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William Oscar Johnson
October 24, 1983
Dame Rebecca West's classic book on Yugoslavia inspired a journey to the fascinating and complex home of the 1984 Winter Olympic Games
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October 24, 1983

A Trip East With West

Dame Rebecca West's classic book on Yugoslavia inspired a journey to the fascinating and complex home of the 1984 Winter Olympic Games

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We arrived in Skopje, the capital of Macedonia, long after dark. Though there was no snow, the city was as chilly as any town we'd been in so far. We entered the Grand Hotel to find the desk clerk wearing a thick scarf around his neck. Rubbing his hands, he informed us that the hotel furnace was broken—no heat, no hot water tonight. We went to the cocktail lounge in the lobby where a waiter wearing an overcoat served us slivovitz poured by a bartender wearing a wool cap pulled over his ears. In the dining room the waiter wore a white waistcoat and black tie as if the temperature were normal, but the place was in fact as cold as the lobby, and Cooke and I dined wearing our overcoats. We had a fine veal soup, čevapčići, for the 1,000th time and what our hot-blooded waiter called a "black wine," a hearty deep Macedonian red called kratošija.

We departed Skopje in the morning and headed for our last destination in Yugoslavia, Lake Ohrid, set deep in the southwest corner of the country, flush up against one of the oddest, saddest nations on earth these days, Albania. When we arrived, our dream of driving into an early Balkan spring shattered like a dropped icicle. Though the sun was dazzling in Ohrid, the frigid wind was whistling directly down the 18-mile length of the lake. Ohrid is a large, unusually clear body of fresh water that is mainly spring-fed. It has a maximum depth of more than 900 feet, and it never freezes. It abounds with a lovely white trout and contains a bizarre population of eels called jegulja, a thick, prehistoric thing that weighs 10 or 12 pounds. Though ugly as sin, the jegulja tastes a bit like chicken.

South along the lakeshore lies the famous monastery of Sveti Naum. It has a number of ancient buildings, the most interesting one being a 10th-century church perched on a point above the lake. It's a small, odd structure with two red-and-white brick cupolas and a red tile roof. "In shape it is like a locomotive," West had proclaimed. The only sound was the rushing of the spring-fed river. A couple of peacocks strutted desultorily about. It was a perfect scene of peace—except for one thing: Sveti Naum is located less than a mile from the border between Yugoslavia and Albania.

A man in Ohrid had referred to that padlocked land as "the largest prison in the world." Perhaps it is—people haven't been allowed freely in or out of Albania in 38 years. Stories that seep out of there portray the place as being set in a dark and different century—the population of 2.75 million is, for example, almost totally without automobiles; only high government officials have them. There is a deep hatred in Yugoslavia of anything Albanian, including other Yugoslavs of Albanian descent. From upper Slovenia to lower Macedonia we heard nothing but whispered scorn and muttered suspicion about these people. In Ohrid one of our Slav guides had told us that the men in white fezzes were of Albanian extraction, and he added, "I tell you that-so you can avoid them." It was one of the more unpleasant aspects of the Land of South Slavs.

We slept our last night in Yugoslavia at Ohrid and just as it was turning light the next morning we drove to a tiny village on the lake and stood shivering on the shore to watch the fishermen bring in their catch. It was a meager one, as it turned out—too cold, said the fishermen. Then we drove to the town of Struga, on the north shore of the lake, where a cacophonous marketplace was in full operation. Peasants had arrived before dawn, bringing cheese and butchered sheep, honeycombs and homemade shoes. The women were dressed in brilliant Macedonian costumes. Someone told us that the women traditionally wore every bit of clothing they own on market days—10 or 20 skirts—so even the thinnest ones look fat. Cooke and I wandered about and were jostled and crowded by jabbering bargain-hunters in a scene that could have been Marrakesh or Istanbul. But certainly not Ljubljana. Or Plitvice. Or Split.

We set out for Greece. It was a swift and easy drive of about five hours to Thessaloniki, and we arrived after dark. We awoke to soft breezes and sunshine warm enough to bask in at an outdoor café. We watched Greeks promenading along the wide plaza bordering the harbor. We added up our mileage and found that from Vienna we'd driven 2,360 miles. We'd covered several civilizations in those miles, driven past territory seized at one time or another by Caesar and Napoleon, by the Turks and by the Nazis. In Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, Dame Rebecca was grappling with large questions about the many and varied mad acts of assassination and war that had for so long made this southeastern corner of Europe the wellspring of political upheaval. As she wrote before her Yugoslav odyssey in 1937, "It was only two or three days distant, yet I had never troubled to go that short journey which might explain to me how I shall die, and why."

Cooke and I had no such grand motive; we were dealing in Games and fun, not in life and death. Nevertheless, it was in great part because of West that we'd had such a magnificent journey through the Land of South Slavs. And so, there in the warmth of the onrushing Greek spring we ordered a pair of double Beefeater martinis, straight up, very dry and very cold, and then we toasted the grand old dame. And then we toasted her grand old tome. Then we toasted the Olympics because we were in Greece, and then we toasted the 1984 Winter Olympics, because we had just come from Yugoslavia. And then we toasted ourselves, and then Dame Rebecca again, and then we ordered another round.

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