I like the way the accents slur in southern Serbia.
I like the way people introduce themselves.
The voices have changed since Bulgaria, they don’t clip words closed but slide them into one another, drawling like a sexy drunk cowboy. Women too, I heard one in a post office queue.
I walk from dialect to dialect, the words themselves don’t change with country boundaries, those are more recent than language variations. Password was parola for a while, a word of Russian origin, but more recently it’s become chifra. What I heard in Pirot, where they more readily understood my sparse Bulgarian, is incomprehensible as I approach the Montenegrin border. It trips me up, brings me repeatedly in a loop from basic language knowledge back to complete beginner, over and over again.
There’s a tradition with strangers to offer them something sweet at the moment of invitation into the house. I don’t get it very often, and only knew about it from my time in Serbia 8 years ago. But it’s happened twice this week, up in the hills where the roads are pressed earth and my map tells me there’s only forest.
It’s the first thing offered to you as you sit nicely at the table, a tray with a glass of water, a teaspoon and a jar or dish of what is supposed to be slatko – fruit preserved in syrup – but sugar cubes will do in a pinch. You eat a few spoonfuls of slatko until you are sated then drink the water to show you’re finished and the tray is laid on the table.
It was raining for much of last week, light summer rain that came with thunderstorms and clouds that hung black and heavy over the deep clefts that make this landscape. I was sweating a lot in the humid valleys, grateful for breaths of slight wind that came as I climbed to hilltops of 1000m. Mostly the rain would be slight, or elsewhere, I would get whiffs of it, speckles off the edge of rain clouds that salted the earth elsewhere. But one day it really came. Thunder crackling overhead and suddenly torrential. There was no shelter, just high valley sides and a river alongside me. I stood under a tree for a while, still in my t-shirt, watching my skin glisten brown in its wetness, spitting out the taste of salt and suncream from the water running into my mouth. It lessened a little and I walked another 200m onwards, stepping over the rivulets of brown water that ran in the road creases, until I saw a closed school with an open wooden gate and a porch to shelter under. I thought I would be alone there and considered staying to sleep under it but then a minibus stopped and a man came trotting towards the porch, a 20kg bag of sheep feed in each hand. The water came relentlessly, the kind of summer downpour that you could shower under. I discreetly changed my top as he looked away to the road, squeezed my wet clothing out and hung it to dry on the door handles. We waited together in mostly silence, he was close to my age, good looking, with the beginnings of smile lines around his eyes. The sheep were for eating, he told me, just two little lambs, not a whole flock. He was a painter and decorator, in the nearby city. No jobs here.
I watched as a small patch of blue was uncovered by teasing cloud at the edge of the treeline, watched as the rain turned to droplets, as the puddles stopped moving until eventually it was time to go. We walked together a short way and then he turned north to climb the steep hill to his village, a few hundred metres above us; I would go around the corner before climbing to the west.
The next woman was a shepherd, walking with a flock along the road as I came towards her. She stopped and called out to me, introduced herself immediately with a handshake. Slanka, her name was, and she had bright twinkling eyes and curled hair cut short. She felt my arm and exclaimed about the rain, exclaimed about my walking alone, exclaimed about my camping. Her clothing was dry, she was only walking the sheep from one village to another, turning to call at them as we spoke, making sure they stayed still without her. We stood and appreciated each other, eyes smiling, touching arms to say goodbye.
I walked onwards, up into a steep climb, occasional tree trunks again the side of the road for me to rest against. My hips hurt with every step and I leaned hard on my walking poles, trying to solidify my stomach muscles to hold my body upright. I realised I hadn’t eaten for hours and felt a heaviness in my body, I’d run out of energy. Walk through until you start using your fat reserves, I told myself. I didn’t want to eat anything now, it was too close to camping time and the evening meal. It worked as I walked, after another ten minutes it became easier again, less effort.
The rain came pouring again though, more wetness and I had nowhere to camp yet. Winding my way on a horseshoe looping road up a steep and forested slope, there were no places to sleep. I came to a man, just down off the road, struggling with a pipe. I stopped to watch him as he connected an extension to a pouring spout, wettening himself in the process. He saw me and called out, tramping up the slope and amongst the cleared logs to reach me. Immediate handshake again, his wet hands flattened large like mole paws, brown eyes under a faded baseball cap. Lyudi, he said, and invited me to stay at his house. Words poured from him like water from the pipe, just him and his wife there, how wet I was, how I must sleep there. “Sestra moya!” My sister! We walked together back down the hill, a small corgi type dog coming to greet him, Bobo, who didn’t like me and barked until Lyudi pulled a switch from the undergrowth and threatened him away in a show of fake anger. I just smiled and indicated agreement as he talked and talked. I liked this, to be carried home on a flow of words. His wife was more silent, bigger bodied where he was slight, and she greeted me in the dark kitchen with three cheek kisses and then a tray of sugar lumps and water. There was no electricity, it kept turning on and off, prompting a string of curses from Lyudi every time. We made space for my things, hanging the wet clothes to dry above the wood stove, laying the damp notebooks at the edge of the oven. The rucksack went next door into a large, light, unheated room with two long tables, pictures of saints and heaps of clothes, trays of eggs. This was where they put the cheese to thicken, once they’d heated the pan of milk on the stove overnight.
Maria knitted as we talked, homespun wool from their own sheep and Lyudi went out to see to the tractor. I slept early again, once I’d dried out and we’d eaten together. Maria came into the room and slept with me, meaning I couldn’t sleep as I listened to her breathing, unused to having another body so close to me.
This journey is sometimes nothing more than a series of strange interludes that I flow between, dipping into other people’s worlds.
I walked the next day down to Brzece, where I went into a bar and got offered a room upstairs, only ten pounds for a bed and two meals. I took it, eating from a set of shared plates with a lorry driver who looked like Vladimir Putin but without the inhumanly cold eyes, who watched the football over my shoulder, before I collapsed early into orange polyester bedding.
The next morning the owners argued over the smoking woodstove, hitting it with pieces of metal and shouting as I ate my salami and drank my coffee before escaping out to walk. Halfway up the hill and I realised my maps hadn’t loaded properly and rather than being able to climb over the mountains and through this national park, I was going to have to stick to 20 miles of road. I climbed 1000m that day, all the way up to a ski resort at 1800m, with only small patches of snow left, nestling in the pine shade.
It was surprisingly busy though, with glossy rich people going for short walks, jeans tucked into leather boots, velvet jackets. There were porsches, Range Rovers, people looked through me. The hotels were expensive but I was tired and needed Internet for map access. I settled on the top floor of a ski chalet but the bar across the road started playing music, there was a live band, a singer belting out hits for people to sing along to. He played until 4am. I couldn’t sleep until 4am. What was this disgusting place? The buildings were impossibly large and luxurious, designed to be rippling intricate imitations of cabins at monstrous sizes. The worst moment came when the owner told me he hadn’t slept either, that the place was busy because there was a pharmaceutical conference at the grandest hotel. I cried, couldn’t help it, thinking of Maria down the hill with her bad heart, struggling to walk up the road with me to show me the right direction, knitting her own socks because she couldn’t afford to buy machine made. And here the rich people were, making their money from illness and disease, their cold eyes staring at my muddy boots without so much of a hint of welcome, coming from the cities to celebrate together in a mountain top largesse, safely insulated from poverty and struggle.
And away again, leave this disgusting place, down from the eyrie on a long day of winding road in hot sunshine, tired and wishing I could stop but wanting to get to the next town where I could take a break. It took a day and a half to come down from the mountain and cross the next hill to the main road, I spent the intervening night in a plum orchard, frogs croaking in the river edge and small moths fluttering against the tent mesh.
I joined the main road at 4pm but still another 7 miles to the town so I gave it up, stuck my thumb out and hitched. A sunburnt man with piercing blue eyes, driving a ratty white van, stopped for me. 200m down the road was another woman also hailing passing cars, but this time for sex work. The risk I run when hitching here is that often, the only other women who stand by the side of the road in Eastern Europe are sex workers. I turned to the man and told him I wasn’t a prostitute, he laughed and said he knew. Safir is how I remember his name, a bee keeper, with his protective hat placed on my lap and a piece of fungus at my feet. Freshly cut from the tree, this is what he would burn in his bee smoker he told me, through many iterations of explanation. We liked each other and stopped for a coffee so we could talk about bees, he told me about his business and his family, whether each of us wanted children. He wanted to carry my bag to the hotel with me, I think in a platonic way, but I said no thank you, still wary of the way we’d met and how my perceived freedom might be misinterpreted. I was dazed with tiredness and only capable of shower and sleep.
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