The Guest House
A stranger invited Brent and me to join him on a trip to a remote village deep in the mountains of Macedonia. Here's what happened.
We’d come to the end of the road — literally.
The road had been pretty bad ever since we’d turned off the highway some twenty kilometers ago, eventually turning into a dirt road. But I’d still expected more from the village of Brežani, deep in the mountains of North Macedonia in Eastern Europe.
Did anyone still live here? I didn’t see any people, and most of the houses looked like they’d long since been abandoned.
It all started back in Ohrid, the lake-side vacation town where Brent and I were spending the month. One morning several weeks before, I’d struck up a conversation with the man next to me on a park bench. I told him how I thought his dog was beautiful, and he beamed, telling me her name was Megi.
After a few minutes of casual chit-chat, the man surprised me by saying, “You should come with me to Brežani. It is the village where my wife and I are restoring an old stone house.”
At first, I wasn’t sure what to think. Was this the opening scene to some horror movie? But he didn’t seem like a character in that kind of movie. He was bookish-looking, a wiry man in his early sixties, unassuming and friendly enough. He told me his name was Mitko and that he worked as a stained-glass artist.
The odds of a stained-glass artist also being a serial killer had to be pretty low.
“Visiting your village sounds really interesting,” I said, intrigued but still a little wary. I also wasn’t sure what Brent would think. “Why don’t we exchange contact info?”
Later, I told Brent, and he loved the idea, and now here we were, standing in a remote village of crumbling stone houses, most of which looked long abandoned.
Mitko told me that as recently as 1953, there had been 700 people living in Brežani. But only 31 people remained today, including part-timers like him and his wife.
Nearby, a long-abandoned zombie car slowly turned to rust. Meanwhile, some of the roads were mud, and the air smelled of the sheep that milled about in a nearby pen.
Talk about the land that time forgot. There definitely weren’t any shops or restaurants.
But to my surprise, there was brand-new construction right in the middle of town. Workers were putting the finishing touches on a three-story building made of concrete, not stone.
“What’s this?” I asked Mitko, surprised to see something so new here.
Mitko rolled his eyes. “The government is building a guest house for hikers. When they are done, it will sleep eighteen. It would have been nice if the government had asked us for our thoughts, but they didn’t. So now we have this thing that looks completely wrong for our village.”
Finally, he led Brent and me to the house he and his wife had bought and spent the last several years restoring. Now that their children were all grown, they were looking to build a place in the mountains where they might eventually retire.
It was in much better shape than most of the structures here. The walls were solid, and the tiled roof was still intact.
But it was still very primitive, with walls made entirely of stone mortared with clay. And there looked to be a lot more work yet to do.
The front yard, encircled by a low stone wall, included a pump well. Beyond the wall lay a large garden that had been pretty thoroughly harvested. There were still splashes of color: bright red tomatoes and yellow peppers and grape leaves tinged with fiery orange.
Mitko led us inside the house, which had two floors, but the upper floor — once the sleeping area — was now being used to store building supplies. The lower floor included a living area and a kitchen, but there was no running water, and the stove and chimney were not yet in working order. Mitko explained how the village did have access to electricity, and the house had once been hooked up to it. But in a quest to live a simpler, more traditional life, they were going to keep things as basic as possible, and just use candles and portable devices.
“Where’s the bathroom?” Brent asked him.
Mitko laughed. “No bathroom here yet. But feel free to use any tree or bush in town.”
Brent glared at me, and I knew what he was thinking, because I was thinking it too. Just what had we gotten ourselves into? Going without electricity was one thing. But no bathroom — not even an outhouse — for an entire day?
That was something else entirely.
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