“It’s a bit dark here, Matej!”
I swear it was supposed to sound like a legitimate statement, not like some scared puppy noise. “Is there a way to turn on the light in here?”
A woman’s shriek filled the hallway in response, immediately freezing the air of that hot July night.
“Ah, sorry Luca” replied my host, “a fire fried up the electrical network but don’t worry, I know the route by heart and I will guide you, just follow my voice!”
I hesitated a moment, then added: “and…what about that shriek? Maybe we should go and check it out?”
“Naaah, don’t worry about that!” Matej answered, “it is pretty normal in here.”
Goin’ to Macedonia
The trip to Skopje and the “nearby” lake Ohrid fell on my lap without notice: one day I got contacted by one of the participants from a training I co-held in Sweden and was asked to help deliver another training about Creativity to a Group of Engineering students. Plus, there would have been a drinking contest.
It was a great event and everyone could learn something new while having tons of fun. Personally, I discovered that preparing much harder and much in advance with the other trainer can be really beneficial for the quality of the sessions delivered. Also, discussing creativity with young engineers is as tough as trying to teach me Hungarian, thus requires a more dedicated frame of work. Although obviously, the biggest lesson learned from that adventure is that snakes can be found on the surface of lakes and can swim very close to very important body parts.
But sadly, all beautiful things come to an end. After a few short, sunny days spent by the lake, it was time to go back to Skopje. From there I would have taken the bus back to Budapest through the paranoia-filled Hungaro-Serbian border, where I could spend three lovely hours being inspected, frisked and triple checked by policemen on a frenetical hunt for cheap Cigarette smugglers.
In the end, a guy was held for “a few questions” by the authorities, and nobody ever saw him again.
But before that, I had some time to kill in the city and it was pretty late already. Luckily, one of the guys from the event offered to host me in his room at his dormitory for a couple of hours.
I was actually very curious to see what were the standard living conditions for university students in Macedonia and besides, such a kind offer was quite impossible to turn down. It felt like going out of the usual monument tour and take a look at the genuine face of everyday’s life in the Balkans.
I did not expect that face to be so terrifying.
The building was one of the many gargantuan blocks of cement left as a heritage from the Soviet Union, but I already moved to Budapest and lived some time in Mestre, next to Venice, so nothing particularly scary so far. I was kinda surprised to see so many youngsters having a good time right by the entrance of the dormitory, at that hour on a Sunday: maybe it is just pretty hot inside, I though.
What my mind was able to understand of the following minutes was a confused walk through a pitch-black corridor, filled with the scream of a woman in the distance and a mixture of smells which ranged from the burnt plastic to the unhappy marriage of mold and tobacco.
I am no Sherlock Holmes, but the ban for smoking indoors in the European Union suddenly made a lot more sense than before.
At last, a little glimmer of light shone right in front of me: Matej opened the door and, luckily, his room was still having electricity.
Or maybe, unfortunately.
The room itself was not bigger than the average kids’ Western bedroom, and the beds of the two tenants left just enough room to navigate through the luxuries of the place: a makeshift looking stove was placed under the remaining of a water tap (“it was never working anyway”), a small pipe which acted as heater during winter and the bathroom, where the constantly dripping faucet left scarce space for movement, if you count what was remaining of the toilet. Luckily the shower head was right above everything, allowing extra room management.
The walls and the ceiling had the same motive of the moquette, a galaxy of bacterial floras and spots producing a pretty rainbow of yellow-green shades, with the several cobwebs and their inhabitants adding a little touch of life to the scenario.
There was not really any room for containers, thus clothes, books and trash were allocated with surgical precision wherever the laws of physics allowed. Conveniently, plastic and glass bottles were placed as doorstops, but probably not to facilitate the work of the garbage collectors. Maybe to have some more ventilation? “Yes, but also because the lock is broken and the cats come in and do what they want otherwise.”
So that’s why the girl was screaming for! The cats must have broken in.
“Cool! You can bring pets in here?” I naively asked. “Pets? No no, they are just cats living around, I think they come from the broken windows” replied Matej.
“Nice…Do they bring dead rats, every now and then?” I added, not without some concern. Matej took a couple of seconds, then replied: “I don’t think we have rats here…Mostly they bring beetles or lizards, but for some reason they stay away from the bottles.”
But yes, it was mainly for ventilation, since there was no way to open the only window in the room. By comparison, even Mestre was not so bad after all, if you don’t count the non-Soviet-style acoustics of the building which allowed me to hear every program played on the tv downstairs and believe me, being kept awake at 2 AM on Monday by porn movies is not the best thing ever.
After a while, Matej’s roommate walked in and the three of us, standing right in front of the entrance, could complete this sort of Tetris game and occupy all available space.
Time merrily flew away, during which we could chit chat about the recently finished training, the good times by the lake and mostly about the heavily drinking games: a Harry Potter-themed singing/drinking contest with an apparently infinite supply of beer. If only we could have had another, at that moment…
Eventually, the time for farewells arrived and thanks to Matej I could hop on the right bus toward the central bus station. As in all the night travels via bus, it took some good minutes to find the right spot on my seat ( which is the one which allows you to fall asleep without feeling new kinds of pain from the belt down), so I had some time to digest the last few days, and specifically the last few hours.
As I drifted from the bright of my memories to the dark of my usual nightmares, I tried to think of something about these Balkan people, the toughest and craziest people of the world, their spirits forged in decades of hardships. Only two words came out: