An afternoon in Ohrid

Monday, November 22, 2010

Another Glorious Weekend

My friend Happie called me Friday afternoon and invited me to come down to Makedonski Brod to visit and go to the Zrze monastery since it was going to be a beautiful weekend. So after work I packed up and caught the 5:30 combi and I am so glad I did. It was a spectacular weekend. Saturday morning we got up and caught a cab with a random cabbie waiting by the Mak Brod Center. It was the first of several 'blessings' for the day. He agreed to take us to Zrze, but warned us we would have to walk the last kilometer or so up the mountain to the monastery. That was fine. We went from an okay road, to a not so good road, to a pretty bad road, and reached Zrze. Zrze, like many small remote villages in Macedonia, is dying. I had thought maybe we could pick up something to eat and drink there before our steep hike, but there were no stores that I saw. Many houses were abandoned and falling apart. We saw no one under 45 living there, and indeed, no young people do live there. A quick side note, someone told me that the reason that villages like these died in Spain was because of universal education. While small villages can support primary schools, once children start high school they are sent away to board at the high school in the nearest city. Often times parents follow them there, but even if they don't, the children never return to live the hard-scrabble farm life. They move to the cities to seek better opportunities and more stimulation. The same is true in Macedonia. So slowly, as the older people die, the villages die. Villages that once had hundreds of residents are now down to a handful and soon will disappear forever, along with that way of life. But back to my tale....

Smiler (pronounced smeelar) stopped and asked a resident about the road up to the monastery. The man shrugged, and said he could make it with his car, so Smiler started up. The road was truly terrible, but Smiler was determined. It turned out that he had grown up in Zrze, and the last time he had been to the monastery was 30 years ago, and he wanted to see it as well! So up we went, saved a strenuous (and hungry and thirsty) hike, to one of the most beautiful places in the world.

The monastery is currently inhabited by 8 monks who are busy restoring the archaeological features. It was first settled in caves in the rock cliff under an ancient fort in the 9th century. If you look at the picture, you can see the monks cells and a cave church in the rock. There was also an old basilica that was built up on the ledge in the 5th century that they are busy excavating - if you look on my facebook page you can see more pictures. One of the monks came out and gave us a tour - he spoke very good English. Most monks in Macedonia are young, because while the church wasn't shut down under Tito, neither was it encouraged. Only during the past 20 years or so have the monasteries been repopulated with young monks. Anyway, in the 14th century the current church was built with its beautiful icons and paintings. There are two paintings of Jesus and Mary by the altar which have a miracle attributed to them. Mary's painting showed her playing with Jesus - a fairly unusual depiction. For 3 days after the paintings were placed in their proper place by the altar, the monks would enter to find that the paintings had switched places. Mary finally spoke to one of the monks and told him that she needed to be on the right side of the altar instead of her customary left spot so her back wouldn't be turned to the picture of Jesus, and so it is today. The monk gave us another blessing - a small book on the monastery, and they gave us some mountain tea to enjoy under a tree in the courtyard. It was magical.

When we headed back we were starving, so we had Smiler take us to a new restaurant built by a friend of Happies by the Peshar Peshka cave - our third blessing. They are building some guest cabins there, but after the workers ate, we had the place to ourselves. We sat on the balcony in the sunshine until the sun went down, then our host came out and ushered us in by the wood stove. We had mixed salad - in Macedonia that's shredded cabbage, tomatoes, cucumbers, beets, carrots, and soft white cheese - to start off, then asked the owner/chef to choose our main course. He brought out уваци, a traditional Macedonian dish that is a rolled chicken breast stuffed with cheese and wrapped in bacon, and a homemade kolbasa - both were the best I've had yet in Macedonia. Biljana and Goce sat and talked to us as we ate, and partway through the meal Biljana's mother came out with a благо that she had made for us - a sweet coconut cake soaked in the sugar water that they use for most desserts - think baklava for an idea of what the syrup is like. We were stuffed, but it too was delicious not to eat. She had brought out about 8 pieces for us, and when we could each only eat one, they wrapped up the rest for us to take. That meal, plus a big glass of rakija each, cost about 8 dollars each - I shall miss the prices of good meals when I return home. It was such a pleasurable meal - like many Macedonian meals it stretched out over a couple of hours - made more special by the hospitality of our hosts and the intimate feeling of our surroundings. On so many days here I blink my eyes to remind myself it is all real - bouncing on combis squeezed between Macedonians or Albanians, their patience and delight in having conversations with me, seeing such beauty, and feeling such warmth from everyone. I wish I could send each and every one of you the sensations I experience here - they are truly indescribable.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Oct. and Nov.

Hi, everyone,
I know it's been forever since I've written, but it's been a busy month. Tomorrow is Kurban Bajram, or little Bajram. The two Bajrams will always resonate with me, because I moved in with my Albanian host family right before the big Bajram, and moved out the day after little Bajram. Thanksgiving marks half of my service time - it will be a year since we were sworn in as Peace Corps volunteers. The Mak-13's (and the Mak 12's who extended a year) are going home, and it's like losing family. They were our guides and introduced us to Macedonia, and I will forever be grateful for their welcoming us into the PC family. Mbarre rrugen, everyone.

One reason I was so busy was that I went back to the States for two weeks and visited sisters, parents and kids. What a great time! It feels like teleporting from one world into another (but not as quick - the trip home took 24 hours). Every part of it was wonderful. It was especially nice to see my parents. They have had significant health problems since I've been gone - not unexpected, given their age - and it has been difficult to be so far away. But they both looked good and we had a rewarding visit.

Talk about fabulous - San Fran and NYC were both great fun. Chris was able to arrange for Pixar to have a luxury box at the Oakland Raiders/Seahawks game, and Dave, Karen and Kellen came down to see the game with us. We feasted and watched the Seahawks lose badly, but it was great fun. He then gave us a tour of Pixar. The picture above is him in Alcatraz - I'd never gone and wanted to. Next was 3 days in NYC, where Kacy took me for a mani, pedi and massage. That night we went to a play and saw Laura Linney. It was excellent and thought provoking. It was great to see the kids' new apartments and offices - a lot has changed since I left.

Two seminars - one on sustainable tourism and one on sustainable forestry - buttressed my trip home. Above is a picture of my Kosovar friends. One day I will go visit them, but I fear it will have to wait until I'm done with Peace Corps. Kosovo is off limits to us. Everyone I have met from Kosovo has been so nice, though, and I can't wait until I can get up to visit.

Finally, last weekend I went down to Demir Kapija for a lamb roast that my friend Tracy had arranged. We all brought some a variety of things to eat or to make, and did we feast. Friday night we took ingredients we had brought to a place that makes pizza with a brick oven. We gave them the ingredients and instructed them on which ingredient we wanted on what pizza. They made the crust, added the ingredients as instructed, and then baked them in their oven. Talk about gourmet pizzas! We had a pepper pizza with fresh onions, peppers, ajvar, and the regular fixings, a garlic pizza, a gorgonzola, bacon and carmelized onion pizza, a cheese pizza, and one other yummy one whose ingredients I now can't remember. They were amazing. The next day we got up and got the combi out to Demir Kapija and dropped off the food for the lamb roast. We then went out for a short hike and condor watching. It was a pristine fall day - warm, blue sky, the kind of a day where you are so happy to be alive and outside. We then returned for the roast. The owner of the restaurant had been getting the brick oven heated and ready, and we roasted the lamb and a variety of root veggies. It was the best lamb I'd ever eaten, succulent, flavorful, with juices oozing everywhere, and done perfectly. It was possibly the best meal I have ever eaten.

Now that I've made you all hungry, I think I"ll go eat lunch. Have a great day!