4 out of 5 stars
There are parts of Europe that rarely get mentioned, these out of the way places often have turbulent and complicated pasts. One of these places is mountainous borderlands of North Macedonia, Albania, and Greece. The border of the three countries passes through the two ancient lakes formed by tectonic activity and are joined by underground rivers, Ohrid and Prespa.
It is a place that is deeply rooted deeply in Kapka Kassabova’s heart too, her maternal grandmother was a huge influence on her and she came from the region. It was somewhere where she wants to go to and spend time there, but it hadn’t been appropriate until now. It was a region that had known conflict for years, but there had been peace for a little while now and there was no time like the present.
Amongst all the history here though and there has been an awful lot of history; wars and constantly changing borders and regimes, it is a place scarred deeply by conflict. It is now coming to terms with peace, and she is here for the human stories and to see if there are any traces of her family left. Landing at the airport in Albania, she immediately feels at home, the men who are hoping for work all look like her cousins. They pass through a medieval gate into the town on Ohrid on the way to the villa she was staying at. The owners looked familiar and it didn’t take long to realise that there was a family link.
Form this initial meeting she heads off around the region to meet and talk with the people of the region, from the fishermen, mothers, aunts, poets and border guards. She learns about how and when Sufism appeared in the region, speaks the those that got across the Iron Curtain and visits monasteries high in the mountains and walks in 2000-year-old tombs that were untouched until recently. But all of the trip out centre on these amazing lakes
As she travels between town and villages and crossing the lakes she keeps bumping into people that look familiar. Quite often after a short conversation with them, she invariably finds out that they are related in some way or another. And it is that sort of thing that sums this book up, it is a little-understood area of the world and through her wonderful prose, Kassabova untangles the people from the politics. Slowly the rifts are being healed, even when she is there it is finally agreed with Greece that Macedonia can formally be called North Macedonia. With all these things though, it is a process that has taken far too long, but it does show that even after years of conflict they still have so much more in common than the differences between them.