To the Lake by Kapka Kassabova

In Border, Kapka Kassabova traveled to the corner of Europe where Greece, Bulgaria and Turkey meet to find out how the region had changed since the Iron Curtain had ceased to divide these three countries that have so much shared history. To the Lake takes her further west to where Macedonia, Albania and Greece meet, and Bulgaria lies just a few ranges to the east. The lake in question is Lake Ohrid, which straddles the border between Albania and North Macedonia (which I will mostly just call Macedonia because it is shorter, and because I find the Greek position in the name dispute unhistorical and obnoxious, if revealing). I suppose that an editor prevailed upon her not to title the book To the Lakes because there are in fact two lakes in the region, and they are nearly of equal importance for the stories that Kassabova weaves together into the book. The other is Lake Prespa, and it is divided among Albania, Greece and Macedonia. Prespa lies higher in the mountains than Ohrid. It is less accessible, and far fewer people live on its shores. Waters flow in underground rivers from the higher lake to the lower, taking about seven days to arrive.

To the Lake by Kapka Kassabova

Kassabova’s family comes from Ohrid, going back at least to some time in the 1700s, before her grandmother left for Sofia, before her mother left Sofia for New Zealand a few years after the end of communism, before Kassabova herself left the Antipodes for Europe. In the spring of 1993, about the same time that Kassabova’s family was heading to New Zealand, I was trying to get to Ohrid myself. I got as close as Florina, Greece, which is about 50km southeast of Lake Ohrid’s southeastern corner, as the crow flies. Of course I could not travel by crow, and this was at the height of the name dispute between Greece and collapsed Yugoslavia’s southernmost former republic. Nobody I encountered in Greece thought that crossing the northern border was a good idea. Graffiti proclaiming “Macedonia is only Greek!” was plentiful. The railroad I had heard of between Florina and Bitola across the border hadn’t been in use for many years, I was told. There was no bus service. Eventually, I found someone who spoke enough German — English was not to be found in that place at that time — to tell me that I could hike 10km to the border and take my chances with whether or not I could cross, and who knows what I might find to cover the 20km from the border to Bitola. I decided against this plan. I think I had had enough Greece at that point, because I took buses as fast and directly as I could — which was not very of either — to the port of Igoumenitsa for the crossing to Italy. So I never made it to the Lake.

Kassabova’s return was a very conscious one. After mentioning her grandmother’s origin as someone from Ohrid, she writes “As an adult, I often thought of returning to the Lake properly, but sensed that I wasn’t ready. To journey to the place of your ancestors, you must be prepared to see what it is easier to deny.” (p. 1) She is alerting readers that To the Lake will be a very personal piece of travel writing. She is not a stranger passing through, she is someone with an old and intimate connection, aware of the place’s deep currents, coming back to learn more. And maybe also to exorcise.

What finally propelled me was a concern that as time passed, something might happen insidiously. That unless I understood my maternal family’s existential landscape, I might repeat old patterns. That as we continue to witness in this century conflicts of a civil and fratricidal nature, divisive politics between and within nations, patriarchal autocracy and revisionism, mass emigration and displacement — as we witness this, unless we become aware of how we carry our own legacies, we to may become unwitting agents of destruction.
Generations of my predecessors had lived by the Lake. I hoped they could serve as a gateway to the Lake and to this surprisingly little-known corner of Europe. The lake region is home to epic landscapes and rich histories. It is a realm of high altitudes and mesmeric depths, eagles and vineyards, orchards and old civilisations, a land tattooed with untold histories. (p. 1)

For the vast majority of To the Lake, Kassabova masters the balancing act of relating her inner and outer journeys, avoiding giving too much weight to family matters that don’t have greater interest, using the ballast of history to keep her narrative from tipping too far from one side to the other. Occasionally, as in the unmarked “we” and the grandiose links in the paragraph above, her hand slips on the tiller, or maybe the winds and currents she felt on and around the lakes get the better of her. On the whole, though, she gives her readers an in-depth understanding of a corner of the world that’s beautiful and occasionally terrible, whose rich history holds loveliness and heartbreak, tolerance and sectarian terror. She wouldn’t be able to give readers as much if she weren’t so powerfully attached to the place, and she wouldn’t be able to show it as clearly if the forces driving her away from the Lake weren’t every bit as strong.

The details of her stories paradoxically serve to make them more universal. For example, the third chapter is titled “Whose Are You?” The question is common in and around Ohrid town so the person doing the asking can place the person addressed in a matrix of relations, acquaintances, hierarchies. Around the Lake, Kassabova writes, you are never just yourself. You are who you are connected to, who you came from. “Here, you inherit property, you don’t buy it. Your ancestors owe you a house, and you owe them your soul.” (p. 68) I grew up in the American South, descended from people who were likely among the first European settlers in the region. The attitudes and the connections are familiar. I once traveled the width of the South and discovered that my childhood soccer coach had introduced my host’s parents to each other; it’s a big place and yet it isn’t.

Several times Kassabova writes that in Ohrid’s gated old town — the city’s wealthiest and, to be honest, snobbiest quarter — a woman was not to walk down the same street twice in one day. That was counted as showing herself, which, she implies, was practically the same as selling herself. In a patriarchal, honor-driven society that strove to control its women that could have lasting consequences. Not that the women were powerless, far from it. “Like many ambitious women in a patriarchy where they don’t have fully expression in society but absolute power in the family, [Kassabova’s great-grandmother] Ljubitsa inhabited the destructive shadow archetype of the mother-queen: needing everyone to remain small and needy, looking up to her and infusing her with importance (after all her sacrifices, it’s the least they could do). Like a poisoned mantle, this psychological imprint was taken on by my grandmother and then by my mother, and sometimes I feel it creeping up behind me too, ready to enshroud me and make me mean.” (p. 163)

Not all of the stories are dark, though. There is Clemé, the keeper of a cave church that holds a Black Madonna icon, rehabilitated after a stroke through his encounter with her in a dream. At least, that is what he says. Clemé cheerfully mixes high and low.

“Every monastery specialises in something,” he said. “Naum specialises in mental disorders. The Black Madonna is for infertility and illness. Joan of Bigor up in Debar is for addictions. Drugs, gambling, sex. And believe me, I’ve covered the spectrum. Now, here you have to crawl, if you don’t mind losing your dignity.” (p. 118)

There’s Erol, who with his mother looks after the last tekke, or dervish lodge, in Ohrid. He’s heir to a Sufi tradition with deep Balkan roots. “This creative integration of shamanism, in addition to drinking alcohol, allowing women in, believing that music, poetry and even erotic ecstasy were direct channels to God, is what puritanical mainstream Islam objected to. Then and now.” (p. 143) There are Lazar and Liridon, brothers who have volunteered to show her around the Albanian side of Lake Ohrid. “[They] were a study in opposites. The younger Liridon was polite and reserved. Lazar was effusive, excitable, and stopped every few minutes to photograph swans in the lake, the shimmer of the shallows, the drifting clouds. His face was open and untainted, a young person’s face, but his hair was white. He was a high-school teacher and spoke English with native-speaker fluency though he had never lived outside Albania or visited an English-speaking country — an East European phenomenon I recognized at once.” (pp. 230–31) I know this phenomenon, too: in the early 1990s, a Danish friend of mine met someone in deepest rural Estonia who had whiled the late Soviet years gaining fluency in Danish with no hope of ever putting it to use.

The details make the lands around the lakes come to life. Kassabova explores the region’s history in great depth, always linking it to the people she encounters. The tragic, the absurd, the pleasant and the absurd are all present. She closes with chapters on the lost Slavic heritage of northern Greece, and some signs — a new memorial with long-prohibited Cyrillic lettering, for example — that the Hellenic Republic is maybe beginning to recognize the complexities of its lakeside regions. And one last pilgrimage.

“It’s the place,” he said. “All you need is to be here, nothing more.”
Nomche was a man of modest vocabulary. He looked at people as they entered the courtyard through the stone arch … Nomche said nothing as he sold the candles, small icons, books and crucifix chains to the annoying, shrill foreign visitors who spoke loudly to make themselves understood — but Nomche didn’t speak languages and just gazed at them softly until they ceased and became quiet.
“I just look,” he said, and looked at me. “I’ve seen so many faces, I know just by looking. I’m talking to you openly because I’ve looked at you and I know.”
“What do you know?” I asked.
“That you’re gonna be OK. Many people who come here aren’t gonna be OK.” (p. 363)

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