The New Normal

This has been a very busy week.  Monday instead of going to UACS, we went to the U.S. Embassy to meet the incoming Fulbrighters.  The Embassy sits just beyond the “Kale” or old fortress of the city.  Locals call it the “New Kale” because it has all of the latest security upgrades.  We were vetted by local guards, who took cell phones, cameras, and even Palms, as well as my glass nail file to put in a storage box at the entrance.  I felt completely unable to think without my “portabrain”.  The meeting was upstairs in a well-equipped conference room with city views from every window.  Everything is light wood and soft colors–very attractive.  And the walls are decorated with very pleasant art as well. The Embassy gave us an excellent briefing: The Ambassador, the Security Officer, the Consul, and several people from Public Affairs – all speaking candidly about current issues and what to expect.  The Fulbrighters (and their spouses) are a very interesting group ranging from English & Poetry teachers to an anthropologist to a broadcast professional.  They’ll be teaching all over the country too.  One funny thing happened.  As we were heading downstairs to lunch at at the Embassy cafeteria, one of the Fulbrighters started talking with David. They had been staring at each other with that “You look familiar” thing. The usual overseas person talk about where were you when.  Well, it turned out that in 1987 he had eaten dinner at David’s residence when David was Charge in Guyana and he was the U.S. Defense Attache in Suriname with shared responsibility for Guyana. In fact, he was in Georgetown several times. And now he’s a Visiting Professor at another University in Skopje.  As always, the world is smaller than we think it is. We’ve already made plans for a joint Thanksgiving with all the Fulbrighters, and perhaps attending some concerts together, and have laid the groundwork to sharing ideas, resources and efforts.

Tuesday, our long-awaited Birthday dinner was scheduled for 6 p.m. at Tapan An in the

David's Birthday, Victorija's engagement Celebration

Turok Bazar across the river.  Now remember that we had been there twice 18 months ago. We knew it was a wonderful restaurant in an old serai someplace in the large market area.  But, hey, it’s a famous place so the taxi driver will know, right?  Well at 5 it was pouring rain.  Wanting to get there early, David called our usual taxi company.  No callback (you call and they call you right back usually.  It’s a form of a toll free number).  Finally they called back to say “no taxi”.  Oh.  Meanwhile Clarisse, one of our guests who was still at the school, called to report that she had tried four taxi companies and none of them had a taxi.  I guess everyone in Skopje was taking a taxi home from work in that weather.  So we put on our raincoats, put up David’s umbrella, and went out to the street to try to hail one.  Fortunately, we are at the intersection of two fairly major streets, so it didn’t take all that long.  We called the school and arranged to pick up Clarisse, who still hadn’t managed to get transportation. So we drive across the river.  Still pouring.  The driver has no idea what’s inside the Bazar.  David points out a statue of a war hero that is an excellent marker (if you are on foot).  No turns for a long block.  Then the turn to the Kale (fortress.)  Up and up we go.  At the top of the hill, the driver turns into a parking lot.  Now we’ve walked this recently, so we know this parking lot ends in stairs.  The driver doesn’t.  He continues across and suddenly stops—at the top of the stairs.  He waves grandly at the  Bazar spread out before us about half a mile below and tells us to get out.  So we did—what else could we do?  A little background:  we’d walked down these stairs with the Fulbrighters on Monday.  At the time I commented that I wouldn’t want to use them if they were wet.  Well they were.  And Clarisse was wearing cowboy boots.  So we crept down the stairs to ground level, but had no idea which way to turn.  Fortunately for us, Macedonians are very willing to help lost rain rats.  One group got us in the right direction, but we missed a key turn.  The second person we asked led us to the door in the rain.  I do like Macedonians!  So we went in to a totally cozy brick room, took off our wet coats, and fought off pneumonia with raki.  Shortly after, our other two guests arrived, and we shared a marvelous dinner of traditional specialties family style. And, it turned out, one of our guests, Viktorija, had just gotten engaged that week! – so we had a joint celebration.

That would have been a full evening for me but, in the way things happen here, we found out just before we left UACS that day that there would be a celebration of the five-year anniversary of the school at 8 that evening. So we went directly from dinner to a party with drinks and delicious pizzas.  I’m not really trying to gain weight, but some things are hard to resist.  Five years ago there were only five students, all of whom came, but all of the teachers, old and new, were at the party.  I had a long converstation with Lubitsa, called Bubay for some reason, about organizing things at the school.  She’s in charge of things like furniture and office supplies.  And we got into a discussion of how do you say “How does the washing machine heat the water?”  She gave me a sentence that I’m still trying to memorize for the next time I see Zoran, our landlord.  He offered to show me how to turn the heat on the first day, but my brain was already full.

Speaking of the washing machine, I have to introduce you to the Mighty ZUG.  You know

The Mighty ZUG

how when you run an automatic washer, it walks along the floor.  Well, the Mighty ZUG doesn’t even shake.  As you can see, we have the top loaded with things and nothing falls off.  The entire washing container rotates freely (and wildly) within the outside shell.  But the outside never moves no matter how fast the washer is spinning.  It’s amazing to watch.  Incidentally, it does a really good job of washing too–the clothes are pretty close to dry when they come out.  Which is good because of all the rain and humidity we’ve been experiencing.  If the washer didn’t wring them out well, they’d never dry. And for the Greens, it uses rainwater from a cistern on the roof. Pretty fantastic, huh?  And on that subject, we now have an iron and ironing board.  So we’re looking much neater these days.  Everything gets arranged eventually.

So the week went on full of teaching, laundry, supermarkets and green bazaars, taxi rides, etc., etc.  The new normal.

Saturday David had a massage at a place that Viktorija found for us.  We’re both scheduled for next week.  He felt much better afterward.  All this walking is putting strains on places that had gotten lazy.  In the evening we had dinner at the Lyra Restaurant.  One of my students manages it, so I wanted to go there just to see what it was like.  Everyone we asked said it was one of three or four restaurants that serves traditional Macedonian food in an international atmosphere.

Dinner at Lyra

And so we found it to be.  We made our reservation for 7 p.m., which is very early for dinner.  Probably good, since we made it on Friday and might have been refused if we’d asked for a more fashionable hour.  The building is all old brick and wood–very beautiful.  And the lighting is well done–it’s bright enough to read the menu without any hint of glare.  The waiter spoke perfect English, so we were able to order a first course that wasn’t on the menu.  They had a selection of cheeses for an appetizer, but that sounded to heavy for just the two of us.  So we asked for bread and a selection of spreads: ajvar (cooked red peppers), pindur (eggplant-based), and both sheep’s milk and cow’s milk tarator (yoghurt with cucumbers, etc.)  Each was better than the last, but the ajvar, which I’ve eaten in a number of places now, was very special because it was made with smoked peppers, giving it an extra rich taste.  Well, after that we had to figure out what to have for dinner.  David chose a casserole and I had pork with leeks.  We both ended up sharing each other’s dinners, both were excellent.  Then a walnut cookie to share (we couldn’t manage two desserts by this time) and coffee.  I might mention that we also had wine and music–taped at first but at the normal dinner hour there was a four man group playing both local and international music.  The German at the next table got all excited when he recognized “St. James Infirmary”, but by the time he explained his excitement to his hosts, the group had segued into “Summertime”.  No amplification, just a bass, violin, guitar, and a kind of mandolin playing softly enough that you could still talk.  It was a perfect meal.

Sunday David presided over a 5 p.m. Communion Service for a small group.  We’re trying to make this a regular occasion so that people will have a choice of an English service if they want one.  The alternative is the Mass in Croatian at 10:30 a.m. with a choir of angels singing.  Hard choice.

Monday was a holiday, Revolution Day, so we decided to try to reach Katlanovska Banya, a spa outside of Skopje.  We asked how much the taxi would be and found it would be 600 denar.  Now we’ve been tootling all around Skopje for 50-100 denar, so that sounded like a lot.  But we decided to go anyway.  We lucked out because our driver spoke good English and was from the Katlanova area.  He gave us a guided tour, as well as explaning that Express Taxi is a co-op of independent owner-drivers.  Made us feel good about having chosen that company to call first.  And they are good–you call, they don’t answer; you hang up, they call back; you tell them who you are (This is Professor McGaffey) and where you want to go; there’s a consultation, and you are told that taxi number whatever will be there in 2 minutes.  Two minutes means the taxi will be waiting by the time you get downstairs.  Four minutes means you may have a minute to wait when you get downstairs.  They are very good–except, of course, at close-of-business on a rainy day.

The original spa building

Anyway, we got to the spa after a long drive through fields of vegetables and corn stalks (there must have been a lot of corn before we arrived.  Too bad they don’t have the tradition of a corn maze).  We walked in and there were a lot of elderly people and people on crutches and people in wheelchairs.  Oops, are we in the wrong place?  Well, yes and no.  It turns out there are two spas in the same place – a public health spa, filled with people prescribed spa treatment by their doctors, that features peeling walls and a school-style eating hall; and a brand-new Wellness Spa added down two flights of stairs.  When we went downstairs, we found modern tile construction, clean and

Skylights of the new spa

sparkling, with pools, bathtubs (for soaking or mudbaths) sauna, ‘capsules’ (sort of like the Star Trek healing units.  Mine had a flow of oxygen, aromatherapy, and LED light therapy.  I stayed in it for 30 minutes and came out feeling scrubbed.)  Unfortunately, we didn’t see or experience the massage rooms – every space was taken. I guess we shouldn’t have gone without a reservation on a holiday.

When we arrived at the spa, we were asked to sit for a minute until the English-speaking receptionist was available. We sat and had relaxing cups of green tea.  Elena arrived and explained that we couldn’t get a massage because this being a holiday, all the bookings were full.  After figuring out how we can make a reservation next time, we got into what was actually available. So I had a sauna, Elizabeth had a capsule, and we together had a long soak in a mineral pool, wrapped ourselves in plush cotton robes and had a light meal (salad, wine, & sparkling water) and, after a walk around the adjacent park and over

The Old, the New, and Fishermen at the River

the bridge for a look at the river,  came home. It looks like it is expensive by Macedonian standards, but we found it very inexpensive – Dn. 1650 ($38) for both of us for the day. We went by taxi – fast (on the highway), very pleasant & Dn. 600, and returned by bus – very slow (on the back road), less comfortable, and Dn 80 – but the bus stopped at the Vero Center, so we could have coffee & hot fudge and do our shopping. So we have arrived at home, relaxed and ready to go back to teaching in the morning.

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