The little boy came walking towards us, his hand outstretched -- a white bird perched on his shoulder. His palm was filled with nuts and candy.
It was 1979 and Yugoslavia was still at peace, as was Skopje, in Macedonia, the town we had stumbled upon after hitchhiking up from Athens and Thessaloniki, relying, as Blanche Dubois once said so eloquently, "on the kindness of strangers." We were hungry, the two of us -- my traveling companion and I, both of us, emotional refugees, running from what our lives had become, searching for some kind of solace, for inspiration. For awhile we found it in each other. But we were also hungry, starving that day for food. The two of us had just pennies to our name . I had been traveling for about 9 months. Liam, my friend, had been on the road for years. On that day, we hadn't eaten much and the traveling had been slow. A few rides here and there from friendly truck drivers, but in between, hours of waiting on the side of dusty roads.
I don't remember his name, just the sparkling of his eyes and his warm voice. "Bon Bon?" he said, and he stretched his arm out to us, his hands filled with hard, bright candy. "Take it," he said. "You need it." We were hungry and depleted and the candy and the kindness brought me back to life. We sat then and talked for a while with the boy while his bird stood patiently on shoulder. We stayed like that for awhile then until his family came forward. They stood there by the door, a man and a woman a couple of kids. I don't remember how many. There was an old lady too, I think. They spoke little English, but seemed to be saying with their warm smiles and dramatic hand gestures: "Come inside!".
The inside of the house was sparse. There was a dirt floor and the central attraction inside the main room was a huge old fashioned looking television and a beautifully polished dining room table. "American Bandstand!" they cried, as they saw Dick Clark, the show's star, make an appearance. "Dance!" they said. They took our bags and asked us to stay. Of course, we agreed. Our hosts were poor, but showing us a good time, being generous hosts seemed all they cared about.
We didn't know anything about each other except that we were hungry and tired and they were offering food and shelter, no questions asked. They drove us into town showing us the crowded, bazaar-like market place. It was like a circus of sights and sounds and while they diverted us with this chaotic splendor, they were spending like crazy, buying us a magnificent feast. When we got back to their home, the gifts kept coming: a huge bottle of Vodka, a million different kinds of cold cuts, wine and bread. Our hosts, despite their poverty, had spared no expense.
That night, they took out their best plates, their treasured silverware. They toasted Tito, the man who was holding Yugoslavia, in his firm and mostly benevolent grip, together. We all toasted him -- and each other's health, their happiness and ours. And then we toasted Tito again. "To you, my friends," we said. "To you," they said back to us. After dinner, the woman took me aside, dressing me up in an elaborate, harem-like costume. It sparkled, with many veils and layers a girl could hide behind. She taught me a sinuous dance, and filled with many glasses of vodka, it wasn't hard to coax a performance from me, or me from her. We all laughed.
Years later, after the War created blood and death in Yugoslavia, and the country was divided up into tortured ethnic enclaves, I thought often of my friends. I still do. I don't know if the white bird was really a dove. I don't know if it flew away -- or if it stayed.