Tuesday, August 10, 2010

2010 Travel Notes #9: Everybody's a Macedonian

If Macedonia did not exist, I think it would have to be invented. Neighboring Serbia, Bulgaria and Greece each have conflicting and overlapping historical claims to the area. The existence of an independent Macedonia helps keep the eager claimants in their separate corners, so to speak. Serbians remember their long years together in Yugoslavia and see little tangible difference between themselves and the Macedonians. Bulgaria also has a historical claim to the area, and when it comes right down to it, view their neighbors as merely southwestern Bulgars. But it is the Greeks who make the most noise about the region. They long opposed adoption of the very name Macedonia, and insist upon the awkward Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, or FYROM. The Greeks believe they have sole rights to the Macedonian franchise, and indeed, in northern Greece the connection is particularly emphasized, especially in their own province of Macedonia. And it is not hard to understand why. If a Macedonian were something different than a Greek, then Greece could not rightfully claim Alexander the Great, and that would be just, just, just....well, it's unthinkable to a Greek. I visited none of the traditional ancient Greek tourist attractions, with one exception. I did see King Philip's tomb in northern Greece. The excavations of the royal tumulus were worth the trouble. I was amused, however, to see that the very first panel in the exhibition hall stated that the names uncovered in this archaeological site were Greek, thereby proving that the Macedonians were nothing more than northern Greeks. While the Macedonian merchants of Ohrid were certainly keen to capitalize on all things Alexander in merchandising their wares, they will have to go far to catch up with their Greek neighbors. In Thessaloniki, Alexander sits astride Bucephalus in a huge equestrian statue on the sea walk. I found it ironic that this rendering does favor Brad Pitt (that movie is a guilty pleasure--but only for its depictions of ancient Babylon and India, something not usually seen on screen.) My favorite view of Alexander is from Veronese, in his The Family of Darius before Alexander, with the conqueror depicted as Renaissance Venetian, in the style of the day. (Is the family of Darius pleading before Alexander, or Hesphation? Ah, only Veronese knows.)

As best I can tell, the Macedonians themselves seem unperturbed by this tug-of-war over their legacy. At the Church of Sveta Sofija in Ohrid, I overheard a young tour guide laughing about it and trying to explain the situation to a troop of English senior citizens in shorts, knee-socks and sandals who were otherwise taking note of the "quaint" artwork inside (sarcasm intended.) In short, I picked up on no signs of an existential identity crisis on the Macedonian side of things. Whatever they are, their culture seems decidedly unGreek to me. If I had to choose, I would find Macedonians to be culturally closer to Bulgaria than their other neighbors. There, I've said it.

The country is small, and generally pleasant to the eye. There are mountains and rolling hills, dense forests and cultivated fields, rustic villages and modern city life. Unlike neighboring Kosovo, Macedonia contains lots of open land, with the population centered in Skopje, Ohrid and Prilep. For the traveler, the jewel is undoubtedly Lake Ohrid and the city of Ohrid itself. And that was exactly where I was headed once out of Albania.

The border crossing between Pogradec and Ohrid is right on the shores of the lake itself. And the twisting road on into Ohrid is one of the most scenic that I encountered. My first stop was only a couple of kilometers inside Macedonia--the Monastery and Church of St. Naum. I have not studied the life of St. Naum, but I understand that he was a disciple of St. Methodius and initiated monastic life in this region of the Balkans. The church and extensive monastic complex sit right on the shores of Lake Ohrid. An exclusive resort hotel and restaurant occupy part of the monastic complex--in fact not over 100 ft. away from the church itself. This seemed a bit odd to me, but then I do not really know anything about the relationship between the monastery and resort. St. Naum's receives a steady stream of visitors, so the lane leading along the lake to its entrance is lined with vendors of every sort. Despite all this, the monastic grounds were the furthest thing from a circus-like atmosphere. In fact, St. Naum's was one of my favorite churches.

The original church dates to 900, but the current structure was built in the 17th century. St. Naum's relics are within the church. I was quite impressed with the iconography, remembering particularly that of St. Elijah the Prophet and the 40 Martyrs of Sebaste in the narthex. While there were a few foreign travelers like myself, most visitors were Macedonian pilgrims. I lit a number of candles here, and the atmosphere was conducive to prayer. St. Naum's is noted for the peacocks which guard the grounds. I am fascinated by these incredible creatures! And on this journey, I had only begun to better realize their Christian symbolism. At church after church, when I looked closely at the intricately carved wooden iconostasis, I would invariable find peacocks. In perhaps my favorite O'Connor short story, The Displaced Person, Father Flynn marvels at the birds on Mrs. McIntyre's farm. She sees them as useless mouths to feed. When one fans his tail, Father Flynn exclaims "Christ will come like that!" I feel the same way.

I had one somewhat humorous experience at the church. I was about to leave, and stepped over to the booth to look over the icons and other small souvenirs there. The worker manning the post spoke to me, and upon learning I was an American, took a bottle from behind his desk and poured me a shot. The best I could understand, I was being treated to Macedonian schnapps. Then he reached for another bottle and poured me a second shot. From what I could tell, this elixir was Macedonian ouzo. This second shot went down as good as the first, though I am generally not a big fan of raki or ouzo. I do not know if these spirits were distilled on the monastery or not. He did have bottles for sale, but there was no pressure to buy. I think he just wanted to show a foreign traveler that Macedonia could produce some pretty good firewater. Two thoughts went through my mind. First, I realized just how much I loved my church. He and I were separated by language, but united in our Orthodox faith and appreciation of good alcohol. Some may differ, but I just found the episode to be altogether wholesome, innocent and yes, even spiritually healthy. And this, in turn, reminded me just how much my life has changed in the last 5-6 years, with memories of incidents in years past flooding back into my consciousness. In my pre-Orthodox days, I held a position in my old church, and I was forced to resign that role partially due to the dread "demon" alcohol (not that I am complaining, mind you, for that action set me free to pursue becoming Orthodox.) In our church leadership "reaffirmation" process, 3 of my wife's relatives voted not to "reaffirm" me, and they did so because I drank wine. The cruel irony here is that there were all sorts of perfectly legitimate reasons why I had no business at all being "reaffirmed" in any type of leadership role, had they known. But that was the best they could come up with, and for them, that was ammunition enough. Of course, this was not any big secret, as we kept the wine and the wine glasses on the buffet at home, there for anyone to see. And they weren't there just for looks. I think they got bent out of shape the time I cut the communion grape juice with wine. One of them later shouted at me that he had vowed to never touch alcohol and now I had ruined it for him. I suppose I ought to be more remorseful about that than I am. Anyway, that episode characterized the cramped, narrow, brown-suited, tight-assed approach to most everything in that church. Oh yes, things are much better now. I'll throw my lot with my new Macedonian friend over my wife's cousin any day of the week.

From St. Naum's, I followed the twisting lake road into Ohrid. I did not really do Ohrid justice. First, I had copied some basic information about the city from the Lonely Planet guidebook--but had reduced the size to where I could fit eight pages on one page. This was a good idea for saving space, but a bad plan for being able to read the map. So, I had to more or less feel my way around the old city, based on my memory of what I had read before. Second, beginning here in Ohrid and lasting for about a week, I was so ill that I began to contemplate returning home early. From here on out, at every step of the way I trimmed from my itinerary and devoted more time to rest and recuperation.

Most of what one wants to see in Ohrid is located in the walled old town, on the western edge of the city. I managed to find the entrance through the Upper Gate and started working my way though the narrow streets of the old city. Here, I had an experience straight out of a Chevy Chase movie. I was driving slow, looking for a hotel or rooms to let. The streets twisted and turned and split off, and I followed what I thought to be the main thoroughfare. I was mistaken. Every cobbled street I turned down narrowed on me the further I drove. On the last one, I apparently missed the "do not enter" sign. This alleyway plunged down the hill, with just enough room to squeeze between the backs of the adjoining buildings. When I reached the bottom, I realized that I was at the intersection with a pedestrian shopping street. A little boy came up to me and by his motioning, I surmised that I was not supposed to have driven down that alley, and I certainly was not supposed to drive onto the pedestrian street. But there was no way out, I could not realistically back up that hill. And so, I did the only thing I could do--I eased out onto the pedestrian way. The strollers were a bit surprised to see my black hatchback easing down the promenade, but they stepped to the side, and more importantly, they did not point and laugh. As I passed, I simply shrugged my shoulders and feigned incompetence in my best Chevy Chase manner (not much of a stretch in this instance.) A young man grinned at me, understanding my predicament. He told me that when the pedestrian street hit the plaza, I could turn right and ease into a parking lot, from which I could access a real street. This was accomplished in due time, and I eventually made my way to a nice hotel fronting on Lake Ohrid.

I rested a bit, and set out to walk--not drive--the old city. I missed several of the churches I should have seen. But I did see the 11th-century Church of Sveta Sofija. Apparently it is not now a functioning church. Sadly, a piano inside the nave, as well as rows of chairs, gave it away as nothing more than a concert hall. I almost passed out walking up the steep hill from Sveta Sofija to the Upper Gate. The weather was mild and I have seen much steeper grades--I was just sicker than I realized. But after sitting on a stoop for awhile, I pressed on and visited the excavation site of the old 5th-century basilica on this highest point overlooking Lake Ohrid. Between the archaeological digs and the lake stands the impressive new Church of Sveta Klement i Pantelejom (Church of Sts. Clement and Panteleimon.) From there, I followed a trail that looped down to a ledge above the lake. And after rounding a bend, and came upon the Church of St. John Kanoa. The views from here are breathtaking, and the little church itself is exquisite. My time here alone made Ohrid worth the visit. I lit some candles and had the small church to myself for some time. The caretaker saw that I was not just a tourist and took time to explain the particular icons to me. Like St. Stephen's in Meteora, and St. Naum's, and others I would experience later, I felt St. John Kanoa to be a very holy place, a special church that I will always remember. I purchased an icon of St. John the Theologian for my son, as that is his patron saint. I expressed my appreciation to the caretaker and sat down on a bench outside to rest up for the long walk back to the hotel. An old man nearby offered to take me back in his boat. I readily agreed to this plan. We puttered along the shoreline of Lake Ohrid, past the swimmers and the picnickers, and those lounging in the outdoor cafes, and the dog-walkers, and the mothers out with their babies (of which there are lots in Ohrid)--all in all, the best view of the city. The old man taxied his boat to the boardwalk right in front of my hotel. I stayed close by the remainder of the day, watching the sun set over Lake Ohrid, and observing the rhythm of this most pleasant of cities.

The next day, I saw quite a bit of Macedonia, but not as I had planned. I wanted to visit the Treskavec Monastery atop Mount Zlato, near Prilep. As it turned out, this was a rainy Saturday, and I knew I could not make the climb, even in sunny weather. So, I decided against trying for the monastery. Prilep itself was interesting, in a scruffy sort of way. One of my enduring mental images is that of being stopped at a street crossing, and hearing the jingling of bells. A horse pulling a cart was trotting briskly towards the intersection, and as it passes in front of me, I saw the bells attached to the back. I decided to push on to Kosovo that day and make it to Gracaneca Monastery, and then decide which way to proceed from there. As related in the previous post, I returned back to Macedonia at the end of the day and looked for lodging near Skopje.

I did not particularly want to stay in Skopje itself, though it is a nice enough city. A major earthquake struck in 1963, and most everything has been constructed since that date. I was surprised to see quite a few mosques in Skopje. Macedonia is, I believe, about 30% Muslim. And given the crush of population in Kosovo, this number will undoubtedly rise. I had read somewhere of the small Church of St. Pantelejmon in the village of Gorno Nerezi. A hotel was said to be adjacent, much like at St. Naum's. Gorno Nerezi appears on no map, not even Google Maps at its most detailed. The village was said to be on the mountain overlooking Skopje. As there was basically one mountain that fit this category, and one road ascending it, I thought my chances were good to find the church. Persistence paid off, and I discovered the church and hotel. St. Pantelejmon was built in 1164 by Alexios Angelos Konemnos, grandson of Alexios I, and nephew of the noted historian Anna Konemnos. Architecturally, the church is a small jewel. As luck would have it, a wedding was about to get underway. This would be the second Saturday night wedding I would observe. The adjoining hotel had a room available (in fact, all were available.) From my front door, I had a clear view down to the church. I walked over and looked in a bit, but chose not to elbow my way inside during the wedding ceremony. I was amused by one woman who stood in the doorway to the narthex, craning her head inside to watch, turning back only to take a draw on the cigarette she was holding in her outstretched hand. After the wedding itself, the priest introduced the new couple to everyone assembled, and then they all adjourned to the restaurant, where the band and food and wine was waiting on them. I would get up occasionally during the night and step outside my room. Looking down the way, I could see many of the guests in a large circle with locked arms, dancing slowly to the traditional Balkan music. The festivities did not keep me up, but I still slept fitfully. Early in the night, I was surprised to hear the last call to prayer from the mosque in the village. I thought this unusual, as the small community also contained this church, as well as a monastery in a different location. In other words, it was a thoroughly mixed village. In cases like this, I had assumed the intrusiveness of the Muslim call to prayer would have been foregone.

The next morning, I asked the waiter if there would be services at the church that Sunday. He was not sure, but thought there would be liturgy at 11:00. With this uncertainty in mind, I made the decision to push on to Serbia. I drove down the mountain, through Skopje, and soon found myself on the main highway leading to Belgrade. My time in Macedonia was short, but I came away favorably impressed. One day I might return. If I do, next time I will certainly buy a bottle of that schnapps.

(I apologize for the slowness in which these travel notes are being posted. There should be about 6 or 7 remaining.)


Becky said...

I love the tile roofs on those churches, and I'm sure they're as beautiful on the inside as the outside.

The story about your old church cracked me up. Their loss, our gain. ; ) I couldn't agree more about the whole thing - one of my favorite Pascha memories is our first one at St. Nicholas in Dallas, as everyone was breaking out their baskets, a parishoner came over to me with a shot glass. "What's this?", I inquired. "Chocolate vodka from Ukraine! Christ is Risen!" THAT is celebrating the Resurrection!

jmgregory said...

John, I am thoroughly enjoying your travelogue.

I'd love to hear how the communion juice story came about. Was it bravery or bravado? I've often joked with friends about "cutting" the grape juice with the real thing, but we all know we'd never actually DO it. Then again, from what some of the older members of my congregation tell me, there was a time in the 50's or 60's when one of the elders made his own wine, and that's what the church used.

John said...

Becky and jm,

First, let me say that I posted this last night at about 1:30 in the morning. In the light of day, I saw all the grammatical errors, and the post has been tightened-up a bit and corrected.

Becky, I know what you mean. And speaking of St. Nicholas, I met Fr. Seraphim a few weeks ago. I am helping him with the prison ministry at the Michael Unit. Can't wait to see y'all.

jm, I think the word you are looking for is..."stupidity." You might say I was "chafing at the bits." Actually, I did it for a month or two. I live near the church, and so, more often than not, I was the one who unlocked the building and prepared the communion, and then disposed of it afterwards. One of these days, I want to post on the particulars of that whole process. My father-in-law had been an elder and occasional minister at this church. They tell the story that once he put wine in the communion trays just so everyone would know that it was not grape juice per se that was scripturally mandated. But that was old history, long before my time in the family. I remember that the church hired one preacher who taught that people drank unfermented wine (huh?) in the New Testament days, and that if you ever drank alcohol, you could never be completely sober again. He used the example of a frog jumping halfway to the wall--he would never get completely to the wall doing so. How do you argue with logic like that :)

The subversive that I am, I encourage you and your friends to follow-through with your scheme. And then I would be interested to hear how THAT turns out!

Dana said...

I'm very much enjoying the travel notes, as usual. Hope you are all recovered now and don't have any lingering problems.

I'm an old folk dancer, so I can see the wedding festivities playing on the screen of my mind. Macedonian dances are some of the most beautiful and interesting (and complicated), much like the Bulgarian ones, actually.


Milton T. Burton said...

I am halfway to the wall right now. I will get there, though, because reasoning like that sends me UP THE WALL!!

Ranger said...

Yes, I love my church!

We had a Ukrainian Deacon help with our Pascha services in our small mission. Along with meats he had had shipped from Chicago, he brought the best vodka...or any alcoholic concoction I had ever had in my life. He is now serving the Ukrainian community in Portugal as a priest.
Back in college I went to the "Faith and values" conference in D.C. one of the highlights to that trip... which by the way was not the keynote address by Al Gore... was being seated next to the Macedonian ambassador to the U.S. I still have her card, I need to see if her email still works, or at least "google" her name.
btw, I too, raised pigeons as a teenager, so if you ever have plans to visit the pigeon bazaar, take me!

Steve Hayes said...

When I was in Albania some years ago a Welsh priest came to visit, and travelled there via Macedonia. He booked into a hotel in Skopje, and was just setting in to his room when a curtain between his room and the next was torn open, and a man said, "Welcome to the land of thieves and liars." The priest saw through the doorway that the next room had a table with a nearly-empty wine bottle on it...

elizabeth said...

Enjoyed this as always. Sounds like you were really strugging with sickness; I too hope you have recovered. I do not mind the 'slowness' of these posts; actually I think it helps us savour it...