Skopje, Macedonia – September 2014
I head toward the minarets and domes, and then follow the brick wall that encloses the Old Bazaar. A tall, thin man materializes. He marches along beside me.
He looks at my camera and smiles. “You tourist?”
I tense up and glance around for other people. “Yes.”
His smile broadens. He asks where I’m from, if I’m going to the Old Bazaar, do I like Skopje.
I allow myself to relax as I answer his questions. They don’t see a lot of tourists in Skopje, and maybe he’s genuinely curious. People are always telling me I’m too closed off to people, too paranoid. Maybe they’re right.
The man points at my wedding ring. “You have husband?”
“Yes.” I smile. Out of habit, I add, “He’s back at the hotel.”
“We go do sex now?”
I grit my teeth. “No.”
He curls his lip, spits on the ground, and stalks away.
I continue down the hill, keeping my pace even and my head held high. As if that last question was not voiced. I will not allow it to ruin my day. But my stomach churns and I feel like I’m covered in an invisible, vile slime. Pure curiosity is nearly extinct in today’s world. This was a friendly reminder, a gentle nudge. I must never let my guard down. Who cares if people criticize me.
The main entrance to the bazaar appears. I step inside, keeping my eyes averted from other eyes and my demeanor nonchalant. No heads turn to stare, however. The dirty feeling ebbs away.
Shop windows glitter with gold and silver and rich textiles. Sizzling meat and rich coffee perfume the humid air.
I bite my cheek as I contemplate the various cafes. I’m not sure of the etiquette for women and cafes here. I pass one that’s empty, except for a young lady. A face of porcelain framed by austere cloth. Her attention is focused on a book.
The owner beckons me over with a warm smile. “Please, come. Sit down,” he says. “Welcome.”
I settle myself into a small chair on the terrace and order a Turkish coffee. A family of four sits at a table in front of a pastry shop across the alley. A young man passes by. He stops to chat with the young lady. Their tone is familiar. They both have large book bags. He beams as he speaks to the girl. She looks into his eyes with confidence. He stutters over his words and shifts his weight from one foot to the other. The conversation trails off. He raises his hand in a reluctant farewell and strides away.
This exchange has not gone unnoticed by the family across the way. The mother scowls at the young woman. She says something to the father. His eyes narrow. The children turn to look and then mimic their parents’ disapproval.
I drink my coffee, pay, and then stand up to leave. I hesitate for a moment, and then speak. “I want to take a photo of this place. Is it okay if you’re in it?”
The young woman smiles. “Sure, no problem.”
I step into the alley and raise my camera, ignoring the hot scorn emanating from the parents behind me.
The coffee surges through my blood. I venture further into the maze of alleys.
Old men commune over cups of coffee or at the barber shop.
The deeper I get inside the labyrinth, the quieter it becomes. The only face that peers out at me from these windows is my own. The manager at my guesthouse told me that so many have closed because people now prefer to shop at malls. I can’t help but see potential in these deserted spaces.
A large, crumbling structure stands at the very back of the bazaar. A hole in a wooden door is the only way in. I stand still for a moment, deciding if I want to venture inside. And then the sound of feminine giggling fills the silence. A plump, smiling face pops out of the entrance. The woman cradles her camera, stoops over, and steps out of the little portal. A man follows behind.
“What’s in there?” I ask.
She starts to giggle again. “A museum. Well, the Balkan interpretation of a museum.”
“It it worth going inside?”
“Oh, yes. It only takes a few minutes to look around. And it’s funny.” She shakes her heads and smiles. “Only in the Balkans.”
I step through the door and into a small courtyard. Pieces of broken statues line the circular corridor. Some of them are on cement blocks. Others are simply leaned up against the wall. A group of men sits at the far back corner drinking the obligatory coffee. They give no sign that they are aware of my presence. As I move from piece to piece, one of the men begins to sing. A luminous, undulating melody that pirouettes through the courtyard and rises heavenward. There is such a thing as joyful melancholy. I catch my breath and freeze. The resonance moves through me. Knowing the words might break the spell. He could be singing an ancient hymn or an empty pop tune. It doesn’t matter. I soak it up until the last notes fade away.