Prilep and the American Dream

Invitations in Macedonia come like threats.  There's no way to demure, you've been invited.  And so we ended up drinking rakija with a family in the outer limits of Prilep, an ancient tobacco town set down where the Pelagonia plains meet the Rhodope mountains.  We talked with the family about America and Macedonia in their front yard, sitting under a plum tree and waving to neighbors and passers by.
Two brothers talked about their father, who sat with us but spoke little English.  Hristijan, the younger brother, told us how their father had gone to Australia but had come back because he was in love with Hristijan's mother, a decision that seemed unbelievable to him.  "But he likes it here in Macedonia," Hristijan said, as though explaining something blasphemous.  The father nodded.  Later, he said that we should take a young nephew or two home with us in our suitcases.  It was a joke, but a heavy one.  Everyone wants to leave Prilep.
It's too bad, because Prelip is a great town.
Afflicted with very low self esteem, this town of seventy thousand has a lot going for it.  It seems that the population has begun to believe the guidebooks, which dismiss Prelip as an uninteresting, blue-collar town that won't fit easily into an Ohrid to Skopje whirlwind tour.  It's true that it's out of the way, isolated from the main tourist hubs in the western part of the country, and that there's a scant four or five places to stay, but to give it only one page (like Lonely Planet does) in a guide is shameful.
The rakija that we drank with Hristijan, his father, his brother Pancho, his friend Goran and Pancho's wife Valentina was homemade from village plums and a pale green - colored by sprigs of peppermint in the bottle ("good for the stomach").  It was strong enough to burn, but well made enough to be complex and subtle.  As we sat, a few neighbors drove by with a cart full of firewood and two plastic barrels.  Jokes and pleasantries were exchanged.  When the men left, Hristijan told us that they were going to a friend's still, off to make their own rakija.  "Why is it illegal to make alcohol in America?" they asked.  "Here it's tradition, it's what we drink for thousands of years.  This IS Macedonia!"
We'd arrived at their house after a hot hike up to the towers of King Marco, who is a legendary figure in the national folklore but was in fact a minor ruler in the 14th century.  The views out over the tobacco plains and low mountains were spectacular, the kind of open, rock-and-grass walking that makes this region so appealing.
The brothers had learned English watching westerns with their father.  The elder man liked the landscapes of the movies because it reminded him of home; the dust, the crowns of rock, the wide vistas.  In fact, it feels a lot like an American town here - though, in some ways, much more colorful.  Tobacco fields creep right up to the streetlights and sidewalks, people buy their loose smoke in the markets.  There are more cafes here than in provincial America, the town center is full of life, there aren't any empty storefronts.  It feels, a little, like an America of the past.
The town is appealing, with some wide avenues and narrow, medieval lanes.  There are plentiful trees and friendly people, dozens of busy watering holes and a constant burble of conversation.  There are a few nice museums, some handsome old houses, a vibrant market.  It's the kind of undiscovered outpost that travelers crave, where the local customs mix easily with modernity in an unaffected, friendly way.  Tourists are still a rarity, university students are abundant, everyone knows everyone else and nobody's in a hurry.  It's a perfect example of what we call "cafe culture."  In other words, it is much more cosmopolitan than its citizens think it is.
We stopped into this blacksmith's shop one evening.  An old man stood by the furnace and anvil, a couple of friends sat nearby, talking.  When I asked if I could take a picture he pulled an ax head from the coals and began pounding it rhythmically.  After a few clamorous moments, it had achieved a rough shape, and he put it back into the coals and smiled.  "It's made easily," he said (in semi-russian that we only kind of understood) and winked.  His face was lopsided and mischievous, his eyes were bright blue.  We realized that it was the first time we'd ever seen a real, working blacksmith's shop that wasn't part of some museum or skansen.
During a tour of some of the town's outer neighborhoods by Hristijan and Goran, the two friends waved to almost everyone they passed, occasionally stopping the car (yes, this was after we'd finished the bottle of rakija) to have a few words with someone.
Hristijan showed us the ancient Monastery of the Archangel Michael, and Goran showed us his church.  Hristijan sat for a minute with friends at a picnic table and Goran took us to a new amphitheater that he and his neighbors had built.  The sun was getting low and the light was golden.  Children rode their bikes nearby, birds sang their evening songs.  The amphitheater was small and quiet.  Goran told us that it was meant to give the town something like Ohrid or the Greek cities, a place for the community to come together.  It was striking, this closeness of people and the many friendships that they all shared.  When we were being driven back to our hotel, much later, Goran and Hristijan talked reverently about the man who had gone to America, built a fortune and just returned to buy the hotels and set up a factory.  As they dropped us off, they ran into a man they both knew walking with his wife and new baby.  They all exchanged hugs and gave the baby many kisses.
As we sat in that sunny yard, having a last cup of coffee and lemonade, Hristijan told us that his father had built their house by himself and was justifiably proud of it.  When Rebecca told him that my father had also built his own house, Hristijan leaned toward me and struck a wistful tone.  "Merlin," he asked, "do you think we will build houses for our families?"
The question touched on many things - his father's happiness in Prilep, thoughts about America, the hope for a better life.  Hidden there was a different question: where would he build his house?  Many times Hristijan talked about American television and what he had seen, about the movies.  He'd asked about what one could earn in America doing different jobs.  These are common questions, common strains in the conversation of far away places.  It's hard to address them without sounding disingenuous.  Of course living in America is wonderful, but it's not like the television shows.
That night we went out for dinner in the town center.  It was Friday night and the crowded squares were full of laughter.  The warm air smelled like imminent summer rain.  Girls in short skirts linked arms and clipped down the streets in high heels.  Boys in dark sunglasses chased them on motor scooters.  Groups of friends spilled from one pool of light to another, from the music of one cafe to the next.  The city was beautiful, a jangling mix of colors.
We began to talk about what Hristijan wanted, about how it's natural for people to want to move somewhere better.  After all, living in Macedonia isn't easy.  But seeing a place like this - a place that feels so alive and friendly, where everyone is acquainted and strangers are invited in for a drink - it's hard to believe that dusty American towns actually are better.
Don't believe the guidebooks or American television shows - Prilep is a lot nicer than people think.
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