On the last train we took to Skopje we sat beside gypsies brewing Turkish coffee, talked to strangers and had things stolen from our bikes. We had all our valuables with us in the seating compartment but some desperate sole stole my helmet, rear light, reflective band and 2 broken carabiners. Curiously leaving the perfect, large and attractive carabiner on my bike and taking Ellie’s cycle computer but leaving the magnet and sensor.
It’s a shame to have had things stolen and represents an otherwise good body of people badly. I met some very kind people on the same train. One man surrendered his seat to Ellie so she could sleep and stood talking to me for hours after. He didn’t play any part in the theft, just in case that’s what you’re thinking.
We reached Macedonia and enjoyed a great breakfast of burek, salad and coffee prepared by a lively host that thankfully liked the English. He didn’t, however, like the French and Italians as he thought them to impatient for his slow-food service. Perhaps we Brits are just too tolerant and accustomed to long ques and waiting.
The next part of our eventful day was being told by three separate people that we were cycling the wrong way, when we weren’t, and being eventually convinced to turn back and retrace the last 8 miles. Hot, irritated and unsure of which way to go we started asking people the way to the next town. When, such as in this case, the answers are conflicting, and they usually are, the most reliable way to proceed is to smile, point in every direction and name the place you’re looking for. Gauge the reaction of several locals, check your compass, then take the modal average and hope for the best.
Ultimately we didn’t need to use this tried and tested method of navigation as we were kindly invited to stay with a Macedonian family. The invitation came from a physiotherapist that worked at the local hospital. He worked 7 days a week and supported his family, including a newborn baby and his grandparents. They had no money, but offered us everything they had, we ate watermelon and drank coffee whilst we listened to our host, Ellias. Ellias explained how he had trained his mouse and cat to watch TV and how his dog was made strong from sunlight and vegetables whilst we attempted to evade the affections of his baby chicken called pileško.
It was a truly remarkable evening and at the end we were taken to his parents house to sleep. His father had suffered three strokes and was unable to walk or talk but still had a strong presence and character. When Ellias’ mum, who walked with a cane, tried to swat a fly and missed, his dad pretended the fly had been killed and mimed snatching it from the sofa beside him and eating it with a wicked and mischievous look in his eyes.
Before we slept we were force-fed, twitch inducing quantities of soft wet sugary almond cake and were sung a selection of traditional Macedonian songs about ancient kings and mountain landscapes. At least we think they were the topics of the songs, much of the evening’s conversation was lost in translation and the well-worn Macedonian to English dictionary was only mildly helpful when conversing with a whole family at once.