10/13/2010 – Our arrival in Ohrid was a welcome relief from the chaotic string of destinations we had just passed through – Timisoara, Belgrade, Skopje, Prizren, Skopje again. It had all melted into a blurry amalgamation of train compartments, bus stations, hotel rooms, and similarly charming piazzas. Ohrid immediately felt different. Open to the vast mountain-rimmed lake, it felt marine, sleepy, cozy. It felt like the kind of place you might spy a wizened fisherman taking a mid afternoon doze in his moored boat. Maybe it was just the feeling of being on the water, but it felt more heartily Mediterranean than any of the spots we’d been so far.
Our first morning was rainy, a heavy consistent rain that left the fading pink stone churches looking brilliant again and the mature heavy-leafed trees, curving organically around the old-town homes, sodden and radiant with chlorophyll. From our warm perch at the window of a nearly empty restaurant we marveled at the unending staccato beat of rain on the awning and the mist encroaching in the far ends of the cobblestone lanes. We lingered over our banana and nutella crepes, hopeful that the deluge might let up, but were forced to conclude that it would not.
Hoping to avoid aimless wandering in this weather, and without even a tenuous Lonely Planet map to help us this time, we asked our bored-looking waitress if she could help us locate our accommodations I had found and booked online. (I had actually stumbled upon the website for this guesthouse way back in Boulder and had even been using one of their photos – a view from the deck – as a desktop background. How strange and wonderful to have that view now be the background to reality). The waitress looked confused by the address we provided and had never heard of the guesthouse. We began to resign ourselves to a long wet trek but then she went over to confer with another table full of locals. After much debate and pointing to all sorts of different spots on a free tourist brochure map, they settled on the correct location and helpfully sent us on our way.
We wound our way through the narrow alleyways, cobblestones shiny with wet, and began to ascend a mind-bogglingly steep lane crisscrossed by thin stone bars that seemed to have been laid on a scale to aid horses not humans. Out of breath and only half way up, we hoped this was indeed the right street. (Apparently street signs are too uptight to have a place here). The street flattened out and, relieved, we spotted a small sign pointing to our lodgings. We began to descent a set of stairs and looked uncertainly up at a half-built structure next to us, strewn with building supplies and a few bags of trash – this place was supposed to be nice. A little hesitantly we knocked at the broad wooden door and were soon admitted by Pavel, our squat grandfatherly host. “You must be Jennifer!” he greets us excitedly, wringing our hands. “Come, come! I show you your room.” He leads us down a long stone hall, the floor undulating slightly to mirror the ground beneath. The hall is lined with quirky treasures: a length of ancient Roman water pipe, an orthodox censer, a spikey Medieval-looking device that could be either a torture instrument or a waffle iron. The corridor winds around a couple of sharp turns and we come to our room. Our trepidation melts away instantly as we lay eyes on our wall of floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking our flower-lined porch and the stunningly beautiful lake. Pavel shows us the large kitchen we can use and then leaves us to unpack and unwind.
It doesn’t take long before we’ve gratefully fallen into a pleasant routine of lazy mornings, long walks, and lots of home-cooked meals. Lacking new cities, new sights, and new transportation hassles to overcome, we are able to drink in the smaller details of this place. Pavel brings us a big bowl of fresh figs from his tress and we begin to notice these trees all around town, laden with heavy Hershey’s Kiss-shaped fruits. Lemon tress, myriad technicolor flowers, and a vines bearing grapes and what seems to be kiwis (?!) peak out of narrow courtyards everywhere and spill off balconies and front stoops. Gnarled grandmas tend homemade grills of roasting peppers in front of their houses and mince up our steep street in their flimsy house shoes, quick and never out of breath.
We find ourselves entranced by simply watching gulls dipping down to the steely-blue water looking for their lunch, or watching hearty locals, bundled in their puffy nylon jackets, staking out open air cafe tables as though believing their jaunty disregard for the frosty air might change the weather. It doesn’t. Days blur together as we become increasingly familiar with our lakeside idyll. And amidst the hypnotic lapping of the water and the many hours spent luxuriating in snug cafes, I find myself waxing philosophical:
Ohrid is one of the loveliest, most peaceful places I have ever been. It’s one of those spots where you feel immediately comfortable and at ease. It’s almost a shade of the feeling of “home” come to comfort us on the other side of the world. It’s sort of ironic though that the most enjoyable places to travel are places that provide that homey comfortability. Travelling to difficult locals is undoubtedly interesting but trying as well. It all leaves the unanswerable question of why do we long to travel? And, simultaneously, why do we long for home?
It seems some sort of mysterious interplay between the thrill of the unknown and the rawness of the new and unexplored coupled with the necessary comfort of familiarity and the ease of that comfort. Perhaps it is possible to adopt an outlook to home that will allow some of the wonder of the traveler’s perspective to enter? It’s a strange experience to morph into this role of “traveler” in the world. It’s an identity that feels a little ghostly. You float through these places as an observer, your interactions leaving only a faint fleeting impression on the worlds you pass through.
There is something about the maddeningly interminable nature of the routines and cycles of home that makes everything appear permanent, though falsely so. The view of the traveler, divorced from the ruts of ordinary existence, offers a truer glimpse of the capricious world, turning and churning out life without much regard for each of our tiny little perspectives on things. It’s simultaneously humbling and freeing to witness so many cities, towns, villages, cafes, and countries that all exist totally impervious to our chance arrival or departure. Maybe part of the appeal of travel is that is somehow enacts the ultimate universal drama, allowing you to see a world spinning on without you…