Everyone claps when the plane touches down, as if they didn’t expect it to. Is this standard for Bulgaria? I wonder. Should I assume the plane will explode on arrival and when it doesn’t, applaud? Strange men whisper taxi in my ear in the arrivals hall. The highway to Sofia is a smooth gray line below gray skies, bordered by billboards advertising soap and cars and phones in Cyrillic script that can’t help but look to me like Communist propaganda. When we get to town, there is a dumpster full of flowers. People walk by it holding colorful bouquets. Then we drive past the PEEP SHOW and pull up to the bus station, where I don’t have small change for the driver so I walk inside to break 100 lev, see A. and A. standing tall and real on the tile, and pretty much forget about the cab. It always seems fake: look at these people, people I know, pinpoints in a dark sheet of not-knowing. We awkwardly hug, the way imaginary people do. A. walks out and handles the fare. Then we wonder around the quiet station, the inscrutable glass offices of the local bus companies, and look for the word Macedonia in Cyrillic, which looks like Македонија.
We talk in subdued tones. Almost whispers. The grey sky seems to hold sound at bay. I have not felt so calm in months, or so energized. When we find the ticket place for Macedonia two guys are sitting in chairs across the the sales agent’s desk looking despondent, or malevolent, or bored. People are everywhere. Who knows what their faces mean. We get the tickets and leave the office and walk past a cage that’s both dilapidated and grand, which sits prominently in the middle of the sidewalk and wears an all-caps banner sign and is covered with graffiti and strewn with trash. I assume it’s for a set of garbage cans that have gone missing, but A. jokes that it’s where they throw the bad tourists. I laugh. I look at the cage again. I stop laughing.
Or: Sometime before the border, fat snowflakes start to fall outside the windows of the minibus. Green hills and humble villages and mules mowing grass alongside exist ramps are behind us, and now there is a snow-capped peak in the distance, and I am full of an indescribable joy. The happiness of movement. Of escaping across a landscape that does not end, of cold dry air peering in from outside, of the heater in the minibus having to work hard to keep us warm. And the snow. I feel that I am home.
The border rises up in front of us. Concrete pillars and a concrete roof, a small booth for the guards. An overweight, unleashed German Shepherd that looks incisively at the minibus as the doors open and we step out, unload our bags for inspection, and hunch against the cold. The snow still falls. Behind us now, the snow-capped peak watches us silently and I’m suddenly sure that one day I must live in the mountains, that if I ever settle anywhere it will be high up, that I need a place like this, where the beauty is silent and calm but threatening. A. snaps a picture of A. and I. The gruff Bulgarian guards check our passports. Then we pile back into the van and drive the few meters to the Macedonian side, where we wait in the minibus with the door open to the freezing air while they go through our passports, call up Dennis, but it’s another Dennis, our only Bulgarian passenger, and he leaves the minibus and chats with the guards while our hard-nosed white-haired white-goateed driver stares into the distance and then into the passenger-side window and adjusts the collar of his overcoat. Then Dennis gets back into the minibus, the driver shuts the side door, gets in, and starts the engine, and we go.
The snow stops soon after we leave the border, once the minibus has begun to descend from the mountain pass. Like a pocket of magic—as if being cold, too cold, feeling my toes freeze beside the minibus’s open door, and watching the Macedonian retriever glare at the horzion were a limited-edition, one-time experience—that holy border disappears behind us. But I am euphoric with the knowledge that it is there.
Or: In the center of the old bazaar’s busiest path, a hunched man wails into a microphone. The microphone wire leads to a pair of red plastic speakers. The speakers’ extension cord leads to a generator about five meters away, in the center of a busy pedestrian intersection, which roars and stinks of gas and nearly drowns out the man’s song if you stand right next to it. The man is not a good singer, unless good means something else in Macedonia. Instead he seems poor, desperate, and deluded. Every penny he makes pays for the generator’s gas. The shoppers and tourists flow in an endless river around him but he wails, tries, issues his sad message to the world.
A. says he and his generator are the perfect metaphor for what we have seen of this country: ambitious attempts at creation immediately beside, and tied inextricably to, certain decay. The soaring national stadium (Арена Филип II Македонски) with a dilapidated concrete shack in front of it that looks as if it’s been burned, desecrated, offered down to some lower God. The expansive riverside park, its thoughtful statues covered with graffiti. The sparkling white government buildings at the foot of the old Turkish fort, across from which a series of abandoned tunnels are filled with piles of unspeakably dirty clothing, old papers and beer cans, and a terrifying hollowness.
The following day, the wailing man is not there. He has either been removed or given up. I am surprised to find that the bazaar is somehow less without him.
Or: We take the trail without knowing where it goes. Up and blindly up, through the sharp mountains above Matka Cayon, and we’ve just begun to worry that we’ll have to backtrack back when a building appears ahead, nestled underneath a cliff. Oh, we say. We walk through the entrance gate. We amble onto an overlook and spot Matka Lake, which has suddenly been revealed below. Above us, we watch a climber wearing crampons chip his way up the iceless cliff with an ice ax.
Then we walk into the chapel that forms the center of the tiny settlement. It is tiny, simple, old, full of a silent aura I can’t explain. The walls are covered with holy figures, painted inexpertly but with total devotion. Most of the figures’ eyes are scratched out, and their bodies are shrouded by centuries of names cut into the wall. Framed photos of idols line a set of tables, which is also spread with ten-denar bills (about 18 cents) and Macedonian coins. Beside those is a guest book. The first entry I turn to says:
NO BORDERS NO NATIONS
JUST PEOPLE !!!
But again: a different Dennis. I imagine Spanish hippies trekking over the rocks in their colorful traveling pants. I imagine them going speechless as they arrive at the top. They guzzle from their water bottles as the wind from below whips their dreadlocks into a frenzy. Then they retreat inside the chapel and record their motto: Here we all are, awed by the scarred energy of this place, its unblinking dedication to something that can’t be real. But the thing behind the chapel is real. You can feel hope and despair, all wanting some invisible and impossible fullness, in the remnants of candles stuck in the chapel’s basins of ash. But you can’t feel that fullness. You can only feel the wanting of it, and so the church is dark and flickers and its altar, protected by a wooden barrier with only a small window showing the frescoes on the other side, is peculiarly spare. The wooden barrier seems to be protecting only the space itself. Ten denars on the ledges. Only a little light.
Outside, we eat hard-boiled eggs and the wind gets too cold to bear. We ask a climber if we can get down to the lake from here and he says Yeah. There’s a piece of metal nailed to a tree—you just ring it with a hammer and the boatman comes and gets you and takes you to the other side.
We’re already on the other side.
I feel a similar aura in the Acropolis, where I hear more American accents and see more Chicago Bulls shirts than I’ve seen since August. They roam like cattle up the stairs carved into the rock. They stare up at the intricate ceilings of the Propylaia, at its high white columns. Beyond the Propylaia is the Parthenon. And the Erechtheum. And the last two marble slabs of the podium where the bronze statue of Athena Promachos once stood, which sailors to Athens could see glint over the horizon before they could see anything else. And me, sitting on a block of marble with a dent in it, rainwater in the dent, pink petals floating in the water, a passport-sized notebook in my hand, scribbling letters that are intelligible only to me. But the Parthenon is what matters. It is what makes the tourists electric when they arrive at the top. It is what makes them chatter, take photos, not know what to do with their bodies. They climb on mounds of marble to get a better look. They circumvent the temple, stopping in front of signs with archeologist jargon that they soon give up on, and return to the spot where they first glimpsed the temple from. Cranes pour out from behind the columns—little men move back and forth inside, shifting marble and righting the wrongs of past restorations—but there is the sense that all of us are staring into a vast, inexplicable void. Nothing could fill the space the Parthenon takes up. And it is the contrast of the pieced-together white marble columns with the mind’s image of the place, the conflict between the ruins’ profound representation of the human struggle with their actual mammoth uselessness, that keeps everyone looking. We are staring into nothing more than ourselves. No one can enter. No one can come close enough to feel the place. And so everyone feels it. Something gnawing at us, something reminding us that we will never be able to understand.
After fifteen minutes the new arrivals cool down. They end up sitting on the ramparts that prop up the Acropolis, or trying artsy photos, or sitting with their backs to the iconic temple and watching other tourists walk by. A few draw shaky sketches. I think and write. For a good while, I feel that I can’t stop writing, that I’m on the verge of something really important. Figuring out my life, placing a point on my future, on the months that will inevitably arrive after I leave Malta, understanding the transitory nature of all things and the effort we make in spite of it, moving past the symbolism of the Parthenon and its thousand brethren toward a grasp of what is actual. But what is actual is the four high-school age French girls sitting in a semicircle on the marble mound a few feet away from me, their backs to the Parthenon. They are here with a group. They are bored. They are underdressed, too—they’ve just discovered that they have bodies—because a cool wind is blowing over the Acropolis from the city below, even though the sun shines. I am kind of sad for them. I consider this sadness in words. Then my phone rings, and I have to stop writing. Stupidly, I think that’s the answer to my many questions. Your phone rings! Then you start to live! Living is the answer!
So it is. And the day blooms with wonder and I don’t come to understand anything, but I forget that I meant to.
Go so fast you can’t think.
Look away from the void.
But before Greece: A man bursts into my train compartment outside of Skopje, taps the heater below the window with his finger, waves his hands in an X, and gestures toward the next train car. Who is this man? Why such kindness at 4:30 in the morning? But it is true that I am freezing because the heater is not working and I immediately begin to rise and gather my things but when he sees my rush he gestures one more time: a shrug, hands in the air. You don’t have to move, he means. So I smile, and say thanks, and consider the beauty of the freezing night. I’ve already put my second pair of socks on. So I sit back down in the lightless cold.
Or: The man bursts in again an hour from Thessaloniki. He taps the train. No, he says. He points outside. Bus, he says. Then he disappears again and again what he says is true: We roll to a stop, pile off, pile back onto a bus. Border issues. You can see the refugee camps in the few miles south of the border, nylon tents pitched beneath gas station awnings, slightly thicker UNHCR tents like dim beacons between them.
Or: I yell to a tall German youth at the station in Thessaloniki—When’s the train for Athens leave?—and he gravitates toward me, an instant friend. We sit with our legs hanging from the concrete wall beside the ocean, specks of trash float in the water, tiny translucent jellyfish hang beside the trash, and a kiosk behind us sells shirts that say:
We walk to the White Tower, symbol of the city, and two guys try to tie little bracelets around our wrists and ask for money for them. The old trick. Kind Ole lets them do it. I pull my hand away and say, I don’t do that. Then we sit on a bench and I watch him play with his devil sticks while passers-by stare and an amazed little kid almost walks into a pole. Ole is the grandson of Franz Erhard Walther, conceptual artist. Ole is an enlightened being. I see my younger self in him a little, awed at the infinity of cities in the world, at the infinity of time in which to visit them. I was never that awed, but I wanted to be. He stretches toward the sky as if transcendence is part of his lineage; his grandfather already achieved meaning, mystery, and now it is up to him only to live.
A few hours later, on the train to Athens, I read the Sharpie on the seat in front of me:
Which is written over an almost identical scribbling that says:
And when we get close to Athens, when the city is starting to coagulate, three orange chairs on a suburban train platform read:
MON STE RS
The train pulls in. A woman outside the station begs us for money. Then we disappear into Athens. We walk in opposite directions. The streets are a grid, but the city is mystery.
The next day, after I commune with the Acropolis, Ole and I walk for miles. Up the Hill of the Muses, past the few standing columns of the Temple of Olympian Zeus, through the National Gardens, beyond the turtle pond and the dressed-up soldiers marching along the row of Embassies, and up Lykavittos Hill, where we stare out at Athens, which spreads until the far-off hills get too steep for buildings. We can hardly imagine that the city ends on the other side of them. It must be buildings all the way until the end of the earth.
Then we descend, and a step on the way down says:
Long Strange Dreams
Band name, I think. Life motto, I think, name for a short story collection, a beautiful way of perceiving each day. After we reach the bottom of the hill we walk across the city until we’re near the Acropolis again, and we find a bar that’s open and eat Greek salad and grilled octopus stuffed with cheese. Then we wander out for a last time. Ole buys a pipe handmade from brass and wire, we make our way through the dark of Areopagus Hill to a rock overlook where a few other sets of people sit, Ole smokes, I watch, the Acropolis is lit above us and calm for once, the yellow lights of the city hint that some day they might sleep. He says, Maybe I will stay another night here. This American girl I met—she’s great—is here and I want to see her again.
You should do it, I say.
Yeah, he says.
But the next day he’s gone.
This is the thirteenth in a series in which I live in Malta for a year. Find the rest of the series here.
This is not an official Department of State website or blog, and the views and information presented are my own and do not represent the Fulbright program, the U.S. Department of State, or any of its partner organizations.