I went to meet other walkers again, this time it was Nil and Marie down in Kosovo.
My journey started with a hitchhike. I stuck my thumb out in the rain on the edge of Prokuplje, an ordinary town in the south of Serbia, pacing up and down, treading footprints into the wet gravel at the side of the road. It was a main road but no one was really interested. I haven’t gauged hitchhiking in these countries, I’d see people hitching in Ukraine, old men flapping their hands to slow cars down, but rarely anywhere else so far. Eventually a man stopped, on his way home from visiting a brother in the big city, he was friendly, with piercing blue eyes, a bus driver in his home town. He dropped me at an intersection and I got out my knitting, stuffed the wool in my pocket and drew out a single string, something to do with my hands as I waited. I wasn’t there long though, pushing the knitting hastily into my pocket as a young guy in a tatty small car pulled up. He was a working man, clothes threadbare, hands large and stained. A tree feller, my rucksack nestling up against his chainsaw on the back seat. His car emitted a regular loud whine from the ventilation and he’d abruptly slow the car down to a crawl to stop it before speeding up again. He dropped me on the main road, 20km from the border with Kosovo before turning away into the town. I’d left Prokuplje late and it was 5pm, maybe too late to get another lift, if anyone would even pick me up. I didn’t know the state of the border down there, maybe nobody would pick up a stranger to take them across into disputed territory. I was outside a garage and across the road were green flat fields; I scoped out the sleeping spots, where I could head into the grasses and out of sight of the pump worker and his teenage friends congregated on chairs underneath an awning outside the building. There weren’t many cars but I kept trying, knitting my yellow blanket square until a vehicle passed and I could hold out my arm, zipping up through my core as I did so, in a long held habit to try and strengthen my stomach muscles. I was just passing the minutes until it got dark enough to go and camp but suddenly, unexpectedly, a van stopped for me, German numberplate. The man spoke to me in a mixture of German and English as we shoved my rucksack in through the back door, balancing it on piles of boxes and a deconstructed bicycle, then as he cleared his clutter from the front seat, bottles of water, cigarette packets, until we could get into the front, my feet balanced on sacks of compost, drive away and take a breath. He was Ramon, a Kosovo Albanian, heading from his German home for a 3 week holiday, and it turned out his town was 6 miles away from my destination, all the way over on the other side of Kosovo, almost at the border with Albania. I couldn’t believe my luck, I’d thought it would be a two day journey to get there, hitching around the central city of any country is always complicated and time consuming. Well I’ll settle in then, I thought, and made myself comfortable. Ramon laughed at my knitting, took a picture to show his sister, offered me water and cigarettes. He was a solidly friendly kind of person that I could feel instantly comfortable with, we chatted in a mixture of Serbian and English. He was 50, with grey hair in a curly ponytail, and had lived in Germany for 30 years, sending money home to his parents, keeping them going. His father had been a farming shepherd, with 300 sheep, he’d been sent out with them as a child, spending days alone in the fields. Now the sheep are gone and his father survives on a pension and smallholding.
The first thing I noticed about Kosovo was the buildings. They were new, all of them. We’d drive past small villages on the fast highway, I couldn’t see a single crumbling decayed house, as has existed everywhere else on my journey so far. “Bombed” said Ramon, “Nato and Serbia bombed here, houses destroyed. My house too” he said, and showed me pictures on his phone. “Did the government give you money to rebuild?” “No, we fund ourselves, people go west to work, France, Germany, Italy” The usual economic exodus I’ve seen elsewhere but this time more urgent.
Ramon advised me against hitching in Kosovo, said it was dangerous here, that people were crazy, he made a twisting gesture against his forehead. The Serbian men who’d picked me up had also told me not to hitch in Kosovo, that the men there would be sexual, that it was dangerous. I was not about to pay attention to the Serbian opinion on a territory full of people they’d tried to kill 20 years ago, but a Kosovan view was worth listening to.
Fortunately I wasn’t going to hitch again, not until I wanted to leave in a few days. Ramon said he’d take me directly to Gjakova and find a hotel for me, it was late at night and he twisted in pain against the prolonged driving position, he’d been on the road for 14 hours. He swore against the road conditions, the everlasting roadworks, external rebuilding money that has poured into Kosovo but has to pass through many layers of grasping hands before the remnants go towards the public good.
After 3 hours of driving together, we were at the hotel, he went in to check they had rooms and came out to tell me he’d paid, there wasn’t much I could do to argue, just hug and kiss him with the familiarity that comes of a shared journey in the dark, of shared spirit. A good man, he’d described himself as; just a divorced man who does nothing but work, but a good one. He was, I felt it in him. Like Igor, my first Ukrainian interaction, who’d taken me across the border into Ukraine, here was Ramon, my first Kosovo Albanian. Good humans all.
Now here I was alone in a huge double bed with red leather chairs complimenting the huge mirror that covered one wall. I messaged my real reasons for making this diversion – Nil and Marie, Deux Pas Vers L’Autre. They’re a French couple walking from Portugal to Turkey, seemingly over every single mountain enroute. I was intimidated by their ability, they’d been posting nonstop snowy mountain pictures since September. We’d been messaging for a while but here, as our routes crossed the closest they ever would, like swooping bird flights across Europe from opposite directions, here was the chance to meet in person.
It’s a strange thing, to connect between journeys where both sets of protagonists are hailed as heroes. Ego plays a huge part in the adventuring journey, or does it…? Maybe it’s just my own. I am hugely competitive, a part of myself that I try not to acknowledge or express. Being the eldest of four siblings, and a clever one too, winning was easy when I was little. As I’ve got older, competitiveness comes out in pressure on self, a focus on my own speed, my own ability.
Now I was meeting people who were much better than me, much faster, more capable, better photographers, more successful social media documents, more glamorous. Heroes.
I felt myself wanting to compete with them, but at the same time with the knowledge that I was utterly outclassed, which expressed itself in an imagined anticipation of their unpleasant behaviour. I anticipated that they’d be rude, curt, superior and prideful. Of course they were none of these things and it’s my insecure brain that is the problem once again.
Forget the foreshadowing, here they finally were in person and I was going to follow them for two days, absolving myself of any route finding decisions, making my life easier for a while.
It was a hugely different experience to mine in many ways, and also completely the same. We wound our way across the very flat plain towards the mountains that separated Kosovo from Macedonia. People called out to us constantly, beeping their horns, waving, beckoning us into awnings of cafes and shops.
This was an extension of their reception in Albania, they told me, where they’d had to refuse offers of food, coffee, a bed, multiple times a day. Albanians see hospitality as an honour. I wondered what their experiences would be in Serbia, or Romania, where I’d experienced so much silence and sideways glances.
Maybe it was different to walk as part of a group of four, where each presence was legitimised by others, not a solo oddball, rucksack laden.
Nil would dive in, hand outstretched, introducing himself, saying hello, waving back. I realised how much he invited interaction compared to my more reticent smiles. Many differences exist between the journey of a solo female and the male of a couple; people would often talk to the boys and include Marie and I as an afterthought, but I realised that I could do more to instigate interaction in my own journey, that I’ve been happy to let experiences flow past me rather than pushing towards creating them.
The sky was a clear blue and the sun shone hot onto packed yellow earth tracks and verdant green fields. We were tracking across a huge plain towards the mountains. I smiled with recognition at their route finding, the eternal dilemma between trying to stay away from roads but ending up in tiny tracks alongside fields which could disappear or turn to mud at any moment. The frustratingly slow and beautiful field versus the satisfyingly fast and unpleasant road. We found snakes in the fields, something I’ve been wary of but never found in person, plus, wonderfully, a wild tortoise, happily pushing its way through the undergrowth, replete in its natural environment. There was plenty of pausing to stare at phones, of confusion and turning back the other way, of missing turns. I felt pleased, in a small way, to see these imperfections, that made their journey so like mine.
I didn’t see an old house for three entire days, everything was new, clear white plaster and straight edges, plastic windows and shutters. It was confusing.
But every so often there came a ripple in the surface of our tourist experience, stopping in the village square for a rest in the shade of a building porch, there was a war memorial built in the centre that included a burnt out van as well as the usual smooth marble monument. The van had a roof built over it, flowers draped on the wing mirror, bullet holes punched through the front and along the drivers side, into the headrests.
We walked up a steep hill into a mountain village, there were marks of bullets in the wall of the first house facing the road and I imagined troops coming to kill and destroy the village, the first defences at the entrance, shots fired. There was a man in the centre who spoke English, he gave us directions to the old road along the hillside, told us that it was the day after Nato started bombing that the Serbs came to set fire to the village, that three people died that day. I saw names on the momument in the centre, faces of four men and one woman laser-etched into the marble, the two older men were 87 and 88 years old. Suddenly I understood why so many houses were new, there wasn’t just bombing, there was arson; serial destruction of homes by flame is much easier to do on a large scale.
We camped the first night in a riverside wasteground just outside a small town. It was a fun night, rakia and a few beers, birthday cake for Marie, presented to her in an elaborate surprise created by Nil, his love very evident. I enjoyed the fire, the public camping without fear of being seen, both things I can’t do alone. The next morning though, as I looked around the grasses, I realised the entire area was grassed-over rubble, settling in unnatural dips and curves. I chilled to realise that this was where the old houses were, the waste had to be taken somewhere and 20 years was about the right amount of time for grass to reclaim an area completely.
Deep Kosovo, we called it, joking about the time that Nil asked where he could buy a taser for self protection and was taken by a hotel owner to an arms sales place, returning with tales of a bunker two storeys underground and full of guns and piles of money. Actually the trauma of this country wasn’t ever so far from the surface.
We met a man in a bar who chatted for a while, took us to his house to give a gift of his own honey then drove us up to see the view from the top of the hill. He described the villages we’d see on our onward route; the next village was half Christian and half Muslim. When the Serbs came they killed only the Muslims.
Placenames were on bilingual signs but in many instances, the Serbian names were obscured with black paint.
I avoided speaking Serbian except as a last resort, when everyone’s English, Albanian and French had failed.
But when the ripples had stilled and the smooth surface of the plain reflected only cafes and cheery hellos, Kosovo was completely normal. There were regular bakeries where we could buy burek, oily layers of pastry folded together with cheese or meat and baked until crispy. We’d treat ourselves in the afternoons, finding a shaded place to rest and gorge.
Two days felt like too short a time to spend with these people, I was only just getting a sense of them, sharp Nil with impulsive outbursts and softer Marie with smiles and silence, but I felt torn about staying longer. These weren’t my steps, it felt like wasted energy, my own progress paused but the target still waiting. Their route climbed from Prizren, up from 400m to a pass at 2100m between snowy peaks. The snow had been gleaming from far away as we sweated in the sunshine and I both wanted to follow them and was unsure if I could. They were the mountain experts and I was a novice comparatively – every mountain expedition is a stretch for me, whereas they regularly head up there. I worried about the snow, about my heavy steps, lack of equipment. But it didn’t feel right to duck out. I needed to join them in the mountains, to get the true DPVA experience. We slapped hands in high fives, I’d cross with them to Macedonia.
In the end it didn’t turn out as hoped. Heavy rain came and we struggled. After a night in a barn to dry out, the last building before the serious climb the next day, where rats ran amok and only I slept through their pattering and chewing, we woke up to more rain, which we knew would continue all day. It was a hard route ahead and all we could do was cover up and press onwards. I knew I’d be slower than everyone else, they all had the normal bodies you’d expect of long distance walkers, slender and muscular rather than my barrel shape, short and chunky, but it was still tough to struggle at the back. I burnt with shame but couldn’t go any faster, my mountain pace is a slow trudge and there’s no changing it. They were getting cold waiting for me every five minutes and we transferred some of the weight of my kit onto their shoulders. It helped a lot and I swallowed the cold knowledge that my inability to stop carrying books is hurting my pace; I just can’t help it!
This was still in the forest, fortunately a steep but easy passage of clear floored, wide spaces of old growth trees, but when we reached the tree line it immediately became much harder, the wind was wild, blowing rain against us and making it difficult to move forward without keeping head down against the force. We moved slowly upwards but it became more difficult and we were still 300m below the pass, with an unknown amount of snow and wind still to come. Marie lost the feeling in her fingers, a familiar problem for her, along with the pain that made it impossible for her to keep a grip on her walking poles. I think it was this final detail that made it too much, we gathered together and decided to turn back, all soaked to the skin, the wind a constant assault.
This was a relief too, in a way, to see them making sensible decisions, rather than pressing on dangerously and calling it heroism. We tracked our way down the mountain in a new direction, stopping for coffee at a closed hunting resort, Ramadan causing a month of business slowdown, before arriving in a wet village where we could wait for a bus back towards Prizren. There would be no trying again, brother Noé had a flight to catch back to Paris on the other side of those mountains so we found a hostel and looked up bus times to skip around to Skopje.
As we talked about their project I realised the strong philosophies that lay behind it; that Nil and Marie were deliberately opening themselves to Europe, inviting as much interaction as possible, both with guest walkers and local people, in order to communicate back to their audience the beauty of immediate neighbours, locations looked beyond in favour of Thai beaches or colourful Mexican glamour, and the value of traditional European cultures, especially in rural agriculture. The perfectionism of their social media made more sense now, when related to a photographic career in the Paris fashion industry. I saw that their documentation was an artistic creation, rather than the real life ‘warts and all’ I’m focused on, and that underneath the achievement lay truly generous open hearts.
I wanted to hitchhike straight north, back to Serbia, but everyone advised against it. A Kosovo stamp in the passport means trouble at the border and tourists are regularly turned back, seemingly at the whim of disgruntled guards.
Buses it was then, around the north of the mountains we’d attempted and into Macedonia, then a goodbye at the bus station with promises to meet again when I walk through France.
Nil and Marie will head south to Greece then a detour up into Romania and Bulgaria a route that takes in every European country on the 52nd line of latitude, before heading to Istanbul, aiming to finish before the next winter.
I have no idea when I’ll finish, this journey seems impossible to pin down. In January I said to myself that it may take another year but here I am in May and it seems I could still take another year about it. More accurate planning is another thing I could learn from this impressive pair but I’d settle for more confidence and an open attitude.
I took buses back to Serbia in pouring rain, a sequence of four of them. Plenty of time to knit, to think, to settle back into solitary style after so much interaction.
Serbia then, which seems flatter and less friendly after gregarious Kosovo. I’ll walk west from here towards Novi Pasar and then up into Bosnia and Hercegovina, get as far as I can before I have to pop back to the UK for a hospital visit. Hopefully I’ll take some of Nil and Marie with me from now on, both in technique and outlook.
You can find their beautiful photographs and updates on Facebook and Instagram under the name Deux Pas Vers L’Autre and I strongly suggest you look them up!
During this journey I’m raising funds for Target Ovarian Cancer – my own cancer 7 years ago led to the realisation that ovarian cancer is not diagnosed in many women until an advanced stage and British charity Target Ovarian Cancer do their best to improve early diagnosis, fund life-saving research and provide much-needed support to women with ovarian cancer. If you’d like to donate, click here. https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/onewomanwalkseurope