Nights in the Balkans

The time had come to say farewell to Italy: The lonely apartment, an extensive count of empty wine bottles, piled up on the kitchen counter, last breakfast (filling up a plastic bottle with oil for the journey), shaking hands with everybody, kind and warm words about returning anytime (wiping the dust from my melancholic, deserted bike), and a last look at the Via Trapani, slowly backing its way to the past behind my rear wheel. The day is gloomy, with sad, grey clouds hanging low in the sky as an unmistakable harbinger of the upcoming winter. Under the crooked, hunched silhouettes of Bari port’s cranes, I drink my last bottle of Italian wine, at eleven, I board the blue and white, chubby AS Francesca and in an icy, crystal calm, moonlit night, we fall together into the cold arms of the Adriatic Sea. And when the bow of the ship will fight its way through the darkness and will hit the dawn, when the sunrise will flow through the railings, chimneys, ropes and windows to flood the bridge on the tenth deck, then I’ll know I am approaching The Land of Eagles.

I wake up on the floor, between the seats of deck 9, just like other passengers with the cheapest tickets – mostly Albanians – who, unlike me, don’t have a sleeping bag and an inflatable mat so they’ve dismantled the seats to use the upholstery as mattresses. I am incredibly thirsty, but I forgot my water bottles on the bike, now safely locked in the garage behind sealed anti-flood door, and so I drink the water from the tap with a huge pictogram of strikethrough glass on it. Water doesn’t taste so bad though and that makes me think that those signs are here just to raise the profit of the overpriced bar on deck 8.

Not being rested much, with all of my body complaining about the uncomfortable night on the floor of the ship (oh, how I miss my tent!), I pack my sleeping bag and move over to the bow of the ship, eager to catch the first glimpse of the mainland. And then, silhouettes of the mountains emerge out of the misty golden haze and the straight line of the sea’s surface is raped by the claws of quickly approaching Durrës’ high-rise buildings (unfinished, as I find out later).

Stakan for breakfast

The port terminal is clean and modern – polished tiles, glass and steel – Albania, how I imagined it but starts right behind the terminal: intrusive taxi drivers, beggars at the intersections, horse and donkey carts and all sorts of other animals around the road – especially cows and goats and also hen, at every opportune, even the slightest little patch of ground. The traffic is driven by the laws of nature – survival of the fittest – and of course also by the strength and intensity of one’s honking, although it should be noted, that the quantity of the cars is not as big as you would expect in the country’s second biggest city. And, what you would not expect at all is more than half a million bigger and smaller bunkers, scattered throughout the country in paranoia of Albania’s former leader Enver Hoxha after the Albania’s rupture with the West, the Soviet Union, then also China in name of the motto: “Against all”. Especially after the country stepped out of the Warsaw Pact to protest against the occupation of Czechoslovakia, the count of fortification facilities rocketed to the sky. The answer to the question what to do with them now is straightforward: it costs around 800€ to demolish one bunker, so they are just left to their fate, being converted to garbage dumps, places for breeding hens and rabbits, or more often – especially in Tirana – to public toilets.

Because I have no map of Albania, Macedonia nor Greece, I just follow the direction signs, which results in finding myself rolling towards Tirana using the highway, but nobody cares – not the cow shepherds at the side of the road, nor the hen pecking God-knows-what between the fragments of broken glass and plastic. The air is gray, heavy and full of smog; probably because there is always something burning in Albania – most often it is garbage – after all, waste collection service in Tirana started to operate only few years ago.

After having passed through the Albanian capital, the road begins to climb into the mountains and after a long pause I had been having in Altamura, I get tired very quickly, so I stop for a meal break and cook lunch: spaghetti reminiscence of Italy (with My Olive Oil of course) and a soup of broth. With great self-denial I go on, the day is sad, the road runs mockingly up to the hill, and my head is burdensome with lots of thoughts, from which I was trying to escape.

And then in Ibe, someone calls from the roof; it’s like a revelation of an angel: amid the harsh, wet, gray landscape where I don’t understand a word, I hear all of the sudden very clear: “Hey, hey, you! Come upstairs, I have a beer!”, which obviously sounds like heavenly music to my ears and a spectacular terrace of certain Bardhyl Hasa sees me sitting there even before I realize I got off the bike.

I get an offer to stay overnight, which I naturally can’t refuse. In the evening also Bardhyl’s brother Abdul joins us for a dinner and to the mix of Italian and English we are speaking together with Bardhyl, an unexpected third language is added by Abdul – the Czech! In fact, Abdul just thinks he speaks Czech (his son is a successful gymnast of SC Hradčany Prague), but most of the words are in Russian (that is still more convenient than gjuha shqipe – Albanian). The food starts to resemble the Turkish cuisine and for the dinner we fry bread, eggs and sausages on the top of old, wood-powered stove.

After the meal I start to feel terribly sick (although I really enjoyed it – like every meal), my guts are dancing macarena in my belly and I spent quite a while staggering over the hole of Bardhyl’s Turkish toilet. Maybe it’s the time to start taking my medication again?…

I think of the women who disappeared from my life and will never return. I feel blue. Not homesick, not for people, but longing for a world that no longer exists and cannot be reached even by covering millions and millions of kilometers between the stars. Perhaps it is necessary to keep me in a constant mode of hope that I feed by my wandering, and hope to discover new worlds and a new Holy Grails of wishes and plans from which life will taste like sweet, dense, drunk wine from Puglia.

A ton of deep sleep, which I indulged (fourteen hours – from six to eight), luckily wipes out those effeminate, weak moments, as well as subsequent breakfast of (real) Albanian men: a stakan! of raki (Albanian distillate) that is to be washed down with a cup of strong coffee. Drunk already at shameful nine o’clock in the morning I groggily set off towards Macedonia.

The way to Elbasan was recently shortened by more than twenty kilometers by a new highway and a tunnel. I was lucky once already and so I decided to ignore all the signs banning cycling on the highway. Just in front of the tunnel I notice two police cars, they notice me and my rebellion ends as quickly as it started. They say nothing except that I have to stay put and wait, which leaves me to thinking if I wasn’t too laid back after all and if I will have to shell out a coin here.

I wasn’t and I don’t have to! In five minutes I am rushing through a closed lane in an opposite direction of the tunnel, escorted by a pick-up of road maintenance service with flashing lights on. After we jet out of the tunnel, they just honk the horn, wave at me and let me continue on that beautiful, new, almost deserted highway, throughout which I smoothly slip to Elbasan.

Once the city was out of sight, proud, rugged, red Albanian mountains grew up in the horizon and that was also the border of civilization: verges are full of vendors of various fruits, people are shifting from village to village, old men pushing carts full of wood for the winter, groups of children coming back to their village from school in the city, shouting “Hello!”, which is, when heard for hundred and fiftieth time, so annoying that you are just filtering it out and show no reaction whatsoever. There are thousands and millions of people in the streets, Turkish music yelling from the shops where most of the goods is displayed on the pavement, street vendors shouting loud proclamations about the advantages of Their Apples and all that masquerade is backed by an orchestra of honking vehicles. On the other hand, almost every third car is a Mercedes – and actually, not so old as you would expect in Albania. Maybe that’s why there’s so many car washes (lavazh) – when you spend all your life-savings for a car, it should be clean, shouldn’t it?

The winter is coming

I spent my second (and last) night in Albania on a mountain ridge, which defines a border with Macedonia. Hundreds of meters down below the lights of towns and villages around Lake Ohrid flicker and while I pitch up my tent, the mountain peaks to the west disappear, embraced by the arms of a dark Friday night. During fastening the strings of the tent I discover a huge (most probably bearish) footprint and when I cook the risotto (which I really need), I wonder if this mysterious, ancient bear, the creature to whom everything here belongs, went for its winter hibernation already.

The night is very long and cold – I sleep dressed in almost everything I have – but fortunately, the morning is sunny and warm, the tent gets dry quickly and I cross the border to Macedonia just few minutes after half past nine.

Going down to the lake from the customs on a slippery bumpy road, the bike accelerates extensively and turns too slowly and I try to tame my reluctant handlebars with the firmest grip possible to keep my direction straight, fighting with the bumps as would a captain fight a rudder of his old rickety wooden ark in the greatest storm. In few minutes I find that I can’t feel my fingers anymore and I have to stop in Struga (coincidentally just outside the hospital – probably to be able to cut off the frozen fingers without much hassle if needed). Five-minute thawing of the fingers, on which I feverishly breathe, madly hurts and I jump around a bus stop, which I chose as my base, altering one and then the other leg, yelling obscenities like I’d have Tourett’s, reassuring myself constantly, that the pain will pass.

Besides that I do not recall much from Macedonia – only apple orchards and stunning views of snow-capped mountains – during my hundred and twenty kilometers transit I haven’t seen much more.

The day is very short: at three o ‘clock in the afternoon, after the sun goes down behind the curtain of mountains that dress me in a cool evening robe of shadows, I have to find a place to sleep, before the darkness thickens. Night is once again longer than I wished, I wake up a million times and pray for a dawn. In the morning everything is covered in a thick layer of white frost, tent is completely frozen, the vapor from my breath on its inner side turned into an ice crust and my socks hanging to dry on the inside of the tent’s structure seem to be stuck forever in their stinking rigor mortis like two icicles.

Bitola is lost in a frosty white fog, people and dogs are walking slowly along the closed shops and I do not see any car – I woke up in a ghost town. I freeze. I put on an extra pair of socks and the last remaining pair I stretch over my gloves and my numb hands. I am slowly working my way through wetlands behind Bitola, covered in mist, which at last reveals the border with Greece. While on the Macedonian side I am just waved at and continue without any check, the Greek customs officers want to see the bags, I have to write on a piece of paper the name of my father and  my mother and all the procedures take unusually long time.

Marking the territory

Due to the unbearable cold and my numb feet I had to stop at the first Greek bar alongside the road and decided to spare some change for a tea, at least. The outcome was that after the tea, two shots of ouzo, a glass of punch and half a liter of wine I was not only warmed up, but also pleasantly drunk again. Some time after three in the afternoon (four, in fact – crossed the first time zone!) I found a nice, sympathetic booth alongside the road, where I finished my chocolate cupcakes from Macedonia, read a bit and was prepared to spend a night there when I got this idea of a romantic night with a small fire, a book, cigarettes and another bottle of wine, so I packed up and with this vision in my head I set off to find a shop, or a gas station at least.

I found nothing, and so I regret that I did not stay in the booth, as darkness falls on my shoulders in an uninhabited area where the road is lined with signs depicting gruff, macho Bear The Ruler. But the hill I have chosen is sympathetic and after all, who can deny me the right to sleep here? I am the nature, like The Bear – I am a pilgrim on the journey to naturalness – just do not know yet what naturalness is – and I look at the brightening blue and white lanterns of stars, stand in the stream of photons, which need hundreds of months or years to get to me from all those distant galaxies and it is so in vain, because the information they are carrying is already history… And the black arms of shed trees embrace me with the same love as they would embrace any other part of nature in moonlit crisply icy gloom, even though they know that in the morning I’ll leave and wander away…

When (unwisely) cooking dinner, I hear dogs barking from not to much afar. And it’s not dogs barking from the gardens, I can tell – this is fiercer, it’s louder and louder, until it’s too much and it’s too close to me and it’s clear that I’m not the only one who would like to dine, but damn, this is my only Much-Wished-For-Last-Czech-Food-Supplies – mashed potatoes in powder, actually a product with so much chemistry in it, that the animals would despise it, as soon as they would have tasted it, but those dogs that surrounded my tent in the meantime, do not know that yet and are still attracted by the seductive aroma of curry, which I sprinkled onto the potatoes.

So I wait for a while, hoping that they will become bored by just barking at a tent which doesn’t respond, but their desire for my potatoes is still strong, so I keep my stove running and in the dim fire I feel this ancient guarantee of safety almost like a caveman, watching the soothing Zen flames and wondering how long will the next sixteen hours of dark barking night be.

I’m really hungry (almost anciently old seems to be the desire for the bottle and cigarettes – I’m starting to feel a headache, and the world just became a worse place once again, and I wonder if the Muslims are not right about alcohol after all) and then I realize that they are just dogs and that I am a man, a human, the ruler of all creatures, who just forgot to behave like that and that it is the time to return the natural hierarchy and order so I attach my machete on my belt, grab the burning stove in my left hand like a torch and with eyes glowing and mad, animalistic roar I jump out of the tent to confront them. In the ensuing moment of surprise those five, six dogs retreat just enough for me to be able to demonstratively piss a border onto the ground. Returning triumphantly back into the tent, I hear a few more fatuous, awkward barking attempts, so I turn the stoves’s flame high once again, provide them with a loud answer and by that moment everyone knows already that this piece of the hill, the three-meter perimeter around the tent is My Territory and that I’m willing and able to defend it. And if that had not occurred to someone then, after dinner, when my piece of turf was already soaked in tranquility, I furthermore sealed my territorial domination by thoughtful deposit of feces on a particularly strategic location on the eastern edge of my habitat between large stone and small bush.

During another lengthy night, when I couldn’t sleep, it freezes so much that my bottles with water become solid bricks overnight. When I unzip the entrance about half past five in the morning, I see only white: white, cream mystical mist as it lazily rolls over the cold white ground, white crystals covering my entire bike and a strong white ice crust, both on the outside and the inside of the tent, which is so frozen that it cannot be packed.

Survival is now difficult, when the winds of the north stretch through every possible crack in my Spartan dwelling and play blues on my icy harsh face. I ride hunched under the weight of my deep thoughts on asphalt and ice-covered ground, which sings love songs in minor, foolish arias of natural operettas for the pilgrim roaming through mists and mud…

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