The Old Bazaar

SkopjeBazaar01
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.

SkopjeBazaar02

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.

SkopjeBazaar05

Shop windows glitter with gold and silver and rich textiles. Sizzling meat and rich coffee perfume the humid air.

SkopjeBazaar10

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.

SkopjeBazaar07

The coffee surges through my blood. I venture further into the maze of alleys.

SkopjeBazaar08

Old men commune over cups of coffee or at the barber shop.

SkopjeBazaar04

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.

SkopjeBazaar03

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.”

SkopjeBazaar09

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.

SkopjeBazaar06

In the Lair of the Eccentric

Skopje11
Skopje, Macedonia – September 2014

Baffled. That’s the word I’ve been searching for. It’s not often, anymore, that a place leaves me at a loss for words. I believe this is the first time it’s happened out of sheer bewilderment. I’ve heard that Skopje is undergoing a renaissance that many compare to Las Vegas. An appropriate comparison, if you see it on a superficial level. However, I feel that there’s much more love involved in the ornamentation. Skopje looks like it was decorated by Liberace’s favorite spinster aunt. A traveler. An eccentric. A collector. Every trinket is precious and has its place on the dusty shelves. There’s an order to the disorder. She knows where everything is.

Alexander the Great dominates the living room, a conversation piece on steroids. In the evenings, it lights up in neon colors which change hue every few minutes.

Skopje02

Souvenirs of London and Paris can be found at the end of the corridor.

Skopje03

And art. Oh, yes. Art. Gilt, glitz, and glitter. Her bedchamber is a luxurious lair.

Skopje09

A neon nightlight illuminates the evening glamor. It also changes hue.

Skopje04

Larger than life flamboyance is an understatement.

Skopje06

Ageless, feisty. She is a lady of many projects in various stages of incompletion.

Skopje08

If you listen closely, her extravagant monologues turn to events of the past. Never forget the time when time stopped. She never throws anything away, however broken and battered it may be.

Skopje05

Is that..? Oh my. Yes, ladies and germs. It is indeed a pirate ship. Perched near relics of the spartan years. But she’s not content with one. Oh, no. Two more just like it are being built further along the river bank.

Skopje01

And, of course, there are the obligatory cats. Everywhere. All of them are not only welcomed, but beckoned.

Skopje07

Smaller curios are placed amid the massive effigies and neon. Shimmering gold contrasts with the green patina of unpolished bronze. A haphazard symmetry to their arrangement. I wander through this wonderland of kitsch for hours. No matter which angle I try, my photos can’t capture the full effect. Either I’m too far away to catch the smaller details or the larger statues are cut off when I get close enough to the miniature treasures. My head begins to hurt from hours of relentless stimuli. Eccentrics are fascinating, but exhausting. Now I need a nap.

Skopje10

The Wealthy Tourist

Ohrid03

Ohrid, Macedonia – September 2014

September has barely started, but the streets of Ohrid’s old city have already emptied. Gone are the coach bus mobs, the flirting teenagers, and the families. The tourists that remain move in small, intimate clusters, in couples, or alone. I hear Dutch, Russian, and North American voices. The solo tourists are much more conspicuous without the crowds. All of us have cameras as companions. When we pass each other, we nod in solidarity.

Ohrid06

I’ve read, more than once, that the worst thing about traveling alone is eating out in restaurants. It’s intimidating to deal with stares of flirtation, animosity, pity, or even curiosity. I sometimes skip meals altogether. Too much to see, too much to do. This is what I tell myself.

Ohrid07

The tourist trail begins at St. Sophia. I pay the fee to see the frescoes. Even though there’s a No Photo sign, I  sneak a couple of shots. Because other people are doing it, and because sometimes I’m disrespectful, too. A jewelry vendor is in the courtyard. I shield myself behind a cluster of senior citizens and check out the merchandise. There are necklaces made from the Lake Ohrid pearl. My sister’s birthday is coming up. She likes necklaces. The vendor, a young blonde lady, chats with the ladies. Her smile is sincere, so I ask how much the necklace is.

“Necklace and bracelet is six hundred dinars. Ten euros.”

“How much is just the necklace?”

Disappointment, not anger, flashes across her face. “Four hundred dinars. Six euros.”

She takes care of the ladies while I look over the necklace. Because of a deep-seated aversion to accumulation, I never buy myself souvenirs. Except for consumable things like food or wine. But I kind of like the look of this “pearl”.  Oh, why not? If I’m playing the tourist today, I may as well do it in style. After the ladies pay and move on, I say, “Okay, I’ll take both.”

A smile lights up her face. The bracelet is too large for my wrist, so the jeweler takes off a pearl. While he does this, the girl tells me about life in Ohrid and the frustrations of being Macedonian. She would like to go and work abroad, like so many others, but it’s difficult to go anywhere, because you need a visa.

“Except for Albania,” the jeweler says with a laugh. He clasps the bracelet around my wrist.

Ohrid02

The trail to St. John at Kaneo winds around the side of a cliff. A small tourist boat putters alongside. In the distance, a group of young people jumps from a dock into the water. Their shrieks carry across the water.  The mountains are shrouded in ominous clouds. I circle around the church and head up the steep trail to Samuil’s Fortress, passing a large construction site. Very possibly a new luxury resort. Another ominous sight.

Ohrid01

At the fortress, a mother shepherds her two young children from lookout point to lookout point. She reads, with shrill enthusiasm, from a guidebook. The children complain that they are hungry.

I climb to the very highest tower and stare out over the gem-hued lake. Instead of awe, I feel a peculiar listlessness. And I begin to understand the ennui that the wealthy must feel. My riches are not material, but they are just as vast. A different kind of accumulation. This breathtaking place has become just one treasure amid many.

2014 has been a year of intense trips. Not enough time in between to regroup and let the itch grow back.

Ohrid04

At sunset, I walk to the various piers and docks. Fishermen and locals are the only people I encounter. Music from the empty lakefront bars wafts across the water with the languid waves. Whadaya gonna do with that big fat butt? Wiggle wiggle wiggle. * An absurd contrast with the scenery. I giggle to myself as I imagine what these people would think if they understood the lyrics.

My room is in a villa high up on the hill overlooking the lake. I return at nightfall. The music from the bars reaches me here, too. Balkan folk pop has replaced the American hits. As I drift off to sleep, I wonder if the words are just as vulgar.

Ohrid08

I awaken to the sound of gentle waves against shoreline. I pull the curtains aside and step onto the balcony. The listlessness vanishes, leaving in its place a quiet peace.

Ohrid05

*lyrics from “Wiggle” by Jason Derulo