SKOPJE, MACEDONIA — People who spend long periods in strange lands develop unique ways to ward off the melancholy that descends at odd, unbidden moments, transfixing us with memories that leave us standing naked before the mirror and suddenly late for dinner.
An American diplomat I know in Macedonia soothes her homesick nerves by eating Cocoa Puffs straight from the box. A Midwestern journalist who covers Bosnia lugs around a tape deck, filling the alien air with dulcet harmonies of American folk music.
I shoo away hearth-sickness--at least temporarily--by losing myself inside bookstores and libraries, preferably those with old books. This works best in genteel, slightly frayed dowagers of cities like Sofia and Thessaloniki, which are packed with bookstores that smell of stale talc perfume and evaporated dreams.
During a recent four-month stint in the Balkans, I reached for this fix much like any addict. As Sam Cooke would say, it sent me. Books were my panacea against the bitter cold, the car exhaust fumes, the oppressive talk of blood and death that consumes the Peninsula these days.
At the American Center library in Skopje, I met suave newcomers such as Oscar Hijuelos and renewed relationships with venerable masters such as Edith Wharton. After making a selection, I trotted home like a dog with a meaty bone. On nights when the winds howled down from Vodno Mountain into the deserted streets, whipping the falling snow into a dry lather, I sat propped up in bed with my stacked tomes, amulets to protect me from unseen ghosts.
The more incongruous my reading was with my locale, the more it transported me. Maybe that's the way I filter reality. Prior to my trip, I had spent months engrossed in Balkan history books while Los Angeles shot and burned itself into a frenzy.
Now, there was something deliciously dissonant about sitting in a Macedonian cafe listening to the \o7 muzzein \f7 in the minaret call the faithful to prayer while reading "In Country" by Bobbie Ann Mason, a tale of Vietnam vets, coming of age in Kentucky and national disillusion. I ordered another Turkish coffee and turned the page.
But I had to put aside Louise Erdrich's "Love Medicine" during a visit to Tirana. Albania was too weird and fantastical, as well as a bit sinister, for me to concentrate on this quintessentially American book about a Native American family on a Dakota reservation.
Maybe it also struck too close to home. Cut off from the world for decades, ground down by massive unemployment, abject poverty and hardscrabble mountains where little would grow, dominated by tribal law, Albania struck me as one big reservation. Yet it also glowed with the magic realism that Erdrich evokes so well in her novels. For once I didn't need fiction.
I found no old bookstores in Albania, which didn't surprise me, since the country's first university wasn't even built until 1957, as Stalinist dictator Enver Hoxha with bloody cruelty wrenched his nation of 3.2 million from feudalism.
But poking around musty corners of Central Europe has yielded up gems over the years, and they have kept my brain from seizing up. In 1989 I spent days haunting antiquarian shops in Budapest--a book-lover's paradise--reading old travelogues and thin volumes of poetry by a British spinster who penned delicate verses in 1871 about gardens and platonic friendship.
How did this century-old book from London wind up in Hungary, surviving world wars, cataclysm and Communism, I wondered, growing more interested in its provenance than its author. A worn copy of "A Farewell to Arms" made me muse how many Hungarian eyes had gazed at Papa's nuanced prose and vowed to try their own hand at writing.
On that trip, I still rue passing up a leather-bound volume chronicling the Russo-Japanese War of 1905 illustrated with hand-tinted historic photos of men, horses and artillery. It cost $20, which at the time seemed like a lot but now seems absurd.
Always a believer in chance encounters, I went to Bulgaria last fall and scanned the block-long, open-air book market in Sofia's Pencho Slaveykov Square for another copy. In the afternoon shade, dealers stomped their feet to keep warm in between swills of rakia--the harsh grape brandy that lubricates life in the South Balkans.
A friendly book-dealer confided that Slaveykov was a Bulgarian symbolist poet of the early 20th Century, on whom that small fierce country once pinned its hopes for a Nobel Prize in literature. In typical Balkan fashion, Slaveykov was undermined when jealous rivals sent an anonymous letter to the committee, denouncing the poet as a traitor and spy.
We clicked our tongues over man's tragic fate and he tried to interest me in a coffee-table book on Bulgarian icons. But because he still mourned for Slaveykov, his heart wasn't in it.