The second time I came to Macedonia the corn was tasselling; corn grows in Macedonia. I didn’t know that before. Hazelnut trees, apple trees, plum trees, St. John’s Wort, mint, casually line the sides of the roads that wind through the hills above Kiçevo. Small lizards slither and scoot across the dirt, flies collect in the morning sun on the foam rubber-like seat of my chair at the end of the communal table in the dining room, as far away from the smokers as I can possibly get. A rooster crows repeatedly and goats bleat. Antenna 5 radio, “broadcasting nationally and located in Skopje,” plays a mix of American rhythm and blues, insipid contemporary pop, and unexpected things like Roberta Flack’s “Killing me softly.”
By the time I arrived in Skopje airport I had been up over twenty-four hours, not because the flights were delayed or particularly long, but because, well, never mind. I had no idea what time it was. The driver sent to meet my plane had parked me in a bank of chairs while he went to meet the flight of another colony guest, and I sat there in a stupor. Eventually I summoned up enough brain cells to mime asking a man sitting two seats over from me the time. He good-naturedly showed me his watch, I nodded my thanks, and he took this as an invitation to initiate a conversation. The first thing he asked me was whether I had come from Africa or Brazil.
“Germany,’ I said.
He said, “Oh!!!”
“Berlin,” I said.
He said, “Ahhh!!! Berlin!”
Guilt by association, one step removed, but cosmopolitanism is the road to forgiveness.
There are at any one time, perhaps fifteen of us, artists from several countries—Albania, Germany, Italy, New Zealand, North Cypress, Serbia, Turkey, the UK, the U.S., and Macedonia, of course. We are housed in a hotel in the hills above Kiçevo, we work in a large space on the second floor (or first floor, if you are counting European style), that is probably used for banquets and other large gatherings. Business goes on as usual around us. Hotel staff, hotel guests, restaurant customers, and local townspeople wander at will in and out of our temporary studio, sometimes only a few at a time, sometimes in flocks It’s very unnerving to have someone commenting on your work in a language of which you maybe know five words.
Art here does not appear to be something overly precious, it is not hermetic, insulated, and isolated from everyday living, possibly due, at least in part, to the presence of fine art in so many Macedonia churches. And this country of two million has a staggering inventory of churches. In the city of Ohrid, set on Lake Ohrid—Ezero Ohrid—estimates of the number of churches range from a low of 200 to the symbolic 365—one for every day of the year. The quotidian mingles easily with the sacred on and in these sites of devotion and spaces of worship: money hangs like laundry on a metal black clothesline, is draped across the tops of paintings; a large, clear plastic bag encases a plaid woollen blanket identical to the one on my bed in the hotel; flowers that were never alive assert themselves among the fresh flowers, now dead; bottles hold what at first I thought was water but turns out to be sunflower oil; a quilt patterned with yellow, blue, and red leaves reminds me of one my grandmother might have had; large kilims on the stone floor, metal buckets filled with candles already lit and burned in honor of the dead, and perhaps for those in physical, mental, moral, or psychological distress.
There are always introductions being made here because of the constant ebb and flow of the colony population and the stream of visitors. On these occasions, I am described variously as German American or American German, either of which terms would raise eyebrows on both sides of the Atlantic but which amuses me quite a bit. Tome, one of the three sculptors, has invented his own sobriquet for me: Madame Paula, Americana Stadt Berlin.
Among the visitors to the studio this week were two gentlemen and a dude. They stopped to watch while I painted, and then one of the gentlemen, adopting a very formal pose, began an oration. The dude and the other gentleman waited patiently. This second gentleman translated the speech as it was being uttered: “This is a book by Professor Ahmed Mora, Pandemonium under the sun. He would like to give it to you as a gift.” And then the gentleman who had been proclaiming, but who apparently was not Professor Mora, showed me the pages on which his poems appeared. The title of one was “Uskana,” one of the antique names for Kërçove. I thanked the poet for his gift and his friend for the translation services. They took their leave, moving on to observe some of the other artists. The dude remained behind for a bit, telling me his story. He is a native of Kiçevo but moved to the U.S. twenty-five years ago. He works for The Men’s Wearhouse—“I guarantee it!”— but comes back home every year—“I still have my father. He’s 71, an old man. So I come to give him the respect.”
I went for a walk early this morning, as soon as the gates were opened. I wanted to take some shots of the sign at the fork in the road that directs one to the colony. On the way back I stopped to gather some of the tiny red baby plums that had fallen to the wayside. Many of course were worm-eaten or otherwise inedible. I had almost given up finding enough to carry back when, with a rush of thud-thud-thuds, plums pounded onto the ground, a shower of plums fell, pelting, bouncing, rolling almost directly into my hands at the exact same moment that the bells of St. George began to ring. The bells sounded more frantic than contemplative or joyous, rushed and nervous, like the furious flooding of plums.
When I tell people that I’ve been to Macedonia, they always ask me, “And so, what was it like? Did you encounter any racism?” And I can hear the shouts and agitated voices of the Albanians, and the Serb, and the Macedonians, the clinking and sometimes breaking of bottles, sharp and crystalline in the warm night air, under the sky’s navy blue blanketing, pierced by stars. I can smell the unceasing and choking cigarettes, whose smoke climbs from the studio into my room. And I can recall the hung-over bodies of these men as they moved carefully, gingerly to their easels, their centuries’ old enmities and wounds obscured and perhaps even forgiven in the bright daylight. But I have learned, even in the short time I have spent here, that they will reveal themselves yet again once darkness has fallen. I have gone through a kind of witnessing, a re-recognition that the Other is everywhere, and difference holds terror, whether of religion, of race, of ethnicity, of gender, of sexuality, of body, of ideology. The history I embody, is, I think, of very little interest here.
When I first moved to Germany, it happened quite often that women in the supermarket would hold up mangoes and ask me if they were ripe. “I’m afraid I can’t help you,” I would tell them. “Mangoes don’t grow in Detroit.”
A re-recognition. The Other is everywhere, and difference holds terror, whether of religion, of race, of ethnicity, of gender, of sexuality, of body, of ideology. The history I embody, is, I think, of very little interest here. The shape and smell, the color of the skin of a ripe mango, its foreignness, its symbol of the exotic in a land of apples, all merge and morph with the shape and smell, the color of the skin I walk around in. And the apple eaters granted me an unearned and nonexistent knowledge, a fruity wisdom that I refused to accept.
The pelting plums by the side of a road in the Balkans conveyed to me their ripeness. This too was a gift, like poetry.
17 juli 2007