Beefy blues and birthday bliss
I blame the teenager for the first part. He was just so likable. I’d worked all day to stay aware of the tidal pull towards a bad mood, unnecessary and outdated, and here was this teenage waiter in a backstreet cafe, that same Ronaldo haircut they all have. But instead of finding him annoying, I was talking to a super sweet, shy, all around likable kid. Unconscious sink towards negativity be gone.
“Where did you learn to speak English so well?” I asked him. “Was it just in school?”
“No,” he glanced down and to the right past a cautious smile, “I watched a lot of cartoons when I was young.” Well praise be to the Ninja Turtles.
When I asked him if they had anything with vegetables, he kind of demurred, then suggested a mysterious sequence of Slavic vowels and Cyrillic letters on the menu, saying it was his favorite. I just had to agree. And when he delivered the plate with fries scattered next to a paving stone of ground beef, glistening with oil and fat, I could only say thank you. “Fala.”
And I just kept smiling when it turned out the heap of meat was stuffed with cheese and ham. “No really, fala.” I feel asleep and woke feeling like one big sausage.
So last night, birthday night, when I went looking for something non-meaty, my hopes were not high. But again, as with most of the Macedonians I’ve met, the (grown-up) waiter was downright genial, and I almost took his suggestion of the best thing on the menu.
Until I realized it was the same beefbeast I’d had with the teenager. No, fala.
“Do you have anything….maybe rice? Vegetables?” He looked dubious so I offered my compromise. “Maybe just a little meat?”
He nodded and disappeared to the kitchen, and I mentally wrote “Vegetables” in thick black mental ink on top of my shopping list for the next six months. But he delivered a plate of thick savory rice, lightly fried zucchini and mushroom, and a few perfectly cooked twists of chicken. Add the big Macedonian beer with the visually improbable name CKONCKO, and I had a meal. And a moment.
All around me washed Skopje conversation and laughter, local lives and stories, while a Macedonian moon looked comfortable in the warm night air, no bugs, no car horns, no need to rush or know the time. Music of nostalgia to make toes tap, songs not heard in years with lyrics you remember anyway, about half of the mixed tape my girlfriend made me, freshman year of high school. High school. Love me love me, say that you love me. Because we’re never gonna survive, unless, we get a little…crazy.
Yes, I lost the love of my life. The relationship I thought would carry me through old age. And yes it’s almost time to return to my unaffordable apartment, made empty now that her stuff is gone from her couple drawers, and sure I don’t know where I’m sleeping tomorrow night, but I’m traveling, it’s my birthday, and to be honest, the world feels steady in its orbit. My stunned grief and guilty disbelief don’t change that. They don’t even matter.
Out here, I have no expectations. No preconceptions. No requirements or preconditions. Only vulnerability and therefore gratitude. Where a good meal tastes like bliss, in a place that sounds a bit like heaven, with people who feel rather like friends.
Not a “perfect” way to start a year, because perfection is a myth. But something to be grateful for. I am not in control of my life. But I’m surfing it. And it’s all good.