The Bitola-Skopje Train

All provincial train stations have a weary countenance built up over years of waiting.  The station master’s shirt is starched and blue.  The ticket men are disheveled and nimble-fingered. All stations have the same stretched, narrow shape along the tracks, the same graffiti scratched into old plaster. The waiting rooms are dark, the benches are slatted wood, the platforms have a windswept loneliness.  There are precise, square-edged clocks.  These aren’t the terminuses, the bustling hubs of the cities - these are buildings put up to give small towns a hold on the tracks. Train stations are meant to be passed by and left behind.
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 day before we went we walked to find the station, which was difficult.  Prelip stretches, like many big plains towns, in a disorganized, flat sprawl.  When we asked a man for directions, he insisted on driving us.  “But,” he said, “why are you taking the train?  The bus is the same price and faster.”  When we told him that we like trains, he looked amused.  “In Macedonia,” he said, “the trains aren’t good.  They are like from last century.”
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 amazing to think of powerful, momentous movement after this quiet.  The mood in the station was subdued, everyone was hot and an hour passed slowly.  When the train came, it seemed like a surprise, even though we’d all been thinking about it.
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.
On this train, there were no rows of seats – the cars were broken up into compartments.  This meant that, when we boarded, everyone began rushing up and down the aisles, peeking through doors and looking for a cabin with both a place to sit and occupants willing to give up the spare place.  After some looking, two young men nodded us into their cabin – which is how we met Victor and his wordless (non-English speaking) friend.
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.
The journey from Prilep to Skopje takes about two and a half hours.  The country changes as the train goes north – the ground gets dryer and scrubbier, there’s more red soil showing between blades of grass – but the topography mostly stays the same.  There are mountains, but they’re mostly low and smooth edged, nothing like the jagged peaks around the perimeter of the country.  Much is farmland, but the prevailing green is in the hue of forests rather than fields.
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.
Every few miles, the train would stop at a platform.  Sometimes, there would be a station house, sometimes only a concrete step on the edge of a forest.  There were always a few people waiting, but they wouldn’t always get on.  Often, a package would be handed down and a few words of greeting would be shared.
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.
Victor and his friend put their sunglasses on and stepped off the train in Veles, some half hour before we got to our destination.  Before they left us, Victor gave us a mostly-full plastic bottle of homemade rakija liquor.  There was more than a liter in the bottle, and we tried to tell him that it was too much, but he insisted we take it.  It grated on the throat but he was proud and we told him it was good.  He said that he would be staying with his father, and that his father’s rakija was much stronger.  “He says that he likes to drink Rakija, not water!”
Arriving in Skopje, we noticed that our train, which we had come to think of as quaint, suddenly felt like a creature of the city.  In those hours inside, with the verdant afternoon slipping by, we hadn’t seen the graffiti on the outside of the cars or the angular nose of the diesel engine. This was a creature that blasted through the pastoral outside, arriving at home in its metropolis to pant and rest for a while before heading back to Bitola.
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.
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