In the afterword to Lolita, Nabokov enumerates some very minor details of the novel, a few of them just a sentence or even a mere word, that most readers will have probably not even noticed. He calls these “the nerves of the novel. These are the secret points, the subliminal coordinates by means of which the book is plotted.”
Likewise, the subliminal coordinates of my Albanian ambit aren’t major figures like Lee or arresting moments like my encounter with the epileptic on the hilltop above Kruja. Those episodes are the flesh, muscle and blood of my experiences here. The bones and joints, what it all hangs on and what holds it together, is the actual travel.
I mean, for example, the shopkeeper in Struga who gave me friendly but succinct directions to the nearest bank machine, which enabled me to withdraw North Macedonian denar in short order and make it back to the bus stop just in time to catch a prompt connection to Ohrid; else I’d have lost hours waiting. I mean the friendly Australian couple I chatted with in a restaurant, probably in their sixties: the man must have had Tourette’s syndrome, which at his age he had clearly learned to manage, and his sentences were interlarded with sudden cries of fah! and hah! He told me about his visit to New Orleans, which came about when his blues band won a nationwide competition and represented Australia at an international festival in the Big Easy. I imagined all his tics subsiding while he played the blues.
I mean the look on one guy’s face just as I agreed to pay one of his beer-drinking mates, a taxi driver hanging out at the end of the day, 20 euros—by far the most I’ve paid for any single ride in Albania—to transport me at sundown from the nowheresville junction town of Vau i Dejes to Pukë (which is also a nowhere town, but no matter): Dude, his eyes, red from drink, unmistakably flashed, Dude, you just scored! I mean the gesture of another taxi driver, in Peshkopi, with whom I waited for two women, who had already left their bags in his trunk, to return from a quick errand before we shared a ride to the Macedonian border. The taxi driver smoked a cigarette to pass the time. When he was through with it, the women had still not returned. He became agitated, pacing up and down; he pulled another cigarette from his pack and turned to go look for the women while he smoked it. Before he strode away, as a late but important afterthought, he shook another cigarette out of the pack and handed it to me. It was the precise way he did this—over his shoulder, while still scanning the street hawkishly for his fugitive women—that pinned the moment in place: Better take this, my friend; you’re gonna need it. (After he smoked a third cigarette, we left with the women’s bags but without the women. I still wonder what became of them.) I mean the uneventful four or five miles I walked, three days later, from the North Macedonia-Albania border, where still another taxi driver deposited me, all the way into the sleepy little Albanian city of Pogradeç, and the police officers there strolling the lakefront promenade, one of them a portly woman at least in her mid-fifties, who kindly directed me to the bus depot. I mean the largest and probably oldest plane tree I had ever seen, right under which my minibus stopped for a stretch break in the tiny burg of Leskoviku halfway between Korça and Përmet.
These are the subliminal coordinates of my progress from place to place, which over the next couple of days was all I wanted to accomplish, and I don’t expect to forget them anytime soon. After I left Lee in Valbona, I hitched a ride to a town called Bajram Curri. From there I got a cheap taxi to Fierza, which is the northern terminus of the famous Lake Koman ferry: “one of the world’s classic boat trips,” Gillian Gloyer raves in the Albania guidebook, “up there with the Hurtigrut along the Norwegian coast or the ferry from Puerto Montt to Puerto Natales in Chile.” (I’ll have to take her word for it.) It was a lovely ferry ride, and I’m glad I took it, but it did not fill me with unforgettable memories, perhaps because so many people have taken that ferry; its imprint is a bit faint by now, from overuse. En route, I sometimes admired the scenery but mostly plotted how I would get from the ferry’s southern terminus to Pukë, my intended destination for the night, and I also wondered what to make of the youngish guy in the incongruous beret and professorial get-up (blazer with elbow patches, oxford boots) making scholarly-looking notes in a composition book. Turned out he was from Baltimore, had just come from Bulgaria after interviewing for a job teaching English composition at a university near Sofia, and was enjoying a little travel as a reward for having learned that he’d gotten the job. Our shared means of transport at the dock, where there was no sign of a taxi or bus, we secured by waiting for the ferry workers to put their boat to bed on the jetty for the night and paying them to drive us away, and then another guy to drive us further away.
Well after dark in Pukë, a pleasant ski town (yes, you can ski in Albania), I chatted with the owner of a souvenir-shop-slash-bar-slash-café as the entire town was closing up for the night. He gave me a free glass of house-made, ten-year-old, barrel-aged raki. It was so good that the next morning I went back and, over Turkish coffee, talked him out of a little bottle of it (seven bucks), which I’m still sipping my way through. He told me the bus I wanted to take east out of Pukë would depart from from point x, and he telephoned the driver, whom he knew, to let him know I’d be on it; but it turned out that a few minutes later the bus was idling at point y; was I coming or not; so my barman had to rush me down the street.
I took that bus from Pukë to Kukës; both names are fun to say (incorrectly, one discovers; the first rhymes with yuca and the second is as in LaRukes). In Kukës, while I waited for a connection to Peshkopi, I had a coffee in one place and then a raki in another, bought for me by a sixtyish Albanian fellow hanging around the café by the bus stop. (It turns out that a lot of sixtyish men in Albania have plenty of time to sit in cafés and drink raki with tourists.)
In Peshkopi I walked myself from the bus depot to the communist-era concrete-block Turizmi hotel, which still has an enormous Socialist-Realist painting hanging in the lobby, a Sgt. Pepper-meets-Hieronymous-Bosch Who’s–Who of history that depicts not only Gandhi and Orson Welles (I think?) but also Hitler and Stalin. I got a room in the nearly empty place for fifteen euros, the current going rate for a modestly priced but perfectly decent room most everywhere I’ve been in Albania. From that room I booked two nights in an AirBnB apartment in North Macedonia, also fifteen euros. The next morning I took a taxi from Peshkopi over the border to a bus station in Debar, then a bus to Struga, and then another one to Ohrid, on the North Macedonian side of a large, lovely lake that would be much more famous than it is were it sandwiched between, say, Italy and Austria instead of Albania and a country whose identity is still so contested that, earlier this year, it changed its name, basically just to get Greece to shut up about it.
Ohrid, North Macedonia—“North” was added to the toponym in January; there is no South Macedonia—is “like a mini-Dubrovnik,” said a young Englishman I met on the trail from Theth to Valbona (not Alex the ultrarunner, but another guy). That comparison is another word I’ll have to take, never having been to Dubrovnik. He and his wife loved the place, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The first thing to say about the importance of that designation is that there really are an awful lot of World Heritage sites, more than a thousand. Not that Ohrid doesn’t exude world heritage—it definitely does, quite a bit more strongly than some of the others I’ve seen—but the second thing to say about the importance of that designation, at least to me, was that going to Ohrid, on the east side of the eponymous lake, in North Macedonia, appeared to be an easier way to get from the northwestern to the southwestern side of the lake, in Albanian territory, than by trying to do it while actually remaining in Albania. Like the man says, you can’t get there from here. You can only get there by going into another country with a contested name. Also, I thought tourist-friendly Ohrid would be a likelier place than Pukë or Peshkopi to find somewhere to get my laundry done. In other words, my reasons for going to Ohrid were flatly practical.
Another subliminal coordinate, a secret point, although in fact not so secret: the giant statue of St. Clement at pretty much Ohrid-ground-zero where I plopped myself down on a bench facing this statue, without any idea what it was—with barely a clue about Ohrid at all—except that it was so large, it must be a landmark. I messaged the AirBnB hostess, and within minutes her mom showed up and walked me a few hundred meters to my apartment. I piled my dirty laundry into my daypack and walked to a place called Bubbles, according to my phone. Bubbles turned out not to be a laundromat, as I had expected, but a laundry service, and service was done for the day and indeed for the next three days, because it was Friday afternoon and evidently laundry is not serviced on weekends in Ohrid. Bubbles burst.
Having failed at the one errand on my list, and kind of a crucial one at that (I wound up hand washing a few essentials in my bathroom sink), I did the other errand that you pretty much have to do right away when you get to a World Heritage city like Ohrid: I went to the castle. Castle was fine. Sort of halfway-reconstructed in an unsatisfying way. I have pleasant boring photos of Lake Ohrid from up there, the sort of photos you can find all over the internet. Ohrid as a whole seemed like it might be pleasant but boring. I was booked for two nights, and I began immediately to regret it.
I could see that this regret probably had less to do with Ohrid than it did with my need to keep moving. So instead of parceling out visits to the town’s attractions over the next two days, I simply began making them immediately, in continuous sequence: the amphitheater, a Byzantine church—actually, the church was quite nice—and then a small art gallery right across from the church. Some of the pieces in the gallery had been salvaged from that church, and I found them to be quite impressive, although I didn’t really know what they were. Clueless!
They were orthodox icons. That much I gathered. I didn’t entirely know what an icon was, although the pieces in the gallery were making it pretty clear. Some of them were nearly a thousand years years old, but their excellent condition actually made me doubt their age. Many of them were depictions of St. Clement, who is Ohrid’s spiritual father (in some images, he’s cradling a miniature of the city in his left elbow) and is easily recognizable by his alien-sized and –shaped head, alarmingly swelled into pea-pod compartments of learnedness. Several others were mother-and-child renderings with beguiling names—Hodigitria, Psychosostria—portraying Mary and Jesus with uncommon earthiness, physical detail, and emotional subtlety. The colors, all in tempera, were remarkably vivid, and some of the images were outlined by thick, gilded silver revetments that were finely and intricately worked.
There were NO PHOTO signs all over the gallery (that one above is an iPhone snap of a postcard I bought, and it no more captures the real icon than my photo of the Albanian Alps captures the holy-f***ing-shit of the view), as well as ropes keeping visitors from getting too close to the icons. Serious business here, although I had no idea why the business was so serious. I was surprised, though, to see a youngish woman in what I will call Orthodox clothing—head covering, ankle-length skirt—standing on a footstool on the off-limits side of the rope, with her nose so close to an icon’s nose that she was practically Eskimo-kissing it. She was peering so intently at it that she might have been trying to see right through the paint. Why was she allowed to do this? It was far more dangerous for the art than taking pictures of it. What if she really did rub noses with it and messed up the paint, or lost her balance on the stool and knocked the icon clean off the wall?
I went back outside and wandered the Old Town for a while, perhaps starting to see what the big World Heritage deal was about Ohrid. The sun was beginning its descent and I realized I was cold. (It’s OK to be cold!) I was wearing shorts like an American, because both pairs of pants needed washing and I hadn’t dumped my still-dirty laundry back out of the bag that I’d toted over to Bubbles; I had gone straight back out to the castle. I was also getting hungry, and one thing Heather and I have learned the hard way in our travels is that when you’re far from home and hungry, you’d really better eat soon.
On the way back to my rental apartment, I saw the young woman with the head covering again. She and another woman were taking pictures of each other—with a real camera, not a phone—on a set of risers in the courtyard behind another old church. It was a curious amphitheater-like space, and I was drawn into it partly by its strangeness and partly by the sounds of piano being tuned up inside the church. Of course I hadn’t forgotten the odd sight of the head-covered woman poking her nose into the icon in the gallery, so by way of investigating this curious case I made a camera gesture and asked if she’d like me to take a picture of the two of them together. Sure.
She spoke English and we got to talking. She came to Ohrid from Russia—her name, naturally, was Olga—with a group of art students from a theological institute who wanted to study the icons. She told me the collection in the gallery here was one of the finest and rarest in the world. It had taken a very long time, fraught with delays and obstacles, for them to be granted permission to visit. I asked why there had been problems, given that the gallery was open to the public and cost only two dollars for entry. She wasn’t sure but said there were difficulties both political and regulatory. We were in a place that had been part of the former Yugoslavia, which I guess didn’t make the Russians favorites of the new North Macedonian authorities. (One of the auxiliary and not-in-the-guidebook “sights” in town was a preponderance of Yugos, the cars we used to make fun of in the 1980s: “No-Yu-don’t.”)
Finally the student was group was invited, but only on the grounds that they not paint copies of or photograph the icons. They were only permitted to make pencil sketches. Still, they were thrilled to have finally made the trip. Studying the icons in Ohrid supplied important pieces of the puzzle in helping the students understand the development of their own icon painting tradition. The Byzantine works were older, and their style had penetrated into Russia. Yet their uniqueness was obvious to Olga: the icons’ faces, especially those of the local saints, like Clement and Naum (whom I’ll return to), were clearly Macedonian, entirely different from the Russian faces she knew from icons at home. These saints were real people, from a specific time and place–don’t forget that Mother Teresa is Macedonian, although Albania likes to claim her, too–and they are waiting for us, they are one of us, in the next world.
That’s to say that despite her scholarly and occupational ardor, Olga’s response to the Macedonian icons was fundamentally personal. Seeing them “is like a miracle for me,” she said, her eyes shining with spiritual fervor. She and I agreed that the icons radiated a mysterious power. That was partly because Byzantine artists seldom signed their work: it was for God, she said, not personal glory, thus the anonymous work seemed to have bypassed its human makers and to have come directly from on high. And it was also because the art was not made for its own sake; it had a deeper purpose, and a more reverberant aura. “Art should inspire you to pray,” she insisted.
She dispelled my doubts about the age of the Ohrid icons. A small group of conservators had carefully worked off centuries of grime to reveal the deep colors beneath. Tempera is one of the many miracles bestowed upon us by the humble, common egg. I couldn’t help thinking of the extraordinary last lines of Lolita: “the refuge of art, the secret of durable pigments.” Say what you will about the novel’s perversions and cruelties, it’s an icon of its title character, its colors are vivid and deep and its workmanship impeccable, and it will last and last.
I resolved to revisit the icon gallery the next day, illuminated, Stasiuk-fashion, by retroactive knowledge; now I knew what I had just seen.
Olga had been expatiating on the icons for at least half an hour. I became aware that her friend/classmate had long ago gone off to sit by herself while Olga talked to me (There she goes again, blah-blah-blahing to any sucker who’ll listen), and that I kept shifting her camera from elbow crook to elbow crook; it was surprisingly heavy. Finally I snapped a few pictures of the two of them and we bid each other a fond farewell.
I went around to the front of the church, which had closed early because (a sign in English informed me) a rehearsal was in progress–that piano tuning I heard from outside during my talk with Olga. Another sign was in Macedonian, which I couldn’t even begin to decipher because Macedonia is rendered in Cyrillic. I recognized only one word, which happened to be the in the big, boldfaced font: концерт.
Remember when Billy Joel played some concerts in the Soviet Union in 1987? No, come to think of it, you don’t? Have you in fact done your best to forget everything about Billy Joel? Bully for you, but I was a fan in my youth; his songs were how I learned to play the piano. Billy Joel was the first major American pop star to tour the Soviet Union, basically because some others declined the chance (shame on them!). Afterwards he released a live album called концерт. So that’s how I knew what was on at St. Sofia that night. The moral of the story is ignore Billy Joel at your own peril, because you will miss out on life.
The piano concert at the church in Ohrid was scheduled for 7:30 pm. It was 7:05. There were some Americans sitting outside the church. I asked them if they knew exactly what kind of concert. Piano students, they said, and not much more, because Americans abroad (as Heather pointed out) don’t tend to like helping out other Americans abroad: we’re trying to get away from each other over here. I thanked them anyway, dashed back to my place, threw on some long pants, scarfed down a tepid oil-logged half of a byrek I had been saving for dinner, and was back in St. Sofia church at 7:31. There was an introduction, and then another, really long second introduction, droned from a script by its reader—I thought vaguely of joyless Soviet-era borefests—and then finally, just before 8:00, the first of nine students on the program came up and sat down before the handsome Steinway grand that had been brought in and tuned just for this occasion.
The pianist’s feet did not touch the ground. He couldn’t have been more than eight years old! And he proceeded with his little fingers to bang out a flawless, blistering romp through a Prokofiev toccata (I think). House brought down. The little man, spiffy and stout in a white tuxedo, gave a stately bow.
He was followed by a couple of other youngsters who together formed a three-boy warmup act for six college students—from Skopje, North Macedonia’s capital, I later found out from one of them—who played, among others, Beethoven, Brahms, Chopin, Sibelius, Scriabin, and a couple of Macedonian composers. During the концерт, I occasionally took the opportunity to look around the church, another Byzantine example that dates to the eleventh century, with its well-preserved frescoes. I became deeply happy and rapt, taking in the painting, the playing, the weeping with pride and joy of a bubbie for her granddaughter who played beautifully. During Beethoven’s divine Sonata No. 110, I thought a little about my grandmother, who was also a pianist; a handsome old Steinway baby grand was the dominant furnishing of the little house she and my grandfather lived in throughout my youth. Beethoven was her favorite composer, and I don’t doubt that she must have played this same sonata many times.
My grandmother’s late youth and early adulthood were marked by a pair of catastrophes. The first of these was a paralyzing bout of stagefright just as she sat down to play a student recital at Juilliard–much like the one I was watching now–from which her aspirations to a public playing career never recovered. The second catastrophe is too painful to recount here except to say that my grandmother spent most of her life in a wheelchair as a double amputee, afflicted by pains physical and psychic—I say it again: how heavy life wears! As I sat and listened, I hoped she could still hear this music, wherever she was. Art should inspire you to pray, quoth Olga; and here I was.
The next morning I took the city bus to the monastery of St. Naum, Ohrid’s other holy patron along with St. Clement. It’s a heavily touristed site, which isn’t a bad thing at all—that ensures good upkeep, which in the case of St. Naum’s monastery includes peacocks strutting in the yard outside, occasionally braying toward one another. (And it includes visits by groups of strutting bikers wearing leather jackets emblazoned with names like “Iron Brothers Bulgaria” and “Free Wolves Kosovo.”) I walked the grounds, which cover several lakeside acres about fifteen miles south of the town of Ohrid, including the full length of a footpath that runs for a kilometer or two past smaller outlying houses of worship near the main monastery, and I thought about what a gift it is just to be able to walk, walk, walk.
That afternoon, back in Ohrid, I returned to the icon gallery. I had the place entirely to myself for a full hour—it’s remarkable how often I’ve found myself alone at popular sites on this trip—and I borrowed some of Olga’s intentness as I peered at these incredible works of art (from the legal side of the rope). One thing you can’t help noticing is how full of weariness most of the faces look. They have wrinkled bags under their eyes, crow’s feet, heavy dark Macedonian brows, long melancholy Modigliani noses. St. Clement’s head bulges so hugely, like a tick, that it’s as if it has been deformed by too much wisdom which he can no longer forget and lighten the burden in his brain. In one especially large and vividly hued painting, he appears in stark contrast—gaunt with a long Confucian beard, grave downcast gaze—to St. Blaise, who stands to his left with a jovial twinkle in his eye and a leonine Santa Claus beard, well-fed and sanguine about the world while St. Clement dolorously carries vulnerable, precarious Ohrid in his arms. The several Madonnas gaze in sorrow, half at baby Jesus, half at the viewer, apologetic, half-regretful, as if in foreknowledge of the suffering their child will both cause and absorb. The baby she holds is not so freighted; he looks like the little Prokofiev prodigy at St. Sofia, perched at bright attention, his lively fingers ready to play his tune for the world. By the time you come to the gallery’s renderings of the grown man, Jesus Pantocrator, his stare has grown dark and demanding, that of the master who dares you to hear him and perhaps does not believe that you will comprehend.
The next day, I was to head again down the road to the St. Naum Monastery, but this time I would continue past it, south and back into Albania. It was the day before my anniversary, seven years with Heather—I’m telling nothing but the truth when I say it feels not half that long—and I thought of finding some little gift for her. Lake Ohrid is well known for its pearls, although this comes with a surprising qualifier. Ohrid pearls are not derived from oysters but rather confected from the scales of the unique species of fish in its waters. The technique is somewhat secretive, perhaps because most of the shops selling “Ohrid pearls” are actually peddling imitations, and no one in town wants to torpedo a major piece of its retail economy by exposing the widespread fraudulence; instead, no one says much of anything about any of it at all, and the (gentle, clueless) shopper is left to guess and be duped.
There are two families in Ohrid respected above the others for their honorable artisan pearl-making practices, and one of them has its shop just a few meters from where I was staying. I went in, looked around, and concluded that I’m not really that big on pearls. Neither is Heather, and our marriage partakes of an openness that allowed me to bring up the subject of Ohrid’s pearls, and even show her a picture of a window display of them and mention our anniversary, and have her express gratitude in response but gently dissuade me from buying her one. That’s not to say that we don’t sometimes delight in surprising one another, but only when we’re sure the surprise is the right one. I wasn’t sure; and in any case, perhaps flashing bling, even in the form of what are essentially fake pearls, isn’t the best way to go traveling around Eurasia this summer.
Still, after hemming and hawing, I found a little piece I liked well enough, and Ohrid pearls are inexpensive. I needed to go and get some money, though, but the shop was about to close for its midafternoon siesta; the woman minding the place suggested I come back later that afternoon or in the early evening. I went back to my room, wrote for a while, took a shower, read up on how to get from Ohrid to various places in Albania the next day (which of them I’d end up in depended on how far I was able to make it by bus, which can be hard to predict), and then went out to find a cash machine and some dinner. The sign on the pearl shop’s door said they were open until 9:00, so I ate yet another byrek, took myself for an evening stroll, watched part of an outdoor talent show of traditional Balkan singers, dancers etc. who had come to Ohrid for a Saturday night folk fest, and then went back to the pearl shop, still harboring mild doubt about the purchase I was about to make, which, though not by any means extravagant, could buy bus rides that would take me all the way from one end of Albania to the other; four days’ food; two nights’ sleep; and how many museums? Heather and I diligently saved up money for this trip, but the bankroll doesn’t include many allowances for luxuries, and it’s only May: like the poet says, we’ve only just begun.
The shop was dark. It had closed an hour early.
Message received. No laundry, no pearls.
Back to Albania.
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