For the first five days of my trip to the Balkans, my husband V, my stepdaughter A, and I stayed in Macedonia’s capital city, Skopje, at his childhood home. We enjoyed quality time with his mom, and took over the upstairs portion of her home. V’s niece, the eldest of his brother’s six children, usually lived upstairs alone, but was away on extended holiday in Greece with a boyfriend.
We went shopping, hung out in cafes, visited with old friends, and spent time in the city center and the Turkish part of town known as Stara Čaršija, or the Old Bazaar. Sometimes A hung out with us, and sometimes she hung out with friends she’d made on her many prior family visits, including five years before while doing a summer internship at the Peace Corps Skopje office. During those days we also finalized the tentative plans we’d been discussing to rent a car for a 10-day road trip around Serbia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, and Croatia. Our itinerary was still a little flexible, but the purpose of the trip was twofold: to visit V’s brother who had settled in Kragujevac, Serbia with his wife and younger children, and to treat A to a couple of countries she hadn’t yet seen, albeit not for as long a duration as we would have liked.
Because V’s mom is getting up in years and we didn’t want to put her out, we ended up taking a lot of our meals at a restaurant around the corner from her home. She was happy with this, and often eats there herself for convenience’s sake. She is getting to the point in her life where she struggles with different health issues, and it’s better sometimes to just hit the easy button and focus on spending time together with fewer hostess chores to worry about. Fortunately, this place was delicious, familiar, and very inexpensive, especially for our standards. We found ourselves passing a lot of fond afternoons there together, laughing and enjoying the local beer and delicacies such as tomato and cucumber salad with feta (Shopska salata) and rolled pork stuffed with cheese (uvijac).
In such a relaxed environment and – perhaps – before the novelty of our arrival had worn off, we got her to dip into some of her more nostalgic memories and talk about the past, something she does not often do with as much lucidity as we were lucky to experience on several occasions this visit.
On one sunny afternoon, after heading to a local mall for V and A to top up their local SIM cards with credit, we did some shopping and had lunch in the city center, and then went exploring around the old Turkish quarter. A was looking for souvenirs to buy for her partner and friends back home.
I somewhat regretted wearing jeans, as it was quite a toasty day, and we went through several bottles of water trying to stay hydrated. A dressed much more in line with the hot weather!
On another day, we went to a hardware store to replace a broken door handle in V’s mom’s house, munched on Macedonian toast, and did some banking errands for ourselves and V’s brother. Later we went for a long evening walk around V’s neighborhood with A and ended up a few miles away at a busy ice cream shop featuring a giant palm tree, where we enjoyed sweet treats and made our way back after dark.
Another thing we did was try to connect with as many friends in Skopje as possible early on, knowing our road trip would blow a significant hole in the middle of our time in Macedonia. Even walking through the streets of V’s neighborhood we were apt to run into all kinds of people V had known his whole life, such as it often goes in the Balkans. However, with certain Macedonian friends we had to be more intentional to make sure we would get to see them.
For example, my longtime friend M who I have known for 20 years since my Peace Corps days and who stood up in our San Francisco wedding as a bridesmaid. She has since relocated to Geneva, Switzerland for work, so was not in Skopje to meet, but we met up with her parents D and I in a cafe and brought A along with us. M’s parents are a real hoot and were my second parents in Skopje while I lived in Macedonia as a Peace Corps Volunteer in my 20s. We FaceTimed with M in Geneva while we were there and she was so glad to see us, even if we weren’t together. Visiting in Macedonia holds a different importance than it does in American culture – hospitality, having guests, and visiting with people is hugely important, so you kind of need to make it happen even if it’s hard to manage timewise.
I also wanted to be sure to catch up with B and M, the brother and sister-in-law of my longtime former boyfriend N, who I dated between 2003 and 2006. N and I don’t keep up much with one another, but for many years I have stayed in touch with his brother’s wife M and since V and I have traveled to Macedonia together we always make it a point to visit with them. They were going to be away on holiday themselves by the time we returned from our road trip, so the night before leaving, we squeezed in a fun outing together filled with meat, smoking, and alcohol, Balkan style!
It means a lot to me that I have been able to maintain relationships with people I met through my Peace Corps service for the past two decades just through social media, the exchange of holiday cards, and infrequent visits. I hold my friends there in a lot of positive regard and appreciate the kindness, fun, and support they have all added to my life at different points.
The next morning V, A, and I set out for the Macedonian-Serbian border after picking up our rental car from the Skopje airport. I had about 25 minutes of aggravation trying to figure out how to release the parking brake, to the point we had to go back and ask the rental car dudes to consult. It ended up being a Toyota sedan-specific phenomenon I wasn’t familiar with even though I own a 4Runner. Annoying and made me feel like a major dumbass, but we moved on.
Being the only member of our party who could drive a manual transmission – and none of the rental agencies had automatics available, scarce in Europe anyway and impossible given the seat-of-our-pants timing of our summer arrangements only a day or two beforehand – I assured V and A I was elated to do all the driving if they were OK and wouldn’t feel infantilized being my passengers. Getting carsick as I do, I make a crummy passenger, and I always worry about my passengers and make an effort to not make anyone uncomfortable. This trip would be filled with many a mountain road…
We had a minor GPS stuff-up around Kumanovo but eventually crossed the border into Serbia with little fanfare, with Kosovo off to our west. We passed through or near a battery of southern Serbian towns: Presevo, Vranje, Leskovac, and eventually Nis and Jagodina. Finally we made it to our AirBnB in V’s brother’s town, Kragujevac, about 90 miles south of Serbia’s capital city, Belgrade. The first order of business? Lunch.