The Balkans and the meaning of nowhere

Lakes Ohrid and Prespa, the twin waterways that caress the borders of Albania, North Macedonia and Greece, don’t get much attention these days. In the past however, they formed the ‘nerve centre’ of the Balkans, a strategic respite along the Roman Via Egnatia that ran from the Adriatic coast to Istanbul. Their remoteness led them to being places of exile, but also of pilgrimage (the town of Ohrid once had 365 churches – one for each day of the year), and centres of incredible power (Tsar Samuel ruled his vast First Bulgarian Empire from a tiny island on Lake Prespa).

In 1913, the lakes were divided between Greece, Albania and Yugoslavia, ostensibly in an effort to make sure no one state controlled such a sensitive region. By that time however, the lakes had lost all strategic value as advances in technology and geopolitics fragmented the centres of power in the Balkans. War, repression and economic decline defined their twentieth centuries, and by the current era they had largely faded into obscurity.

Throughout To the Lake – Kapka Kassabova’s evocative look at these liquid borderlands and the people that inhabit them – the lakeside denizens repeatedly stress that ‘We are all the same, it’s the borders that divide us.’ And yet the experience of half a century under radically different systems (Greece – an anti-communist state, Yugoslavia – a socialist federation, Albania – a totalitarian dictatorship) has left the people divided, bitter and confused.

Kassabova is fascinated by borders. Not just the physical aspect, but also the human one. What happens to the people of a region when the borders come down? And more importantly, what happens to them once the borders come up again? Her previous book, Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe, was an engrossing journey through another Balkan borderland – the region of Thrace – that succeeded in engaging readers in the people and mythologies of Europe’s periphery.

To the Lake is part travelogue, part family memoir, part historical analysis. Her motivations for this book encompass all three strands. Initially intending to learn more about her grandmother’s childhood in Ohrid, she becomes invested in the quotidian details of the town’s residents, whose doleful backstories often mirror her own murky family history. There are contemporary political observations too, and moments of black humour.

Kassabova acknowledges the comparisons to Edith Durham and Rebecca West, whose pioneering work she occasionally draws upon during her travels. Personally, I was most reminded of Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere, Jan Morris’ wistful ode to another Balkan borderland, where a series of loosely connected vignettes evoke a foggy netherworld of lost souls, shifting identities, intrigue, melancholia and timelessness.

Kassabova is an excellent describer of nature. I particularly enjoyed her depiction of rural Albania as being “like one of Escher’s riddle drawings, asking: is it possible, or is it in your mind? You looked at it from all angles and still you had no answer.” Meandering the roads south of the Greek side of Prespa, she describes one village as “handsome houses dissolved in the rain down to red stumps, with holes like gouged eyes.”

The Ohridian

But Kassabova is more interested in people, and it’s here that the book is most powerful. In Ohrid – North Macedonia’s showpiece town – she encounters a Muslim Turk who spends his time showing visitors around Orthodox churches. There are mixed Christian-Muslim marriages, and the Macedonian émigré from Albania who married a Greek. In the skulking villages of the lake’s hinterland, she finds Muslims who speak Macedonian but identify as Albanian. Kassabova conjures a lovely adjective – Ohridian – to describe this esoteric melange which she senses is just about hanging on in an era of defensive monoculturalism.

Kassabova eventually wanders into Albania, which for 40 years was ruled by a sociopathic dictator who consolidated his power through regular purges and a culture of fear. Citizens were often given 25 years in a gulag for crimes such as telling jokes, reading banned books or possessing religious paraphernalia. In one notorious camp, prisoners were given a combined sentence of one thousand seven hundred years after a failed revolt. Resistance was futile. But there is one remarkable escape – two families who secretly built a boat in their basement to ferry them across Lake Ohrid, from the living hell of Albania into the relative paradise of Yugoslavia.

In Greece, she meets up with her Australian friend Nick – a descendant of Macedonian exiles – and encounters a region still traumatised by the Greek Civil War. Trailing Greece’s semi-deserted borderland, she hears stories of persecution and exile that continue to cast a dark pall over the region. I commend her for giving a platform to these Slavic speaking inhabitants of Greek Macedonia, whose voices are almost entirely absent in Greek media (a recent BBC article on their existence drew a furious response from the Greek ambassador). In contrast, she gives only a fleeting – if sympathetic – reference to the Vlachs and Asia Minor refugees that also inhabit the Greek side of Prespa. It might have been nice to hear their voices too, along with some of the Slavic-speaking inhabitants who have a strong Greek identity. They are as much a part of the lake’s psychogeography as anyone.

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