On our way from Prelip up to Skopje, we left from one of these engine-buffeted buildings, passed dozens more and met some very interesting people. This is why we love traveling by train.
The journey began in the heat of early afternoon. The waiting room was full of older people and their little bags. One man carried a few spools of wire. A pair of swallows swooped in from time to time, perched and then flew back out.
It’s a short route, traveling from Bitola – the cosmopolitan hub of the south – up to the capital, stopping along the way to pay grudging, hurried respects to the places in between. There are four trains a day. The track isn’t used for much else.
They were university students, nineteen years old, and returning from Bitola to their hometown of Veles. Victor had a jokey, cocksure nature that came from being young and from long years of work and near self-sufficiency (he’d been working since he was eleven, and had spent some years alone, laboring in Bulgaria). The early current of conversation took us by a litany of common hard-luck stories – Macedonia is difficult, he has no money, there is no future in the Balkans – but then turned to the scenery and the beauty of the country. It is beautiful, especially seen blurred by the dreamlike lens of a train window.
Victor like to smoke (“if I had money, I wouldn’t smoke,” he said. “But you can’t do anything in Macedonia for forty dinar except buy cigarettes”) and he had his friend keep watch for the conductor while he puffed out the window. A young law-student named Jasmina joined us at a small station – she was headed back to Skopje to her job at a notary’s office. We all looked out at the passing countryside. The other three had seen it many times before, but they took a fresh interest because of us.
Victor didn’t seem to like the train much more than the man in Prelip. “If you have to be in Skopje at four, you must take the bus. This train is from the old times. It might take three hours, it might take nine. And then you are sitting there in the dark, and you can’t get to Skopje.” Our experience, though, was nothing like that. The train seemed to get to every stop on time, and was waved on officially and easily by the blue-uniformed station master. Each yellow-painted station was unique - but nothing more than a minute of the journey, still a part of the forward motion.
We were asked again, in town, why we’d taken the train instead of the bus. Macedonians aren’t proud of their railway (I’m not sure why, really). It’s hard to explain to them, but a train is something different to an American than it is to a European. Punctuality and luxury aren’t that important. It’s wonderful to be able to stand up and lean out an open window as goats and barns and waving children rush by. Conversations begin and end, a few new faces become familiar. Traveling this way, one doesn’t see the roads or the fronts of buildings – just the backcountry. The rhythm of the starts and stops is a pleasure all its own. For us, it’s something foreign in itself.