I’m currently typing up these notes from yet another train–the one back to Zagreb from Split, in Croatia. These trains are much nicer than the ones I took in Greece and Serbia, but man, the vibration coming up through the tracks is so strong as to be borderline nauseating.
From my train ride from Thessaloniki to Belgrade, by way of Macedonia and most of Serbia:
It’s hard to stop looking out the window long enough to write. Macedonia began wild and woolley, raw earth and meadow broken only rarely with strings of posts hooking threads of spindly grape vines. The mountains aren’t too high, just rocky outcrops of hills, but burrow through tunnels about twice an hour all the same. We stop for what seems like hours at the border between Greece and Macedonia. A woman from the compartment next to mine, who had helped me figure out that I was on the right train, asks me when we both step into the hall where I’m from.
“America! You coming from America? Why you come here?” she says in open disbelief.
“I want…to travel,” I say. “I want to see Europe, learn more.” It feels entirely inadequate, but her woodcut face actually breaks into something like a smile and she nods approvingly. “Good!”
I sleep from about 8 to 9:15. I wake up when a flood of people gets on in Macedonia and a man enters my compartment, uttering a few polite-sounding words in a decidedly Slavic language. He had ruddy brown skin and a spray of straight black hair sticking out in clumps. Two women enter as well, rapidly speaking in the same language. The man’s newspaper is written in Cyrillic letters.
During this part of the trip, the lonely meadows and unpeopled fields gradually give way to larger fields, roads with actual cars on them, and finally, a stray house or two appears, red-roofed or clad with tin. They multiply into clusters, mini-villages. The yellow and white and red paint has peeled off their walls in strips. Cars from the late 70s in white, blue, or grey are parked here and there next to heaps of hollow bricks or stacks of tires. Clotheslines string every porch. Finally, with a leap of excitement, I see a person out kneeling among the furrows of one field. Crops become more diverse, with grape vines still dominating but low-lying lettuces appearing as well. Long makeshift greenhouses of plastic tarp tacked over wood frames are everywhere.
A man driving a red tractor surveys his fields. Another man pulls two white goats by leather leads. Two grey goats follow, curious. Grasses in bright yellow and soft blues rolling in rectangles–are these being cultivated too? Ah, some of this looks like wheat or other grains. A squat blue barn sticks out seriously.
A heap of white bricks in a meadow. A dirt path leading to a stand of houses. A man walking along a trail that winds through a meadow and then disappears beyond a bend. I can’t see any houses, nor a car or bike or donkey. How did he get there? And where is he going?
Huge concrete grain silos are patched and their windows are shattered and door frames rusted. The tall trees look Tuscan and the buildings look Bavarian.
As we approach Skopje, the number of houses increases even more. Villages pile up in valleys as though swept there by the muddy swirling rivers that rush past the tracks. There are still the shabby sheds with mold-caked stairs and patched roofs but now and then we are starting to see the occasional display of wealth: black iron fences, fresh coats of paint on some walls, a large green house with at least three stories. Skopje itself appears suddenly, with fields one moment and tall, devastatingly ugly grey towers the next.
An elderly couple gets on in Skopje. The woman asks me a few questions in Macedonian and I smile apologetically, saying in English, “Sorry,” and she says, “Ah,” smiling. Neither speaks a word of English, but boy are they eager to talk to me. I point to myself and say “New York.” They point out the window and say “Skopje.” I point at them and ask, “Skopje?” They nod vigorously. “Skopje!” Having made our introductions, I decide to give more of my biography and take out my map. I point out where I’ve been and where I’m going, and the woman, in her 60s and wearing a long black suit like a habit, smiles at me fondly and pats my shoulder affectionately as though congratulating a favorite niece. Later, the man, after lots of gesturing and directions I clearly can’t understand, takes out his wife’s passport and insists that I copy down their address and, later, his cell phone number. “How would you understand me?” I say, laughing, but I oblige him in any case and contemplating sending them an indecipherable postcard. On their way out, he hands me a small plastic gadget with a flashlight on one end and lighter on the other, and his wife pinches my cheek fondly.
Serbia! Oh, wow. An elderly man waving his arms broadly to gesture his goats into the field. A little boy running and shouting among them. A stooped person of indeterminate gender shriveled and leaning on a cane, eyes crossed, wearing a long navy blue cloak. Small courtyards sprayed with graffiti, heaps of straw and dirt and dung, dogs running and barking–a man drives a full-size tractor down the main boulevard of a village. At a train station, a mosaic tile sign for Pepsi. One clothesline hung with a whole family’s wash includes a Puma teeshirt. The round white disks of satellite dishes popping up from most houses, no matter how remote.
Falling-down roofs are supported with bric-a-brac pieces of wood–bits of fence, random posts, branches nailed on under the beams at crossing angles. The houses are brick and sometimes you can see all their seams where they were hastily rebuilt, hollow brick innards showing at the naked joints between them.
A woman with a long grey scarf around her head turns from her white bucket to watch the train pass. Then she resumes kicking the dirt into furrows.
Scraps of fabric flap in doorways as makeshift curtains. In some places, scraps of tin and even rugs held in place with pieces of wood and bricks are being used as roofs. Pieces of walls buried under heaps of sand. Prefab mortar peeled away to reveal brick wall underneath. All the roofs look like they’re sagging. Is this from the war? From before? In spite of it? It’s hard not to see the gaping holes in roofs, the stretches of abandoned shells of houses, the window frames missing glass, and not picture Croats, Bosnians, Serbians running screaming under the whistling of shells and the crack of gunfire and the roar of flames. I shouldn’t fantasize before I know the real history, but…or shouldn’t I? Who does know? Who’s alive to tell me? If they are, where would I find them? From my Lonely Planet chapter on Croatia: “Before the war, Croatia had a population of nearly five million, of which 78% were Croats and 12% were Serbs. After the massive exodus of Serbs in 1995, today’s population of 4.5 million includes just 201,000 Serbs, slightly less than 5%.” I wish I had a history of the former Yugoslavia with me. I have a Rick Steves book that has a chapter on it but it’s really just a primer to the full story here. The most valuable information I gleaned: Croats = Catholic, Serbians = Orthodox, Bosniaks = Muslim. (But what’s Hercezogovina then? And I learn from this book that today’s Bosnia-Hercezogovina is actually just Bosniak in the core, and is ringed with a Serbian community that seems to be threatening to suceed.)
Garbage is everywhere. River embankments are used as dumps. Trash fills the banks of rivers where I see people fishing among eddies of water bottles and plastic bags. It occurs to me that there’s probably little in the way of municipal services here.
A man pumping water at a hand pump. Piles of firewood stacked outside or in open sheds at every home. A roof caved in. The skeleton of a truck, with wheels long gone and grass tangled around the axles and hubs. In one village, a USAID sign posted in the main square. Later, graffiti that resembles the Pink Panther.
Maybe the Rick Steves chapter planted this idea in my mind and I’m seeing things where I shouldn’t, but twice now I’ve seen buildings that I think were defaced churches or mosques. One had domes like a mosque or church, but it had been defaced and even, i think, turned into a convenience store in one part. The second was a red-roofed tower standing next to a gleaming white church. (The Orthodox churches I’ve seen here look very new.) The tower had a cross on its peak, but it was overgrown with weeds and vines. It made me think about all the converted mosques I saw in Greece, including one in the Roman agora that’s still being used as a warehouse. “There are no mosques in Athens,” George told me. “Or at least, not ones being used to hold services.”
A herd of pigs crying and fleeing the rain. I can hear their squeals through the open window.
Around 3:00, the train stops for a bit. I take out my map, thinking we’ve made good time and perhaps will get to Belgrade. I’m shocked to find the name of the town that matches the one on the station sign and see that we’ve traveled about a centimeter and a half since the border, equivalent to maybe 70 or 80 km. We left the border 3 hours ago. We’re traveling at less than 20 mph.
This is how it takes me 13 hours to get from Thessaloniki to Belgrade.