals. I was horrified but managed not to slap his hand. Maus was okay and, it turns out, female.

The doctor  listened to the dog’s heart with a stethoscope, and said it was sick with dog flu. After two shots and a pill down the throat, Maus was free to go “home” to the streets. I asked if the vet could spay her, but he said she was too little. I am guessing she is less than 6 months old — her teeth are still very small.

So Gabriella and I took Maus back in the same taxi to where she usually lives (in the square) and she trotted off to lie in the sun as usual. I had coffee with Gabriella and explained to her that it’s very strange for us (Americans) to see animals running around freely and that I wanted to help them. I gave Gabriella the money for the taxis and the treatment (total of 700 dinari, about $18 US) and thanked her profusely for her kindness and her assistance.

She said she knew it was strange for Americans to see how Macedonians treat dogs, but that even PEOPLE in Macedonia are not treated like people, so for animals it is even worse. She told me that there is not good health care for some people in Macedonia. There is a doctor in town but if anyone gets really sick they have to travel to Skopje, the capital, for care.

But Garbiella is a good person and she understood my desire to help — she herself has a dog at home and she loves it. She is a mother and a survivor of an abusive marriage — perhaps that’s why she is one of the few people who seem to want to take care of dogs and cats. I hope their numbers (the people, not the cats and dogs) are growing. She has not had her dog fixed, as I understood it, but at least the dog has a good home and good care and no diseases.

The good news for Maus, Gabriella told me, is that next week the vet will give the dog a second injection (more vaccinations) and then a special green collar that lets the people know that Maus is registerd with the vet and does not have rabies or other diseases. I have not seen any such dogs here in Berovo but I saw some dogs in Skopje with eartags that I assume mean the same thing.

As we were chatting with a friend of Gabriella’s (she knows everyone in town), and playing with the friend’s baby, Phillippe, Mouse suddenly developed a disturbing white froth at the mouth, and we saw a pile of pizza-vomit that must have come from her. Gabriella jumped up and got a broom and then water to clean up the mess, because “It is not nice for people who are eating their lunch,” and then we took the dog away from the cafe to wash its mouth and offer it some water.

I am concerned that the dog may not hve digested the pill, and so has no immunity to worms, but at least Mouse stilll has the injections in her bloodstream and will get better from the flu and will not get Parvo or rabies. And maybe, once she has the collar on, she will even get a home.  Gabriella says it won’t happen, but I have hope.

When I last saw Maus she was trotting across the square, and she was wagging her tail.

Today I have a guest blog from Jane Lowey, who is now back in the USA. My first meeting with Jane is mentioned in my previous blog post (Not Entirely Unmusical). Enjoy Jane’s thoughts below:
When asked by a friend back home what it was like to be traveling in Macedonia, I spontaneously replied, “It’s Rumi meets Zorba the Greek.”  All politics aside (and a thousand pardons please) but this really pointed to what I was experiencing. The songs I was singing were laced with Middle Eastern sounds and charged with a kind of longing and passion (Rumi).  And we sang them in robust, hospitable communities…willing to dance and drink well into the night (Zorba). The songs danced deliciously on the edge of two worlds — touching some old and big-hearted place in me.

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)

On Wednesday, June 29th, nine hours, 250 kilometres, and about 60 Euros after waking up in Thessalonki, I got into the room at the hostel in Macedonia (that is to say, Skopje, in “North Macedonia,” according to Uncle) where I was supposed to be. The lack of a reservation was a mere glitch soon managed, and although I was first put into a room with an air conditioner that featured a Chinese water torture effect whether on high or low or switched off, I soon asked for, and was given, a different room. Furthermore it had only two beds and no other occupant would come for the two nights I was there! (I Occasionally Lead a Charmed Life Dept.)

My first meal of the day (other than the poor pizza) was at the white-tableclothed open-air restaurant in front of the hostel, where I had a gorgeous “Skopje Salad” made of possibly the best tomatoes I’ve ever had (sorry, New Jersey!), lovely crisp juicy cucumbers, and heaps of grated soft salty unidentifiable cheese. After a few days of airport/airline food, this meal was rehydration and nutritional manna. I also unfortunately ordered french fried with cheese, which was a nutritional and sodium disaster, but I didn’t eat so much of that and the total bill including fizzy water and the view was about $4.00 US. I was also drinking a lot of the hotel water, which was a pleasure after the place in Thessaloniki where Twin #1 had told me I could “do anything” in the bathroom – e.g., shower, bathe, wash – but not drink the water, “because it is very dirty.” He didn’t have to tell me twice.

In Skopje I could do everything in the bathroom except move. It was the smallest bathroom I have ever seen INCLUDING the head in my private stateroom (itself the size of a pantry) on the Chinese engineering vessel. On the ship, the toilet stall housed not only the toilet and sink but also the shower. This bathroom in the hostel was smaller than that.

The shower stall was so extremely tiny that if it had had doors I could not have fit in. (Note: in the hotel in Thessaloniki, I literally had to squeeze sideways to get in between the doors.) This one was smaller, but it forgivingly had a curtain instead of doors. The total floor space inside the shower cubicle was four tiles square – two across two down. Around the bottom was a tiled dividing wall about a foot high, to keep the water inside– or so I thought. But I was wrong.

Although the wall surrounded my ankles and formed a kind of psychological illusion of sanitation and privacy, it did not enclose the water; nor was it designed to do so. The wall had a large hole in one side, at the bottom, for the water to flow out of, so that it went all over the bathroom floor. A small drain was located near the base of the shower, not far from the egress point, and some of the water did find its way down the drain, but most of my shower water ended up washing the floor of the bathroom. If I had not bathed hastily it would also have spread into the bedroom and beyond.

Once clean and once I’d mopped up the mess with my towel, I slept like an innocent in my narrow and uncomfy bed. I woke and went to breakfast (two eggs and the worst “cup of tea” I’ve ever tasted) full of plans to go to the tourism office and acquaint myself with the PR authorities for the entire nation of Macedonia, but in fact I slept and ate and did email all day.

On doing email in the Skopje youth hostel: 

There was nowhere to sit in my room except on the beds, so I used the foyer of the hostel to check my email and make some notes. You’d think that having free wifi (e.g. broadband wireless internet access) would make such an exercise simple, but you’d be wrong.

First I had to plug in my notebook because its battery was flat. I bought the Acer about 14 months ago in Australia, and with it I got a special plug device that allows one to position the large plug horizontally or vertically in any (Australian) outlet. This seemed a useful device and I attached it as soon as I opened the computer box. However, I never knew and still don’t understand how to unlock the device it so that the position can be changed, and it is  large and moderately heavy, so its overall effect has been limiting rather than liberating.

The plug and its added feature are made only for Australian outlets, and as I am no longer in Australia, I had brought with me both the Australian-American adapter and a universal adapter that I bought on Ebay and which arrived the day before I was to leave the USA.

So, on my first morning in Skopje, I had the notebook (small and light, about 3/4 the size of a laptop), and a combination of plugs/adapters which combined were about the size and weight of a large stapler. I had no idea how to use my shiny new international adapter, which apparently can connect an Aleutian accordion to a Zulu bugzapper, but which did not come with instructions of any kind.

There was only one outlet in my room, and it was much too close to the wet floor and walls for my comfort. Also, I once, in Germany, fried my American hairdryer by plugging it into an outlet that it fit into perfectly. The hairdryer worked fantastically for about 4 seconds before it exploded and black smoke wafted up from the heating element. My hair was dry that morning but it never again got dry the whole winter I lived in Germany.

Not wishing to drown or fry my computer — now my home, friendship circle, and office in one — I went to the only public room of the hostel, which was the foyer, and looked for an outlet. There was only one: a round recessed area with two holes in it, by the front door. I didn’t see any way to fit my adapter into it so,   being a savvy traveller, I decided to look for a young person to fix the situation for me.

The hostel warden was outside smoking, and the maid didn’t speak enough English to help me, so I tapped on the open door of an office with a man in a suit inside. I said, “Do you speak English?”

“Yes!” he beamed.

“Oh good,” I said. “I have this computer – is there a young person around? Maybe a young man, maybe under 30? You know how they always know how to do computer stuff?” This was admittedly a rather sexist (and ageist!) request, but I didn’t think about that much.

“Yes!” he exclaimed. He stood up and came towards me, in the manner of a person passing by to go outside and find a competent, English speaking IT geek, perhaps from Pakistan or Dublin. But instead of leaving the room, he stopped and put out his hand for my adapter.

“Oh!” I said. “Do YOU know how to use it?”

“Yes,” he muttered, looking importantly at the device and tapping it.

“See, this is the side for the American plug,” I said. “Is this one the part for Macedonia?”

“Yes,” he said.  He led me outside to the foyer and looked not for a young person but apparently for an outlet.  I showed him the one by the front door.

He pointed to the outlet, to the adapter, and to my computer plug. He demonstrated to me that one must go into the other and that one into the wall socket. And then he left, smiling and saying, “Yes” all the way.

Next time:  Prue and the Village Harmonizers: the trip begins!

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:



EUZONOI **********——————





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