These are photos from a spectacularly beautiful place: the town of Ohrid situated on Lake Ohrid in the south of Macedonia. Actually it’s now called “Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia” (FYROM) for geopolitical reasons. There are other countries claiming Macedonia to be rightfully theirs — Robert Kaplan goes into some detail about the backstory of all this in chapter three of Balkan Ghosts. I still only sort of get it. It was awful and of course bloody and formed the centerpiece of both the Balkan Wars. My grandfather fought in one of them — maybe both — and we have his sword displayed in our family room now. I sure hope it was only an ornamental one…
These photos are stock images from Google. Sadly, I won’t be sharing any of my own. I hope the Lilly Foundation forgives me for eliminating this part of my proposed itinerary. But on this trip Ohrid has become Nohrid.
I had hoped to retrace the steps of a rather incredible journey I took with my parents back in 1959 — my first visit to Yugoslavia and my mother’s first time back after she became an American citizen.
It involved one of these. Yes, that is a 1959 Studebaker. The Allen family was enamored of that brand of automobile; my grandparents had several in succession and my father carried on that particular family tradition. He had different plans for this one.
He shipped it from from the U.S. to the port of Piraeus, Greece. We were to travel in it and then sell it. There were no buyers — at the end of the summer back it came to our driveway in suburban DC. But travel in it we did.
It’s funny how some things at the time seem quite normal — doesn’t everybody do this? — and in retrospect border on the unbelievable. So it was with the trip from Athens to Belgrade in a 1959 Studebaker over “roads” that had yet to even dream the concept of an interstate highway system. A drive across the Corinth Canal, a visit to Epidaurus, to Mycenae, to Delphi. A day spent in the monasteries of Meteora impossibly perched as they are on top of soaring rock formations. And then across the border into Macedonia and a night spent in a “hotel” in Bitolj (now Bitola). We fell asleep to the smell of the insecticide with which my mother had doused the room to euthanize the bedbugs and other vermin and awoke to —
— what seemed like every child in town climbing on the car with great glee. The car itself was dead, kaput, mrtvo. And, because it seemed like the most normal of things, a mechanic was summoned who was actually able to repair our behemoth, and off we went.
To Ohrid. With its gin-clear waters, its historic Byzantine churches (the church of Saint Naum is pictured above). A magical place of beauty and spirituality.
But alas, retracing that epic trip won’t be happening this summer. Oh we’ll go to Corinth, Mycenae, and Delphi. And I’ve been training up my leg muscles to scale those monasteries in Meteora. But replicate the road trip? Not happening. Because — why? I don’t know — the Greek government forbids rental cars from Greece to cross international boarders. Funny, we’ll be renting a car in Belgrade later in the trip and dropping it off in Rome crossing a crazy quilt of international borders en route, but driving one out of Greece? Oxi! — no! And a combination of trains, busses, and a taxi over the border (don’t laugh, others have done it) is just not my idea of how to spend a whole day of this precious time we have. So, sadly, Ohrid becomes Nohrid.
In the picture of St. Naum’s church you can see mountains beyond Lake Ohrid. “That is Albania,” I was told back then. Those words could just as easily have been “That is the third moon of Jupiter,” because that country then was equally foreboding and inaccessible. Now people from all over the world travel to Albania to hike, swim, ski, and sightsee. In a recent episode of House Hunters International, an American family was even looking for an apartment in Tirana because they had jobs there.
What once seemed impossible has become almost mundane and what once was challenging but doable is now all but impossible (because, no, we won’t be shipping a car over there). And so the world chugs on in fits and starts. One step forward, two steps back. Two steps forward, one step back.
And as I finish writing this and note the date, I realize it would have been my father’s 100th birthday. Thank you, Dad, for teaching me about crazy adventures, chasing dreams, and always seeking to be on the side of history that arcs toward justice.