03 May 2012

Happy Labor Day!

"It's a day to be in nature with family..." explained Stefanija, an aspiring singer who was visiting her cousins for the holiday. So, everyone just sits around drinking and grilling?  "Yes, exactly," she laughed.  Labor Day seems to be the same the world over and we were lucky enough to join in on a real holiday barbecue.  We'd been hiking in the sun for two hours during which we'd met a turtle stuck in some shrubs and a recently road-killed snake.  Don't drink and drive, folks.  Behind every house, we could hear laughing and clinking of glasses.  Meat-tinged smoke made signals in the air that read YOU ARE JEALOUS.  Then, in the village of Ljubojno, this minimart-cum-restaurant appeared like an oasis. We sat for a drink and a moment out of the scorching sun.  What we got was much, much more. 
Two generations of men sat around a table on the porch. The front door of the store was open and they went in and out getting what was needed. Traditional music played on the stereo and plastic plates covered the tables - sliced tomato, whole hot peppers, grilled slabs of sheep cheese, scattered amongst the beer and rakija. The main event was about to begin.  There was a gas grill sitting amongst piles of empty bottles, but attentions were turned to the other, larger one.  "This is the best grill in.... in the world!" proclaimed Lambed, the grillmaster.  He'd welcomed us and taken our drink order when the others had looked a little skeptical.  Soon enough, we were embraced with full Macedonian hospitality.  "We'd like to invite you to join us for some meat."  It's not polite to turn down an invitation.
Nor is it polite to refuse a gift.  Our order of "wine" had arrived in the form of a one liter bottle of Macedonian white.  (That's the equivalent of 1 and 1/3 normal bottles for those who may not know).  When it was around four fifths of the way done, another was sent over.  "From him!" one man said of another.  Our place was cemented.  We received a taste of the first batch of meat off the grill: a veal burger, chicken cutlet and hot dog.  You'd be amazed at how good those three things can taste when wood-fired to perfection.  The whole batch of meat, which also included sausage wrapped in bacon and veal chops, had been marinating all day.  A halved onion was rubbed over the surface of the hot grill before anything went on.  This was an artform. 
Macedonia's Labor Day used to take place over three days - May 1st, 2nd and 3rd.  After the fall of Communism, when the actual completion of labor began to take precedence over the celebration of it, they shortened the holiday to two days.  Now, it is just one.  In small villages like Ljubojno, teenagers go and live with family or friends in neighboring cities in order to attend high school.  So, Labor Day is a rare day back at home during the school year.  We'd seen the bustle in Lake Ohrid, Macedonians who can afford to make a whole weekend of it gave a peek at what the town must be like in the summer high season. 
Some places were sleepier because of the holiday, some were more crowded. The little store in our home village of Brajcino, a (somewhat) sobering hour's walk from Ljubojno, was closed for the afternoon.  That didn't stop men from sitting outside under umbrellas, drinking beer and playing cards.  They left their recyclables lined up by the door and went home for the holiday dinners their wives had prepared.  Cars from Slovenia and Serbia filled the small parking lot in the town center.  We're pretty sure all of the former Yugoslav countries have the same Labor Day holiday. 
You see mini-reunions happening all over on days like this.  Cousins who only see each other once or twice a year fall easily back into familiar roles, dogs bark at visitors they don't recognize, young couples smooch and smoke cigarettes in secret. Like Stefanija and her friends, most people ring up their relative with the most picturesque residential location and pay a visit.  It's hard to compete with the Brajcino area in that respect.  The weather couldn't have been any more perfect and outdoor breakfast tables easily transitioned into lunch tables and then dinner.  You could smell baking almost everywhere.
The plows, shovels and tractors stay put for the day.  Except for this man, out on a joyride.  The kids of the town clearly knew he was coming and hopped on his cart.  Lest we forget the true meaning of Labor Day (drinking and grilling), Tractor Man didn't just brake to pick up new passengers.  He happily used the opportunity to pour himself a drink.  Happy Labor Day from Macedonia!

1 comment:

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