Originally published on Medium for "It’s Complicated: Lit Up & The Writing Cooperative Contest"
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.