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Crossing the Macedonian border

We took a taxi from Pogradeci to the Macedonian border (5 km), said goodbye to Albania and walked the 100 meters to the border police. We showed our passports and they welcomed us, telling us in sign language to walk ahead, either 30 or 300 meters (I’m not sure which) and that there would be taxis to the town called Ohrid, pronounced Okrid, on the other side of the lake that Albania and Macedonia share. We walked and walked and walked. No sidewalks. No cars. No buses. Just a two lane highway. I told Irwin I wanted to go back. He said “I don’t go back. It’s uphill.” I was worried. Here we were in the middle of nowhere with our two knapsacks on wheels, our money, and our baby laptop. After about 30 minutes, a red car came up behind us. We put out our arms. Were we actually going to hitchhike?

The gentleman stopped and we asked for a ride to Ohrid, not knowing how far it was. He invited us in, threw our bags in the back and started to drive, and drive and drive. He spoke no English but we managed to convey that we were Canadians. He called his wife on his cell and she told us in perfect English that he would gladly drive us to the bus station to get the bus for Skopja, the capital city.

Ohrid is a touristy, more sophisticated version of Pogradeci. We stopped at a large bus station, where he insisted on purchasing the tickets in Denar. We returned the amount in euro later. Then he motioned for us to get back in the car. What did he mean by this, we asked, but by this time he felt like a long-lost cousin so we climbed in knowing our bus would leave from the station in half an hour. He drove faster now, obviously heading for somewhere. Suddenly, after 10 minutes he stopped abruptly and turned in to a ground floor apartment with a small porch. He was taking us home — and we would meet the bus across the road on its way to Skopja.

His wife Fiona was lovely and so were her two children, Victoria and Michael. Victoria and her cousin were playing with their new kitten. We posed them for pictures, and sampled some of Victoria’s homemade blueberry juice and coffee. Then we hugged the entire family, especially our saviour and his mother, who had so graciously welcomed us to Macedonia, and made our way to the bus with Fiona.

The bus was hot and stuffy but we finished our books and four hours later were walking away from the bus station looking for a hotel. Finally we found one for 35 euro, 5 extra for necessary air conditioning, across from the Greek Embassy, about a 15 minute walk to the great square in the centre of this somewhat eclectic city of 700,000. Our room is tiny but we feel safe across from the embassy manned by a burly policeman at all times.

This morning we walked in all directions looking for the elusive post office, hidden in a circular building that looked like the inside of a flower. Inside after much negotiation we decided to only send home the heavy books for the special rate of 5 euro rather than the books and t-shirts for 40 euro! We headed out towards a medieval fortress across the bridge and inside we found the Old City. Its narrow stone streets, somewhat resembling the Old City of Jerusalem, including the fortress, beckoned to our yearnings for small old-fashioned boutiques and cafes, and lo and behold, we stumbled upon the Honourary Consulate for the State of Israel. We rang and were immediately let in and introduced to the assistant to the Honourary Consul, his son, who greeted us warmly and served us coffee. We talked about the history of Macedonian Jewry. He told us 7,148 or 98% were deported during the Holocaust, all to Treblinka. Only 200 are left here in Skopja, some having emigrated to Israel.

We were invited to visit the foundations of the new Holocaust Memorial Center of the Jews from Macedonia. Inside the new building that is the Foundation for the Center, we met Victoria who runs the day-to-day operations. Victoria spent three years in Israel with her family ten years ago but they returned, fearing “the wars.” We spoke Hebrew and she then showed us a few restaurants below her building that we could choose for lunch. Alas she wasn’t allowed to accompany us but we will be meeting her this evening with her boyfriend.

Our lunch of kebab, yogurt soup, Greek salad and roasted peppers, and Macedonia Riesling was a treat, but we are not ready for much more than a nap right now. Tomorrow we visit the Jewish community centre one minute from our hotel.

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