If a stranger offered you a plastic grocery bag filled with fried fish, would you take it?
If your answer is no, I can understand. If you answered yes, I can (to my own surprise) also understand.
It started with a little breakfast picnic on a wooden pier that stretches out onto Lake Strugga. We were enjoying the calmness of the lake before starting the day's ride, when we were 'interrupted' by a local couple who came to enjoy the same. The man was there to fish, the woman was there to sunbathe. They were very cute together.
We had a friendly exchange about our respective lives and what brought us to the lake. They were on holiday from Skopje - just for the weekend - to enjoy some of the country's best fishing. And, yesterday was a very successful day for fishing! Mostly, they had caught small fish, about 6 inches long. But that was ok, they were delicious when battered and fried.
Somehow, this culminated in the couple offering us a bag of fish, battered and fried (last night) with bones in and heads still on.
Now, if I'd grown up next to the ocean or a big lake this sort of thing might make my mouth water. But, I didn't grow up on the big water, I grew up in Calgary. And, a plastic shopping bag filled with fish (battered and fried with their heads on and bones still inside) caused a rather different reaction.
What kind of crazy person would take a bag of fish from a stranger?
Before I had a chance to decline the offer, Carrie had already accepted. This was, of course, the right thing to do; when someone offers you kindness, it is rude to refuse. Strangers have been so generous with their kindness toward us on this trip, this was hardly the moment to begin being picky. The tiny part of me that was not repulsed by the gift was pleased that Carrie had stepped in to make the right decision.
The woman handed the bag to Carrie and was beaming with pride and happiness. There was a moment of silence as she starred at us with her enormous smile. It was very clear that this was the moment at which we were expected the *try* the fish and tell her how delicious they were.
The rational part of my brain told me that this was no big deal; it was just a little fish. It was not going to kill me to eat a little fish. Probably. But, the rational part of my brain is tiny, and it was losing the battle miserably. I just wanted to turn around and ride away.
Still, as a matter of principle, I was *not* going to be defeated by a bag of dead 6 inch fish. I gathered my courage by thinking about all of the obstacles that I'd overcome. Surely I could do this.
The next step was to select my opponent. Should I try a small one? Or a big one? I imagined that the big ones would have the squishiest eyes and brains. I imagined the small ones would be nothing but bones. There was no right answer.
I dipped my hand blindly into the bag and let chance decide.
A big one!
I split the task into two bites, masticating as little as possible. Whether I could feel the texture of the eyes or any other part of the fish, I don't remember; I could think only of the moment at which it would all be over and I could ride away.
After swallowing every shred of evidence of the fish and feigning my delight at its delicious taste, I looked to the woman for confirmation that I had filled my end of the bargain. But she was still starring, still waiting, with her proud smile and curious eyes.
By now, Carrie had eaten three fish. She didn't seem phased by the situation at all. It seemed strange to be jealous of her about that, but I was. The lady
I reached into the bag and grabbed another.
At some moment, it was finally clear that it was ok to stop, ok to start our ride for the day. The salty, greasy, fishy taste lingered in my mouth, but I was pleased to leave the stranger with a smile on her face.
Carrie hung the bag of fish from her handlebars and we pedaled away. There were still at least a few dozen fish left, too many for two people to eat in one day (particularly since one of those people was me). We also knew that the mid-day heat was not going to be kind to our bag of smelly goodies. Still, we carried on as if everything were normal.
We met a couple of french bike tourists heading in the opposite direction; destination: istanbul. They'd been on the road for months...and were packed heavily with all kinds of unnecessary items (casual clothing, sleeping mats, slingshots).
I took them as hippies. Carrie took them as anarchists. Either way, we weren't interested in a long visit. As a gesture of kindness, Carrie offered them half of our bag of fried fish. They accepted without hesitation.
And we were off again, headed toward Albania.
Entering Albania was a dream, a long and very scenic descent through a sharp river valley. The roads were in great condition and with very little traffic. There was also a headwind up the valley that made rolling downhill seem like quite some work. It was the sort of conditions in which it is easy to forget to eat and drink enough. And we did.
Along a rather long, unexpectedly unpopulated and uncomfortable stretch of road, we came across a small cafe and stopped for a drink. There were 30 or 40 men hanging out at the cafe. No women. It was the sort of gender imbalance where a feeling of 'not belonging' could be easily turn in to 'not welcome', especially when men are not even remotely discrete about staring. We were too tired and thirsty to let that stop us (though Carrie did decide to put some pants on).
We finished our two cokes (each) as we pretended not to be phased by being the center of attention. And then we continued on, eventually rolling into Tirana just after sunset.
It was national election day in Albania today. There was evidence of that everywhere - flags hanging from every conceivable location, billboards, posters. We expected that there might be some stuff happening in Tirana in light of the occasion, but things seem calm. Based on the conversations that we've had with people, everyone has an opinion - and a strong one at that. Unfortunately, there seems to be little confidence in the process and a general view that it doesn't matter what they think - or what the masses think - the outcome will not change.