Ghosts in the grocery store

Waiting in line at the grocery store made me think about torture and secret police. Around me shoppers huffed their indignation at slow cashiers, one of whom looked ready to cry, but my unfocused eyes were looking at a grand white building in a little park at the end of the main downtown drag in Bitola, Macedonia.

Broad balconies with stained glass windows in arches, all crumbling concrete and broken panes above a layer of spray paint graffiti, rotting majesty like a zombie queen, and the locals never seemed to look directly at it. When I found the side door kicked in, of course I went inside.

Bitola former government building

The first room may have been a kitchen. Hard to tell now, with off-putting brown splatters on the walls and the bent burden of a rusted metal door scraping the already shattered tiles. In the grand ballroom lay the battered skeletons of massive chandeliers whose glitter must have blinded every eye that needed to be blinded, back in the day.

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Upstairs was the usual detritus of ruin, alcohol bottles and tattered magazine pages, holes smashed through walls and graffiti from the zeitgeist of adolescent rebellion, this time: “Smoke weed every day.” I smiled at that. But was it just angst or something darker, desperation and discord, that scrawled “please help me” and a pentagram below? And were those stains just rust or something bloodier?


Bitola former government stairwellBut the most ominous part was downstairs. At the bottom of the spiral staircase, below ground, beneath where people in their finery must have danced and dined, were the jail cells. Dark. Cold. Silent. Cell door gaping open. That feeling of eyes. Was it a rustle in the darkness?


This part of the Balkans has a long troubled past, through centuries when cultures and empires bled here, through the more recent years when information and espionage were very real concerns in “the city of consuls.” Did a secret police operate here, conducting the sort of atrocious acts for which their kind are known? I don’t know. (Is it telling that Bitola’s wikipedia page ends at WWII and the building is unlabeled on google maps?) But it felt damn likely, standing there in the dark too dark to photograph, a feeling in the air that didn’t want me to take the time to do it right.Bitola former government jail cells


Even if no one “disappeared” or gave “extraordinary rendition” here, such things are all too common (ask Trump’s choice to head the CIA). That’s not okay. It’s not alright to forget. And it’s dangerous to take for granted.

But it’s also something to appreciate, that we live in a fragile sliver where those things at least aren’t supposed to happen. It feels a little guilty, stroking another privilege this way, but if we don’t put it on the mantle then how are we going to remember it’s a prize to be fought for and maintained? How will we remember what a privilege it is to gripe about an extra 60 seconds wait? How will we remember that a president who nominates torturers is not normal?


Then it was my turn. “How are you doing today, sir?”

“I’m doing great, how about you?”