The sunny August morning we left Sarajevo, it was harder than I thought it would be to find our way out of town. I don’t remember exactly why; some combination of narrow streets and Google Maps trying to lead me onto a pedestrian footpath might have had something to do with the smell of burning clutch and frayed nerves in the morning.
V, A and I worked together and managed to make a series of navigational decisions that – while not winning any efficiency awards – also didn’t result in any fender benders. Thankfully at least, when hearing how early we wanted to get on the road, our AirBnB host decided he didn’t need to do our checkout in-person after all and allowed us to lock the apartment and hide the key in an agreed-upon location. We eventually hit the highway east and later, due south for the last few hundred miles of our road trip.
It was going to be a long couple of days in the car; we were headed back to Macedonia, and once we left Bosnia we would cross back into Serbia first, stopping in Višegrad once more for lunch, followed by visiting V’s childhood friend B, his wife D, and their family for an overnight in Kruševac, the town where V had fulfilled his Yugoslav Army service between 1987 and 1988.
When we stopped in Višegrad, we opted for sports bar fare rather than the Hotel Višegrad for a second time. After some delicious schnitzel, burgers, and pizza, we did some quick math on planned spending and managed to change the various currencies from countries we’d left behind to a combination of dollars and euros. Given our departure from Europe in a few days, this seemed the most practical thing to do.
A was looking forward to visiting B’s weekend house in Pepeljevac, a village outside the larger town of Kruševac. She had last visited there with V in 2016 while she was still in high school, and right as word of our second tour assignment to Australia hit my phone; she’d been excited to learn this time that his two daughters, who were about her age and had since moved away to study, would also be there. A had been hanging out with V and I nonstop on this trip, and I was glad she was going to get a break from us old folks and have a chance to let down her hair with Gen Z, or whatever the kids call themselves.
Even though traveling a couple of hundred miles would take a few hours on an American interstate, on Balkan roads that wind through mountains and village after village with low speed limits and no faster route, it literally took several hours to get to Pepeljevac where – sans communication from their phoneless traveling friends – our hosts were holding dinner and starting to worry.
Our GPS stuffed us one final time in the end, directing us down a country road so narrow and choked with bushes that I almost panicked and got us trapped as branches scraped down both sides of the sedan. In the rearview mirror I glimpsed A’s eyes but we were both too shocked and dismayed to laugh. V prayed out loud.
B laughed hysterically when he saw the direction we came from, saying it was a farm animal route and that people didn’t even take tractors on that road. Well, OK?! No one told us and we aren’t from here?!
A stayed behind with the girls for an evening out, and V and I said goodbye and headed to the hotel where we had two room reservations. I lost my temper a little bit and snapped at an attendant when arriving; the parking situation was not making sense – a recurring theme – and no one was doing what they were supposed to be doing, but that was no excuse for me to handle it the way I did. My nerves had really worn out due to a combination of lack of alone time, too many patronizing men taking liberties with me, and too many infantilizing, ambiguous situations, I suppose.
I apologized and tried to redeem myself by being industrious, arranging A’s room with water and snacks so when she stumbled in during the wee hours, she would feel more taken care of and comfortable. I WhatsApped her the location of her room key and then I got some sleep while V went to the hotel bar himself to be social, and in the morning I felt like a new person. V yet awoke earlier than I did and went out to breakfast with his friends; he was back and they were on the road abroad before I had even risen to shower.
After a leisurely morning, we dragged ourselves out for the last 170 miles back to V’s mother’s house in Skopje, starting first by driving around the city of Kruševac. I’d never seen it before, but wished we could have stayed longer. V pointed out the military barracks where he had served his compulsory military service at the age of 18 in Yugoslav times, almost exactly 35 years beforehand.
About a quarter past one o’clock in the afternoon, after our final gas and bathroom pit stop, we made it to the Serbia-Macedonia border. It was a little chaotic, but nothing we aren’t accustomed to from our former life on the U.S.-Mexico border when we were posted to the consulate in Ciudad Juárez.
We pulled up at V’s mom’s house and promptly took her out to lunch in the neighborhood. She browsed phone photos from our trip and was surprised at the distance we’d traveled, and delighted to see new pictures of her littlest grandsons in Kragujevac.
A few hours later, we were excited when V’s brother V2 also arrived in Skopje to spend a little extra time with us, plus visit with two of his teenage children who were in from Germany, and who I hadn’t seen since 2011 when they had been very small. V2’s oldest daughter who lived upstairs from her grandmother had also returned from her holiday to Greece, so it was a pretty full house.
With only a day and a half left in our Balkan holiday, we held onto the rental car; we would use it the following day to visit my Peace Corps homestay family 90 minutes south in Demir Kapija, and then take it with us to the airport when we departed for our flight early the morning after.
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