I’ve been in an “on-again, off-again” relationship for twenty years. Like most of my relationships, it’s one-sided. I give more than I get. It keeps me awake at night. I fill up pages and pages in my journal analyzing every interaction, every detail, every chuckle, and every tear. I should have ended it long ago — the first time it made me sick to my stomach, the first time it left me crying into my pillow at night, or the first time I spent days unable to think about anything other than “what the hell happened there?”
What’s worse is that I know better. I learned in my teens that you cannot change the basic dynamics of a relationship. You buy ‘as is’, no refunds, no exchanges, ‘you break it you bought it’, and in my case they usually break me. The problem is that this relationship, the love of my life, isn’t with a man, it’s with a country, or more specifically a group of countries.
I’m infatuated with a region known for centuries of ethnic tension and genocide, where the borders change with the seasons, and where centuries co-mingle. Yet, I long to drive though the countryside in springtime, taking in the smell of green grass after the rain and counting picture-perfect pastures of sunflowers. I know the same scene will, depending on the country, be dotted by run-down or bombed-out buildings, but when I think of the cherries and tomatoes that await me during the summer, my mouth waters. I dream of a living in a place where organized criminals with a bad fashion sense rule business and politics, but at the same time, you can stop by a neighbor’s house unannounced and get a homemade brandy, a cheap cigarette, a tomato salad, and hours of conversation.
My love affair with the Balkans started with Bulgaria in 1997. Me, a wide-eyed Peace Corps volunteer, and my first Balkan love, a post-communist nation struggling with brain drain, a currency crisis, and an inferiority complex because its war-torn neighbors got more attention. I learned to navigate the ailing public transportation system, to cook with ingredients that had no similarity to what I knew, and to fall in love in another language. I tried to cheat on Bulgaria by checking out Macedonia and Albania, which is when I realized I loved the region, not just one country.
Although I loved my trips, I continued to struggle with the relationship. Especially the contradictions I faced every day. They claimed to despise the growing influence of the mafia but mourned when one of their ring leaders was assassinated. Elections brought a former king to run the country when he hadn’t lived there for more than fifty years, and had never voted before. The diplomatic disputes over languages drained me. So did celebrations that ended with guns firing into the air. I hated ordering pizza “without peas and eggs.” And if one more baba (grandma) forced me to sit on a stuffy bus in the heat of the summer with all the windows closed because the “evil wind” would make everyone sick, I would scream. Actually, in one case I did. The rest of the passengers couldn’t decided if they were more shocked the American would stand up to the venerated baba, or that she could do it in their language.
In 2008, tried to break up.
I moved to Afghanistan — a fresh start, a new challenge, a clean break. This change meant I could learn a new language, enjoy a new cuisine, fall in love with a new set of mountains, and be amused by the mistakes I would make in a new culture. I learned to don a headscarf, ate saffron rice and lamb at every opportunity, and enjoyed the sounds of the daily call to prayer.
But I couldn’t get the Balkans out of my mind. I made friends with Serbians and Bulgarians in Kabul. My friends in Sofia sent me the latest gossip on each other and politics. Within the year, I planned a vacation to Bulgaria. The second I stepped off the plane and the first smell of burning garbage wafted into my nostrils, I gagged a little and smiled a lot.
These countries infuriate me, excite me, drain me, and make me scream in both laughter and frustration on a regular basis. But, I never feel more alive or more myself than when I am there.
The Balkans are and always will be my second home and my first true love.