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Friends in Foreign Lands

<i> Denise Hamilton is a Times Staff Writer who just returned from a Fulbright Fellowship in Macedonia</i>

People who spend long periods in strange lands develop unique ways to ward off the melancholy that descends at odd, unbidden moments, transfixing us with memories that leave us standing naked before the mirror and suddenly late for dinner.

An American diplomat I know in Macedonia soothes her homesick nerves by eating Cocoa Puffs straight from the box. A Midwestern journalist who covers Bosnia lugs around a tape deck, filling the alien air with dulcet harmonies of American folk music.

I shoo away hearth-sickness--at least temporarily--by losing myself inside bookstores and libraries, preferably those with old books. This works best in genteel, slightly frayed dowagers of cities like Sofia and Thessaloniki, which are packed with bookstores that smell of stale talc perfume and evaporated dreams.

During a recent four-month stint in the Balkans, I reached for this fix much like any addict. As Sam Cooke would say, it sent me. Books were my panacea against the bitter cold, the car exhaust fumes, the oppressive talk of blood and death that consumes the Peninsula these days.

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At the American Center library in Skopje, I met suave newcomers such as Oscar Hijuelos and renewed relationships with venerable masters such as Edith Wharton. After making a selection, I trotted home like a dog with a meaty bone. On nights when the winds howled down from Vodno Mountain into the deserted streets, whipping the falling snow into a dry lather, I sat propped up in bed with my stacked tomes, amulets to protect me from unseen ghosts.

The more incongruous my reading was with my locale, the more it transported me. Maybe that’s the way I filter reality. Prior to my trip, I had spent months engrossed in Balkan history books while Los Angeles shot and burned itself into a frenzy.

Now, there was something deliciously dissonant about sitting in a Macedonian cafe listening to the muzzein in the minaret call the faithful to prayer while reading “In Country” by Bobbie Ann Mason, a tale of Vietnam vets, coming of age in Kentucky and national disillusion. I ordered another Turkish coffee and turned the page.

But I had to put aside Louise Erdrich’s “Love Medicine” during a visit to Tirana. Albania was too weird and fantastical, as well as a bit sinister, for me to concentrate on this quintessentially American book about a Native American family on a Dakota reservation.

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Maybe it also struck too close to home. Cut off from the world for decades, ground down by massive unemployment, abject poverty and hardscrabble mountains where little would grow, dominated by tribal law, Albania struck me as one big reservation. Yet it also glowed with the magic realism that Erdrich evokes so well in her novels. For once I didn’t need fiction.

I found no old bookstores in Albania, which didn’t surprise me, since the country’s first university wasn’t even built until 1957, as Stalinist dictator Enver Hoxha with bloody cruelty wrenched his nation of 3.2 million from feudalism.

But poking around musty corners of Central Europe has yielded up gems over the years, and they have kept my brain from seizing up. In 1989 I spent days haunting antiquarian shops in Budapest--a book-lover’s paradise--reading old travelogues and thin volumes of poetry by a British spinster who penned delicate verses in 1871 about gardens and platonic friendship.

How did this century-old book from London wind up in Hungary, surviving world wars, cataclysm and Communism, I wondered, growing more interested in its provenance than its author. A worn copy of “A Farewell to Arms” made me muse how many Hungarian eyes had gazed at Papa’s nuanced prose and vowed to try their own hand at writing.

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On that trip, I still rue passing up a leather-bound volume chronicling the Russo-Japanese War of 1905 illustrated with hand-tinted historic photos of men, horses and artillery. It cost $20, which at the time seemed like a lot but now seems absurd.

Always a believer in chance encounters, I went to Bulgaria last fall and scanned the block-long, open-air book market in Sofia’s Pencho Slaveykov Square for another copy. In the afternoon shade, dealers stomped their feet to keep warm in between swills of rakia--the harsh grape brandy that lubricates life in the South Balkans.

A friendly book-dealer confided that Slaveykov was a Bulgarian symbolist poet of the early 20th Century, on whom that small fierce country once pinned its hopes for a Nobel Prize in literature. In typical Balkan fashion, Slaveykov was undermined when jealous rivals sent an anonymous letter to the committee, denouncing the poet as a traitor and spy.

We clicked our tongues over man’s tragic fate and he tried to interest me in a coffee-table book on Bulgarian icons. But because he still mourned for Slaveykov, his heart wasn’t in it.

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Book lovers the world over have a kind of radar for each other. Like members of a secret society, we reveal ourselves by a strategically dropped word, a gleam that kindles the eye when discussing a favorite author.

On a cold and dreary bus ride from Sofia to Skopje, a balding Albanian won my undivided attention by rhapsodizing about Goethe and Schiller. We also shared chalky Turkish chocolate and orange pop.

In the languid Greek port city of Thessaloniki, I visited Molho Bookstore, built in the 1870s on the shopping street Tsimiski and today one of the few remnants of the city’s once vibrant Jewish culture and intellectual life.

As early as 1493, Jewish book-dealers built the first printing press in the Balkans here. For almost five centuries, Jews, Turks, Albanians, Bulgarians, Greeks, Vlachs, Kurds and Serbs lived in relative peace in the land they called Macedonia, yoked by common exigencies of the Ottoman empire.

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Since the past molds the future while haunting the present, I asked the clerk at Molho’s for Leon Sciaky’s elegiac memoir “Farewell to Salonica,” which I learned about from another book, Robert Kaplan’s recent “Balkan Ghosts.”

“Salonica slept, oblivious of gathering forces,” Sciaky wrote, recalling his childhood at the century’s turn. “In the afternoon it sat in the gaily lighted cafes along the quay sipping apertifs . . . it drank in the taverns of the back streets and played backgammon and smoked narghiles. It spoke a dozen tongues and was garbed in as many costumes. Salonica was in Macedonia, but not of it. It slumbered in blissful ignorance of the passions of which now and then it heard faint rumbles.”

The rumbles would reach a bloody crescendo during World War II, when the Nazis deported more than 55,000 Salonic Jews to the gas chambers, wiping out the truly multicultural world that Sciaky had evoked so vividly.

But the black-bearded clerk appraised me silently from behind Molho’s counter and exhaled heavily. Perhaps he was relieved I wasn’t looking for the new Jackie Collins zipper-ripper.

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“You will have trouble finding that book,” he said gently. “It is a very old and rare title, which is out of print.”

Often, searching for an elusive book can be as exhilarating as reading it. Of course, one has better luck in Western Europe’s bookstores, but their stocks are picked over, their books pricey and their staffs distinctly capitalist.

In 1984 I visited Shakespeare & Co.--the Paris institution where Sylvia Beach first published James Joyce’s “Ulysses.” In addition to some bibliophile sightseeing, I wanted to sell “Quartet” by Jean Rhys and “Lithium for Medea” by Kate Braverman.

The owner, a cantankerous old man named George with a white goatee, peered at me through his glasses and said irritably that he couldn’t give me much for the books because they were too avant-garde to move off his shelves.

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Inwardly thrilled by his assessment of my literary tastes, I accepted his meager francs and bought “The Ariel Poems” by Sylvia Plath. It didn’t occur to me until later that night, back in the seventh-floor walk-up of my Latin Quarter garret, that Shakespeare & Co. was the ne plus ultra of avant-garde Boho Paris and that George had parlayed my puerile vanity to his advantage.

That was one of the few times books failed to allay the melancholy that descended with the speed of a hungry raptor. But since I was in France, I consoled myself with Bordeaux and foie gras.


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