Two brothers talked about their father, who sat with us but spoke little English. Hristijan, the younger brother, told us how their father had gone to Australia but had come back because he was in love with Hristijan's mother, a decision that seemed unbelievable to him. "But he likes it here in Macedonia," Hristijan said, as though explaining something blasphemous. The father nodded. Later, he said that we should take a young nephew or two home with us in our suitcases. It was a joke, but a heavy one. Everyone wants to leave Prilep.
It's too bad, because Prelip is a great town.
We'd arrived at their house after a hot hike up to the towers of King Marco, who is a legendary figure in the national folklore but was in fact a minor ruler in the 14th century. The views out over the tobacco plains and low mountains were spectacular, the kind of open, rock-and-grass walking that makes this region so appealing.
The brothers had learned English watching westerns with their father. The elder man liked the landscapes of the movies because it reminded him of home; the dust, the crowns of rock, the wide vistas. In fact, it feels a lot like an American town here - though, in some ways, much more colorful. Tobacco fields creep right up to the streetlights and sidewalks, people buy their loose smoke in the markets. There are more cafes here than in provincial America, the town center is full of life, there aren't any empty storefronts. It feels, a little, like an America of the past.
Hristijan showed us the ancient Monastery of the Archangel Michael, and Goran showed us his church. Hristijan sat for a minute with friends at a picnic table and Goran took us to a new amphitheater that he and his neighbors had built. The sun was getting low and the light was golden. Children rode their bikes nearby, birds sang their evening songs. The amphitheater was small and quiet. Goran told us that it was meant to give the town something like Ohrid or the Greek cities, a place for the community to come together. It was striking, this closeness of people and the many friendships that they all shared. When we were being driven back to our hotel, much later, Goran and Hristijan talked reverently about the man who had gone to America, built a fortune and just returned to buy the hotels and set up a factory. As they dropped us off, they ran into a man they both knew walking with his wife and new baby. They all exchanged hugs and gave the baby many kisses.
The question touched on many things - his father's happiness in Prilep, thoughts about America, the hope for a better life. Hidden there was a different question: where would he build his house? Many times Hristijan talked about American television and what he had seen, about the movies. He'd asked about what one could earn in America doing different jobs. These are common questions, common strains in the conversation of far away places. It's hard to address them without sounding disingenuous. Of course living in America is wonderful, but it's not like the television shows.
We began to talk about what Hristijan wanted, about how it's natural for people to want to move somewhere better. After all, living in Macedonia isn't easy. But seeing a place like this - a place that feels so alive and friendly, where everyone is acquainted and strangers are invited in for a drink - it's hard to believe that dusty American towns actually are better.
Don't believe the guidebooks or American television shows - Prilep is a lot nicer than people think.